Hidden History at Pioneer Cemetery

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Have you ever wandered through Pioneer Cemetery and read the inscriptions on the stones? Many contain only the standard information, giving no hint about the long, full lives of their owners. But there are a few that make you want to get a little more of the story.

Take this one, for example: “In loving memory of Jennie May, beloved wife of Frederick K. Hurry, who fell asleep May 4, 1908, age 36 years.” What caused a young woman to pass away in her sleep? We may never know. But Fred Hurry never remarried, even though he was left with eight children to raise, the youngest of whom was only seven years old when his mother died. Jennie May seems to have been beloved, indeed.

Some inscriptions lead to stories of heroism, like Sergeant Searle. He drowned in the Goat River in pursuit of rum runners, and was the first RCMP officer in BC to die in the line of duty. A few point to family tragedies: Mothers and infants who died in childbirth. Andy and Margaret Miller who died less than a year apart, leaving five young children to be raised by their grandmother. And this one: “John Martin Ebbutt – Born August 14, 1897 – Drowned while bathing at high water, Kootenay Flats, June 19, 1914.”

Headstone of Sgt Searle, RCMP, at Pioneer Cemetery

Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is the headstone of Anna and Malcolm Boyd.  Following their names is the inscription, “Daughter Esther, her sister and two brothers, 1915-1920.”  The couple had been married less than two years when Esther was born, but she lived less than a year.  The three babies who followed died after only a few days. Infant mortality rates were high in those days, much higher than they are today, but that must have been very poor consolation for the parents.

Another one that catches the eye reads “Pte. A. Tanner – 1883-1947 – 251st Btn. – 1084081.” A military rank on a headstone often indicates someone who died in battle – but this gentleman died of a heart attack in his sixties, two years after World War II ended. The military rank refers to his service in the First World War, but his obituary gives no details at all about it. Alfred Tanner was a family man, survived by his wife and seven children, who had lived a full life. Why was his military service, thirty years earlier, the only aspect of his life to be recorded on his grave marker? 

It’s quite a contrast to this one: “A Prospector – Creston’s First Lawyer: G.A.M. Young, U.E.L.” George Alexander MacDonald Young graduated from Toronto’s Osgoode Hall with a law degree in 1895, arrived in Creston in 1899, and travelled to Nelson regularly for proceedings in the court house there. Arriving in Creston as early as he did, it is very likely that he was, indeed, Creston’s first lawyer. George’s detailed diaries show him discovering and working several mining claims in the mountains surrounding the Creston Valley. And the U.E.L. on his headstone? Those letters suggest that he may have been a descendent of a United Empire Loyalist, loyal to England, who settled in Canada after the American revolution. But none of the Archives’ records say anything about that. In fact, according to his obituary, George Young’s most notable accomplishments were playing on the Osgoode Hall rugby squad when they won the Dominion rugby championship in 1894; and coming to BC in the company of Walter C. Nichol, Lieutenant-Governor of BC 1920-1926, and Boer War and First World War hero Billy Marshall.

Another grave marker that hints at the career of its owner is that of Francis Henry Shepherd. His headstone declares that he was a Member of Parliament for Nanaimo from 1911 to 1917. He was that, and much more: professional engineer; superintendent of mining operations as far away as Australia and New Zealand; civil and railway engineer with the CPR; chief inspector of mines in BC; and, according to his 1938 obituary, “one of British Columbia’s outstanding and celebrated gentlemen.”

Who knows what other stories are hidden amongst the headstones at Pioneer Cemetery?

Originally published October 2009