Slumach's Gold


The fisherman's elderly wife leaned her frail body over the campfire. The flame glowed into the dark where she sat on a log stump, lighting the wrinkles around her mouth. She let her words flow slowly into the night's circle of six young boys. "There's a lost gold mine up on Pitt Lake," she began. "But you'll never find it?'least not find it and live." Her gaze flickered from boy to boy until she'd locked stares with each pair of innocent eyes.

Two of us were brothers, and her story gripped our imagination in a particular way. When she spoke, we believed every word she said about a $100-million mystery-a mystery that would remain unsolved for more than a century.

The fire that night was on the shore of Hatzic Lake, near Mission, British Columbia, the site of our week-long boys' camp. It was summer 1957. The fisherman had been teaching us outdoor skills that day, everything from the fine art of stabbing worms onto an open hook so they wriggled attractively for the fish, to which elaborate lures to use when the worm can was empty. After we'd landed our day's catch and returned from the other side of the lake in a rowboat, he set up a cleaning station on the rocks at dockside, where he showed us how to gut and fillet fish before placing them over the fire. After a dinner of trout, catfish and potatoes baked in the glowing coals, the fisherman left us to clean his gear and pack up his station wagon. Tired and ready to fall asleep, the six of us sipped hot chocolate with our feet pressed to the firepit for added warmth. That was when the fisherman's wife stoked the fire back to life and continued to tell us the legend of Slumach's gold.

"There's an Indian curse that protects the mine from discovery." Shuddering at the thought, she pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. She told us about the Salish man named Slumach who was hunting deer in steep, unforgiving mountains when he stumbled upon a creek scattered with gold nuggets that had spilled from a cavern. "That was 1889," she said. "He'd bring gold nuggets the size of walnuts into New Westminster, which was two days' hard canoeing from the head of Pitt Lake. And he'd buy drinks for everyone, attracting lots of attention to himself as he bragged about his secret cache. He would boast that there were more nuggets where these came from.' Then he'd slip out of town with a lovely young lady as a companion."

These details tumbled around our minds as her story unfolded beside the campfire. Apparently Slumach was real, and none of what we heard seemed remotely like a myth. She continued: "Those gold seekers who tried to follow Slumach to his gold mine vanished on the dead-end trails leading into the mountains from Pitt Lake, where dense fog could appear without warning and sudden winds would churn the lake into nightmare waves."

The storyteller tossed a cedar log on the fire. Its slivers sparked, burning bright and warm right away. Still, we shivered. Fear seemed to reach out for us from the dark hillside behind her, and search for us from the star-sprinkled sky. We knew death was out there. We could feel it. She continued: "And none of his women was ever seen alive again."

Six hearts nearly stopped beating when the old lady came to the part about the Salish man getting arrested and tried for the murder of a young woman. She had last been seen leaving town with him, and subsequently was found floating in the Fraser River with Slumach's hunting knife stuck in her back. The suspense drew us nearer the fire for safety, riveted under the spell of her story. "It was on the prison gallows that Slumach said his curse as they put a hood over his head and a noose around his neck. It happened just before the trapdoor sprang open and dropped Slumach to his death at the end of a five-strand rope."

We hung on her words just as surely as if the noose were strung around our own necks. Then we heard of Slumach's admonition, a phrase that would spark decades of dreams, research, adventure and writing: "Nika memloose, mine memloose." She attributed this phrase to Slumach himself, and called it "Slumach's curse." Her interpretation was rough and emphatic: "When I die, mine dies," she translated, saying he mumbled it twice to get the attention of his executioner and the witnesses. His final words were the clincher: "Anyone who finds my mine, will die because of that."

What more could young brothers want? For years, as our family left our weekend camp at the lake and drove 50 miles of narrow highway toward Vancouver and home, we'd ask Dad to slow down as the road passed through Pitt Meadows. In the distance, jagged mountains pocked with ravines and home to bears and cougars bordered Pitt Lake on the east and west. A glacier-fed river flowed into the lake's north end, and the south end fed Pitt River. Fog shrouded the cliffs and water in a mystery so deep it seemed impenetrable. Every time, we would look at one another in the back seat of the Chevrolet, point north, and then one of us would say to the other, "That's where Slumach's lost gold mine is. One day we'll go and find it. One day ..."

There was a television show in the 1950s called Treasure. In black and white and shadowy greys, it brought tales of adventure into our family's living room. The weekly series portrayed everything young boys found inspiring: buried pirate chests still unfound centuries later despite the existence of maps; money from a daring 19th century bank heist in the United States that was stashed in a place so secret it has never been located, despite solid hints from dying robbers; hand-drawn sketches with directions to a missing trunk filled with valuable shares in a silver mine. The show's host would warn of the dangers that would-be explorers were sure to encounter if they ventured in search of these lost treasures.

One evening in 1958, the show featured Slumach's incredible discovery of "gold beyond your wildest dreams." The hosts said the mine still lay hidden 35 miles northeast of Vancouver, less than an hour's drive away from us. Fog foiled the film crew, descending upon them with alarming suddenness and forcing them to abandon their search. The final frames from their camera captured a narrow entrance that faded from view as the chronicler declaimed: "There ... is the entrance to the mine. We were that near ... before the curse closed in." This broadcast, of course, raised the spectre of competing gold seekers, and renewed our commitment to search every nook and cranny of Pitt Lake's 40-mile shoreline just as soon as we outgrew parental restrictions on such absurd adventures.

A more adult quest for Slumach's mine was sparked many years later when the story came up in passing conversation. From that unlikely beginning sprang a serious research project to separate fact from fiction in Pitt Lake's Lost Creek gold mine story, and to determine which parts of the Pitt Lake region Slumach might have found most promising for hunting and thus most likely to be the site of his stumbled-upon gold mine. It would be these places where we would plan to take our canoe trips, or where we imagined ourselves hiking in Slumach's footsteps. We two veterans of the campfire story were joined by a friend, Mary Trainer, and the three of us together sought every scrap of detail available in old photographs and newspaper clippings, interviewed people who claimed to know something about the story and read turn-of-the-century documents. The motherlode of information was The Columbian, then (in 1971) one of three daily newspapers in the Vancouver area. Reporters, foremost among them the tenacious Alan Jay, had regularly tracked and reported on the legend of Slumach's gold. While other papers, notably the Vancouver Province, merely suggested in one story that upward of 30 deaths were linked to Slumach's curse, The Columbian took their coverage much further. It even ran annual features with promotional advertising, and highlighted clues and questionable "history" that sent weekend fortune hunters perennially traipsing across open ridges and over private lands in search of Slumach's mine.

Our more serious research was welcomed in the community. British Columbia's approaching centennial year of joining Confederation, 1971, was generating media attention, and new work was being published to feed the growing appetite for stories about the lively heritage and fascinating personalities that had built the province. Rikk Taylor, the clever and engaging publisher of The Columbian, supported our project. We were barely into our 20s, and penniless; he was middle-aged and successful. He fanned the embers of our interest, providing assistance wherever possible and giving us access to his paper's extensive archives, which included the original coverage of Slumach's trial. He saw in us a youthful version of his own enthusiasm, and encouraged our pursuit of Slumach's legend by covering our search in his newspaper. This in turn provided us with more leads, harder evidence and anonymous phone calls ("I have something you might be interested in ... ").

We encountered fascinating 19th-century figures in the Slumach story, people like murder victim Louis Bee, Constable Eric Grainger, and prospector R.A. "Volcanic" Brown. The result was the 1972 publication of In Search of a Legend: Slumach's Gold. Our slim book recounted the true story and, importantly, the embellishments and distortions to it that had been made over the years. The book contained artist Fred Bosman's rendition of a map highlighting various locations around Pitt Lake where we believed, based on our research, the mine might be found, if it existed. At one point, a Vancouver Public Library employee told us the library had to keep ordering more copies of the book because patrons would read it and, believing the map to be the real thing, abscond with it.

Within two months of our book's release, a finely researched book was published by former RCMP constable Don Waite. Its title, Kwant'stan, is the Salish peoples' name for the impressive Golden Ears, the snow-capped twin peaks of Mt. Blanshard, reminiscent of wolves' ears, that reflect the sun and pinpoint Pitt Lake's location. Many people have speculated that Slumach's gold is hidden within the folds of those rocky crags.

Our book and Don Waite's were amalgamated in 1981 under our original title. It was edited by Art Downs, the former publisher of BC Outdoors magazine and then-owner of Heritage House Publishing. Our 1972 edition, Don Waite's Kwant'stan, and the Heritage House edition collectively sold more than 10,000 copies and have all long been out of print. Dozens of speculative newspaper and magazine articles and at least three television documentaries have since appeared covering explorations into the region, as well as other books. Each undertaking, spurred on by "there's gold ..." ambitions, has been in the spirit of adventure; all, however, have come up empty. Yet the legend of the Lost Creek gold mine persists.

We long ago determined that much of the story was a lark and that the mine probably never existed. Frankly, we had not given it a lot of thought over the past 35 years, except for giving media interviews now and then and answering the questions of other amateur historians. Of course, we were aware that other researchers were finding additional information and writing articles or books, or making television documentaries; we considered them fellow gold seekers.

Then one day a long-retired Rikk Taylor, whom we hadn't seen for nearly two decades, telephoned to arrange a get-together, as he had some startling news. A week later, on a fine autumn day with colours changing everywhere, two middle-aged brothers and an elderly gentleman settled into a booth at The Keg restaurant in Burnaby. Struggling with the degenerative aftermath of a stroke, Rikk spoke in a halting voice. He told us that he'd kept an eye on the Slumach story after he had left the newspaper business. Then, before our meals arrived, he made a remarkable gesture: he held up a large zip-lock bag that contained several small samples of quartz, and a rock the size of a man's fist. Pushing the parcel across the table toward us, he paused partway to open it and reach inside with a jittery hand. He retrieved two dusty sheets of paper that had been tossed around with the rocks. "It's an assay report," he said, shaking dirt off the pages. We must have looked quite puzzled. "I want you to have all this," Rikk said, passing us the bag and the report. "The rocks contain a lot of gold." Then he began to tell his story in earnest. "They've found Slumach's lost mine ... "

Rick Antonson, Mary Trainer
and Brian Antonson
Summer 2007