It was gold—the real McCoy, not the black kind—that drew Samuel Drake to Nanaimo. In a roundabout way, mind you, the Devonshire-born musician with a wandering foot (as he later put it, in his memoirs) having ended up in the Hub City only after several years as a prospector in the Cariboo.
Sixty-plus years ago his granddaughter, Rhoda May (Devlin) Beck, allowed portions of his memoirs to be published by a Vancouver newspaper.
Thus we know that Sam was born on the 18th day of June, 1838, in Black Down, in the parish of Marytavy, Devonshire, England, not far from Tavistock.
At the age of five he followed a brass band as it marched between townships, one Whitsun Monday. “I was a tired, dirty little chap by the time my father…located me.
“He promised to whale the daylights out of me, but Mother hugged and kissed me and the incident passed over, but not my love for brass bands…”
Not until he became a miner did he learn to play the bass tuba: “We had grand times going from one village to another with the choir. We went to the races at Tavistock and Plymouth, and also played at the Michaelmas Fair.
“We had many jolly evenings at each other’s homes singing and practising. My brother William played the tenor horn. We, along with several other chaps, had to walk five miles to and from our work every day, but that didn’t dampen our ardour for practice.”
In 1857 four friends emigrated. Told he was too young to accompany them, he “went around like a bear with a sore head”.
Before long he and his brother were off to New York, where he worked as a miner and organized the Pewabic Brass Band, for which his brother played the euphonium.
In 1861 a bitterly cold winter in San Francisco exhausted their funds. Fortunately, they were loaned their passages to Victoria, stepping-stone to the Cariboo gold fields.
At New Westminster, “We heard a band…playing ‘Annie Laurie’ in quick-step time. We were absolutely delighted… We learned it was the sappers [Royal Engineers] on their way to church. New Westminster went up 100 per cent in our estimation.”
After packing their supplies over the Harrison Lake-Lillooet Trail, Sam was offered a foreman’s job on the new Cariboo Wagon Road. He worked two years to pay back his travel fare, tried copper mining at Sooke, then returned to the Cariboo to mine with two partners at Williams Creek.
In April 1864, “All I had to my name was my blankets, gum boots and my cornet.”
When their claim didn’t pan out they tried a second. “We went down to clay but did not puddle enough gold to make assessments.”
With their Watson claim “we got into a lawsuit and an injunction was put on the claim. We won the case and had started to work, when our opponents took us to court again, and once more we won the case. [Then] we were put in a court of equity and compelled to stop work once more…”
Advised that they’d lose, Drake and partners sold for $500. In March 1867, while en route to the Mosquito Creek diggings, he and Joe Hugo “met Bob Davis, who offered us 90 feet of ground… Hugo and I considered the offer, but decided it was too small a piece and passed it up. It was…the best 90 feet ever opened up on Muskitta [sic] Creek. We both deserved to have our pants kicked.”
Word that his brother William had died further “knocked the gimp out of me”. He was working in Barkerville when it burned to the ground, recalling that it was “a terrible but magnificent sight to see those flames licking up hard-to-get, useable material”.
About this time he was asked to form an “orchestra” by the Church of England’s Rev. J. Reynard. When it became too cold to work as a construction labourer, he returned to mining and, finally, “did well”.
Drake later credited his and partner Hugo’s mutual love of music for having “kept the two of us such good friends, living so close together during those cold winters”.
Rev. Reynard urged Drake to follow him to Nanaimo. “I considered the matter a long time, as I had a host of friends in the Cariboo and hated to leave them. I suppose I still had that wandering foot which got me into trouble when I was five, so I agreed to go.
Mr. Reynard was delighted and made me more than welcome. Nanaimo became my home.”
He married Rhoda Malpass whose parents had arrived in Nanaimo on board the Princess Royal in 1854, and to please her, he joined the Methodist Church. He played the bassoon for the Haliburton Street Church choir and, as their children grew, Drake’s Family Band entertained at church gatherings and concerts.
As Nanaimo’s sheriff for 24 years, and known to all and sundry as “Uncle Sam,” Drake owed everything, he said, to Rev. Reynard and his love of music. “I doubt if I would ever have come to Nanaimo if he had not heard me whistling, Lift up your heads, O ye gates.”