Stephen Decker: His Life and Times
May 14th, 1910
As told to a reporter for the Vancouver Province
Researched by local researcher Kerry Guenter (2011)
AN OLD-TIMER TELLS OF VANCOUVER’S BIRTH
“Old Steve” of Burrard Inlet Had Varied and Venturous Career
MINES CAMPS TRAGEDIES
Gully in California Where Corpses Lay Thickly – Early Days of logging Where Vancouver Now Is
Sitting in the doorway of his little cottage in Belcarra, the evening sunlight flashing across the waters of the North Arm and touching with gentle warmth the old wrinkled face thus sculptured with the distinctness of a map in relief – a picture for Rembrandt – was Stephen Decker, the patriarch of Burrard Inlet, commonly and more affectionately known as “Old Steve”.
Every yachtsman who cruises the Inlet and North Arm has heard of Old Steve, and some may claim acquaintanceship with him. But those who know Steve as friend knows friend or as brother knows brother are few and far between. Steve had many such friends in bygone days but the hand of death has touched them, and the old man is averse to making new friends.
There are probably not more than a half a dozen men in British Columbia who are familiar with the truly wonderful history of this old man. His life’s history reads like a book of romance and every chapter of it lives with interest.
There are occasions when Steve throws off the reserve which marks his demeanor among those with whom he is but slightly acquainted and speaks of his own life.
Steve was in a reminiscent mood upon the evening in question – one of those moods which seize him ever more rarely as time notches off another and another mark in the milestone of his age. Steve is now 83, but in spite of his years his hearing is still acute, and his powers of memory and concentration remarkable. His form is now beat and the “rheumatiz” has gripped his limbs, but one has only to look upon his immense frame and the setting of the head upon the rounded shoulders to realize that Steve in his prime was a prince among men.
“It is long – very long ago – that I left my father’s little farm in Maine for the Great West.” mused Steve, contemplating the bowl of his pipe. “What changes time brings. When I was a kiddie I remember that the old folks were still talking angrily about the British and the Canadians and the war of 1812. My father lived a stone’s throw from the New Brunswick boundary, and I tell you there was no love lost between him and his Canadian neighbors. There were very many battles between the Canadian boys and us fellows, but before I was 15 a great deal of the bitterness had died away.
Joined a Circus
“When I was a very young man, little more than a lad, I decided to leave the farm and to work for a circus which was at that time touring the country. I went off together with a number of Maine boys and Canadians from New Brunswick. We joined the circus at New York and celebrated the occasion with all due honors. At that time there was only one railroad in the country and this ran between New York and Boston. The circus we were with was a caravan circus, like an immense gipsy outfit and traveled from one town to another over the highroad. We had an immense menagerie. This was the great feature of a circus in those days, and all along the roads farmers’ teams were frightened by the roaring of the lions and the noises of the other wild beasts. My companions and myself were general handymen and assisted in all kinds of work.”
After being with the circus for several months, Steve went back to his paternal acres in Maine. But the spirit of unrest had settled upon him and when in ’49 the news of the great gold strike in California reached the quiet Maine woods he could keep himself at home no longer. Packing up his kit he walked to Boston, where he took ship for Chagres on the Isthmus of Panama. Here together with a large number from all parts of the world he walked across the Isthmus and again took ship for San Francisco.
Gold mining in California
That was a wild camp.” reflected Steve, referring to the great mining camp of ’51. “There were Yankees and Mexicans and Englishmen, and German Jews and Chilians and Mexicans and Chinamen. Shootings there were every day – mostly barroom brawls, for the saloons sprung up as soon as the yellow metal was struck. But in spite of the wild and lawless crowds who were gathered there, if a man had the sense to keep his head about him and minded his own business and did not go looking for trouble, there was every chance in favor of his getting along all right. At least that was my experience.”
There may have been other reasons for Steve’s getting along all right however, when it is remembered that at that time he was but 24 or 25 and stood something like six feet three in his stockings.
“No one asked questions when a man was shot.” continued Steve. “If the dead man had any friends, it was up to the other fellow to get out as quickly as he could. If the murdered man had no friends in the camp then nothing more was ever heard about it. There were no hangings in the camp. The pistol shot did the work of crime and retribution.”
“There was a gulley near our camp where men met death by the scores. It was the easiest way out from the camp in two senses. One day after the camp broke up I passed through this gulley with some companions and we saw scores of corpses strewn along the side of the path. A novice would have fainted, but we were used to scenes of violence and did not even shudder.”
“We worked hard and we made money.” continued Steve, “and some of us kept the money and some didn’t. I have made as much as $150 a day for days at a time and I have seen men get away with twice that much in ten minutes. After I had been working a month I sent home a present of $500 to my father.”
Steve remained in California several years working in the diggings. One day he received a letter from a brother telling him of the wonderful strike that had been made in Cariboo. Steve had an idea that it might be better up north than in California, and set sail from Frisco for British Columbia. He worked his way in through the coast district to Yale where he was offered a job by the Union Pacific Cable Co. as foreman with one of the parties which were being engaged at that time all through the country to string wire around the globe.
Foreman on the Western Union Extension Telegraph (aka Collins Overland Telegraph)
The scheme of the Union Pacific Cable Co. was to string wires from San Francisco to the Behring Sea and thence across Siberia to Russia in Europe.
Steve worked with this concern from the Fraser River to the Skeena where the project was abandoned owing to the successful laying of the marine cable.
Worked as Logger
Drifting down to Burrard Inlet, Stephen Decker then reverted to his old Maine vocation of logging. He was one of the first handloggers in this district, coming to the coast in 1864. “The country was a veritable handloggers’ paradise at that time.” remarked the old man. “The shores of the Inlet of the North Arm were lined with splendid trees. Those were the days of the handlogger.”
“I have felled trees with 25,000 feet of merchantable timber in them and standing well on for 200 feet. Then every logger who was worth his salt was his own boss. There were no companies. Wharves were built at Moodyville and Barnet and the timber was loaded aboard the ocean going freighters there years before Vancouver was thought of.”
“There were big trees on the sloping shores of the North Arm in those days and the grades were excellent. When a tall fir was felled it was stripped and released. Slippier than if greased. It forced a way for itself down the hills, shooting with the speed of an express train and throwing up columns of spray as it struck the water. Nothing but a rock or an immense stump could stop these thunderbolts with their 15,000 and 20,000 feet of timber. We did not make any chutes for them. Down the steep hills they went, glancing off refractory rocks and going through small standing timber like a needle through sailcloth. One huge fir went downgrade with such fearful force that it forced its way clear through the water to one of the two islands, and careened into it with the force of a torpedo, carried a piece of boulder away, slid around a shoulder of rock and checked up in mid current.”
“We were not very parsimonious in regard to timber in those days” smiled Steve.”If we lost a good stick we didn’t unduly worry about it. There were lots more in the forest.”
“When I came out to the Inlet, there few loggers in the country and no jackscrews. I had seen these instruments in operation in California and knew the immense benefit they were to the handlogger. After I had been in British Columbia for a few months engaged in logging, I decided that they had better be introduced into this country, so I sent down to San Francisco for some. After we got the first installment in there wasn’t a logger in the whole country who work without them.”
“There were some very bad Indians in this part of the country when I arrived in 1864 and my arrival did not seem to have any appreciable effect in making them any better for a few years anyway. They had a big camp at Belcarra near where this house is now, and there were other camps at different parts of the Inlet. There was only one magistrate in the country, a sheriff, and a policeman. They did their best, but they didn’t cut much figure with the Indians and every little while there would be a white man murdered.”
“I never any trouble with any of them myself but they had it in for some of the other whites. I remember seeing an old Indian chief go down the Arm to Moodyville one afternoon in a canoe. Next morning I discovered that he had murdered a white man that evening.”
Steve Gets Along
“There was a tremendous amount of game in this district at that time. One could bag a deer or bear almost anywhere on the Inlet or up the Arm.”
“I never had a sickness in my life until I was 80 years of age and the “rheumatiz” got me.” said old Steve. “It crippled me a little, but I can still manage to get around.”
Steve has a great aversion to crowds and to that attributes surviving such rough times. “As soon as I saw there was going to be a crowd congregate anywhere, I got out.” said Steve. “I never liked to hear much hot air or big talk. It was always better to my liking to be alone or with a few friends.”
Old Steve prides himself upon his vocabulary, and considering that he had but a very elementary schooling it is indeed a wonderful one.
That the old man has a constitution which is a little less than iron may be gained from the fact that he was operated upon a short time ago for cancer of the lip and not only survived the ordeal, but came through cured of the cancer.
Some time ago a pretty Salvation Army girl took a fancy to the old gaunt good-hearted logger, or rather took a fancy to his soul. She went out on a boat to his little cottage at Belcarra and pleaded with him to adopt religion during his latter days. “She had such a winning way about her that she nearly got me.” observed Steve in relating the experience to one of his friends. “But I did not feel that it would be much good for me to change my ways at my age. I told her that I had always lived honestly and done what little I could to help my fellows when they needed it, and it was too late for me to change my life now.”
Since the time that he left his home for California, Steve has never returned. He lost track of his only brother in California and does not know whether he is alive or dead.
“I am a great reader.” said Steve, “and spend a great deal of my time with magazines and papers. I never grow tired of them. With all the reading I want and a few friends to visit me now and again, I am perfectly contented.”
Note to reader from Kerry Guenter's 2011 research:
Stephen “Steve” Decker died a year after this article appeared, on May 8th,1911, in the Vancouver General Hospital. He was 83 years old, having been born in Maine on Aug 24th, 1827.He was buried in Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, in a paupers grave. The location is known but there is no headstone. He has not been forgotten, however, as the Western Union Telegraph Co.named Decker Lake after him from his time as foreman on the construction of the Western Union Extension Telegraph (aka The Collins Overland Telegraph) in 1865 and 1866. The hamlet of Decker Lake takes its name from the lake .
Should the residents of Decker Lake wish to place a headstone on Stephen Decker’s grave, the Mountain View Cemetery would be able to direct them to his gravesite.
Please feel free to contact the author Kerry Guenter at: