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My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter VII. The Coeur d'Alene Country

A "BIG FIND" of gold or silver soon becomes known in a mining country. When the fact is well established men of all sorts and conditions begin to pour in. Thither go the prospectors--always a large contingent--men who have for years been seeking a fortune, generally unsuccessful, but occasionally cheered and urged on by a great strike made by some fortunate comrade. These prospectors are often "grub-staked"--that is, supplied with provisions and an outfit by some backer with money who, in the event of good-luck, is to share equally the profits. Thither goes the tin-horn gambler, who prospers with the prosperity of the rest, often amassing a large pile, only to lose it again by an adverse turn of the wheel. Thither always goes in ample time and in sufficient numbers the saloonkeeper with his dance-hall, assured that if the camp produces anything he will get the lion's share. Later, if the yield is large and promising, the merchants follow; then the printing-press. Last of all, the church enters the field, to be of what service it can in ministering for good to the motley and eager throng.

The average lifetime of a mining-camp is brief; and rarely do we find that nature has made such large deposits of the precious metal in any one region as in the famous Coeur d'Alene territory in the Panhandle of Idaho. Early in the history of that state valuable placer mines and a few rich pockets of the yellow metal had been found in and around Murray, not far from the Coeur d'Alene country. But it was not until about 1886 and 1887 that the silver-producing, low-grade ores, which have yielded so enormously, were discovered. These are still profitably worked, and new mines are being opened in that wonderful country from time to time. When I went to Idaho the whole section was a dense, uninhabited forest; a few months later a narrow-gauge railroad connecting with the boat on the Coeur d'Alene Lake pierced through the woods and reached Wardener and then Wallace. Thousands of people were at once attracted by the reports of fabulous wealth actually in sight.

At the time of my first visit to the Coeur d'Alene, Wallace was my objective point, and the first engine had but recently reached the camp. I had managed to send word of my coming to some young men who had preceded me by a few weeks. Already a rude printing-press had been set up, and, as I stepped from the train, I was handed a large green circular which had been widely distributed, and was posted up on stumps and logs and shacks in every direction. It read as follows:

"The Bishop is coming. Let all turn out and hear the Bishop. Services in George and Human's Hall to-morrow, Sunday, at n a.m. and 8 p.m. Please leave your guns with the usher."

The young men who got up this unique notice wished to have the service in entire harmony with the environment.

As I was escorted from the station to my hotel I was impressed by a scene of throbbing activity. The camp was crowded with men, and the sound of saw and hammer filled the air. Conspicuous among the rude buildings and tents which made up the town there were, by actual count, sixty saloons. It was a confused and stirring spectacle. I found to my surprise that two of my own cousins from Missouri, bright and enterprising fellows, were the owners of the local paper; hence I was at once made to feel at home.

On the next morning, Sunday, I was curious to see whether or not the green circular had been effective in drawing a congregation. Its charm had been potent. The hall was packed, and the congregation, as was usual in new mining-camps, was made up almost entirely of men. No church of any kind had been built; and, indeed, so new was the place that my visit was the first made by any clergyman. I had already, on the evening of my arrival, secured from Captain Wallace, after whom the place was named, and who had some sort of a title to the town site, the promise of an eligible lot. The next step necessary was to raise money for building a church. After the morning service, and before dismissing the congregation, I dwelt upon the importance of having a place of worship, and asked their generous co-operation in securing the funds. By way of encouragement I informed them that a kind layman in Philadelphia, Mr. Lemuel Coffin, had given me a check for five hundred dollars, on condition that I could get a thousand dollars more in some town, and thus erect a fifteen-hundred-dollar church, and I expressed the hope that Wallace might obtain the gift. In closing I gave notice that at the evening service subscriptions would be received, and that I felt sure all would help in raising the thousand dollars.

That Sunday afternoon I took a walk through the camp. On every side men were hard at work as on any-week day. The stores and banks, not to mention the saloons, were all open. As I passed one bank I recognized in the cashier a gentleman whom I had met before. He invited me in and asked about the services and my plans. I briefly outlined to him my purpose of raising a thousand dollars that evening at the service. He generously offered to give one hundred dollars himself. Another member of the firm pledged seventy-five dollars; a third, fifty dollars; they all said they would be present, and when called upon would name the amounts respectively promised. A large and eager congregation of men again gathered at the hall at eight o'clock. After the service and sermon I renewed my plea for a church, and mentioned the five-hundred-dollar check in my pocket, ready to add to the one thousand dollars, if only we could secure that sum then and there. I asked a gentleman to come forward and keep a record of the pledges as they were made. I called first for one-hundred-dollar subscriptions; only one person responded. Then for seventy-five-dollar pledges; again but one answer. Then for fifty-dollar offers; several of these were made. When the twenty-five-dollar pledges were called for, the responses were so numerous that I began to feel the whole amount would be obtained. Finally, when I asked for the ten-dollar gifts an old and poorly dressed man sitting near the front cried out in a shrill voice:

"Pit me down for ten dollars, Mr. Bishop."

I hesitated, fearing he could not afford so much; but the gentleman who was keeping the record reassured me, saying:

"He's all right. That's old Huckleberry Jim. He's rich, and got money in the bank. He could afford to give fifty dollars. He's getting eight dollars a gallon for his huckleberries at Spokane."

The congregation was dismissed with the cheering news that the money was all in sight.

The next morning I had to leave. As I was on my way to the station two men met me, and one of them said:

"Bishop, come along with us. The train will not be here for an hour, and we want to use you. We might as well raise some more money for that church, for we will surely need it before we get through, and we can do better while you are with us."

We held up before the open door of a corner saloon.

"Come this way, Steve," said one of my companions, addressing the proprietor. As he reluctantly came forward my friend went on: "Steve, this is the Bishop, and he is building a church, and we want twenty-five dollars out of you."

"All right," said Steve. "Will you take it now, or do you just want my name?"

"Well, if it's all the same to you, we'll take the cash."

Having paid up himself, Steve at once became an enthusiastic friend of the new church movement, and proceeded to lead out to us, one by one, such of his customers as he thought might help. We then went on to the neighboring saloons, and between three and four hundred dollars were added to the fund. In a short time the church was built, and is to-day a self-supporting parish, and has been the means of much wholesome and uplifting influence in that neighborhood.

At Wardner, Mullan, and Murray churches were also erected. It was during my first visit to Murray that a memorable service was held. A heated political campaign was in full blast. Party lines were closely drawn, and the local papers were indulging in bitter personalities. The large hall in which the service was held was constructed of boards with no plaster to deaden the sound. Immediately adjoining it, and separated only by the thin board partition, full of holes caused by knotty lumber, was the saloon. The clanking of glasses and bottles, and also the conversation of the men, could be distinctly heard. During the time of service, therefore, the kind-hearted saloon-keeper was good enough to close shop, and even to invite his customers to attend church and "hear the Bishop talk." They came; and, naturally enough, many of the fellows fresh from their drinks were hardly able to realize just where they were. But there was one local Democratic leader particularly far gone. It just happened that the subject of my sermon was the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. In developing the theme I proceeded to condemn the pride and self-complacency of the Pharisee, and, in correspondingly strong language, to praise the Publican for his humility and self-abasement. From the start, my Democratic friend got the impression that I was delivering a political speech, and every time I used the word "Publican" he understood me to say "Republican." He tried to bear it patiently at first, and only expressed himself in low mutterings, almost inaudible. But as I went on to hold up the Publican as, an example for all men to follow his self-control gave way. He came back at me with great earnestness and took issue with my statements, until it became necessary, despite his violent protests, for his friends to carry him out bodily. The service over, the lights were once more turned on in the saloon, and, as I was afterwards told, the Democratic champion had his opportunity.

"Did you ever hear such stuff as that Bishop got off?" he said. "He just boosted the Republican party all through his speech, and didn't have a damned word to say for the Democrats."

The story soon spread throughout the county, and the local Republican paper did not fail to make all possible capital out of it. The editor said:

"Here is a fair specimen of what the Democratic party stands for. Some of them are condemning the Bishop for preaching against them. As a matter of fact he made no reference to politics, but simply preached the Gospel. Will any man of intelligence vote for a party that does not know the difference between a Publican and a Republican? The incident of last night," continued the editor, "suggests the sad experience of a Democratic newspaper man in Iowa. That State was so hopelessly Republican that he found it impossible to make a living by publishing his paper there; so he packed up his printing-press, and left the town, and established himself in Missouri. He selected a growing and prosperous county-seat; but, after spending a year in Missouri, he became discouraged, and returned to his Iowa home. His friends were surprised to see him back, and one of them said:

"'Why, Scott, what are you doing here? I thought you were running a Democratic paper in Missouri.'

'"I have been,' was the reply.

'"Why did you leave?'

"'Because I wanted to,' he answered.

"'Why, that is strange, Scott! Was it a good town?'

"'Yes, a cracking good town.'

"'A good farming country?'

'"The best in the world.'

"'Any Democrats there?'

"' Yes, nothing but Democrats. The woods are full of them.'

"'Well, then, why on earth did you leave?' "

"'To tell you the truth,' said Scott, 'the darned fools can't read.'"

My readers may find themselves wondering whether there is much opportunity in the Western mining-camp for religion and the church. One must frankly admit that the life of the average miner is a peculiarly hard one. From the necessity of the case the mines must run on Sunday as well as every other day; otherwise the water would flow in and destroy in one day the labor of weeks. The pumps must be kept going. When Sunday comes, therefore, it finds one-half of the men hard at work, and the other half must needs rest from their labors. When they have an evening off, if it happens to be Sunday, many of them will go to church, and, when there, no one is more appreciative and attentive than the miner. The minister finds abundant opportunity to exercise his gifts of service in dealing with him individually; in learning to know when he is accessible, and where; in seeing that he is provided with a bright, attractive reading-room, where the papers and magazines can be read, and where a game of pool, of billiards, or cards, or checkers can be innocently indulged in; in helping to provide a simple hospital where he can be cared for when sick or wounded; in short, for the gospel of service and fraternity there is not only always an abundant opportunity, but often a most pathetic need. If the minister of Christ is to be of any real help to men in such environment, he must first of all be a manly man with a genius for service born of loving sympathy. This will give him much patience, and fill his heart with hope, so that he will believe in every man's capacity to receive good. It is the personal rather than the official touch that wins. Nay, is it not true always and everywhere that, back o'f the sermon, and the ecclesiastical setting, there must be the consciousness of a living man, who really cares for his brother man and has a message which he fully believes in and yearns to deliver? The men of the mining-camps and ranch towns in Wyoming and Idaho used to implore me to send them "a good mixer." As they interpreted that expression it was not far afield from a right diagnosis of what is needed everywhere. To do men good they must be met on their own ground. It is not a loss of dignity, but the truest dignity, to identify one's self with the sorrows, anxieties, and even with the joys of those whom it is an honor to serve just because they are men; to be as the great apostle said he tried to be--"all things to all men"--that he might win some.

Among the interesting experiences of my life in the Far West was the meeting from time to time, in some remote and isolated corner of that vast hiding-place, a striking personality--some man or woman of distinction and attainments, whom adverse circumstances or tragic fate had driven to seek shelter and retirement in a strange land. In Wardner, when the camp was new, I met a man who impressed me as a person of unusual culture. He had a striking face, and his grace of manner and a certain elegance and dignity of bearing convinced me that he was no ordinary individual. He afterwards took me somewhat into his confidence, and told me a part of his history. Were I to mention his name, those of my readers familiar with the American stage forty years ago would recognize him as a noted actor of that day. He had enjoyed the friendship and intimacy of Booth, Forrest, Barrett, and other well-known artists. There was some tragedy connected with his life which explained his presence in that remote mining-camp. Though very poor, and compelled, with his invalid wife, to live in a little log cabin and practice the most rigid economy, he was highly esteemed. He eked out a precarious living by writing for the newspapers; for he had good literary taste, and was the master of a polished and graceful style. It was always a privilege to meet the old man. He was a lover of good books, a student and interpreter of Shakespeare, and possessed brilliant conversational gifts. If he could secure an appreciative hearer he would pour forth by the hour a stream of reminiscences, abounding in the most delightful incidents of his long and eventful career as a public man. He became deeply interested in the church, and admired enthusiastically the dignity and beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. In his early days, simply as an act of friendship, he had given several prominent clergymen lessons in elocution, with special reference to the proper reading of the service, which he could render with an impressiveness and appreciation rarely found. It was to the credit of the people of that mining-camp, though thoroughly typical of Western discrimination and appreciation, that they ministered with lavish and unremitting kindness to the needs of this aged couple, and did not suffer them to lack any of the simple comforts of life in their declining years. I have been told that the funeral of my venerable friend bore silent but eloquent witness to the profound reverence and affectionate regard in which he was held by the entire community.

Before leaving the Coeur d'Alene region, I wish to pay grateful tribute to the excellent work accomplished among the Coeur d'Alene Indians by the French Jesuit missionaries. The name Coeur d'Alene (heart of an owl), is said to have been first used by the Indians as a term of reproach against the hard-hearted and sharp practices of the French traders in their dealings with them. Whether this tradition is founded on fact or not, it may be confidently affirmed that the French missionaries more than atoned for any wrong done these simple red-men by their more avaricious countrymen. In all the annals of missionary heroism there are few chapters which evince more devotion and unselfish love for men than those which recount the fascinating story of the conversion of the Coeur d'Alene tribe. A few young Jesuit priests of excellent birth and fine culture, who might have won fame and honor at home, left their native France, crossed the ocean, penetrated the thick forests of the Northwest, and literally gave their lives for these red-men. As one by one they fell in the discharge of their sacred duties their places were filled by priests of the same splendid spirit and type. The mission was founded more than sixty years ago. As a result we have to-day a tribe of Indians peaceable and peace-loving, deeply religious, self-supporting, fond of their homes and children, and living the life of civilized man. A visit to the old mission church near Lake St. Joseph will repay the Western traveller. The building is still used for worship, though constructed with wooden pins instead of nails, and in the most primitive fashion. As one meets, as I have had the privilege of meeting, the venerable priest who has spent his entire ministry in this remote and obscure mission, one instinctively feels that any of the world's emoluments are poor and cheap as compared with the essential dignity and moral beauty of such a life and such a service.

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