“I’ll never forget the figure of fun he made, sitting behind his desk with a muzzle-loading Colt revolver in each hand!”—George Johnston.
It took all kinds to tame the Canadian frontier and certainly East Kootenay attracted its fair share of giants. It also suffered the usual drifters and those who, in modern parlance, would be known as losers.
George Hope Johnston met them all in his lengthy and colourful career as police commissioner and justice of the peace. In 1925, in an address to the Calgary Historical Society, he recalled some of the more outstanding characters he’d known in B.C., 40-odd years before.
“…In those days in Kootenay,” he said, “one met men of many nationalities and of many different degrees in life. Some of them were cultured gentlemen who, even while roughing it, as all were compelled to do, endeavoured as far as possible to practice the decencies and refinements in living to which they had become accustomed from birth and by early training.
“For the most part…these men of Kootenay were strong. The West in the making has never favoured weaklings and these, whether physically or morally weak, went speedily under or left a country, the hardships of which they could not or would not endure…”
One of the more memorable, if not admirable, was ‘Old’ Kelly, the magistrate at Wild Horse Creek in the early 1880s. This official, in Johnston’s words, was “as ignorant and inefficient as his predecessor was competent”. Johnston learned this to his regret in the fall of 1883 when he returned to the East Kootenay to meet a friend, F.W. Aylmer. Upon heading back to Calgary they camped with two Native guides near the future B.C.-Alberta border.
Their plans were changed suddenly when three Montana prospectors entered their camp. They explained they’d been hunting buffalo for construction crews of the Northern Pacific Railway but had been robbed of their horses and gear by two men. They’d trailed the outlaws across the Columbia River to what became known as Horsethief Creek, and asked Johnston and Aylmer to help them recover their property.
“Of course we went. Getting together a party, including old Tom Jones and Fred Wells…and taking two Indian trailers, Tatli, a Kootenay, and Pierre, second chief of the Shuswaps, we started at midday — with no blankets and only a lunch.
“The tracking was bad and when the short October day was done, we camped on a high bluff overlooking [Horsethief Creek] without a fire — cold! I shivered in my saddle blankets for hours and then strolled around until I found a deep hollow perfectly surrounded with thick spruce and lots of dry wood. Despite Aylmer’s protest we soon had a fine fire going and put in the rest of the night in moderate comfort.”
The next morning, Tatli and Pierre couldn’t agree as to the outlaws’ trail, and the posse split up. Jim Kane, one of those who’d been robbed, Fred Wells, Tatli and Johnston continued up the creek until about 11 o’clock, when they heard a shot. Spreading out, they proceeded in silence.
“Shortly after, a man carrying a shotgun with a rifle slung across his back appeared. Covering him, I told him to drop his gun. He did so and Kane, coming down the hillside, disarmed him. A few minutes later his partner, a young Swede, came up and he also was disarmed.
“I don’t remember ever being more hungry, and the badly cooked flapjacks and bacon which we found on the prisoners to cook from the stolen supplies were better than a banquet.”
This left them with the matter of how to dispose of their prisoners. The nearest magistrate was Old Kelly at Wild Horse Creek and they decided to take their prisoners there. This meant a long hard ride to the former boom town.
The evidence against the robbers, declared Johnston, was overwhelming: “The stolen property was identified and sworn to. No denial was made by the accused.”
Nevertheless, Magistrate Kelly refused to commit them for trial.
Johnston and company were stunned. Their amazement quickly turned to anger. But, 40 full years after, Johnston was able to make some allowance for Kelly’s denial of justice: “Looking back now I don’t know that I blame him so much. It was too late to send the prisoners out to Victoria, he would have had to act as jailer all winter; the horses and equipment were all recovered and no one was much the worse off…”
The only real loser, in fact, was Johnston, who’d picked up the posse’s tab. Furious, he and his companions retired to the establishment of a Chinese merchant who doubled as saloonkeeper, to ease their pain.
Johnston and Jones were still discussing the disgusting turn of events later that evening over a bottle of cheer when Wells charged in to say that Aylmer and Kane had “got Old Kelly and intended putting [him] in the river”.
Johnston raced toward the ramshackle government office. “Sure enough, they had him,” he recalled. “Kane was swearing by all that was holy that he would put Old Kelly in the drink. Aylmer, who seemed to think it was all a huge joke, was laughing immoderately.
“Telling him to go back to the Chinaman’s [sic], I tackled Jim Kane, who was just drunk enough to be obstinate. Let the old cap go? No. He was going to put him in the creek.”
He tried to dissuade Kane: “Jim, that is no good. The old fool ought to go in but then there might be a little trouble and he is not worth it.”
When Kane refused to release the terrified magistrate, Johnston tried another tack: “We will make a cage, put him in it, take him back with us to the lake and exhibit him.”
Kane, said Johnston, considered this proposal with drunken gravity then wavered. Only when he was told that there was another bottle of whiskey back at the saloon did he surrender Kelly — on Johnston’s promise that the magistrate would be locked up. Johnston then marched his “prisoner” to the jail while Kane watched to be sure that he kept his word.
“I had to keep my hands on [Kelly] until inside the government building,” he said with a laugh, “and then the old brute abused me like a pickpocket. I’ll never forget the figure of fun he made, sitting behind his desk with a muzzle-loading Colt revolver in each hand!”
The next day the spiteful Kelly had Kane arrested and charged with burglary. Much to his disgust, he had to reduce the charge to one of drunkenness when the owner of the cabin whose door Kane had broken open testified that he’d only done so by falling against it while drunk.
So there’d be no repercussions, Johnston made a full report of the affair to the attorney-general’s office. Shortly afterward, Old Kelly was relieved of his magisterial duties at Wild Horse Creek and replaced by Arthur Vowel, later B.C.’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Johnston was appointed justice of the peace for the district.
This was but one of many exciting adventures in a long, colourful and sometimes controversial career for George Hope Johnston, who concluded his Calgary talk on a wistful note: “Most of the men whom I knew in those early days are gone, but their personalities and even their voices are as vivid in my recollection as if only a few months had intervened.”
In 1938 George Hope Johnston joined his old trailmates at the age of 82.