Dan Wherle opens the door of his house on Spokane Ave. in Rossland and welcomes me in. Dressed in a long black morning jacket, matching trousers and a pencil-thin western double-string tie, he very much appears a man from the late 19th century.
Which is odd, as it’s 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in June 2018.
But Wherle loves his subject — history — and is going all out to reproduce his recent talk at the Rossland Museum for me.
“It’s about secret places and forgotten stories in Rossland,” he tells me. “I call it ‘Tales from the Ragged Edge’.
“In the 1890s, ‘the ragged edge’ mean something lost, abandoned or forgotten. That’s what this is about.”
Wherle is a geologist by trade, and has been poking around nooks and crannies of the Rossland area for 30 years. He’s dug up long-abandoned mine shafts, worked in offices that were converted saloons and bought himself a pioneer cabin to live in. He’s poured through historic documents, and come across facts about the town most Rosslanders are unaware of. Now he’s sharing his discoveries and speculations.
Wherle’s talk takes you on a whirlwind of discovery — from the very large: a train trestle buried under a hundred feet of mine tailings (now part of the road to Red Mountain) — to the very small: a hummingbird’s nest lined with spider silk. Some were very public, like the Controversy of 1897, a racist backlash against Chinese workers in Rossland at the time, to the personal: a century-old bottle of cannabis-laced snake oil medicine he dug up in his back yard.
He’s most proud of things he’s pieced together from his detective work, both on the ground in Rossland and through the Internet.
Which brings us to Rossland’s connection with the notorious Wild West lawman, Wyatt Earp.
“About half the men in Rossland in the 1890s were American, the other half were British,” he says. “They were almost all men here – very few women. So it’s natural they would be nostalgic for their old lives, old girlfriends back home.
“British miners named their claims after women, but used longer forms of their names, like Beatrice or Josephine,” he says. “Americans used shorter forms. Like Sadie, or Molly, or Josie.”
Wherle wondered who the “Josie” was who was named after the famous Rossland gold mine, at a time one of the largest in the world. And he thinks he’s got a good theory.
“Wyatt Earp was up in Coeur d’Alene just around this time, just over the border,” he says. “And he was married, to a woman who was about as famous as he was then, Josie Earp.”
Miners coming up the short distance to Rossland from Coeur d’Alene would probably have encountered Earp and his famous wife- a dance-hall girl, to put it politely. He thinks if a British miner had named the claim, it would have been the ‘Josephine’. So an American likely named the ‘Josie’, and she was the only famous Josie at the time, and probably known to the local men.
Circumstantial evidence, perhaps, but strong enough in Wherle’s mind.
And it makes a good tale.
And Rossland has the elements for many a good tale, he says. There were the old prospectors, many civil war veterans; remittance men from England, trying to make their own way in life; medicine-show snake-oil salesmen; dancing girls, Chinese coolie workers, rowdy bars, fantastic wealth and grinding poverty, all mixed up in pursuing the dream of a fabulous gold strike.
That frothing brew of 12,000 souls (at its peak, the biggest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco) didn’t last, many heading for the Klondike when news of that strike reached the outside world in 1897. It’s made the mining towns of the region- Rossland, New Denver, Silverton- much quieter places than 125 years ago. But the echoes of the past linger on, and there are many secrets yet to be discovered- and revealed.
Wherle says the reaction to his talk was so overwhelming, he’s starting work on a second lecture.
And the contents of that talk? Well, that’s a secret.