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Pioneer Church Work in British Columbia
Being a Memoir of the Episcopate of Acton Windeyer Sillitoe, D.D., D.C.L.
First Bishop of New Westminster.

By the Rev. Herbert H. Gowen, F.R.G.S.

London: Mowbray, 1899.

Chapter XVIII.


HERE is a narrative by Mrs. Sillitoe of an eventful journey.

"A new city having sprung up during the last few months on the Columbia river, where the C.P.R. crosses it the second time, the Bishop decided to take advantage of an opportunity which occurred to go up and pay Farwell a visit. On Friday, May 1st, we were up at 6 a.m., to be ready for the steamboat Peerless. We left Kamloops about 10 a.m., with a very large cargo on board, and a very rough crowd of passengers, numbering, Chinese included, nearly two hundred. The men were on their way up to work on different parts of the railway line. We spent a pleasant, lazy day, going slowly up the South Thompson river, often getting on the sand-bars--for the river was very low. Our progress was so slow that, instead of arriving at Eagle Pass at 10 p.m., it was six the following morning ere we arrived at that landing.

"It was 9 a.m. before we were able to 'hitch up' our horses and drive off. The morning had been misty, and so we were unable to see much of the Lesser Shuswap Lake, on the shores of which we had been landed. The day was very warm, and the sun scorching, yet all around snow lay on the ground, quite thick in the more sheltered places. The trees all along the road were wonderful. The timber of British Columbia is generally very fine, in some places extraordinarily large, but never had we seen anything to equal this amongst which we now were--cedars for the most part so tall and straight that the tops were scarcely visible. About seven o'clock, when still three miles from our destination, we were stopped at a camp with the news that it would be impossible for us to proceed at present, as forest fires were raging ahead, and the road was blocked with fallen trees. They were expecting every moment the return of a party who had been engaged all day in clearing the road. Soon we met the 'boss,' who told us the fire was very bad, but that there were only a few more trees to clear away, and that he would send out a fresh gang of men and get us through if possible. We put-to the ponies, and, following the men, came up to them whilst they were chopping out the two last trees. It was by no means pleasant waiting in the midst of such fire and smoke, one's eyes streaming with tears, yet unable to withdraw them from the falling trees, which were liable to come down at any moment. Against one large cedar we were especially warned to be on our guard, and whilst watching this, down fell another between ourselves and the choppers, not many yards from either of us. How those men worked! Englishmen have little idea how, under ordinary circumstances, Canadian axemen can chop, but when working, as they then were, with almost superhuman efforts, it was a sight requiring to be seen to be believed.

"At last the road was clear, and the boss told the Bishop to whip the ponies 'all he knew how,' and gallop through. This he did, though at first it looked impossible, the bushes burning fiercely on either side, and the flames blowing right across the road, the dense smoke making everything else look dark. We did as we were told, and the ponies seeming fully to understand that this was a time for a special effort, galloped, and we, with our heads bent down, went through safely, the large cedar falling directly after. About 9 p.m. we reached Griffin Lake, and here we stopped for the night, being not sorry to have some rest, for we were thoroughly tired. Our start next morning was to be not later than six, for we had still seventeen miles to drive, and wished to reach the Columbia river in time at least for an afternoon service. Between Griffin Lake and the Columbia, four lakes have to be crossed on scows, and one's progress can be but slow. "Griffin Lake is about a mile and a half wide, and this we got across all right, though the water had risen considerably during the night, making the landing very difficult. A short drive brought us to the second and largest, Three Valley Lake, three miles long, and here the unpleasant news reached us that a gale was blowing round the point, and it would be impossible to cross till the wind fell, which it might do about eleven o'clock. Our party was six in number, and we determined to go as far as the point and see for ourselves, but on each attempt to get round we were blown back, and so there was nothing else to be done but to tie the scow to a tree which had fallen into the lake, and to wait for the wind to abate. For two hours we remained tied up, and then made another effort, this time a successful one, and reached the end of the lake. Half a mile more brought us to Summit Lake. All these lakes are very beautiful, the two last with high rocky banks, and into Summit Lake a lovely waterfall comes tumbling from a great height. Our progress was so slow that it was 4 p.m. ere we reached the Columbia. Here we found a most kind hostess in Mrs. Wright, the wife of the contractor of the Eagle Pass Road, over which we had just travelled, which within the last two years had been made from Eagle Pass Landing to the Columbia river, a distance of forty-seven miles. During this day we had had to drive through several fires, the last being not half a mile from Mr. Wright's house. This being in the vicinity of a shed where a large quantity of charcoal was stored, required to be watched by a number of men, whose absence diminished the number of our evening congregation. Mr. Wright's house stands on the west shore of the Columbia. . . .

"Directly opposite, on the east shore, stands Farwell, the latest-born city in British Columbia, consisting of about eighty houses, some of them substantial log buildings, and gradually degenerating down to the shanty, built wholly of split cedar planks, and every kind of tent. Whisky selling was the principal trade, and hitherto a good deal of lawlessness had prevailed. The piers of the bridge over the Columbia are built, but the bridge itself is not finished, and the river is crossed in small boats, which, considering the swiftness of the current, is by no means a pleasure unmixed with danger. Boats are frequently swept down by the stream and swamped in passing the piers. Two days before our arrival, a boat with three men was swamped in going through the bridge, and the men left clinging to the piles. First one boat, then another, going to the rescue, met with the same fate, till seven men were all clinging on for dear life, whilst the rushing stream threatened every moment to carry them away. At last a boat succeeded in reaching them, and all were rescued twenty minutes after the first boat was upset. Three men out of five had that week been drowned whilst trying to get on board the steamer Kootenay, then making her first trip up the Columbia.

"On Monday we crossed to Farwell to see the place and visit a few people, and to make arrangements for a service to be held the following day. During the evening the fires approached so close to the house that, though no danger was anticipated, it was thought advisable to dig a trench and bury a quantity of powder kept in the storehouse. On Tuesday morning the men keeping watch over the fires came in to have a sleep. They had been on watch since Sunday morning, and were worn out; besides, the fire was thought to be well under control. Though only the beginning of May, the weather was intensely hot, and we were glad to stay in the cool log-house all the morning. About one o'clock a cry was raised that the fires were upon us, and running to the door, we found the bushes and trees blazing and roaring not eighty yards away. The house is closely surrounded on three sides by trees, no clearing having been made around, and it was very necessary to take prompt measures, or everything would soon be burnt up. Happily a large staff of men was at hand, and as there was no possibility of extinguishing the fire, it was thought best to burn the trees and brush immediately round the buildings, leaving a burnt space across which the forest fire would not be able to pass. Before doing this, however, the roofs were covered with blankets, which were kept wet with water 'packed' up from the river. Oh, the excitement of that afternoon and evening! And how thankful every one felt that the powder had been buried! It was, indeed, a grand, awful sight to see the fire catching tree after tree, running up the trunks like a flash of lightning, and bursting into a mass of flame as it caught the foliage at the top, roaring and crackling in the most deafening manner. From thirty to forty men must have been at work arresting the course of the fire, keeping it in check by shovelling on sand and snow (of which a quantity remained in the hollows), and by pouring on buckets of water. As night came on the danger to the house was lessened, as a space had by this time been burnt round it; but now the almost greater danger threatened from the trees, which by this time were burnt through, and were falling in all directions. Now it was that the wonderful skill of the axemen was noticeable. They marked every tree likely to fall on the house--though it is very difficult to know which way a burning tree will fall. Three men worked at felling each tree, two chopping and one sawing, till either the tree fell or they were obliged to give up on account of the intense heat. There was one tree leaning so much towards the buildings as to make it impossible for them to fell it so as to make it fall in another direction, so they decided it must fall between the houses, and to accomplish this they had first to fell a cotton-wood tree standing in the way.

"The tree was thirty-three inches in diameter, as I afterwards ascertained by measurement, and the three men took exactly seven minutes to fell it. They afterwards brought down the burning tree just where they intended, without the buildings being touched. Then on they went to another tree--a sound one, apparently, a puff of smoke only now and then issuing from the bark, showing that there was fire within. They chopped at it for awhile, when, all at once, a solid mass of flames burst out from the centre, and salamanders though the men seemed to be, they had quickly to get away. The scene was indeed weird, even more so than in the daytime, when the fire raged more fiercely. Fire on all sides as far as the eye could reach, each tree standing out clearly in the bright red light. Every minute a crash and a roar as one tree after another fell to the ground. I could not but admire the self-command of our hostess, who, in the absence of her husband, had so much extra anxiety and responsibility, but nevertheless did not for a moment lose self-possession and coolness, but was continually out and around watching how matters were going. The men worked hard during the whole of that night. The next morning broke on a scene of desolation, the coolness of night causing the flames to die down, leaving only the smouldering flame and thick smoke, with every minute the crash and roar of a falling tree. One tree in falling grazed the house, but happily did little damage. All that day the men worked, for the fires became fiercer as the sun waxed hot.

"In the afternoon we crossed the river to Farwell, and the Bishop held service at the hotel, recrossing the same evening. On the further bank of the Columbia the fire had been increasing all day, but no steps were taken to arrest its progress, because, first of all, it was nobody's business, and secondly, because the town was considered safe. Alas! for their supposed security! During .the night a strong wind began to blow, increasing to a gale, and we were startled, while dressing, with a cry that Farwell was in flames. Rushing out, we saw that this was indeed the case, and from house to house the fire rushed with awful rapidity, driving out the inhabitants, who had not time to save any of their belongings, but had to fly for their lives. The strong wind was meanwhile bringing large pieces of burning wood across the river, and a look-out had to be kept on the buildings, which once actually took fire. In about half an hour the fire had burned itself out, leaving about thirty buildings standing out of eighty. During that day a scene of utter lawlessness prevailed, those who had saved anything having it appropriated by those who had nothing left, and the rescued whisky-kegs becoming common property.

"We had intended to leave the Columbia in time to catch the Saturday's boat from Eagle Pass, as we were due in Kamloops on Sunday. But this was not possible. The road was blocked with fallen trees, and men could not be spared to clear them away, the house being by no means out of danger. It was not, therefore, till midday on Sunday, after a morning service, that we said goodbye to our kind and hospitable hostess, and started, not knowing, indeed, how far we might be able to get without being stopped; for information had come that the fires were very bad along the whole road. For the first seven miles we had an escort with an axe, and very thankful we were for his help in unhitching the horses and getting the buckboard across two burnt-out culverts and some fallen trees.

"We crossed the lakes without trouble, reaching Griffin Lake about 7.30, where we found a number of teams waiting to get over the road. After an all too short night's rest, we started at 6 a.m., hoping, oh! so heartily, that the road might be clear, knowing with satisfaction that when we had accomplished the first ten miles, we should afterwards have one, or perhaps two, teams ahead. We, therefore, hurried on, as, being only our two selves in the buckboard, company would be very desirable in getting over our difficulties.

"Our hopes were, alas! futile. Hardly had we driven a mile before we found a tree fallen right across the road, with no possibility of getting round it, so we unhitched, and the Bishop chopped out the smaller branches. He then made the ponies jump over, and we proceeded to lift over the buckboard. Never had it seemed so heavy before, and, indeed, once or twice I felt almost hopeless. But time and perseverance accomplish most things, and so with this, though a number of bruises bore testimony that the task was by no means an easy one. Other logs we encountered, but were able to get round some, and we were fortunate in getting the help of men to get past others. The ten miles ended, we believed our troubles to have come to an end, and drove on with lighter hearts over the fresh wheel-tracks, but the first man we met informed us that the fires were so bad three miles further on that we should be stopped, and that a large bridge had been burnt during the night. This was not cheering; but thinking that where one team had gone another might follow, we proceeded, but were soon stopped by our friend, the overseer, who had conducted us through the first fire on our journey up. He recommended us to turn back, as we could not possibly get through until the next day. He said that not only was the bridge burnt, but the trees were falling so fast that it would be dangerous to go near where the repair party was already at work.

"Still, we pushed on, for the steamboat was to leave the landing that evening. Reaching the fire, the Bishop alighted, leaving me in the buckboard while he walked on. After a long, anxious wait, I heard his voice calling me to come on, and he brought the welcome news that the road was clear to the bridge if we could drive through very hot fires, and that the men would try and lift over the buckboard. Well, we got through, I know not how, and reaching the bridge, found quite an assemblage; for besides the repair party, there were two teams, a band of wild cattle, and a loaded pack-train, waiting on the other side. It seemed a big gap over which to lift the buckboard, but many hands make light work, and to cross the bridge did not take a quarter of the time it had taken us to cross some of the trees. Before the steamer had been many minutes at the landing, we had taken leave of our friends, and retired to a fairly comfortable cabin. I was soon asleep, or as much asleep as the case would admit, whilst the steamboat was going from one camp to another landing freight. A cry of 'Fire!' aroused me. At first I thought it must be a dream, but the cry being repeated again and again, I looked out and saw that we had returned to Eagle Pass, and the place was aglow with , the flames of a burning shanty. I did not need the cry of a man from on shore to remind me that the steamboat was lying close to a shed where powder was stored. It seemed, indeed, as if our enemy were following us to the end of our journey. The night was calm, no wind blowing, so the fire burnt itself out, fortunately without spreading, no attempt being made to put it out. 'It's only a Chinaman's; let it burn,' I heard one white man say; though the agonized cry of the poor Celestial with his house on fire was dreadful to hear.

"After this our journey was uneventful, and we reached Kamloops in the afternoon of Saturday, with hearts full of thankfulness at having been safely brought through so many dangers."

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