March/April 2012

Silver boulders and circus acts

Silver rush in the Slocan Valley

By Correy Baldwin

In the summer of 1892, a photograph of two prospectors standing expressionless, but proud, beside a huge 113-tonne silver boulder was printed in newspapers across North America. The photograph convinced thousands of men that massive boulders of solid silver were lying throughout British Columbia’s Slocan Valley, just ripe for the picking. That small black and white picture would end up triggering a huge stampede.

Although expectations were somewhat exaggerated, the valley did hold a vast amount of wealth. The boulder belonged to a novice prospector named J. W. Cockle, who discovered it accidentally after dropping his axe while standing atop of a large rock along a creek bed. When the axe sheared off a chunk of the rock, he saw a glitter of silver galena ore and realized what he was standing on. He and his partner struck a claim, snapped the famous photo, and sold the boulder for a cool $2,000.

The boulder, however, turned out to be worth more than $20,000. Not only that, the boulder had rolled downhill from the actual silver vein much higher up the valley slope, and their claim where the boulder had come to rest was otherwise worthless. The vein high above was soon claimed by John Sandon and two others, and the resulting Slocan Star Mine became one of the richest in the region.

Cockle was part of the first wave of local prospectors who ventured into the Sandon area after a discovery was made the previous summer by two other prospectors, Eli Carpenter and Jack Seaton, who were drawn there following reports of a small, but promising, find near Kaslo. Carpenter had previously worked as a tightrope walker in a popular travelling circus after immigrating to New York from Paris. He quit the circus in the 1880s to try his hand at mining, setting up a placer gold claim in the East Kootenays around 1885.

Every year for six years, he sent $2,000 home to his French-Canadian wife, until a letter informed him of his wife’s pregnancy. He then abandoned his diggings and took to prospecting. In 1891, he teamed up with Seaton, an Irishman from Tennessee, and the two set out into the Slocan Valley.

They prospected the area all summer without luck, and by September had travelled far enough west to come within sight of Slocan Lake. They agreed it was time to head back to Hot Springs Camp (present-day Ainsworth) on Kootenay Lake, although they separated after disagreeing about which route to take.

In retracing their steps, it was Seaton, who came across the silver outcrop on Payne Mountain. Carpenter, meanwhile, had changed his mind about the route back and caught up with Seaton as he was staking the claim. Together, they returned to camp and had their specimens assayed.

At some point their partnership fell apart. It is thought that Carpenter may have attempted to switch samples to fool Seaton into thinking the ore was worthless, although this has never been proven. Whatever transpired between them remains unknown but, when both men returned to Payne Mountain, they did so separately. It seems Carpenter tried to slip away unnoticed with a new partner; and Seaton set off soon after with his own team of approximately 20 prospectors on a more direct route.

Seaton arrived at Payne Mountain first and his team staked a host of claims, including the Noble Five claims. These claims sparked the silver rush that brought in men like Cockle, followed by thousands of others. The town of Sandon sprang up and the region flourished. The original discoverers, however, did not. Like Cockle, both Carpenter and Seaton sold their claims early to speculators for much less than they were worth.

Carpenter wowed the region one last time in May 1897, during celebrations at Slocan City. He strung a tightrope across Main Street from two hotel windows and walked across, returning backward, to the cheers of those below. He then repeated the stunt, this time blindfolded, stopping halfway across to cook bacon and eggs on a stove. It was his final gift to the region. He left for the Klondike in September, where he died a year later.

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