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Searching for Pitt Lake Gold

2. Fred Braches-by Guillermo Garcia
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Fred Braches on the enduring legend of one of B.C.’s most famous curses.

Ever since the Fraser Canyon gold rush, prospectors and adventurers have been looking for a mysterious gold reserve hidden in the watershed of Pitt Lake, in southwestern BC. The mine is named for the elusive Indigenous man believed to be one of only two people ever to have seen it. But who was the real Slumach? And is there really a massive, secret deposit of gold at Pitt Lake?

In Searching for Pitt Lake Gold, Whonnock historian Fred Braches digs deep into the legends and presents the stories of some of the daredevils and prospectors who searched for the mythical gold—at their peril.

Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from Searching for Pitt Lake Gold: Fact and Fantasy in the Legend of Slumach. © Fred Braches, Heritage House, 2019

 

In the decades following the Second World War, between 1945 and 1975, newspapers in British Columbia published more than a hundred articles about the legends of Pitt Lake gold.

Most were just new versions of the imaginative stories told by Jack Mahony and C.V. Tench in 1939, embellished and revised according to the writer’s talent and taste. Occasionally they included the names of prospectors looking for Jackson’s creek, hoping to find the lost placer and scoop up millions of dollars in gold. Some were veterans returning year after year, others were inexperienced adventurers, lured into the wilderness by the fanciful stories.

For experts and greenhorns alike, the rugged country was unforgiving. A slip or a false step could result in a crippling, potentially fatal injury, especially if someone went in alone, as so many did. No one would know what had happened to them. No one would know where to look for them, as they often did not want others to know where they were looking for the gold.

With his 1939 article, in which he described the dastardly deeds of the fictional Slummock, C.V. Tench introduced a new element to the legend: the gold brings bad luck and death to all those looking for it. The title of the article says it all: “‘Hoodoo Gold’ in British Columbia: Death Guards the Lost Creek Mine.”

Picking up on that theme, numerous articles and opinion pieces followed on how the mine and the search for the gold took its toll among the gold hunters.

By 1950 the media had set the number of fatalities related to the search for the mysterious mine at twenty—but without mentioning the names of the victims or giving information about where and how they perished.

In fact, at that point there were only three people whose deaths had been reported as being directly related to the hunt for the gold: George Blake and his son, who were crushed in their tent by a tree, and Volcanic Brown, who had disappeared without a trace in 1931 in an early and exceptionally heavy snowstorm.

Prospector Robert “Volcanic” Brown, of Grand Forks, disappeared without a trace in 1931 in an exceptionally heavy snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Dan Gerak

A fourth victim of the search for the gold—the twenty-first by the count of the journalists—was Alfred George (Fred) Gaspard, a sixty-year-old widower from Aldergrove. During his life, Gaspard had done his share of logging, prospecting, and farming, and in 1949, he started a frog farm. It must have been a failure because, in the summer of 1950, Gaspard left to go prospecting in the upper Pitt River area and was never seen again.

Gaspard was flown in by helicopter to a point north of Alvin, and later more than enough food was dropped off for him to survive until the snow would start falling. He had not reappeared in the autumn of that year, but it was February 1951 before the RCMP launched a search for him in the mountainous upper reaches of the Pitt River valley.

By that time the snow had obliterated any trace of the missing man.

It is not clear why it took so long for the search to be launched. Gaspard’s relatives or friends may not have raised the alarm earlier, although we do not know why. The people at Alvin may have known that he was somewhere up the river but did not expect to see him coming out their way and were not aware of his prolonged absence.

Alfred George Gaspard at his frog farm in Aldergrove. Vancouver Sun, August 17, 1949

In June, when the snow was gone, the RCMP tried again, this time conducting a two-week ground-and air-search for the lost “gold hunter,” but this also proved fruitless.

In the autumn of 1951, the Vancouver newspapers reported that an RCMP constable and a guide had set out to Alvin on a five-day quest for answers. No reasons for this search are given, but the chances of finding any trace of Gaspard were slim.

As in February, the upper Pitt River in autumn was a roaring torrent, and the search in the rain in the rough terrain was extremely hazardous. As was to be expected, nothing was found of Gaspard.

In an interview in December 1951, Carl Agar, manager of Okanagan Air Services (Okanagan Helicopters), said that he classified “two types of people who still seek the legendary Lost Creek Mine, the ‘reputable’ and the ‘screwballs.’” He considered Gaspard to be one of the “reputable” ones, a “veteran prospector [who] knew what he was doing and what he was up against.”

August Jack Khahtsahlano, chief of the Squamish Nation, thought that Slumach’s ghost was lurking behind the deaths and disappearances of those looking for the gold.

The Chief told Province reporter Bruce Larsen, who interviewed him in December 1951, that he had had a personal encounter with an apparition protecting the mine.

This photograph of “Slummock,” who was hanged in New Westminster in 1885 for the murder of Louis Bee, appeared in a 1939 article by C.V. Tench. Montreal Standard, November 25, 1939

“I hunted the mine many times,” the Chief told Larsen. “One time when I was alone I was sure I was nearing the gold. I found three peaks. I tried to move forward to spot the tent rock but I couldn’t. A heavy black cloud came down around me and when I tried to get around it I found that it was moving me away and away. I decided to leave. I’ll never go back.”

During this same interview with Larsen, Khahtsahlano also repeated some Chinook words he said were spoken by Slumach in his cell sixty years earlier: nika memloose—mine memloose or, as translated in the article, “when I die the mine dies,” meaning that he would not disclose the site of the mine and would take the secret of its location to his grave.

Later writers—most probably in a quest for more dramatic copy—turned these simple words into a curse by adding “and all who search for my mine will die.” There is no documented information to suggest that these words were implied by Slumach’s assumed utterance—and if they were suggested by Slumach, why would the Chief have left them out of his translation?

Larsen described the stories the Chief told him as “an exciting mixture of superstition, legend and fact.” Following publication of his article, “Slumach’s ghost” and “Slumach’s curse” became fixtures in the stories told in the media and around campfires.

Fred Braches is an avid historian and researcher. After hearing all of the lore about Slumach’s Gold, he resolved to separate fact from fiction once and for all. He appeared on the History TV series Curse of the Frozen Gold (2015).

SWIM ON:

  • The pursuit of gold became one of the most important factors in forming modern British Columbia.
  • A look at James Teit, a now-obscure figure who was one of BC’s most influential – and interesting – early ethnographers.
  • Daniel Marshall joined Rick Cluff to talk BC history, and what makes this place so damned remarkable.
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