Walker called his dog to heel, raised and cocked his gun, and carefully approached the logs.
I’ve mentioned before some of the nuggets to be found on headstones. Readers actually have two chances of finding gold, so to speak, in Nanaimo: at the Pioneer Cemetery, Comox and Wallace streets, and at the “new” cemetery on Bowen Road that replaced it in 1877.
These five acres are the courtesy of the Vancouver Coal Co. as the provincial government refused to cede any of the lands it had reserved for the construction of an Island railway.
Nanaimo Cemetery’s residents enjoy a sweeping view of the city and Newcastle and Protection islands. This was a factor in determining the location of cemeteries in the Victorian age, by the way, it apparently being the belief that, even after death, there’s something to be said for nice surroundings.
But to get back to headstones: One of the more intriguing is that of Richard Frederick Christmas, whose marker notes that he was shot on the 24th of May, 1903. Born Aug. 23, 1882, he was just three months short of his 21st birthday. “Beloved are the pure in heart —” reads his epitaph, although the last word is indistinct.
The death of a man so young, with his whole life before him, is a tragedy by anyone’s measure. In the case of Richard Christmas, his death is all the more so because he was the victim, not just of an accident, but of monumentally bad judgment.
The son of the Rev. Christmas, Richard had gone bear hunting on a Sunday evening with his friend, William J. Walker. Once at French Creek, after agreeing to meet at a certain time and place, they separated, Walker proceeding to a spot where he’d previously shot a bear with the hope that he’d be twice lucky. This put him a mile from his rendezvous point with Richard.
As he approached his chosen ambush site, he was startled to hear something growling from behind some logs, and his small dog raced ahead, barking furiously. Fearing that it would be mauled by what he now took, by its continued snarling and sounds of scratching, to be a bear, Walker called his dog to heel, raised and cocked his gun, and carefully approached the logs.
Seeing something black move, he fired once. The “bear” fell and lay still. When he rushed forward, he found the body of his friend, Richard Frederick Christmas, aged 20 years and nine months, dead.
Beside himself with shock and grief, Walker ran to the home of R.J. Hickey, who saw to the removal of Richard’s body to the Walker residence. In due course Coroner Stanton and Provincial Police Const. Stephenson proceeded to Englishman’s River to hold an inquest — more as a formality than anything else.
“No suspicion attaches to Walker, whose state of mind is one that entitles him to the deepest sympathy,” reported the Nanaimo Free Press. “It has been learned that the deceased had a propensity for playing practical jokes. In view of this no blame for the accident attaches to Walker, who did what, under the circumstances, would have been done by any other man.”
Also among the thousands who take their eternal rest in Nanaimo Cemetery are Mary and E.S. Ironside, victims of one of the worst shipwrecks in provincial history. Actually, the Canadian Pacific liner Princess Sophia sank in Alaska’s Lynn Canal, Oct. 24, 1918, but because she sailed out of Victoria and because most of her 343 casualties were Canadians, she’s looked upon as a B.C. shipwreck.
One of the most memorable photos of the past century is that of the Sophia, her bow impaled on Vanderbilt Reef; it was taken just hours before she slipped off, with the loss of all on board.
As the Ironsides were said to have been exceptionally well-known in the Pacific Northwest, there was a “profusion of floral offerings,” and their funeral was well attended.
Just two of the many great stories that the tombstones tell in Nanaimo Cemetery.