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A Family History: Oscar Gregg / Agnes McGovern / Bill Crossfield

By: Bill Gregg III, Oakville, ON, and Peter Gregg, Kelowna, B.C.    July 2010

Oscar Gregg was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, where, at the age of sixteen, he began working for the CPR as a brakeman. His job took him west and in 1904 he arrived at CPR’s divisional head quarters in Cranbrook, BC. He continued to live there while still working for the CPR until 1914 when he hired on with the Eastern British Columbia Railroad (EBCR) in Corbin, first as a brakeman and then as a conductor on the Big Showing run. That same year he married Agnes McGovern.
Agnes McGovern, who was born in Prestonpans, Scotland, immigrated to Canada with her father Peter McGovern and sister Janet. They arrived in Bellevue, AB in 1913 where Peter worked as a coal miner and Agnes as an usher, at the local movie theatre. Agnes moved on to Michel BC and married Oscar in Fernie’s Presbyterian Manse, in 1914 but made their home in Corbin.
Agnes’ Uncle Tom McGovern was living in Michel at the time and was chief bartender at the Michel Hotel. Her mother and siblings arrived in Michel, from Scotland, six years later. Oscar and Agnes had four sons: Bill (Jr.) (1915), Gerald (1917), Dick (1918), and Jim (1920), all born in Corbin.
The boys were born in a company house that was originally known as the “Rowan House.” It was located south of town, at the railroad yards beside the water tower. Nearby was a dairy farm operated by John Petrunik who delivered milk by horse and wagon or sleigh.
The water tower leaked, so during the winter it was not unusual to have an icicle measuring fifteen feet by two or three feet thick, which the town’s people would break off and store under the tower, covered in sawdust for insulation. In this way they would have ice well into summer, which also helped in the making of ice cream. The escaping water also created an excellent skating rink.
Alex McGladrey started working for the Corbin Coke & Coal Company in 1917 as a fireman on the steam shovel at the Big Showing. His engineer was Joe Barnes who was one of the crew that had arrived from Spokane a short time before. They worked eight hour shifts, 24 hours per day. Alex was staying at Mrs. MacDonald’s boarding house, at $35 a month, when he first met Agnes’ sister, Mary McGovern. Mary and Alex married in Fernie in 1920 but continued to live in Corbin where they rented a company house at $20 per month.
A typical company house had outside sheathing placed in a vertical position, probably to prevent rain from blowing inside. The roof was covered with a heavy tar paper, or galvanized corrugated iron. The chimney was made of brick and mortar. The main heating was coal but for those who could not afford it, wood was used. The inside walls had no insulation and were covered with a blue coloured building paper. The tenants usually built a small enclosed porch around the front door, in order to keep the cold wind out. During the winter, it was not uncommon for frost to form on the inside walls and windows. In many cases there was no running water, so water was carried in from Corbin Creek. The floor was bare wood, unless the tenant paid to have it covered in linoleum. The average house had two bedrooms, kitchen, living and dining room combination, a long narrow pantry and an outhouse out back.
Oscar loved hunting and fishing. He had shot and killed a lynx which the family used as a rug. One day, when Agnes put the rug on the line to air, a dog from next door attacked and destroyed it. They also had a black bear skin rug, which Oscar had shot, which the boys sometimes slept on.
In 1922, after more then eight years in Corbin, Oscar moved his family to Ladysmith where he took a job with Timberland Lumber’s Railway, as a conductor on their logging trains. The boys did not really see much of their father after this, as Oscar’s job required him to stay at Timberlands Oyster district camp.
The family lived just outside of Ladysmith. Their house was high on a hill and overlooked the bay in the distance. The boys could sit up in bed and watch the ocean freighters load up with logs. The front of the house was at street level but the basement, at the back of the house, had a walk out to the back yard. A neighbour used their back yard to grow potatoes. The boys, being very careful not to be discovered, would sneak out into the yard and help themselves. They would then take the potatoes on their trip to the beach (a short walk away). While wandering around the bay, it was not unusual to see an octopus with its arms wrapped around a log, in which case the boys would not venture too close. They would collect blue clams and roast them on the hot coals along with the potatoes. Against their mother’s instructions, the boys went skinny dipping once and would have gotten away with it, if Agnes hadn’t noticed later that evening, that Dick’s underwear was inside out.
The boys looked forward to the weekends, as they always, so it seemed, went on a Sunday picnic with their mother and their uncle Peter McGovern. Peter had a model T to which he had added a cab (like a pick up truck). He and Agnes rode up front, while the boys rode in the back. Peter would rent a row boat and take the family to the other side of the bay, (about a half-hour row) where they would have their picnic and dig for clams which they roasted, along with, of course, some potatoes.
The boys also enjoyed going to see the doctor because it was an all day outing. They would set off in the morning, traveling by train to Nanaimo, where they would then board a ship to Vancouver, returning later that evening. Oscar died in Oct. 1924, of pneumonia in Ladysmith.
Earlier in the year, Agnes’ sister, Susan (Suzy) McGovern, married Ed Hewitt and they were living in Michel. In the spring of 1925 Agnes, with her four sons, left Ladysmith and returned to Corbin. Gerald developed spinal meningitis that same year and in order to get more care for him, Agnes took him to Michel and stayed with her sister Suzy. Bill recalls seeing the doctor throw his hands in the air saying “I can’t do anything more.” Gerald passed away that July at eight years of age and is buried in Michel.
In Jan. 1926 Bill Crossfield applied for a prospector’s license for Coal and Petroleum claims that he had staked in the Flathead but they were never developed. Bill who was originally from Quebec and had been working on construction in the USA as a mechanic on steam powered equipment, had arrived in Corbin from Spokane in 1916/1917, with a steam shovel crew, to work “The Big Showing.” That November Bill (Sr.) married Agnes (McGovern) Gregg and they continued to live in the Rowan House, by the water tower.
Agnes would take her boys to visit her parents, Peter and Robina McGovern, who lived near Suzy’s family in Michel. Peter would take his grandchildren fishing in Michel Creek which ran close to the house. On one of these occasions he remarked that the limit is eight inches but today it is ten inches. Regardless, everyone caught their limit. The boys were particularly fond of their grandmother who had a very broad Scottish accent and who was very affectionate towards them.
Bill (Sr.) owned five horses: Birdie, a working horse, and four quarter horses, Teddy, Silver, Keno and Jack. If you tried to pack too much on Silver he would lie down until you took something off. (It usually went on Keno). When you tried to saddle Keno, he would take a deep breath and hold it, which would cause the saddle to slip off when he exhaled. It was, therefore, necessary to knee Keno in the stomach, to force out all the air, before pulling the saddle straps tight. Jack was the tallest and also seemed to be the smartest, as he knew what to do without being told.
Birdie was rented out for fifty cents every Saturday to a Chinese vegetable salesman by the name of Hong Hoy. One day when Hong Hoy was in town selling his vegetables he set up his stand beside a steam engine. The engine let off a burst of steam which startled Birdie and caused her to take off, scattering the vegetables everywhere. Everyone, except Hoy, had a good laugh, while they all pitched-in to help clean up.
Jim and Dick always had a horse for the summer months. They rode up through the pass near Bellevue into Canyon Creek on the Corbin side. They would cut Timothy hay with an old scythe in order to feed the horses. For the winter Bill (Sr.) boarded the horses at Suzy’s, who was now living on a farm near Cowley, AB. He rode the horses down from Corbin and slept with them in the old power station in the Crowsnest Pass, because it provided protection against the elements. In the spring when Dick and Jim went to retrieve the horses, they would walk the 15km to Michel, take a bus to Cowley, catch a ride to the farm which was in the North Fork area, pickup the horses and then ride them back to Corbin. One Halloween, when the boys were delivering the horses to the farm, the weather was good all the way to Blairmore, where they boarded them for the night at a dollar each. However, the next day it snowed a blizzard so Dick and Jim, with 20 miles still to go, set out on foot and walked behind the horses, holding their tails, as the horses knew their way. The closer they got to the farm the faster the horses walked.
On the weekend, Mrs. Baratelli and Agnes would take their families to an area called Cold Springs, which was half way between Corbin and McGillivray. It was a popular area for picnics and was also used by the miners for union rallies and as a meeting place. To get there they would go via the railroad’s “Speeder” which was a motorized vehicle that travelled on the rails and had seats for eight passengers. Bill Montalbetti, one of the railroad’s work crew, would drive. The women would have ’their bonnets tied firmly under their chins and off down the tracks they would go.1
On holidays during the summer, the town’s people would gather together and head to Cold Springs for a picnic, aboard the EBCR. All the children would arrive laughing, hollering and jumping around, ready to have a great time and the adults would start organizing different athletic events and set out their picnic baskets.
Peanut hunts would get under way with the children running in all directions, hoping to find the most peanuts. The peanuts were hidden in gopher holes, under pieces of wood that lay on the ground, in tree forks and any other place where they could not be seen.
Then the races began. Sack races were a lot of fun. Usually the body got ahead of the feet and you would fall. In the three legged race if you didn’t start off proper, both partners went down. Another race was the shoe race in which the children’s shoes were put into a pile and, at the signal; they would run to the pile, find their shoes, put them on and then dash for the finish line. Another race was the egg on a spoon race, in which a raw egg was placed on a spoon and held in your mouth as you ran towards the finish line. Regular races were also held and there was usually a tug-of-war as well. Pie eating contests were popular with the boys and the adults always had a good laugh.
The men usually sat around drinking beer. The ladies sat and chatted and attended to any scrapes and bruises that the children encountered. Sadly, at the end of the day, all the picnic baskets were gathered up and the children were herded back onto the train for the ride home.
The two room School House was in the north part of town with Grades 1 to 5 taught by Ms. Meg Tully and Grades 6 to 8 by Ms. Sydney Gertrude Timaeus who was also the principal. Bill (Jr.) did odd jobs around the school, for which Ms. Timaeus, paid him. One such job required him to wake up very early so that he would get to school before everyone else arrived and get the fire started. This was quite a challenge during the dead of winter and if he had not prepared kindling the previous day, he would also have to chop wood in the morning. After the work was done, he would go to the restaurant for breakfast, where he ate for free, and wait for school to open. (Breakfast was thirty-five or forty cents).
One day at school, Bill’s teacher sat on a tack, which Alfred Barnes had placed on her chair. When she let out a scream Bill was the only one to laugh, so she accused him of being the guilty party and gave him a detention of thirty minutes every night after school for a week. Later that same day, Bill, while trying to figure out how to get even with Alfred, had to put a test paper on the teacher’s desk, so he took the opportunity to put a second tack on her chair. He almost backed out but now it was too late. He went back to his desk and when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the teacher was going to sit down, he pretended to be rummaging through his desk, so he would not look guilty again. The teacher screamed and, knowing Billy Gregg would not be so foolish as to do this a second time, gave the entire class a week’s detention.
Dick Burk and Jim Booth (a.k.a. B & B) owned a boarding house and restaurant in the centre of town, on the north side of the tracks, directly across from the tennis courts, which were on the south side. When Dick was looking for a cook, Jimmy Duncan applied and when asked what he could cook, Jimmy replied, “I could boil eggs. ” When asked what else he could cook, Jimmy said, “Hell, I could boil more eggs” He got the job.
B & B subsequently built a Dance Hall, on the west side of their boarding house property, with the dance floor upstairs and a Sandwich and Coffee Shop and Confectionary on the main floor. The Hall was also used for meetings by Lodge groups, miners union, Christmas concerts, etc.
B&B’s store had a punch board on display, which, for ten cents a punch, customers could pull back a tab and win the prize pictured underneath. Bill (Jr.) and Johnny Baratelli studied the board and, realizing that the grand prize of a radio had not been won, offered Dick fifteen dollars for the entire board. (Bill does not recall where the money came from, but wouldn’t be surprised if his mother had not helped out.) Dick took them up on the offer. The remaining prizes consisted of about one hundred chocolate bars, candies, etc., which the boys shared with all their friends, but more importantly they were able to sell the radio for fifteen dollars.
The Royal Canadian Legion was located east of B & B’s property and further east of that was the Post Office. The Hotel was on the other side of the tracks near the tennis courts and Sid Knight’s boarding house, which he took over from Mrs. MacDonald in 1924, was mid-way between the Hotel and the Flathead Trading Company. Sid’s son Harry and wife Cathy lived in a house next door to the Hotel.
In 1927, Dick Burke would chauffeur Bill and eight others of the Corbin ball team in his wood-paneled station wagon to Natal, Blairmore, Coleman and Michel. Bill, like everyone else on the team, played all positions, even pitcher.
On Sundays Agnes would say to her boys, “we’re going to have fish for dinner tonight” which meant, “go and catch us some fish. ” The boys only had to go a short distance and had no problem catching twenty fish, more if required.
Bill and Agnes had a daughter Trudy (1928) and son John (1929), both of whom were born in Corbin and son Norman (1930) who was born in Fernie. John died from pneumonia, at eleven months, and is buried in Corbin.2
In about 1928 Agnes’ brother Peter McGovern, who was a brakeman on the EBCR, would drive to Waterton Lakes for an evening of dancing, to the big band sound of Mart Kenny. Agnes would send young Bill along because she did not want Peter travelling the country roads by himself. Part of this concern was due to friends who, late one night, collided with a bear, which ended up lodged under their car. Because the back wheels were off the ground the car could not move. When the bear regained consciousness the passengers began to panic, as the bear was making some terrible noises. However, when the bear moved the wheels got some traction and off they drove. Bill enjoyed going to the dances, as he liked listening to the music, up in front of the stage alongside the musicians. Jitney dance tickets were ten cents each and Pete would buy a string of them, the length of his arm3
Bill (Jr.) would go prospecting with his dad and Charlie Wise in Glacier National Park. The park, during this time, was overrun with bears, so it was necessary to put your food in the centre of the tent, the reason being that a bear would usually stick his paw under the tent (there was no floors in these tents) and scoop out whatever he could find, so the further things were away from the sides, the better. On one occasion, Bill’s dad and Charlie left Bill (Jr.) alone, while they went into town. Once inside the tent Bill heard strange noises outside but thinking his dad and Charlie were playing a trick on him, he went along with the joke. But soon, much to his surprise, he realized that the noise was indeed that of a bear. Bill, not making a sound, positioned himself in the centre of the tent along with the food and sure enough the bear stuck his paw under the tent, in a long sweeping motion. Not getting anything, the bear tried a second time but Bill was now ready. With a club in hand, Bill hit the bear’s paw as hard as he could, which he thinks he may have broken, because apparently you have never heard a howl like that bear let out as he ran off through the woods. Bill left the camp to find his dad and tell him what had happened. Finding him in town, Bill (Sr.) explained to Bill that, it was now safe to go anywhere he wanted, as there probably was not another bear within ten miles.
On another occasion, when Bill and his dad were returning to Corbin from prospecting in the Flathead, a large brush fire blocked their way. They decided to stop and wait until morning, at which time the fire would be less active. They camped by the river, where they built a small fire on which they heated a can of water for tea. In the early morning they set off again, this time following the river in order to try and get around the fire. At each bend in the river they would cross to the other side. Knowing this, Jack (the trusty pack horse) instinctively would stop to let Bill (Jr.) climb on for the crossing. This happened four or five times and the water in some place could be three feet, or more, deep and, in spots, swift flowing. Regardless, Bill (Sr.), walked along side and lead them across.
Bill was taken out of school for a week, in February, so that he could go with his dad and a group of others on a gold rush. “Doc” Richardson (the oldest practicing physician in B.C. at the time, so it was said) gave Bill (Jr.) a one hundred dollar grub stake in order that he could share in the action. The trip (they drove into Alberta and then crossed back into BC to reach their final destination) took them north of Waterton Lakes on the BC side of Oil City. Oil City had a population of one - an old night watchman/security-type individual and two derelict oil wells. Bill asked the watchman what it was he was watching and was told that he was watching that they didn’t stake any claims there. Before they could set up camp they first had to build bonfires over a large area in order to melt the snow to get to the ground. During their stay, the watchman kept young Bill entertained with his many stories. They panned for gold in the nearby creek but were only able to find trace amounts.
One day on their way to Doc. Elliott’s office, Bill (Jr.) and Johnny Baratelli, who was a year older than Bill, found a stuffed mountain goat, which stood on a wooden base. They hid the goat in some bushes with a bit of its head sticking out and then went and told the Doctor that they saw a goat just down the road, not too far from his place. The Doc jumped to his feet, grabbed his rifle and took off. The boys, sitting on the front step, just howled as Doc began firing away. When the doctor went to retrieve his trophy and discovered what he had been shooting at, he picked it up, threw it to the ground and gave the boys a disgusted look as he trudged back into his office empty handed. Jim and Dick took this same goat and put it inside the door of Doc Elliott’s office to scare his patients. Sometimes, however, they would forget that it was there and scare themselves.
When electricity came to Corbin, homes did not have hydro meters; rather each household paid fifty cents a “drop, ” per month. A “drop, ” was a hydro outlet (light bulb, etc.) which provided a source for electricity. Wood burning stoves were the order of the day, which also provided heat during the winter.
After school Bill, in about 1930, worked part-time for the Flathead Trading Co., in Corbin, which was managed by Frank Winters and owned by Robinson of Spokane. It was a general store and they once had a sale of high button shoes for fifty cents a pair. These were primarily left over from the late 1800s but they sold anyway. A button hook was included with each purchase. They also sold gasoline and Bill was in charge of the pumps. One day when Beaudry, the cook at Sid Knight’s boarding house, came in to have his car serviced, Bill was about to check his tires when Beaudry said that he would do it. Bill warned him that the air pump regulator was broken and had one hundred and thirty pounds of pressure but Beaudry paid no heed. As Beaudry was putting air in the last tire, the tires began to explode, one at a time.
This is the same Beaudry who, one day with Bill, noticed a porcupine in a tree. He decided he was going to shoot it with his revolver. However, to steady his out-reached arm he grasped his gun hand with his other hand and succeeded in blowing the tip of his finger off. The porcupine got away.
Another incident at the Trading Company was when a man came to buy supplies for a fire fighting camp. He bought thirty dozen eggs and was in the process of tying the three crates to the pack horse (one on either side and one on top) when a locomotive let off steam, causing the horse to bolt. Eggs were everywhere. Bill just howled with laughter, much to the chagrin of the customer. Bill would run home from work for lunch and back again each day, a distance of at least a mile one way. He got pretty good at running so Ms Timaeus tried to encourage him to develop this skill by competing in track and field events held in Michel but, as far as Bill was concerned, it served no useful purpose, so his interest soon died.
Since the homes were company owned, if you required a larger house, felt that another had a better view or perhaps was built better, you simply moved in when it became available. The family therefore moved into what had been the Hobart House which was located on the west side of the Wye. The house fronted onto a railroad bed that carried two sets of tracks which cut them off from their neighbours who lived on the east side. Over the coming years the family would move on two other occasions but continue to live at the Wye. Their third house had been Joe Matt’s place and the fourth was the Goss House. Both of these homes were on the east side of the tracks.
The boss of the Crowsnest Pass Coal Company was Len Warburton whose office was in the same building as the Flathead Trading Company. Attached to the north side of this building was a smaller building, which housed the Bucher Shop, operated by Barney Lyons. South of the Flathead Trading Company was the Police Station. On the east side of the Police Station was the Coal Processing plant and on the south-west side was the entrance to the underground mine and the coal dump.
When the empty coal train arrived back in Corbin from McGillivray it would drop the coach car in the centre of town, on its way up to reload. Dick and Jim, knowing approximately the time the fully loaded train would be heading back to McGillivray, would sit and wait in the coach car for it to be reconnected, so they could get a ride to the Wye. From there, they would run home but they always got heck when they arrived because they were always late. The free ride was thanks to Jim Barnes, the conductor, Felix Ferrari, the engineer, and Joe Matt, the brakeman and was especially appreciated during the cold of the winter months.
In the north-east end of town there was a new housing development known as “Up the Hill” and the Catholic church was also located in this area. A café, boarding house and bakery operated by Doris and Helen Lee was over on the eastern edge of town.
During the winter the trails and paths were five or six feet in the air on top of packed snow. One day, after a light rain, which made the paths slippery, Mrs. Barnes slipped off and went over the side. Jim, who was only ten at the time, tried unsuccessfully to pull her back up and had to go and get help. The situation was apparently quite comical. Jim, later, told his mother that he saw what she had for breakfast.
Bill (Jr.) liked the Yankees baseball team with such players as Babe Ruth, so he would bet his friends two dollars that the Yankees would win, regardless of who they played. Because he won so often his friends wouldn’t bet with him any more so, at the start of the season, Bill would bet that the Yankees would win the World Series. He still won more then he lost. (With no radio, the scores could not be checked until the papers arrived, a couple of days later).
In the late ‘20s radio came to the Elk valley and carried mainly US broadcasts. When the family did get a radio they strung the wire aerial outside to a pole and then from there to high in a tree, about a one hundred yards away. The reception, especially late at night was very good. They could listen to radio stations as far away as Hollywood and Salt Lake City, Utah. But the most entertaining broadcast was that of police calls from Chicago, which came in loud and clear at about midnight each night. During lightning storms the boys would disconnect the aerial from the radio and stand back to watch the sparks fly, two or three feet into the room. If it was a particularly bad storm, the sparks could go right across the room.
Bill (Jr.) taught himself tennis and became very good at it. One day when adults were picking teams they were one short player, so Alex Ferrari (who knew how well Bill could play) said nonchalantly that he would take the kid over there. Well the two of them beat everyone, but unfortunately, the prize they were playing for was a case of beer, so Alex had it all to himself.
The family had a dog named Rover, an Irish Setter. Agnes insisted that Bill (Jr.) and Dick take the dog on one of their trips into the mountains, thinking he would be no trouble. Wondering what they would feed it, Agnes said that Rover would probably eat fish. Well Rover thought otherwise. Each time the boys threw a fish to him Rover would let it fall to the ground, sniff it and then walk away. However, by the third day, not having eaten, Rover caught the fish in the air and had his first meal. Having gotten accustomed to raw fish, the boys then began to feed Rover cooked fish.
Unfortunately Rover thought a deer was a cow so one day when the trio came across a deer, Rover immediately took off after it. The deer and Rover disappeared around a bend in the road but soon the barking stopped. Suddenly Rover reappeared running towards Bill and Dick, with the deer in hot pursuit. The next day the same thing happened, except this time when Rover reappeared, he was being chased by a bear. However, when the bear noticed the boys he turned and ran the other way.
The family housed Rover in a big kennel in the yard. They would often hear Rover running to reach the protection of the Kennel with some kind of animal (usually coyotes) in hot pursuit. Once, Rover showed up with a chicken in his mouth. The unusual thing about this was that the chicken was wrapped in butcher paper. Agnes kept the chicken for a few days, thinking someone would claim it, but no one did, so they had it for dinner one night. (Dick would try to trap coyotes but he was never successful, they were just to smart to get caught.)
There were a couple of really cold winter nights that Rover would want in the house. He would curl up beside the wood burning stove and not make a sound as he did not want to have to go out again. One winter Dick made a harness for Rover, to which he attached his sleigh. The cleared railway tracks made an ideal path for Rover to pull Dick on his sleigh, except when Rover decided to turn left or right Dick would be thrown into the snow bank.
During the summers Bill (Jr.) would work at fire fighting camps. Bill was too young to fight fires himself, so the camp boss, William (Skifty) Morris, who was also the local forest ranger, hired Bill as a “go-fer.” During the 1931 fire, which threatened Corbin, Skifty, needing pack horses, made a deal to rent seven, at a dollar a day, from a local rancher. The one catch was that he, Skifty, not the owner, would have to round them up. This job Skifty delegated to Bill. The horses were roaming freely in the mountain terrain so it took Bill nearly all day. He would find one, tie it up and then go look for the next one. Eventually when he had all seven, and a colt which followed its mother everywhere, he strung them all together by tying the reins of one to the tail of the horse in front. At this point he was about five miles from camp. It was lucky that they did not come across any bears because at the first hint of trouble the horses would have tried to take off. In order to relax the horses Bill gave them a helping of wild sweet pea, which to them was like candy. (However, you had to make sure the pea was rationed, otherwise the horses would stuff themselves.) Skifty, getting concerned about how Bill was doing, went to look for him and took him something to eat. In order to find each other, Skifty kept walking and hollering until Bill heard him at which time Bill would also holler back. They kept this up until they eventually found each other.
Being exhausted from the experience, Bill went to bed but was awakened shortly after by Skifty to make breakfast for the men. Bill asked what happened to the cook and was told he was it. Bill asked where the kitchen was and was told anywhere he wanted it to be, as his kitchen was a large bonfire. To make bacon and eggs Bill would slice up a large slab of bacon, and fry it, in a frying pan. He would drain off the fat and then poach the eggs in the fat in another frying pan. The spoon he used to remove the cooked eggs had slots in it so the fat would drain off. One fire fighter commented that Bill’s cooking was not like his wife’s, but Bill did not let this bother him. Bill also recalls not being able to get a second meal out of a ham as the flies and maggots got to it first. Then they had to contend with bears which tried to retrieve the ham from the garbage. There was another meal when the butcher was cutting up individual steaks and placing them on a tree stump, which he was using as a table. Unfortunately a bear came along and scooped them up with its two front paws and took off. On another occasion Bill recalls making up sandwiches from five loaves of bread and taking them to the men on the fire line, who were famished. However, Bill had made sure he ate first. One day, having run out of food for dinner, Skifty sent Bill to catch some fish. Bill knew he would need help, so two older men from the fire fighting crew went along with him. However, rather than Bill teaching the other two how to snare fish, which he fashioned from hay wire, Bill found it easier if he did the fishing and let the other stronger men land the fish, since the fish were so large and were coming in sideways. (Bill says this is the truth that it is not a tall tale.)
On yet another occasion Bill and one of the fire crew were left at a sight, which had been ravaged by fire, to make sure it did not break out again. The other, older man was not familiar with living outdoors so Bill had to show him everything like how to make a bed under the stars, from what nature provided. However, on this occasion the forest fire did start up again and the two came face to face with a bear which was trying to escape. The bear was on a log and, unrealized by them at the time, the only way for the bear to get off the log was for it to move forward towards them. As they saw the bear advance they thought this was the end. However, as soon as the bear got off the log he turned and ran away. Unfortunately though, in order to get away, the bear ran back into the fire.
Back home in Corbin, everyone was told to gather a few belongings and leave the town immediately. However, before leaving, Dick and Jim crawled up on the roof and nailed the garden hose sprinkler to the roof and turned the water on. Everyone boarded the train and went to Michel where the family stayed with their Grandparents for 3 or 4 days before returning home. When they arrived back home, too their surprise, the sprinkler was still running and the house was still standing. There were many others not so fortunate.
During the summers if Skifty did not have any work for him, Bill (Jr.) would hike cross the border into Montana, where he would stay with an older American couple for a week or ten days. The family enjoyed eating fish but not catching them. Therefore Bill was able to pay his way by keeping the family supplied with fish, usually Cut-throat trout. Bill tried to talk and act like an American so the other town’s people would not suspect he was a Canadian who was fishing illegally.
Bill (Jr.) and Dick did some prospecting of their own. On one occasion they saw a storm coming up the valley, so they built a lean-to against a fallen tree. Just as they finished putting rocks down to hold things in place, the storm hit. When it was all over, they looked out to find a moose standing about twenty feet away, unaware of their presence. On other occasions Bill and Dick would vacation in an abandoned cabin for a week at a time. The smell was something else and when trying to sleep Bill could feel mice run by his head.
Bill (Sr.) taught the boys how to pan for gold, something he learned during his time as a steam shovel operator in Cripple Creek Colorado while helping to build the railroad. Bill (Jr.) liked panning for gold and would make sure his pan was firmly packed on his horse as he set off for another trip into the Flathead. However, his only reward for this endeavour was two very small nuggets. He kept them stuck in wax in a snuff box. One was lighter in colour than the other which indicated the presents of silver. He was always happy to show the gold to anyone who was the least bit interested and to explain everything he knew about the mineral. Unfortunately he did this once too often as the nuggets disappeared. (He feels that they were not of any great value but was more upset that someone would actually steal them).
In 1933, shortly after he obtained his hunting license, Bill (Jr.) wounded a grizzly bear. The bear became very ferocious, a sight Bill had never seen before, or ever wanted to see again. The bear grabbed a fallen log and proceeded to tear it to shreds, thinking it was Bill. Bill, at this point, had to shoot it again to put it out of its misery. The bear was seven to eight feet tall and therefore had lived along time. Bill and a friend skinned the grizzly but when they had finished they found that the skin was too heavy for them to carry. They therefore gave it to a party of four hunters who were up from Michel. Bill was not happy at having killed the bear and as a result of this he swore never to kill another, unless absolutely necessary. Therefore, whenever he encountered a bear in the future, he shot into the dirt at its feet, so that it would run away. On one occasion Bill watched as the bear ran down into the valley below, up the mountain on the other side and over the ridge, never looking back once.
In April, the annual Corbin school entertainment was held on a Saturday evening at B&B Hall. It was organized by Miss Timaeus and included a violin solo by Dick, who was a student of Mr. W. J. Harris. Dick’s song selection was “A Rose’s Dream.” Dick also played a solo at the Blairmore Musical Festival the following year.
Also in 1933, Bill (Jr.) left Corbin, at eighteen years of age, to make his own way. He traveled to Vancouver where he stopped long enough to buy himself a three piece dark blue custom tailored suit and top coat from Tip-Top Tailors (which he knew about from reading Vancouver newspapers back in Corbin). While he was waiting for the suit to be made, He found a Chinese tailor on Hastings Street who made custom shirts, at three dollars each, so he bought one. He was so pleased with his purchase that he continued to order his shirts custom made. After a few days he moved on to look for work in Campbell River where his Uncle Peter McGovern was now working on the railroad. To get there, Bill boarded a ship in Vancouver for an over-night trip, which arrived at the town the next day at seven-thirty a.m.
Bill was able to get himself a job at a logging camp doing odd jobs. The crew boss would not reprimand anyone in front of others but if he got you alone, watch out. One day the boss bent over to pick up his lunch box but he could not move it, as someone, in order to get even, had nailed it to the floor.
In the Summer Jim, Dick and their dog Rover would leave their home in Corbin and head for the Flathead Valley. They would stop at a familiar site and rebuild a lean to using poles and old tarps. They survived by snaring wild chicken, catching fish, and picking berries. At night they would build a large fire out front of the lean to. Rover was tethered to a pole on about thirty feet of rope. He was the boys’ first line of defence in case something might stray into their camp during the night. The boys would be gone for a week at a time. Agnes never worried, as they would always return safely ready for another adventure.
When their hair got to unruly Agnes would give each one twenty-five cents for a haircut and pack them a lunch, because they had to walk fifteen kilometers to the barbershop. Freddy the barber’s shop was located in the Michel Hotel. The boys would chuckle because he would play them a tune on his violin before cutting their hair. They walked along the railway tracks, instead of the road, as it was much easier to follow. While in Michel they would also visit with their Aunt and Uncle, James and Annie McGovern, before heading back to Corbin.
In the fall, the Coal Company arranged to have eight tons of coal unloaded at each house, to get them through the winter. As the train crew shovelled the coal from the rail car, Dick and Jim would, in turn, shovel it into a wheel barrow and move it into their coal shed. When they became exhausted the boys would shout out to the train crew “enough, enough.”
By 1934 Agnes’ father, Peter McGovern, had retired and he and Robina were now living in Lethbridge. That fall, Agnes took her children; Dick, Jim, Trudy and Norman on a week’s vacation, to visit them. The train trip, which started in McGillivray, cost four dollars and fifty cents per person, one way.
Bill (Jr.) became friends with a Jack McAllister, so when the lumber camp shutdown for the winter Bill occasionally stayed in Vancouver at the Seymour Hotel which was owned and operated by Jack’s parents. Bill paid something like a dollar a day for his room and because he was a friend of Jack’s and was becoming one of the family, he ate for free. Jack and Bill found extra spending money (unbeknown to Jack’s parents) in the cushions of the chairs in the lounge. They would usually have diner at the cafeteria in the Hudson Bay store where they got to know the waitresses, who made sure the boys always had enough to eat.
On other occasions when the camp shutdown, Bill would return to Corbin by train with a five hour stop over in Nelson. Bill would take advantage of this time to visit his Uncle Tom McGovern and family, who had moved there from Michel and now managed a hotel which was owned by Tom’s in-laws. On one such trip home in 1935 Bill was told by his mother that the family had not had meat in about two weeks. (Because Corbin was shutting down, people had left, so it was not as easy to get a ride to the next town to do the shopping.) Bill took his rifle and only had to go down the road a piece where he shot a deer. He skinned and cleaned it and then waited for Dick and Jim to come home from school, so they could help him carry it home.
That April, Dick and Jim were aware there was something going on between the striking miners and the police but did not know what. The day of the confrontation, children were in attendance at the school and Dick remembers seeing a great number of bloodied, limping miners and supporters retreating back past the school house.
In July, Bill (Sr.) applied again for a prospector’s license but this time it was for Phosphate, however, again, nothing became of his discovery.
Dick and Jim would visit Charlie Wise, a trapper and customs agent, at Fifth Ford in the Flathead on some of their trips. Sometimes work was available which would give them some spending money. They would buy some beer and carry it back along the trail to home, after they stashed a few bottles in the cold creek water for their next trip. Charlie kept two loaded rifles above the window in his cabin. One day a bear broke the window and came inside to get some food and Charlie did some shooting.
Bill (Sr.) was a mechanic on the EBCR and master mechanic until 1935. The EBCR hauled Corbin’s coal from the Coal Mountain mine, fourteen miles south of the C.P. Railway’s McGillivray Loop junction. Bill (Jr.) hired on with the EBCR as a fireman to work with his dad who was now both the mechanic and engineer. Bill (Jr.) was trained by Felix Ferrari on a Shay locomotive. Other than the injectors, which were hard to operate, it had one other serious problem. The cylinders, gears, drive shaft, etc. were all mounted on the right hand side of the engine. Because all this weight was concentrated on the one side, the road bed, under the locomotive, would eventually give way and the engine would roll down the mountain. This engine was replaced by a “Climax” locomotive No. 66, which was a geared engine designed for negotiating ruggèd terrain. (Unlike the side-driven Shays, the Climax drive train was on its centre line below the boiler).
With the closing down of Corbin in 1938, Agnes and Bill (Sr.), with Dick, Trudy and Norman moved to Fernie, as Bill (Jr.) and Jim had moved on. They rented the upstairs floor of the Flower Shop at 791-2nd Ave. Dick remained in Fernie working as a welder for MF&M shop. To make ends meet he became a fireman. His wage was thirteen dollars per month which included some meals and sleeping quarters. However, he had to commit to going out to a fire whenever the alarm rang. Occasionally he would sleep at home with the family.
Sid Knight also moved to Fernie where he operated the Waldorf Hotel and had Skinny Eastwood manage it for him. (Beer was five cents a glass.) Sid then operated the Royal Hotel and eventually he purchased the Arlington.
Bill (Jr.) recalls one time when the Fernie councillors shot and killed a deer. They were so proud, that they laid it at the foot of a tree, leaned their rifles on it and took pictures of themselves standing along side. It was only when they got the pictures developed, that they noticed a cougar was in the tree above them.
There is a very large gypsum deposit near Corbin which a mining company showed some interest in. The Gregg boys offered to stake the claims for them but the company chose not to pursue the venture.
Now out of work, Bill (Jr.’s.) search for permanent employment took him to Nelson, BC, in the winter of 1938/‘39 where he stayed in room number fifty of the Annabel Block. One day he took the train up the escarpment, which was about a mile higher than Nelson, to apply for a job with the Great Northern Railway.4 During the trip, Bill noticed that each time the train blew its whistle, snow fell off the trees. Bill could not see him and a family living in such remote wilderness so he got off the train at the next stop and returned to Nelson.
Back in Nelson, Bill met a policeman who he had worked with at Campbell River who told him that the town was hiring policemen and that he should apply. But when Bill heard that the night before someone shot and killed Ma Green, who owned the local boarding house, and that he would be required to help in the dragging of Kootenay Lake, looking for the murder weapon, he decided this job was not for him.
In the summer of 1939, Bill (Sr.) returned to Corbin to haul the steel from dismantled machinery and train tracks to the CPR line for shipment to Japan. That summer Agnes, Trudy and Norman stayed with Bill in the EBCR coaches in McGillivray, while he continued to work. Dick did the cooking. (The coaches from the EBCR were sold to the Morrissey, Fernie and Michel railway (MF&M) in Fernie, which are now on display at Heritage Park in Calgary). Once the work in Corbin was completed, Bill (Sr.) joined the family, in Fernie where he worked for the MF&M as a mechanic.
Bill (Jr.) married Florence Arcuri, from Fernie. That same summer, Bill had made his way to Michel5 where he found work as a coal miner. This however, was not how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, therefore he continued to look for employment elsewhere. So, while visiting his sister-in-laws family in Trail, in 1940/‘41 Bill applied for a job at Cominco (CM&S). Since he had his employment records in hand, he was able to jump ahead of fifty other men who were also looking for work but who were not as well prepared. He started that same night and did not bother to officially resign from the mine.
Bill worked in the first process for zinc. Here they made sulfur dioxide and chlorine gases which always hung in the air on the shop floor. There was a shanty (room) on the floor into which oxygen was pumped. If you took a break or had a meeting to go to you left the production floor and went into the shanty. One day Bill and a co-worker noticed a huge cloud of sulfur dioxide gas coming at them. They both turned and ran as fast as they could and managed to get into the shanty and slam the door shut, just as the cloud past by.
Bill was in the acid room one day when a co-worker, who was sitting, asked Bill to also sit but Bill said he preferred to stand. Two hours later the co-worker lost the seat of his pants. It was not unusual for employees of the acid room to suddenly have their pant cuffs fall off. The lead processing department was worst of all. Employees were breathing the lead all day but the supervisors’ response was that after thirty minutes outside you would be fine. At the end of each shift the company gave the men a pint of milk.
Bill and Flo eventually rented a house on Columbia St. which backed on to the Columbia River. They had one son, Bill III, born in 1941. Bill tried out for the Trail Smoke Eaters hockey team while working for Cominco, but did not make the team. Although he was an excellent skater he was just not fast enough.
When the Second World War broke out Jim decided, as many other boys did, to join the army. He lied about his age to get in. He was only eighteen and “Mother was not very happy.” He signed up with the 108th battery, 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment in Lethbridge, Alberta and soon headed off to Shilo, Manitoba, for training camp. Jim served in England and was on various campaigns throughout Europe. While overseas, he married Mary Price, in Wales, in 1944. That same year Bill (Jr.) enlisted in the army and was posted to Camp Borden in Barrie, Ontario. While there, Bill became ill and was transferred to the Christie Street hospital (Sunnybrook) in Toronto where he spent almost a year convalescing.6 His family followed and when Bill received his army discharge and release from the hospital, he went to work for the CNR, in Toronto, where he remained until he retired.
Dick, made Fernie his home after Corbin closed down and went to work for the Michel Machine Shop, as a welder, where he remained until he retired. In 1945 he married Marg Dufour from Fernie and they continued to live in Fernie after Dick retired. Jim was discharged in the fall of 1945 and returned home from Europe, with the rank of Staff Sergeant and went to work at the Cominco mine in Kimberley. His wife Mary and son Peter, who was born in Wales in 1946, arrived in Canada shortly after.7 They stayed in Fernie with Agnes and Bill (Sr.) until Jim was able to find housing for them in Kimberley. When Jim retired, he remained in Kimberley.
Bill (Sr.) remained with the MF&M up until 1947 when he had a heart attack. Trudy became a school teacher, first in Edgewater, where she married Tom Moore in 1949 and then in Kamloops, where she continued to live after retirement. Bill (Sr.) passed away in 1951, in Fernie. Norman, who had been working at M.C. Cash Grocery, went to work for the Crowsnest Pass Coal Company (CPCC) initially at the Elk River Colliery near Coal Creek, in the office and warehouse and later in their head office in Fernie. In 1953 Norman married Lenore Pachara of Fernie.
Norman made a trip to Vancouver, and had to arrange for his own meals, so his grandfather, Peter McGovern, who was now living there, told him where he could find a cheap restaurant “where you did not have to pay for the silver ware.” Peter was therefore not impressed when Dick visited and took him out for an expensive meal. The dinner cost two dollars and seventy-five cents each and the tables had silver ware and white table clothes. Peter showed Dick his favourite place where a complete meal costs thirty-five cents. Dick’s comment was, “but look at all the flies in there.”
The Gregg boys continued prospecting throughout the Flathead and in the early ‘60s they re-staked their father’s 1935 Phosphate claims but unfortunately nothing came of it again, as the grade was to low. On one occasion, when Bill (Jr.) and Norman went to check on the claim, Buster Barnes drove them only part way so they had to continue the rest of the way on foot. Of course it rained the whole time they were there. On their way back, Norman, who was walking behind Bill, turned around and saw a bear at the bottom of the trail and two cubs at the top. In an effort to escape, Norman passed Bill and beat him to the top.
Norman subsequently transferred to Crowsnest Pass Coal Company (CPCC’s Colliery) in Michel but in 1968, when Kaiser Coal Company Ltd. bought out the mining operation of the coal company, he transferred to Kaiser’s office in the Sparwood area. In 1975 he left the company and went to work in the office of Luscar Ltd. at a coal mine in Coal Valley, south of Edson, AB. When he retired, Norman and Lenore moved to Red Deer, AB.
Agnes was living with her daughter Trudy’s family in Kamloops when she passed away in 1978.

Notes


  1. “A roadway for cars was completed through the McGillivray Summit during 1927. Up to this time the speeder had been the means of local transportation which augmented the regular train from Corbin to McGillivray. Roads were mud holes, interspaced by slides, corduroy and washboards. Many elegant autos succumbed to the maladies of the road and their drivers.” (Quoted words are of an author presently unknown, but being traced. If U are that author, or know the provenance of the quote, pls. contact Don Wilson of The Virtual Crowsnest Highway web site.

  2. “Corbin’s cemetery was not large but it received its share of those taken by the myriad of life’s tragedies that happened back then: mine explosions, diphtheria, typhoid, Spanish flu, pneumonia, old age. The cemetery sits on a hillside just south of the Fording Coal Mountain Mine.” (John Kinnear in The Elk Valley Miner of 2002/09/19, The Corbin Cemetery - A case of lost and found.) !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow.

  3. Dances were held in town a short distance from the Prince of Wales Hotel, which was built in 1926. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow.

  4. This was the same area that Ben Drew, his future brother-in-law, worked as a hard-rock miner. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow.

  5. “Coal dust was everywhere in the town. The women were fighting a losing battle when it came to keeping clothes clean if they were drying them outside. The men had coal dust deep in the crevices of their faces and ears” (p.46 of A World Apart: The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia [Plateau Press, eds. Wayne Norton and Tom Langford, Kamloops, 2002]). !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow.

  6. Bill was discovered to have TB as a result, his family believes, of working in the coal mines and at Cominco’s smelter. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow.

  7. Go to The Wall of Service and search for GREGG (type name in the box) to obtain information on James Gregg and his wife, Mary. Once into James’ or Mary’s story, you can go to the other spouse by clicking on the red highlighted name in the story body. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow.

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