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George Holmes: born a slave;
finds freedom as a North Cascades miner


(Ruby creek map)
Ruby creek map, upper Skagit, courtesy National Park Service

Mount Baker Almanac 1950
      George Holmes was a Negro and the only colored miner in the Skagit area. He came to Ruby creek in 1895 and built his cabin on the banks of Ruby creek about one half mile west of Panther creek. He was a mason by trade and respected by everyone, but was forced to drop the trowel for the pick through a quarrel with his union. In a single year he is reported to have cleared up $7,000 from the Original Discovery mine, which he leased from its owners, although he would not admit of so great good fortune. He was a great friend of John McMillan and when John died in 1922, Holmes read the burial service at John's grave on his Big Beaver homestead. Holmes left the valley in 1924 and no one knew how much of the gold, which he worked so hard to recover, went with him to the lowlands.

Last Frontier in the North Cascades
By Will D. "Bob" Jenkins
      Believed to have been the only Negro prospector ever known to the upper Skagit country, George Holmes was already a pioneer of the Ruby placers when I first met him in 1915.
      Few knew, in that region of the North Cascades lying a day's walk south of the Canada border, that Holmes, who came to these parts in 1894, was a native of Virginia, where he was born a slave in the year 1854. It was a fact of his life Holmes was not inclined to talk about and I doubt his origin was ever divulged to other than a few close acquaintances such as early day pioneers John McMillan, Tommy Rowland and the Davises at Cedar Bar.
      He was a remarkable man, recognized for his integrity and an unusual endowment of great physical strength. It was commonly said George Holmes could carry a one-hundred pound pack all day with amazing ease. He was a God-respecting Christian.
      Holmes was pretty much a loner. His solitary existence was rarely broken by contact with the outside, which he seemed to regard as an area of civilization to be avoided. His placer diggings included a homemade hydraulic monitor with a fair head of water that cut down the gravelly alluvial deposits near his cabin, and long-tom sluice boxes from which it was said he collected a meager but fairly consistent flow of fine Ruby creek gold.
      His trips to the outside, as infrequent as one- to three-year intervals, were generally for the purpose of disposing of his gold, which he once told me he sold to a particular manufacturing jeweler in Seattle. His buyer, he said, willingly paid a full sixteen dollars an ounce for Ruby's gold because it was exceedingly fine, ranking with the famed purity of the gold of Australia. On these trips outside, George would dispose of not only his gold, but also the winter-trapped pelts of marten and such other fur bearers as the upper country offered, including an occasional fisher and the gray Canada lynx.
      Holmes's little cabin stood against the steep slope of the mountain n the south bank of Ruby creek, at hollering distance from the north bank trail. It could be reached only by the use of a go-devil — a plain board, like the seat of a bos'n chair slung from a double set of pulleys that rode a light cable spanning the canyon. The swift waters of Ruby creek were generally unfordable here.
      The cabin, the monitor and the sluice boxes could be seen from the trail. But Holmes had few visitors. His go-devil was always on his side of Ruby when he was on his claim, or it was securely padlocked on the north bank if he was away. Holmes was quiet-spoken but affable and I never heard a foul word leave his tongue.

George opts for a new rifle
      Quite by chance, while brushing out the trail near Stetattle creek one hot summer day, I met George Holmes heading outside. It was a nice spot for some socializing, there in the shade of trees where the creek scrambled over the rocks in a noisy race to join the Skagit below Reflector Bar. George was carrying a shiny old '94 model Winchester carbine. He saw me looking at it. I suppose he was maybe reading my thoughts about why he was carrying a gun in closed eason, and right away he explained:
      ding was the reputable old thirty-thirty Winchester, the gun that had backed the black powder rifles off the market with its potent smokeless powder loads in 1895. Being somewhat of a gun crank myself, it was hard for me to accept George's low opinion of the 30-30 because I was well acquainted with its 170-grain bullet and the potency of its powder charge. Probably seeing disbelief in my eyes, Holmes went on to explain his decision to buy a bigger gun had been the result of a fearful encounter with a grizzly. . . .
      "You kill her?" I asked.
      "Sho' did, Bopbby, but it took 'leven shots from this ol' gun and that's why it's jes' too small." The grizzly, George believed, had probably drifted down from the Canadian Cariboo country. I quit defending George's carbine and he went down the Goat Trail and I went back to my work of brushing out.
      By coincidence, I was at Stetattle creek making a minor bridge deck repair the day Holmes returned. Said he'd been out to Seattle and down among First Avenue's second-hand stores [and] had found "a mo' suitable gun." It was another Winchester, but this one was a '95 model, caliber .405, with a hole in its muzzle you could almost bury your thumb in.
      "This heah gun," George proudly explained, "is the one Teddy Roos'velt used in Africa when he hunt elephants an' lions and black buffalo, an' it's goin' to be real bad fo' any grizzly ever come back to Ruby creek!" I never heard that Holmes ever had to put the .405 to a test. It was a cannon compared to the carbine.
      The black miner had some good looking galena [principal ore of lead] claims in addition to his Ruby placer. In 1919 the City of Seattle was giving thought to the idea of a railroad into the upper Skagit, in connection with plans for future hydroelectric development.
      Meeting Holmes on the trail one day I thought I was giving him some welcome news when I told of reading a newspaper account of the City's proposed railroad.
      "Sho 'nough don't want no railroad in head!" George was emphatic.
      "Well now look, George," I said, "a railroad up in here might make those galena claims of yours worth real money." I went on to envision shipments of his ore to the Tacoma smelter; a nicely financed retirement for a hard working pioneer prospector.
      "No, no now, Bobby! Don't want no railroad. Jes' plain don't wan no railroads!" I asked him why.
      "I'll tell you why," he said. "Don't you know wherever the railroad goes they's always that hobo element? We don't want no hobos on Ruby crick!" That's when I got an answer that convinced me Holmes preferred the solitude, the contentment of his lonely existence, to anything else the world had to offer.

George descends his mountains the last time
      In 1925, John McMillan's old roadhouse at the mouth of Ruby creek was being run by a man named A.B. Brown, and it was now called Ruby Inn [now under the water of Ross lake in 2004]. . The City of Seattle, contrary to the wishes of George Holmes, had already pushed its privately operated railroad from Rockport to Gorge creek, where the first of the City's three dams was built. Steel rails were aimed at the very heart of Old George's cherished wilderness. They would ultimately extend to Reflector Bar and the pioneer ranger stations site would become the power village of Diablo. He must have known, by then, that the City planned to build Diablo dam above the Bar, and the ultimate high Ross dam at the mouth of Ruby creek. Like the wilderness of the wild Skagit country, George Holmes's way of life was nearing an end.
      On a day in mid-July, Holmes, now seventy-one and suffering a fatal illness, came painfully into Brown's place. He was in no condition to walk farther and it was now apparent the old prospector could not survive without immediate medical aid. Over the long miles of the Forest Service telephone line between Ruby creek and Marblemount, word of Holmes's condition was conveyed to Ranger Tommy Thompson. Within hours the ranger and friends of the old miner were heading up the Skagit above Gorge creek and on July 18 Holmes began his last trip over the historic Goat Trail — on a stretcher of Jackpine poles carried by seven men.
      Through the deep gorge of the Rip Raps they passed that day, changing hands frequently and easing the suffering miner over precipitous ledges where a misstep could have been fatal; up and over footholds dug into the stony face of Pierce Mountain, down the western meadows of Deer park to the sheer cliffs of the old trail skirting Sourdough [mountain] to Stetattle ridge.
      At long last the weary stretcher bearers descended the broken talus of the ridge where the switchbacks leveled off at Reflector Bar; another mile brought them to Davis Ranch, and here Lucinda Davis ministered to the stricken miner and fed them all.
      Allowing themselves only brief rest, the rescue crew pressed on; Holmes by now was only semi-conscious as he was borne over the last stretch of the trail to Gorge Camp. At the end of end of eleven miles of carry, the difficult trek ended. Aboard a railroad car of the kind the dying miner had hoped he would never see in his cherished mountains, George Holmes was borne from his last sight of the wild Skagit. He was delivered late that day to a hospital in Mount Vernon; but by that time the miner's condition was beyond the point of possible recovery. On July 25, George Holmes, the patriarch of Ruby creek, was dead. His grave is in Mount Vernon cemetery.
      I had all but forgotten the identity of the men who made the long stretcher carry, other than Ranger Thompson and Guard Stilwell of the Forest Service. But deep in the brittle pages of Lucinda Davis's old register of guests at Cedar Bar, there are recorded the names of the seven who carried Holmes on his last strip over the trail on July 18, 1925. The list included Roy Olander, also of the Forest Service, Arthur Newby, Lewis La Fleur, Miles Garrett, who volunteered from the City Light crew, and Frank Davis of Cedar Bar. I mention them here in retrospection of an act of mercy long since entitled to a great acknowledgment that it ever received. The eleven-mile carry in an attempt to save the black miner's life was quite possibly the most difficult one of its kind in the history of the Upper Skagit.

      Will D. "Bob" Jenkins represented the fourth generation of newspapermen and writers in his family, dating back to his namesake great-grandfather who edited one of the first newspapers in Kansas territory before the Civil War. His fine book, quoted above, is one of the two best books published by the Skagit County Historical Society and is still for sale at their history museum in LaConner.

See a list of many more mining stories and profiles

Page update October 2018, moved from stumpranch to skagitriverjournal

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