Column: As it Happened

The sad tale of Nellie Lake

 

Ron Shearer

 

Why did people come to Rossland during the boom years?  Mining and business were the great attractors, but Nellie Lake’s story shows there were also more human reasons  —  some with happy results, some not.

In April, 1902, Nellie Lake, a 39-year-old woman stepped off a train in Rossland, looking for her fiancé.  He was not at the station.  Enquiries at the post office revealed that Wilfred Graham was not known to them.  He received letters regularly, but they were retrieved by his close friend Walter Collins.  Where was Graham?  Who was Collins?

Nellie Lake was raised in luxury in Truro, Cornwall, England, the daughter of a wealthy miller and flour merchant.  She had never married, but one day when she was well beyond customary marriage age she received a letter from an unknown admirer, Wilfred Graham.  He did not want to visit her house or meet her father, so liaisons were arranged in a remote corner of a local park.  Affection led to a proposal of marriage, but first he was going to the fabled mine fields of Rossland to make his fortune.  When settled, he would send for her.  In September, 1899, he departed and they continued their romance by long-distance correspondence.

Then her comfortable world imploded.  Her father’s business collapsed, leaving her elderly parents with little to live on let alone support Nellie.  She had developed no marketable skills during her comfortable life in Truro, but, in desperation, she accepted a position as a domestic servant in London, a job for which she was wholly unsuited.  Rather than continue a life of drudgery she accepted Graham’s proposal, but a letter from a stranger informing her that Graham had been killed in a shooting accident threw her into deep despair.  Desolate, she wrote to the Rossland Miner requesting further information about the incident.  Graham saw the request for information and, remorseful, wrote to her saying the story was a hoax, perpetrated by a mischievous ex-friend.  She should ignore it and join him in Rossland.

Nellie’s family scraped together enough money for a one-way ticket to Rossland, but very little more.  She was almost penniless when she arrived.  Referred by postal workers to a local grocery store frequented by Graham’s friend Collins, she discovered that no one knew Graham and that Collins was working in a mine at Greenwood.  The grocers were kind to her, let her stay in a vacant cottage and helped her contact Collins by telephone.  Of course, Collins was the man she knew as Graham.  He agreed to return to Rossland to meet with her.

The police then took an interest in the case.  They searched for Collins and in the middle of the night found him  —  in Nellie’s bedroom, begging for forgiveness.  He was charged with forgery.  At the preliminary hearing before the police magistrate it was revealed that Collins was a married man with six children who worked as an ill-paid grocery clerk in Truro, which is why he did not want to meet her flour-merchant father, who would have recognized him.  He had written the infamous announcement of his death himself.  When she was rich, she offered a happy escape from his penury, in Rossland, far from his family.  When she was poor, she was not such an attractive catch.  However, in Rossland, he found religion, at times serving as substitute preacher in the Baptist church.  Perhaps his remorse was genuine.

Collins was bound over for trial.  The County Court judge was skeptical about the prosecution and allowed bail of $500 on Collins’ personal surety.  When released, he returned to Greenwood and then disappeared, presumably to Spokane, forfeiting the uncollectable bond.

To support herself, Nellie took positions as a domestic servant.  Domestics were in short supply in Rossland, but Nellie was unable to keep any position, perhaps because she was addicted to laudanum (opium in an alcohol solution).  Eventually she went to Spokane “for medical treatment” and did not return.

That is the sad story of Nellie Lake.  But was it really so sad?  Perhaps because of the circumstances under which Collins was apprehended, the rumour spread that Nellie did not go to Spokane for medical attention, but to join the ever-persuasive Collins, who was also addicted to the opiate.  Indeed, the Miner alleged that “this was the mutual ground upon which they first met,” an allegation that is impossible to verify.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any trace of either Collins or Lake after her departure for Spokane.  Did they go their own ways?  Did they change their names and settle down to a new life together?  Was Nellie’s story of lies and deceit simply a shaggy dog tale, designed to cover up an affair with a married man?  Was there a happy ending? Or, did the whole affair end in tragedy?

 

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