Jim Nicol - Pioneer of Upper Lake Chelan
Born and raised near Frankfort, Kentucky, Jim Nicol, with his hometown friend Lee Church, migrated west arriving at Chelan, Washington in October 1893. In their late thirties, both men had worked a variety of jobs in the south between Kentucky and Texas, acquiring skills that would come in handy in the Pacific Northwest. Jim was also a trained machinist.
|Jim Nicol with Dan the cat|
In Chelan, the small town at the foot of the fifty-five mile lake of the same name, they were about to embark on a new venture in a new land, trapping, hunting and prospecting. After the four and a half hour ride from Chelan on the steamer Dragon, they set up camp at 25 Mile Creek. (This was before the road was built to 25 Mile Creek,) and immediately started fishing.
As a child, I first heard about Jim Nicol from my mother, June Courtney Barnhart. My grandmother, Mamie Moore Courtney shared stories of growing up at Moore Point in the 1890s where Nicol worked for her parents, Mary and J.R. Moore. Mamie never spoke well of Nicol because of the pain and sorrow of being caught in the middle of an affair between Jim and her mother Mary. Turns out, as I was doing research for my book, At Home in The Woods – A Stehekin Family History, I found Jim to be a well-liked, hard-working man who, much like the rest of us in the upper Lake Chelan area had fallen in love with a place and chose to call it home.
Jim Nicol and Lee Church arrived with new traps and rifles from Montgomery Ward and a plan to live off the land while selling furs and hides, on occasion trading with the local Indians for other essential items like a deer hide for a pair of moccasins. They purchased a small skiff, located at Railroad Creek, on the upper end of the lake and had it shipped down on the Dragon the day after their arrival. Lee would often hunt across the lake while Jim set up trap line lines, fished and hunted up 25 Mile Creek, at times climbing to the “top of the mountain” looking for deer and goat. Grouse were plentiful and along with fish, biscuits and beans, made up the bulk of their diet.
Jim was a resourceful and talented entrepreneur in many fields including photography. Over the years he shot hundreds, if not thousands of images in the Lake Chelan area. Diary entries speak often of developing and making prints in the evenings after work to be sold locally and afar. One photograph, from February 18, 1895 illustrates Andy Crumrine pushing their handmade ore cart out of a tunnel in one of the claims above Meadow Creek. Sadly, years later, between vandalism and a fire in his cabin most of the plates and negatives were destroyed. Only a handful remain.
Shortly after their arrival at 25 Mile Creek, they struck a deal with the owner of a vacant house nearby to use the structure for the winter. The house, about a mile east of their camp provided a good base for hunting and trapping expeditions up and down the lake. On days when the weather kept them from hunting, time was spent washing clothes by hand, cooking, developing glass plates and film, writing letters, cutting wood, cleaning and stretching hides, molding bullets, and cleaning shell casings. Apparently fixing the sights on the rifles was needed also, as Jim mentioned shooting 21 times at a grouse before hitting it! Many other diary entries make reference to shooting and missing the target, so often that Jim wrote to Montgomery Ward asking if other customers had problems with the rifles.
About the middle of December they put together a camp and supplies, “a lot of beans, biscuits and coffee” and boarded the Dragon for a hunting trip up lake. As was common in those days, the boats, under powered and with low freeboard, couldn’t handle a lot of wind and had to tie up ashore. Such was the case on this, their first trip. They pulled in to Wolverine Harbor for the night, about 45 miles up from Chelan. Continuing on the next morning they found what looked like a good hunting area and set up camp. Turns out the hunt wasn’t very successful due to bad weather and missed shots, but on the boat trip back to 25 Mile Creek they met Frank Wilkeson, a well-known mining engineer, who owned the store at Bridge Creek in the upper Stehekin Valley. This meeting aroused their interests about prospecting and mining in the upper reaches of Lake Chelan.
Excursions uplake became more frequent for Jim and Lee, sometimes rowing their skiff to Lucerne allowing them to have greater access to hunting and prospecting sites on both sides of the lake. With the post office at the Moore Hotel, and meals available at Moore’s and across the lake at the Lucerne House, that part of the lake, forty miles from Chelan, became their home. Soon, they had several trap lines out and even rented extra traps to others in the area. Jim’s many skills in carpentry, mining, and, woodsmanship kept him busy working for others in the area as well as his own projects. The Moores hired him on a regular basis working around the hotel and doing assessment work on some of their claims. He ordered a portable forge, dynamite, and other mining tools from Montgomery Ward and before long was involved in several other claims along the lake, sometimes trading work in exchange for the deeds to claims. Many long days were spent drilling and shooting tunnels, dressing (sharpening with forge and hammer) drill steel and bars, making charcoal for the forge, building wheelbarrows and ore carts and even track for the cart out of poles. On top of all that, once they got back into the mountain and found the vein of ore, they filled bags of the mineral, packing them down to the steamer landing to ship to the assay office in Spokane.
Tragically, on October 1, 1894, almost a year after their arrival, Lee drowned near Canoe Creek as a large swell upset the boat while he was taking down the sail, throwing him in the lake. His body was never found after several days of searching. Diary entries clearly indicate how saddened Jim was. One entry from October 19 mentions the arrival of Ned Church, Lee’s brother. “Ned Church came up on the steamer Stehekin. I was extremely glad to see him. It was a great relief to me to talk to him about Lee.”
|Rex Creek cabin with Lake Chelan in background|
Months following Lee’s death, Andy Crumrine, who had a cabin near Railroad Creek started working with Jim on the claims. Andy used a couple of horses to haul supplies to his own claims up Railroad Creek, so occasionally they sent them across the lake on the Dragon to pack gear into claims further up the mountain.
Jim took out a homestead at Rex Creek and continued to work many years around the Moore Point area, fixing the waterwheel, mending shoes, catching trout for the evening meals at the hotel, varnishing fly rods and a host of other chores necessary to keep things working for the guests. One diary entry mentions catching forty one trout and picking ten gallons of strawberries! In his late seventies age was beginning to wear him down and he eventually moved to Lakeside where, after a stroke, was confined to bed for 4 years. He passed away in a Spokane Hospital in September 1939.