In the decades following the Confederation of Canada, settlers flowed into the newly established western provinces. Some were from other lands, but many were from Ontario seeking new opportunities in agriculture, mining, and forestry. And where such industries prospered, merchants arrived to offer produce and services. This is the story of one merchant from Ontario who sought opportunities first in Dominion City, Manitoba, and then in Rossland, British Columbia.
These essays are extracted from a longer work on law and order in early Rossland that is still in progress. I have assembled this collection of stories from the gold-boom days -- some short, some quite long -- in the hope that you will find the incidents and characters interesting and perhaps entertaining and that they will give you new insights into the early history of the city that we all called home for so many years. I know that not everyone is interested in history, particularly in historical minutia, and that some of you may find that these essays are too long and detailed for your interests and tastes. That is understandable, but such is the nature of my research. I try to explore people and events that are ignored or glossed over in standard histories and document them in sufficient detail that the story is as accurate as possible given the usually fragmentary historical records. I provide a very brief sketch of the subject of each essay below. With this as your guide, you may want to dip into the essays here and there to see if there is anything that interests you. Perhaps you would want to start with the final essay about the unhappy Nellie Lake.
For someone widely revered as the father of Rossland, surprisingly little is known about Ross Thompson. The published commentaries on his life of which I am aware repeat the same few stories and are almost silent on the later years of his life. This is my attempt to enrich -- but, unfortunately, not complete -- the narrative. Because of the scarcity of reliable information, what follows is rife with unanswered questions and speculations. The questions must remain unanswered unless further evidence is discovered, but I propose the speculations as plausible in the circumstances and not pure fantasy. In any case, they are clearly identified and can be rejected or ignored.
The Red Mountain chair lift transformed skiing in Rossland; it did not create it. Before the lift, the skiing community was active and vibrant, both athletically and socially. Skiing was not skiing as we know it today, in equipment, technique, skill, speed or the terrain casually conquered in a day on the slopes, but we had slalom, downhill of a sort and cross country races -- and a skilled and daring cadre of jumpers. Everyday skiing, however, was essentially Nordic, on the fields, trails and mountains north of the city, with the beginnings of alpine skiing on the steep slope adjacent to the ski cabin. Skiing occurred mostly on weekends, but our local hill had lights so we also had skiing at mid-week. Often, after skiing, the ski cabin rocked with music, singing and stomping that passed as dancing. We had exercise and we had fun, but most of us did not ski very well. The ski club was as much a social as it was an athletic institution. The story of skiing in the pre-lift days deserves to be told and retold. It was an important part of the history of that unique community, Rossland, that we know and love. This essay is my attempt to fill in some neglected aspects of that history.
Rossland was a wide open mining town in 1897, newly incorporated as a city, but only a few years away from being but a cluster of shacks on a bench on an isolated mountain side. As new gold-copper deposits were discovered and proven, men poured in, seeking employment in the mines. Business was expanding, the city was growing and people were exuberant and confident of the future. There were growing pains, of course, but there was also rapid development. Streets were laid out, houses, hotels, commercial buildings and schools were being built (and expanded), and transport facilities from the outside world were being completed and rapidly improved. A small American-owned company, the Rossland Water and Power Company, was supplying fresh water and electricity to parts of the city, but sewerage remained a serious problem. In the near future, the West Kootenay Power and Light Company would be formed and would begin providing electricity to the mines and the city from its hydro-electric works on the Kootenay River and the city would take over and develop the water system and build a comprehensive sewerage system. However, in 1897 Rossland was still a rather primitive frontier town facing another cold, dark, snow covered and, for many, dreary winter. But the city had an ice rink and an outstanding ski champion. Why not have a party to celebrate ice and snow sports and relieve some of the winter gloom -- and have it in February, the gloomiest month of them all.
I grew up in what was left of Rossland’s Chinatown in the late 1930s and 1940s and I have long wondered about the histories of the few Chinese men that I knew, particularly Lui Joe who sold us vegetables and old half-blind John who was the last resident of the Chinese Masonic Hall across the street from our house and who occasionally sawed wood in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, I cannot resurrect their stories but as I was preparing a history of my family I began to wonder about the broader history of the section of town in which I once lived and of the Chinese men who inhabited it.
Olaus Jeldness was a "mining man," but he is a legend in Rossland, British Columbia, not for his accomplishments in mining, but for his exploits on skis. Yet, despite his local fame, surprisingly little is known about his life and some of the details regularly repeated in the extant literature are incorrect. In his adult life, skiing was important, at times a basic means of locomotion in winter, but more generally a relaxing and exhilarating relief from the stresses and anxieties of dangerous and demanding everyday activities. However, at root his life was an odyssey through the mining camps of North America (and some in Europe), in a determined quest for ever elusive riches, always guided by the optimistic belief that the next hole in the ground would deliver the big bonanza. His personal bonanza was found on an isolated mountainside outside Rossland. It gave him a modest personal fortune and for an extended time he led a prosperous life style. However, he died in less than prosperous circumstances, a victim of his own speculative nature and the depression of the 1930s. This paper reports what I have discovered in my attempt to understand Olaus Jeldness and his life.