ALBERT MCCLEARY: PIONEER HOMESTEADER
In late spring of 1888 Albert McCleary preempted 320 acres directly across the Columbia River from the fledgling community of Sproat's Landing. He commenced a ferry operation across the river, from a small bay about 400 meters upstream of this point, to a landing just below Waldie Island on the opposite shore. Thus he joined the well-used Colville Trail with the new pack trail which was being constructed to the Silver King Mine. He built a cabin, barn and root cellar, and over the next few years cleared eight acres on which he raised various crops and farm animals to supplement his unpredictable income from the ferry operation.
By the time he settled here, Albert was an experienced guide, packer and prospector, having spent 20 years in exploring the untamed west. His knowledge was sought out by the C.P.R. when he was asked to assist with the Crowsnest line survey in 1889. In the fall of 1891, news of his father's death six years previously finally reached him, and he decided to return to the home he had left as a young boy. Before he left, he sold his property to Edward Mahon who later developed it as a town-site which he named Castlegar after his family homestead in Ireland.
Albert returned to British Columbia to continue his adventurous life, finding work as prospector, miner, and railway watchman until 1919. At this point in his life he turned home again, to face his last struggle in familiar surroundings.
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Prior to the invasion of the Castlegar vicinity by various travelers who were rushing to Toad Mountain after discovery of the Silver King claim by the Hall brothers late in 1886, the local area saw only occasional white visitors. The most notable of these were the early explorers such as Thompson and those who followed him as employees or guests of the regular Hudson's Bay Company transcontinental express brigades which were to remain a routine feature of the Columbia valley for nearly half a century.
The area had been frequented for millennia by Lakes Indians whose significant residency has been documented by evidence of pit houses on Zuckerberg and Waldie islands and the adjacent shorelines of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers. Many artefacts which were found locally provide additional documentation; the richest ground for such finds was the main shore of the Columbia River between Waldie Island and the mouth of the Kootenay River, where the village of Quepitles was located. Regular visitation by the natives was somewhat curtailed after the demarcation of the international border by the Treaty of Washington in 1848 and the establishment of the Colville Indian Reservation west of Kettle Falls years later. However, for half a century, attempts were made to retain some degree of control over traditional lands, leading to inevitable conflicts with invading prospectors, miners, and homesteaders. The situation was somewhat defused when on October 7, 1861 Gold Commissioner G.W. Cox met with feuding miners and natives at the confluence of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers and told both groups that they would have to live with each other and would be granted equal protection under the law.
The area presently occupied by the city of Castlegar was heavily timbered for the most part; however, closer to the river, where annual flooding prevented the establishment of heavy forest, there were natural grasslands and camas meadows. Similar meadows existed on the flood plain across the river. These natural grassy meadows were used by the Lakes people as a source of food and as a pasture place for horses which were driven up along what was to be known later as the Colville Trail. The Castlegar area was the last riverside location to which the relatively open woodlands allowed easy horse travel from the drier and more open south. Further upstream, the woods and the steeper mountainsides closed in.
Thus we see our first conflicts in the area over the traditional pasture ground. After the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1885, enterprising men like Captain Robert Sanderson started ferrying supplies from American outposts upriver to Revelstoke, and passengers in the opposite direction. Home-made bateaux, which were poled or rowed along, were employed for this primitive transport. Naturally-occurring resources were also extracted where available, leading to inevitable conflicts with former users. Robert Sanderson relates:
" During the summer of 1886, four or five others and myself were cutting hay on the Columbia River at the mouth of the Kootenay. It was expected that the railway between the Columbia and Kootenay Lake would be prosecuted the succeeding summer. While we were working there a number of Colville Indians came up the river from a reservation and brought a band of 40 to 50 horses. They turned the horses loose and they came onto the meadows where we were cutting the hay. We drove them away twice, the headman of the band called on us and objected, saying that the Indians owned all that country, that we must not drive all their stock away as they brought their horses up there to pasture. We told them they were Colville Indians and that we had authority from the Government Agent to cut the hay. The next day while we were absent the Indians gathered and had a horse race on part of the meadow where the hay had not been cut, destroying it. One of our men returned alone and expostulated with them and they made threats of trouble. The remainder of the time we had to watch the ground night and day and keep those horses driven off."
Although the anticipated railway did not materialize as soon as Sanderson expected, the business opportunities picked up the following year when news of the Hall Brothers' discovery finally leaked out. There was a traffic of miners, businessmen, and speculators in both directions along the river to the site via the Castlegar locality. Most of the initial settlement developed on the left bank of the Columbia River in the vicinity of Waldie Island; this transient community became known as Sproat's Landing. The first land on the opposite side of the river was preempted by a middle-aged adventurer who may have assisted Robert E. Lemon in May of 1888 to transfer merchantable supplies from Revelstoke to Sproat's Landing by means of a large rectangular scow. The newcomer was experienced in the ways of the wild west, and he saw opportunity in his present situation. He bought the scow from Lemon and put her into service as a ferry across the Columbia River, thus connecting the old Colville Trail to the new pack trail which was being roughed out to Toad Mountain. His name was Albert McCleary.
To secure his ferry operation, Albert constructed a cabin on the 320 acre lot (D.L. 181) which he preempted on May 1, 1888. The property, as surveyed, was bordered by present-day First Street on the north, the alley just south of Eleventh Street on the south, Eleventh Avenue and a line projecting from it across the railway on the west, and the natural river bank for the remainder. The ferry landing was most likely in the small bay where Fifth Avenue hits the river today, or slightly upstream. Albert cleared land where necessary and put in an extensive garden for his own needs and to sell produce to others. Over time, he developed eight acres for crop cultivation and constructed other buildings such as a barn and a root cellar. He also fenced off portions of his property to keep wild animals out of his gardens and to keep his animals, which included sheep and goats, from straying. Soon he faced his own problems with the Colville people, as Capt. Sanderson again relates:
" Alex McLeary (sic) had a ranch on the West side of the Columbia nearly opposite Sproat's Landing and ran the ferry across the river. Several Indians came up the river with horses. Coming to his fences, they threw them down across his field and threw down the opposite fences as well. They turned their horses loose, letting them destroy McLeary's crops. Judge Sproat sent a Constable across who brought several Indians over to have a conference and settlement. He gave them a very decided talk. Telling them that the land belonged to McLeary and they must let it alone. It had the effect of not having any further trouble that season . . ."
While contending with all the problems which arose out of his farming enterprise, Albert maintained the ferry operation across the river. It was a tricky business, as the vessel was unwieldy and had to be energetically propelled across the swift-flowing Columbia with long oars before being swept over the Tin-Cup rapids, just downstream. He most likely landed in the channel behind Waldie Island and used its favourable current to bring the ferry upstream to the shelter of Breakwater Island, before setting out into the main river current for the return run.
In the summer of 1889, Albert was sought out by C.P.R. engineer D.A. Stewart to assist with the provisional survey for what was to become the Crowsnest line. McCleary had a reputation as one who knew that country well and who could manage admirably in complete wilderness. He had previously worked in part of the area to be traversed by the survey as a packer, hauling supplies during 1883-1884 from Sandpoint, Idaho to Golden. In the following year he was able to apply his practical knowledge of the country along the Moyie River when he won a government contract to improve the trail from Wildhorse Creek to the international boundary and he spent the next year or two carrying out the work. The trail from Sandpoint originally followed the old Lake Indian Trail along which David Thompson was guided by Chief Ugly Head in the summer of 1808; later it became an extension of the Walla Walla Trail. It included two crossings of the Kootenay River: the First Crossing via a ferry operated by Dick Fry, and known as Bonner's Ferry after the original operator, and the Second Crossing at Galbraith's Ferry, near what became Fort Steele. The Moyie River was not followed through its lower canyon and was reached just south of the border from the west; the river was crossed by a bridge just south of Lower Moyie Lake and the trail proceeded north along the eastern shore and then across Joseph's Prairie (near today's Cranbrook) towards the Second Crossing. It saw a lot of traffic and became known locally as the whiskey trail, because vast quantities of illicit liquor were smuggled along it to the "dry zone" which included all the huge property blocks the C.P.R. had been given by government, as well as the railway right-of-way itself. We do not know if Albert took advantage of the opportunity or if he confined his packing operations to more routine supplies for railway construction. He may also have been employed by the C.P.R. on the construction of snowsheds through the Rogers Pass, before he appeared on the scene at Castlegar.
To protect his government charter for the ferry operation during his absence, he hired young Ed Picard to run it while he was away for several months. Picard would, many years later, after he had settled into the shoe-making trade in Nakusp, write his recollections of this exciting time. He sheds considerable light on Albert's home and occupation:
Mc Cleary's cabin, he relates, " . . . was neat and cozy, the walls being almost covered with shelves full of books and papers. He was also a crank on guns, so here were guns to suit most any taste - big, small, light, and heavy."
"It was no small boy's job to operate this flatboat ferry, for the scow could take eight horses with their packs at one trip. McCleary had a quarter of a mile to make his crossing in, and had he failed to make it in that distance, he would have gone down the Kootenay (today's Tin-Cup) Rapids, and that, at high water, would have been the last of Albert and his ferry boat. The only way to propel that boat was with two 20-foot oars or sweeps. One had to stand up and walk with them - a pair of strong arms, a stiff back and lots of sweat, rather than brainpower, sufficing for the job. Albert McCleary said he thought I had the right qualifications for the job, and that he would allow me all I made with the ferry plus $ 45 a month. . ."
"The isolation of McCleary's log cabin did not appeal to me, so my time was [spent] around George Gilpin's hotel or Ike Steven's saloon (directly across the river), where the travelling men gathered if there were any around. If a ferry crossing was made from the east side to the west side, the scow was left on the west side until the next customer came, although one didn't know from which side he would approach. I had a small boat to cross with at any time."
At this time, the Colville Trail saw lots of use:
"A.McCleary is now running a ferry at Sproat's Landing across the Columbia River, making connections by a first class trail to Colville, Wash., and Cascade City on the Kettle River. The travelling public would do well to take this route. Good camping grounds along the trail."
(Kootenay Star, June 7,1890)
Often herds of animals such as horses and mules for the packing trade and cattle for slaughter were driven along the Colville Trail and made to swim across the river at McCleary's crossing. This was always an exciting operation, as they had to be kept on a course directly across the river or be swept away over the rapids. After one such expedition, a half-breed cattle driver returned from Nelson, got to drinking and gambling at Gilpin's Hotel, and later was taken across with a companion named Louis by Picard, who then retreated to McCleary's cabin. Concentrating on his reading in the cozy cabin, he was distracted by a commotion outside and when he looked out the window, he saw Louis running towards him, covered in blood, with the half-breed pursuing him on horseback. Ed relates:
" The half-breed came straight for Louis, shouting something about him not paying. He was really drunk, that half-breed, and a hard looking customer. I pointed the gun at him and told him to move along. After taking Louis into the cabin and fixing him up as best I could, I got him into my small boat and ran him down to the Indian camp at the mouth of the Kootenay River, where he was attended to in their way."
There were other such adventures. They are recounted here to give the reader an idea of what a wild time it was. Although Picard was the witness to these scenes, we can safely assume that Albert faced similar situations. After another drunken gambling session at Gilpin's Hotel, a heavy loser from Nelson disappeared and was found by Picard in the woods near the hotel several days later, quite ill and without half his clothes.
"I took him across the river to McCleary's cabin to sober him up. The first night he was with me, I made him a bed on a bunch of goat skins that McCleary had left. We went to bed, and Ritch was soon asleep, but I did not feel sure of him, thinking he might take another spell during the night and get outside, where it would be a job to get him. I left the lamp burning by the head of my bed and lay there for perhaps an hour, expecting him to jump up any minute screaming, but finally the sleep got the better of me."
"It must have been about 2 A.M. when a howl like that of a timber wolf woke me up. Ritch was reaching for a rifle. "I'll get him", he was shouting and he was shivering from head to foot. His teeth were rattling like those of a man out in a cold winter storm, and his eyes stuck out, staring at the lamp along side of me. I then remembered that the gun he had in his hands was loaded, and that he did not know what he was doing. It took me perhaps five minutes to get the gun away from him. It was just about the hardest job I ever had on my hands, but I had no trouble with him. He stopped with me for ten days and proved to be a real good temporary partner."
Later that year, Albert returned from his Crowsnest survey work and took over the ferry operation again. There are occasional references to Albert's activities in area papers:
" I have just seen some very fine radishes and lettuce from McLeary's (sic) ranch across the river. I believe you will see several small farms in this section before long, as with irrigation the soil will grow anything." (Kootenay Star, June 28, 1890).
In the summer of 1890, McCleary is also exploring other ventures, probably as his ferry operation was seeing less demand when river navigation between Sproat's Landing and Little Dalles started to compete with the Colville Trail:
"A. McCleary rowed up from Sproat with two other men this week and located a mining claim on Pingston Creek, on the west side of the Upper Arrow Lake." (Kootenay Star, Aug.2)
The late summer of 1890 saw a large pack train crossing the river on Albert's ferry. Colonel E.S. Topping and his friend Frank Hanna, with his sizeable family, were relocating from Nelson to Trail Landing to be first in line to profit from Topping's lucky acquisition of one of the very promising Red Mountain gold prospects. The long convoy must have required several crossings. In an attempt to keep his move secret from McCleary, who kept a keen ear to the proverbial grapevine, Topping tried to work out another more secret method of relocating. True to his reputation, Albert found out in advance anyway, and spread the news. Topping had to admit defeat, and follow the most practical route to his new prospective town-site.
The well-known lumberman and local pioneer, George Buchanan, has an even
more astonishing claim. He was interviewed in 1929 and offered various
recollections of the old days when he was an early pioneer in the Nelson
area. I quote the relevant entry fully:
"When asked about the development of the present cities, Mr. Buchanan
smiled and said that he saw the whole townsite of Trail change hands for the
sum of $ 50. 'E.J. Topping', he said, 'who later became the father of
Trail, set out from here [Nelson] on horse-back to stake out a site
somewhere on the Columbia river some time in the summer of '91. [probably 1890] Wishing to
keep his intentions a secret, he told Albert McLeary, the ferry-man on the
Columbia river near Robson, a cock and bull story as to where he was going.
Albert saw an axe slip out from under Topping's coat and suspecting his
idea, went hot foot down the river. When Topping arrived at the present
site of Trail, he found that Albert had staked out the townsite and would
take nothing less than $ 50 for it. Topping paid the $ 50 and Trail was
During the autumn of that year, low river levels made a sternwheeler run through the rapids too risky. A couple of enterprising men bought a small rowboat from Albert and attempted to run goods through the rapids:
"Harry Ward and John Kelly started from Sproat in a small boat for Trail Creek with
$ 400 worth of goods, but at the foot of Kootenay Rapids (today's Tin Cups) the boat opened up and sank in 40 feet of water. It is supposed she was cut up in the rapids by a sharp hidden rock. Both men swam to shore, Kelly saving the mail, but the boat and cargo were a total loss." (Kootenay Star, Sept.27).
Demand for Albert's ferry service picked up:
"A. McCleary's ferry at Sproat's Landing has been doing a rushing business since the steamer stopped running to Little Dalles, everything having to go to Trail Creek by trail. McCleary deserves this good luck." (Kootenay Star, Oct.11)
The annual winter freeze-up of the Narrows generally kept the steamers confined to the Upper Arrow Lake, and again, competition from river navigation withered away. The old pack trail became the only link to the outside world:
"The mails between Revelstoke and Kootenay Lake now go by way of Victoria, thence weekly each Wednesday night through Washington to Marcus and by trail up the Columbia to Sproat and Nelson. From ten to fourteen days are required to make the trip each way." (Kootenay Star, Jan.3 1891)
"The Miner is in receipt of a communication from Sproat. As the writer does not sign his name the communication will not be printed, although it relates to the doings of such well-known boys as Jack Evans, Oliver Redpath, and George Spinks, who are putting in the winter at McCleary's ram pasture." (Nelson Miner, Feb.14, 1891) The writer of the original communication was most likely Thomas Sproat, who - under the pseudonym of
Verdant - kept pumping information to the local newspapers about the fantastic opportunities at his doomed town. The Revelstoke Kootenay Star was less scrupulous and printed his communications, some of which are quoted above.
The end for the ferry operation was in sight, however, when construction of the long-awaited Columbia and Kootenay Railway was commenced in 1890. Action across the river shifted from McCleary's ferry crossing near Gilpin's Hotel to a bustling settlement just below the mouth of Pass Creek. This general area was the location of Thomas Sproat's farm, and the steamer landing named after him; however, a temporary railway depot was constructed slightly upstream of the steamer landing and many new buildings sprang up in this new location. Late in 1891, the new railway depot was relocated from its temporary location at Sproat's Landing to the new settlement of Robson, even further upstream. By this time Albert had sold his farming operation to Edward Mahon:
" Albert McCleary sold his ranch on the Columbia River . . . to E. Mahon of Vancouver, the purchase price being in the neighbourhood of $ 3,000. Of the 320 acres, eight acres are ploughed and fenced and about 150 acres more are suitable for cultivation, the remainder being hilly grazing land. A house, a barn, and root-house are the improvements. H. Selous negotiated the sale. Mr.Mahon is now a land owner, a town lot owner, and a mine owner in the West Kootenay district." (Nelson Miner, Aug. 1891) A similar story in the Revelstoke paper, finishes with this additional information : "The late owner has gone east" (Kootenay Star, June 20). And with those words, Albert disappeared from the local stage.
When Albert left the local area, Edward Mahon - who was a speculator, promoter, and developer - was at this period of time turning his attention to the mining frenzy which was gravitating toward the rich silver ores of the Slocan district. He picked up McCleary's property not to make a living off it as McCleary had tried, but to develop it as a strategically located new town-site. In 1897, the Columbia and Western Railway, originally built to haul the Rossland ores to the recently completed Trail smelter, was being extended by smelter baron Augustus Heinze from Trail to the foot of Lower Arrow Lake, and McCleary's old property took on additional importance. Mahon had District Lot 181 subdivided into a town-site:
" A new town is to be established at the terminus of the northern extension of the Columbia & Western railway, on the west bank of the Columbia river and opposite Robson. The site is better known as the McCleary ranch, a tract of land admirably suited for the building of the town. The new burg has not yet been named." (Nelson Miner, May 22, 1897)
Edward decided to call the new prospective town Castlegar after his family homestead in Ireland, and he named the streets after minerals which were so much on his mind. Mercury Avenue cut into the small bay from where Albert had run his ferry across the river. Edward profited from his gamble when he sold the town-site to Augustus Heinze in the fall of 1897. The following year, the railway and the Trail smelter passed into the hands of the C.P.R. Although Heinze retained ownership of other real estate, the Castlegar town-site was probably included in the C.P.R. acquisition.
To understand the reasons for Albert's trip back east and to trace the remainder of Albert's adventurous life we must go back to its very beginning.
Albert was born into a large family that worked a farm located in Percy Township, of Northumberland County, Ontario, near the village of Warkworth. His father, John, a farrier, had emigrated from Ireland, and his mother Caroline (nee Spencer) had been born in the United States. They had ten children, of which Albert was the second oldest, being born on July 9th 1849. Albert had three brothers and six sisters, two of which died in infancy. The last child, a girl, born on May 9th 1863 did not live into her third year.
When he was in his mid-teens, possibly around the time his youngest sister died so prematurely, Albert had a disagreement with his father which, combined with his intense yearning for adventure, precipitated a decision to leave home. It would appear that his father reconciled himself to Albert's impetuous decision, because family tradition has it that he drove him and his dog to the train station in the family wagon. Albert said he was going to travel through the wild west and explore it "from the Mexican border to the Yukon." Thus he disappeared from the family scene. As time passed, John McCleary made endless trips to the mailbox in the hope of receiving a letter from his son, but no such letter ever came. Gradually, John had to reconcile himself to the fact that his run-away son had severed his contacts with the family circle.
We do not know where Albert travelled and how much of the ground that he had set his sights on he had actually seen. When he appears on our local horizon some fifteen years later he was already an accomplished outdoorsman with all the skills that accompanied that enviable profession. He had obviously explored a lot of country as his practical expertise and knowledge of the land were sought out. He was influential enough to obtain contracts with the C.P.R. and the provincial government. Although his circumstances prevented his obtaining a proper formal education, he was largely self taught and his belief in the importance of learning and of mastery of the English language is reinforced by the image of his well-stocked library at his Castlegar homestead.
When he first arrived here, he was in his late thirties. He was described by his contemporaries as an imposing man of tall stature and brawny build. A portrait photo taken a few years earlier perhaps, shows an impeccably attired man sporting a heavy dark beard and moustache. His hair is lighter in colour and closely cropped. He is looking away from the camera as though he were distracted. There is an honest, clean look about him.|
John McCleary died on May 23 1885, when Albert was most likely working on his Moyie trail contract. Because he had failed to advise his family of his whereabouts, it was not possible for the news to be sent to him, and Albert remained unaware of his father's passing for many years. Six years after the fact, the news of his father's death finally reached him, most likely from a passing acquaintance. Feeling remorse perhaps, and a great longing to see the home of his youth again, Albert sold out and headed east.
When he returned home, Albert found that the log house in which he grew up had been replaced by a new building. His stay at the family home was relatively short, lasting only several months. During that time he made quite an impression on other family members and the town folk. We can be sure he kept many an interested listener spell-bound with the stories of his adventures and achievements. A few memories persist. He must have made it to Mexico, because he related how he woke up one morning in a Mexican hotel after a midnight brawl and found one of the contestants hanging from a meat hook. He often talked about being alone in the mountains for extended periods of time. Above all, he stressed the importance of having an adequate supply of salt in the wilderness; everything else could be procured or improvised for subsistence on nature's terms. Often he would comment about how much weight a dog could pack in relation to its own body weight. He was almost always attached to a dog: when he left as a very young man, he was accompanied by his trusty friend, and when he returned so many years later, he had a canine companion. The latter must have been a relatively small, but fierce animal. There is an amusing anecdote about Albert going to the country fair and being invited to try for a prize by extracting a ferocious badger from an open upended barrel. Instead of reaching in and risking his fingers, he simply threw in his dog. The ensuing scuffle tipped over the barrel and Albert was able to seize the distracted badger and ask for the prize. He was accused of cheating and was refused the claim.
Sometime later that year, or early in 1892, Albert's longings for the exciting life he had pursued got the better of him, and he set out for the west again. The next indication of his whereabouts is a letter written from Revelstoke to his young nephew, John Hiram McCleary, not quite 9 years old at the time. The letter is dated January 21, 1893. It is the only surviving correspondence from Albert, and it gives us a good insight into his thinking, although it is frustrating as it tells us nothing about his activities. It is written in a halting hand, with a few spelling errors, words crossed out and corrected, and a few words illegible. It reflects both, the handicaps of his poor formal schooling, and his intense desire to make up for this deficit by self-education. Although it is a practical letter, giving advice on raising turkeys, it is also a very moving letter in which Albert expresses his longing for a more sound educational background. I quote it fully. A few words are difficult to make out in the original, and several have been crossed out and replaced to improve meaning or correct grammar. The most interesting corrections are in references to John's mother, where Albert toned down the original language as he was afraid of offending her. For clarity, I have corrected the spelling and inserted the required punctuation.
"January 21st, 1893 Revelstoke. Columbia House|
to Mr John H. McCleary
Dear Nephew. I received your Letter here on the 17th, and was glad to hear from you and to hear that you are well, and happy to say that their few lines leaves me the same. Well John, I was very glad that you done so well with one Turkey. If you had 1000 Turkeys and they all would do as well as that one, you would make lots of money. Well John, I am of your opinion about raising first class Poultry. I believe that a lot of good Poultry would pay well by taking good care of them. Well John, I think your ma should allow you to raise all the Ducks and Geese and Hens and Turkeys that you can take care of. There is lots of men made a fortune raising Poultry. The main thing is to keep a good breed. It does not cost any more to keep a good Fowl than it does to keep a poor one. Well John, I think you and Albert had better keep to school and learn to read and write and Spelling and Grammar and all other branches of Learning. You will find that when you grow up that a good Learning will be more benefit to you than anything else. Write again. A. McCleary"
The next two decades of his life remain a mystery. There is an entry for A.McCleary on the Nelson voters' list for 1898. Several official records list his occupation while in B.C. as prospector / miner, indicating that he must have devoted a significant part of his life to those pursuits.
It may be that, like so many others, he was swept away by the Klondike gold
rush and thus completed the Yukon end of his great adventure at this time in
Possibly he worked his Pingston Creek claim for a while. He reappears in official records as an employee of the C.P.R. from 1916 to 1919. He returned home briefly in the spring of 1917 to accept a transfer of 1/4 of the family property which he then inexplicably returned to his brother John only three weeks later. While in the employ of the C.P.R., he worked as a watchman, patrolling mountain passes and looking for potential problems such as slides or undermined track. Presumably he lived in or near Kamloops, as he maintained a bank account there. At the end of this chapter of his life, Albert knew it was time to return home again. He felt he was dying and longed to be in the family circle during his last struggle.
Back at home, he settled in with relatives. He took out a subscription to the local newspaper, but as he became more convinced that his time was running out, he eventually cancelled it, so as not to waste money. Always fiercely independent, Albert had to commit himself to the care of a doctor in May of 1921. He died either during or after surgery on November 29, 1921, in his 73rd year. There was no autopsy performed as the widely spread cancer was easy to diagnose from the operation. Curiously, the Medical Certificate of Death lists John McCleary as the deceased. The official Death Registry lists "railway watchman" as Albert's occupation from 1916 to 1919 and "prospector/miner" as his previous occupation for "about 40 years". The run-away son was laid to rest in Warkworth Cemetery the day after his death, on November 30th. |
Two weeks before his death, on November 14th, Albert dictated his will in which he had $300 of his savings set aside for the anticipated funeral expenses and the remaining $ 1,300 divided among two of his sisters and the widow of his deceased older brother Samuel. His will also stipulated that a promissory note for $ 100 from John H.McCleary and Charles I. McCleary be cancelled "in return for kindness extended to me during my last days". He also expressed his wish that his unmarried brother John be looked after by the family. The hand-written will shows one cancelled entry, where for reasons unknown Albert changed his mind. When the document was completed, he signed it in a halting, deliberate manner. Unlike the rest of the writing, his signature is very faint as though he lacked the strength to apply sufficient pressure to the pen. At the time of his death, he did not own any real estate. There is also a reference to a suitcase kept at the house of his younger brother, John, where his banking information and other papers were to be found. Another slip-up appears later during the probate procedure: his death is listed as occurring on November 28th.
When Albert died in 1921, he was considerably poorer than he was when he left his ranch at Sproat's Landing thirty years earlier. Edward Mahon, on the other hand, who purchased his holdings to develop the Castlegar town-site, eventually became a very rich man. With his brother, he acquired extensive real estate in North Vancouver which they developed and promoted. He also acquired, developed and promoted the Capilano Suspension bridge. But that is another story.
John Hiram McCleary, Albert's nephew, to whom he had given such fatherly advice in the letter of 1893, helped to comfort him during what must have been painful last days. The family property had been partitioned some time after the death of Albert's mother in 1903, and the portion with the family house eventually passed into the hands of John and his two brothers. Like Albert, John was a tall, slender, and muscular man who had a reputation as a good worker. In addition to running the family farm, he worked as a labourer on other farms and as a logger. As John grew older and outlived his brothers, he remained the solitary occupant of the once-bustling family house. He loved visitors and enjoyed telling stories of the old days. He remained living in the house when the property was bought in 1971 by Edwin McCleary, the
grandson of Albert's youngest brother Robert George McCleary. On a hot July day in 1974, during the haying season, John collapsed onto the kitchen floor after suffering a severe heart attack. When found by relatives, he was still alive and was rushed to hospital where he succumbed that evening.
In addition to a suitcase of papers, Albert left behind him few personal things. One notable exception was a shotgun which accompanied him on many a journey. At some date during his occupancy of the house, John was convinced by other relatives to part with Albert's old shotgun and its present whereabouts are not precisely known. A surviving family photo has an eerie quality about it: both Albert and his father John have been pasted in, Albert, because he was away, and John, because he was deceased when the photo was taken. The papers in the suitcase, unfortunately, have not survived. About four years ago, an empty suitcase which had been used to store family photographs was brought to George, Edwin's son, in the belief that it was Albert's suitcase. George thinks it is in too good a shape to be authentic, but one never knows for sure. George, who was the Mayor of Trent Hills Municipality when this article was written, was the source of much of the family information for this article. He lives in a new house on a part of the McCleary farm, not far from the now empty house that replaced the log home where Albert was born.
The loss of Albert's papers would weigh heavily on any historian's conscience. It would appear, however, that Albert was not a prolific writer, probably because writing for him was always a struggle. Thus it may well be that his papers revealed little about his extensive wanderings and experiences. We must remain thankful for other chroniclers such as Ed Picard whose efforts opened a small window into Albert's life. Through this window we were able to obtain a convincing glimpse into the daily life of the first homesteader and ferryman at what was to later become Castlegar, when he was an integral part of the small community across the Columbia River which for a brief time thrived, and then faded away.
It would appear that the Castlegar town-site remained on paper only for a considerable period of time. A photograph taken from the vicinity of Lion's Head around 1912 shows the eight acres cleared by Albert McCleary still surrounded by what appears to be untouched forest. Early developments such as the train station and nearby buildings like the first hotel and store are located on property adjacent to the railway, and not on the surveyed town-site. Additional residential properties can be seen along the river, upstream of the railway bridge. A similar photo taken in the 1920's shows residential growth that has spread along the riverbank downstream of the railway bridge, but Lot 181 is still intact forest, at least from what is visible in the photo. The early residents preferred to be close to the railway station and the first amenities of the budding town, and later residents chose proximity to the river to take advantage of the water supply for domestic use and irrigation. Land in the town-site proper started selling most likely in the late 1920's or early 1930's and much of it was purchased by entire block where extensive orchards and gardens were developed to support the resident owners through the Great Depression. This pattern is still evident in 1951, although now-familiar streets have been super-imposed on the previously disorganized array of buildings. Much work needs to be done in tracing the growth of the original town-site from the date of Edward Mahon's vision on paper to its final evolution and consolidation with adjacent previously-developed areas.
Capt. Sanderson's recollections from Silent Shores and Sunken Ships by Milton Parent
Ed Picard's Memoirs, and related notes from Kootenay Yesterdays by E.L.Affleck
Moyie Trail details from B.C. 1887 by J.A.Lees & W.J.Clutterbuck and Kinbasket Country : The Story of Golden and the Columbia Valley by Golden & District Historical Society
Edward Mahon details provided by Greg Nesteroff, who contacted family descendants,
and from his article "Edward Mahon and the Naming of Castlegar" (B.C Historical News, Vol.36 No.1)
Family history based on oral and written communications from George McCleary
Family photographs provided by George and Rob McCleary
Albert's 1893 Revelstoke letter (copy) provided by George McCleary
Albert's Will (copy) and Death Certificate (copy) provided by Rob McCleary
Census of Canada - 1891 (microfiche) Selkirk College Library
Kootenay Star (Revelstoke) and The Nelson Miner (Nelson) extracts, as noted in text.
Selected quotations from The Nelson Miner courtesy of Byng Giraud.
Early photographs of Castlegar from the Squire family collection.
Revision Nine (July 6, 2005)