In search of the lost Cody cemetery
Somewhere in the Cody Creek valley above Sandon lies a cemetery few have heard of and fewer still have seen.
At least six people are buried there, including a prospector, two miners, a woman and two children, claimed by lightning, avalanche, and disease over a five-year stretch in the 1890s. Only one grave is known to have been marked — with a poetic epitaph, no less — while the others may never have received such attention.
Newspaper accounts bore witness to each death, but none was officially recorded and they have never before been enumerated.
THUNDERBOLT WITH CARELESS TREAD
The cemetery’s odd location — on the trail to the Freddie Lee mine — was an accident based on where its early deaths occurred and the difficulty of removing the bodies.
The first burial was that of William Tonkin, whose death was reported in detail by John Morgan Harris, the father of Sandon, in a dispatch to the Coeur d’Alene Miner of Wallace, Idaho, from whence both men came.
According to Harris, on June 13, 1892, Tonkin and prospecting partner Sim Tabor left the confluence of Carpenter and Seaton creeks to see a recent mining discovery about three miles away. Afterward, they continued up the mountain, planning to come down the opposite side. Near the summit, they were caught in a thunderstorm and sheltered under a small tree.
“They were there only a few minutes when lightning struck the tree under which Tabor was sitting, killing Tonkin and knocking Tabor senseless and burning him severely,” Harris wrote.
Tabor awoke to find himself nearly paralyzed and Tonkin missing. The tree they’d been sitting under was split open. “Every muscle and leader was paining him, but by the utmost exertion he descended the mountain a distance of about a mile to a prospector’s camp,” Harris said.
Almost 100 men camped in the area went up to find Tonkin, whose body had rolled a short ways down the mountain. The lighting bolt struck him over the right temple, leaving a black spot, scorching his beard, and burning nearly his entire body. His hat had a small hole in the rim, his clothes were torn down the back, and a piece of his pants ripped out. A button on the ground was partly melted and his shoes were nearly torn from their soles. His watch stopped at 1:20 p.m.
Tonkin was a partner of Ellis Waddle and mined for several years in the Coeur d’Alenes.
“There being no trails yet in this section, it was impossible to get the body out, so it was buried on a beautiful spot near at hand,” Harris wrote.
Tonkin’s remains were carried partway down the mountain and interred by A.L. Fry and others, who neatly fenced the grave with split cedar pickets. Fry, something of a poet, composed this epitaph for the gravemarker:
Thy sisters in a foreign land
Shalt know that thou wert borne to rest
By loving hands and heavy hearts,
From yonder cruel mountain’s crest;
Where thunderbolt with careless tread
Hath snapped the brittle thread of life,
And left thy comrades on life’s strand
To battle on through toil and strife.
Rest, weary soul, from all thy toil,
While sleeping in thy narrow bed;
Sure God has borne thee safely home —
Then why the ear of sorrow shed?
THE FREDDIE LEE SLIDE
Avalanche conditions were prime on January 4, 1893 when Billy Springer, superintendent of the Freddie Lee mine, warned his men a slide could come down at any time.
Martin Flaherty and Frank Switzer were sacking ore between the mouth of the mine and the blacksmith shop and were ignored advice to enter the tunnel and continue there. A co-worker in the shop heard a slide coming and with the blacksmith ran to warn Flaherty and Switzer. But afraid of being buried in the tunnel, they didn’t follow the others inside — a fatal decision.
The slide carried away parts of the blacksmith shop and storehouse, and damaged the mining tramway. Several hundred tons of ore and four beef carcasses were carried down the slide path along with the two men.
Flaherty was recently arrived from the Coeur d’Alenes, while Switzer was well known in Nelson and worked the previous summer at Buchanan’s sawmill at present-day Harrop.
Jim Wardner, the mine manager, who was in Kaslo at the time, said Switzer worked for him as an ore sorter and sacker for years, and noted it was through the influence of Flaherty’s brother that Wardner went to the Coeur d’Alenes to make his fame and fortune.
He praised superintendent Springer, who escaped the slide, for his “coolness and excellent judgment ... under circumstances that would test the nerve of any man unless he was cast in heroic mold. Mr. Springer never left the scene, and has done all possible to recover the bodies of the two unfortunate men, but without effect.”
The bodies weren’t discovered until July. It was estimated they’d been swept 2,800 feet down the mountain and covered in 20 feet of snow, with another 12 feet beneath them.
The Nelson Tribune said of Flaherty: “The corpse, when taken from its icy tomb, was natural as the instant when the unfortunate young man lost his life, but exposure to the air soon made a change which necessitated burial at once.”
IN A GROVE OF GIANT CEDARS
Until 1897, Tonkin, Flaherty, and Switzer were the only burials in Cody, but by year’s end, the necropolis doubled in size. Cody was by now an actual townsite, the terminus of the Kaslo and Slocan Railway, and a suburb of much more populous Sandon.
On August 15, Jacky Lilly, the five-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Lilly of Sandon, died. The cause was not reported. His body was taken to Cody by train and buried the next day.
On September 23, Mrs. L.M. Remillard of Cody died of what was deemed puerperal mania — otherwise known as post-partum psychosis. On December 19, her five-month-old child (whose name and gender go unrecorded) suffocated, and became the cemetery’s last known burial.
Following Sandon’s incorporation, provisions were made for a more suitable cemetery about 1.5 km out of town. The first burial there was William E. Kennedy, who died May 27, 1899 and was interred five days later. The Cody cemetery was then presumably abandoned — in any case, it wasn’t mentioned again for almost a century.
The late Eugene Petersen, who spent most of his life in Sandon and in later years was dubbed its unofficial mayor, apparently knew the Cody cemetery’s location. He mentioned it twice in his posthumously-published book, Window in the Rock, although he didn’t indicate the graves were marked or that he knew the names of the dead.
“In a grove of giant cedars on Cody Creek are the graves of those killed in the nearby Freddie Lee slide,” he wrote, adding elsewhere “Down the valley of Cody Creek, where the trail meanders through a grove of ancient cedars, you can see where the prospectors and packers left their marks on these giants of a forest, nearly 100 years ago.”
Did he show anyone the spot prior to his own death in 1989?
Last summer, armed with a map from Petersen’s book that indicated the location of the Freddy Lee claim, my wife and in-laws-to-be and I went looking for the cemetery.
While we came across some interesting things, including the remnants of a stone building which might have been a powder magazine, we couldn’t find the giant cedar grove or the trail Petersen spoke of, much less the graveyard. Even if we stumbled upon it, would we recognize it? Any markers would probably be long gone.
No, the Cody cemetery remains lost and will probably stay that way.
Sources: The Miner (Nelson), June 18 and 25, 1892, January 14 and August 26, 1893; Spokane Review, June 23 and July 31, 1892; Kootenay Star (Revelstoke), June 25, 1892; Coeur d’Alene Miner (Wallace, Idaho), June 25 and July 2, 1892; The Tribune (Nelson), January 12 and July 27, 1893; Kaslo Claim, July 14, 1893; Grand Forks Miner, January 9, 1897; The Paystreak (Sandon), August 21, October 2, and December 25, 1897; Window in the Rock, Eugene Petersen, 1993, p. 29-30, 32, 240; Silver, Lead, and Hell, Veronika Pellowski, 1992, p. 64
Burials in the Cody cemetery
William Tonkin d. June 13, 1892
Martin Flaherty d. January 4, 1893
Frank Switzer d. January 4, 1893
Jacky Lilly d. August 15, 1897
Mrs. L.M. Remillard d. September 23, 1897
Baby Remillard d. December 19, 1897