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Payne Mountain: the original strike of 1891

Like so many aspects of Sandon’s history, conflicting tales and mysteries have grown up around the first discovery of the vast wealth hidden high in the Slocan mountains. Stories have been told of double-crossing and deceit, but as with most legends, this one has a simple beginning, and certain facts are a matter of record. I n t h e s u m m e r o f 1891 two prospectors, a French-Canadian former tightrope-walker named Eli Carpenter, and an Irishman from Tennessee named J.L. “Jack” Seaton, arrived on foot in the remote wilderness of the Slocan. They were pursuing tales of rich deposits of galena (silver-lead) ore, which Carpenter had heard was used by native guides and hunters. A f t e r m o n t h s o f unsuccessful searching the two men struggled to the top of Payne Mountain, to the north of present-day Sandon. It was there, on September 9, 1891, that Carpenter and Seaton finally discovered what they had sought all summer: the unmistakable sparkle of galena ore. Taking a sample to be tested at the assay office, the two men staked their claim, 1,500 by 600 feet, and headed back to Hot Springs Camp (presentday Ainsworth). At this point, legend begins to overshadow known fact. The story is often told that Carpenter, in an attempt to double-cross his partner, had two samples tested: one from the Payne claim, which assayed 170 ounces of silver Payne Mountain: the original strike of 1891 per ton, and another from a lower-grade claim which assayed at only 20 ounces. When Carpenter told him that their Payne claim had assayed at only 20 ounces of silver, Seaton lost interest in the claim. Carpenter then entered into a secret agreement with a new partner, E.A. Bielenberg of Nelson, to return to Payne Mountain and stake additional claims. However, in discussing these plans, the two were overheard by innkeeper Charles Olson, who promptly informed Seaton of Carpenter’s deceit. At this point, Seaton entered into a new partnership with Jack McQuigan, Frank Flint, and William and J.G. Hennessey. Then, in an effort to escape detection, Carpenter and Bielenberg stole back to Payne Mountain by the more indirect route of Nelson and Slocan Lake, while an outraged Seaton and his four new partners took the more direct route via the Kaslo River. Arriving first, Seaton’s group staked the “Noble Five” group of 21 claims on Payne and Reco Mountains, effectively outflanking the treacherous Carpenter — or so the legend is told. However, it is known that shortly after Carpenter and Seaton arrived in Ainsworth, they had the sample assayed. It was a number of days later, on September 22, 1891, that they jointly recorded their Payne Claim “near the headwaters of Slocan Creek, about 25 miles west of Kootenay Lake.” If Carpenter had truly deceived his partner, why would Seaton co-register a claim that he believed to be relatively worthless? It is also hard to believe that such incredible assay results would remain secret, particularly in a small mining camp such as Ainsworth. Indeed, there is evidence they did not. It is a fact that Carpenter and Seaton returned to Payne Mountain by different routes, and that their departures from town caused such a rush of prospectors into the remote wilderness that Ainsworth was left virtually deserted for days. It is also true that within three days of Carpenter and Seaton registering their Payne Claim in Ainsworth, the other members of the “Noble Five” group — McQuigan, Flint and the Hennesseys — and even the innkeeper, Charles Olson, had all staked claims on Payne Mountain. However, Seaton did not. It was not until a series of three claims were staked the next day that Seaton’s name first appears in connection with McQuigan, Flint and the Hennesseys. It seems very strange that this “Noble Five” group somehow located Payne Mountain and staked numerous claims on it one full day before Seaton. Indeed, Seaton’s first claim after the original Payne Claim was in partnership with two other prospectors, neither of whom was part of the “Noble Five” group. We will likely never know the whole truth behind the story, but the impact of Carpenter and Seaton’s discovery is well known. Hundreds of prospectors flooded into the district, and before year’s end over 191 claims had been staked. One of these was the famous Slocan Star (later Silversmith) mine, discovered by Bruce White, Charles Chambers and John Sandon. Over the next century, billions of dollars worth of silver, lead and zinc were removed from the mountains around Sandon, including over a million ounces a year of silver-lead from the Payne Mine alone. Ironically, however, none of the original prospectors were greatly enriched by their fantastic discoveries, having sold their shares to mining companies from Spokane for a fraction of their real worth. In later years, Eli Carpenter ran a pack train between the mines and New Denver, and built a hotel at Three Forks. On May 24, 1897, he astonished the entire Slocan district when, in order to win a bar bet, he walked blindfolded across a tightrope strung across Slocan City’s main street— then doubled his winnings by stopping to cook bacon and eggs on a stove halfway across! By September of that year, Carpenter had departed for the goldfields of the Klondike, where he reportedly died a year later. Like Carpenter and the others, easy money proved too tempting for Jack Seaton, who also sold his share in the Payne and Reco Mountain properties for a pittance. In 1893, Seaton returned to Tennessee with the body of his younger brother, who had died within two months of reaching BC. A sick man himself by then, Seaton remained in the United States, where he became bedridden and died within the year.

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Thank-you to everyone who came out to participate in the 2021 Sandon Historical Society AGM. We have made one change to our board members. President: Dan Nicholson Vice-President: Riley Palmer Secreta