Michael Byrnes, Al Thorp & Stephen Decker, Early Explorers of the Burns Lake Area
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The two gentlemen on the wagon are Al Thorp on the left and Michael Byrnes on the right.
The picture was taken in Loomis, Washington in 1905.
I had almost given up on my search for any clue to what happened to Michael Byrnes, the scout for the Western Union Extension Telegraph, also Known as the Collins' Overland Telegraph. Then for some reason I tried a Google search for "Michael Burns Cariboo" on Google News instead of Google Everything, not even knowing that Google News would search newspaper archives as well as current news articles. And there it was, the obituary for the Cariboo miner Michael Burns, published in the January 7th, 1907 issue of the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane,Washington newspaper. This was liking striking gold !!!
Back in May, while doing other research into the Collins' Overland Telegraph- the very first attempt at creating a world wide web using electrical pulses- I had discovered the existence of a map drawn of the Collins' Overland Telegraph in 1866, the original of which is in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. Through a generous donation by Dwight Dodge of Quesnel, who has been a historian of the Telegraph Trail since the 1950's, the Bulkley Valley Museum in Smithers was able to obtain a scanned copy of the map from the library. This map shows "Deckers Lake" and "Byrnes Lake" with telegraph stations at the east end of Burns Lake, near where Hampton's Babine Forest Products mill is located and at the west end of Decker Lake, near where Hampton's Decker Lake Forest Products mill is located. (Its curious that the the two mills are located where the very first commercial establishments in the area, the telegraph stations, were located.) Having grown up in Burns Lake, I decided to see if I could discover what had happened to Michael Byrnes after he led the expedition out of Quesnel to the Omineca gold fields in 1869, a hundred years before I graduated from Lakes District Secondary School in 1969. It was as if Michael Byrnes was the hero of one of the Westerns we used to watch at the Saturday matinee at the Reo Theatre (now Beacon Theatre) back in the '50's and '60's, riding off into the sunset at the end of the movie.
With the discovery of Michael Byrnes obituary, and knowing where he had died, I quickly did a search for the Loomis, Washington cemetery and within a few minutes I found out he was buried in Mountain View cemetery in Loomis. I then emailed the contact person for the Loomis County Cemetery website, Maggie Rail, who lives in Spokane, and found out from her that Michael Byrnes' grave is marked with a deteriorating funeral home marker inscribed "Mike Byrnes". I then contacted the Okanagan County Historical Society, the nearest museum to Loomis, to see if they had any photographs of Al Thorp, on whose ranch he had spent the last seventeen years of his life, that might also include Michael Byrnes. At first nothing, but then they checked another index, and there it was - a photograph of Al Thorp and Mike Byrnes taken in 1905, a couple of years before they both died.
Then, knowing that he was born in Maine, I quickly discovered that he was born in Bangor on November 28, 1821. Stephen Decker, for whom Decker is named, was born at LeGrange, Maine, quite near to Bangor. There are quite a few similarities between the lives of Michael Byrnes and Stephen Decker. Both were born in Maine, both went to the California Gold Rush, both came to British Columbia lured by gold, both went to work for the Collins' Overland Telegraph, both struck it rich at least once, both remained bachelors, both were known by shortened versions of their first name "Mike" and "Steve" respectively, both died "poor as church mice" and both are buried in cemeteries called Mountain View!!!
Although other explanations have been advanced for origin of the name of Burns Lake, the most common one that appears in the "History of Burns Lake" and on the Village of Burns Lake website is that when Robert Borland, a packer from 150 Mile House, came through in 1869 while packing for the Collins" Overland Telegraph, he noted the extensive forest fire that had burned through the area and called it Burnt Lake, later changed to Burns Lake. It may be true that Robert Borland either knew the lake was called Burns Lake, not knowing for whom it was named, or called it Burnt Lake, but Byrnes Lake had already been named in 1866, so that explanation can be ruled out. (As you drive through 150 Mile house, check out the name of the creek as cross the little bridge on the highway-it is called Borland Creek.) "1001 Place Names of British Columbia" by G.P.V. and Helen B.Akrigg, first published in 1969 and 'British Columbia Place Names" by the same authors, published in 1986, have the following entry for Burns Lake : "After Michael Byrnes, an explorer for the abortive Collins' Overland Telegraph scheme. Byrnes passed this lake around 1866, while surveyinga route from Fort Frase to Hagwilget. Burns Lake is at he geographical centre of B.C." I'm sure this is quite correct and the other explanations can now be laid to rest.
Michael Byrnes is referred to as a Cariboo miner in books about the Collins' Overland Telegraph, so I checked out that part of the story and was surprised to discover in almost every book about the Cariboo Gold Rush that Michael Byrnes, along with his partner Vital Lefort, had been among the first to stake claims on William's Creek, of Barkerville fame, in February of 1861. A few months later, Michael Byrnes, wanting to see what was over the next hill, discovered gold in a creek he named Burns Creek, a common practice of gold miners so that others would know who had filed the discovery claim. This creek is named on a map published in 1862 by Gust.Epner, entitled "Map of the Gold Fields of British Columbia". A nearby mountain was named Burns Mountain, now called Mount Burns. This is the first, but not that last time a geographic feature would be named after Michael Byrnes.
By now you're probably all wondering why features named after Michael Byrnes are sometimes "Byrnes" and other times "Burns", or start out as "Byrnes" and then become "Burns". Byrnes is an Irish name, which often appears in the same family as either Byrnes or Burns. In fact Pat Burns, of meat-packing fame, changed his name from O'Byrne to Burns. Michael Byrnes and his two brothers were registered at birth as Byrnes, Burns and Byne, just to make it even more confusing. It does appear, however, that whenever Michael Byrnes gave the spelling of his name in a census he used "Byrnes", usually M.Byrnes or M.W.Byrnes. Although I haven't found out his middle name, his middle initial may stand for William, as it is also his brothers name.
In 1866, Michael Byrnes was hired by the Collins'Overland Telegraph to locate a telegraph line from Fraser Lake through to Hazelton and beyond. The history books state that two men were employed on this task, and although I yet have any proof, I believe the second man may have been Vital Lefort, his partner from the Cariboo. History records that Vital Lefort was employed as a scout by the the Collins' Overland Telegraph in 1865 when a route was being explored northwards from Fort St.James and therefore may have been employed in 1866. Michael Byrnes and the second man would be the very first recorded white men to travel through the Nechaco River valley, up the Endako River valley past Burns Lake, and down the Bulkley River valley to Hazelton. This route became known as the Burns-Leech route. John Clayton White was the cartographer and artist for the Collins'Overland Telegraph and would have applied the names to his 1866 map of the telegraph trail. Byrnes Lake, which appeared on maps after 1876 as Burns Lake, was the third feature named for Michael Byrnes. The Atlantic cable was successfully laid on July 18, 1866, curiously the same day that Steve Decker and his construction crews were building the line through the Decker Lake area, and construction of the Collins' Overland Telegraph was stopped at the close of 1866, having reached a point about thirty miles up the Kispiox River from Kispiox Village. In 1867, however, Michael Byrnes was employed to continue exploring north of Telegraph Creek towards the source of the Yukon River, as it was not known if the Atlantic Cable would fail again.
I often wondered why an incorrigible gold miner like Michael Byrnes would give up gold mining for a couple of years when it occurred to me that he may have had ulterior motives for joining the telegraph, as this provided an ideal opportunity to prospect in virgin territory. Therefore I wasn't surprised to find the following entry from William Healy Dall's "Alaska and Its Resources": "Tacho Lake was reached in August, 1867, by Mr.Michael Byrnes, a miner, well known in Caribou. The object which tempted him to leave the gold fields of Caribou was more the hope of findng gold than the love of exploration. ... That evening a canoe arrived with the news that the enterprise was abandoned, and Mr. Byrnes might return, as the company would not require his services as explorer any longer, the success of the Atlantic Cable rendering the failure of this audacious but poorly executed enterprise no longer a matter of doubt. ... Mr. Byrnes returned, moody and silent, refusing to converse on the subject. It is said that he returned to the wilderness, still in search of gold!"
Return he did, and in 1869 he was chosen as leader of a group of miners, including Vital Lefort, sent to the Omineca region by residents of Quesnel to check out reports of gold findings there. Thus he became one of the vanguard of miners to the Omineca, and a lake along the path from Takla Landing to the Omineca River was named Byrnes Lake, a name it still retains and the only feature with the same spelling as he used for his name. This is the fourth feature to be named for him. Vital Lefort discovered gold on Vital Creek, which was named for him. From here Michael Byrnes disappeared into the history books until with the use of that new world wide web, the internet, his obituary was found, and as they say "the rest is history".
It is assumed that he spent the twenty years from 1870 until 1890 in the gold fields of the Omineca and Cariboo. By then, the days of the hand miner were drawing to a close, and hydraulicing was being used to mine the deeper gravels. In 1889 or 1890 he went to live with his old Cariboo friend, Alvin R.Thorp in Loomis, Washington on whose ranch he spent the last seventeen years of his life. On this ranch in the American portion of the Okanagan Valley, Al Thorp grew grapes, pears and apples as well as raising cattle. At long last an end to a miner's diet of beans, bacon and bannock! Michael Byrnes died there on December. 1906 at the age of 85, followed three days later by his friend Al Thorp. They are both buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Loomis.
As for others involved with Michael Byrnes in his many exploits, Vital Lefort, after running a ferry across the Nechaco River from 1906 until 1911, died by suicide in Victoria on December 31, 1911 at age 83 and is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery. A Victoria Parks Branch emploee who went out to check reported that there is no headstone on his grave.
Stephen Decker, after spending the rest of his life as a logger on Burrard Inlet's north shore, died on May 8th, 1911 in Vancouver General Hospital and is buried in a pauper's grave at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. No headstone marks his grave.
Eventually the village of Burns Lake would grow up near the telegraph station of the Yukon Telegraph built near the old Bill Richmond place. As the village is named for the lake, it is only indirectly named for Michael Byrnes, but still this makes it the fifth and last place named after him.
As these "Pioneers of British Columbia", Michael Byrnes, Stephen Decker, and Vital Lefort, were bachelors all and all penniless paupers when they died (there's probably a moral to this story), perhaps funding could be found to purchase headstones to mark their graves. I'm sure they would all appreciate it, even though they all died a hundred years ago.
Please feel free to contact the author Kerry Guenter at:
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