The tragic tale of two Summerland men who perished on Christmas Day 1908

Horseback was the main method of transportation at the time three men (not the ones in this photograph- 1911) ran into stormy weather on Christmas Day in 1908, two of them died. (Photo courtesy of Penticton Museum and Archives)
Penticton local historian Randy Manuel with a provincial map that has the original name of a mountain between Summerland and Penticton near where two men perished in 1908. (Mark Brett - Western News)
Transportation in the early 1900s in the Okanagan was largely on horseback. (Photo courtesy Penticton Museum and Archives)
Valentine (Val) Haynes of Osoyoos discovered the first of two black men who died on their return horseback trip from Penticton to Summerland in 1908. (Photo courtesy of the Osoyoos Museum)

[Editor’s note: Original language and quotes from 1909, including the original name of Nkwala Mountain, have been included in this series for historical accuracy.]

“A CHRISTMAS TRAGEDY – Two Negroes Perish on Summerland Road.”

That was the headline on the front page of the Jan. 2, 1909 edition of the Penticton Press newspaper.

Now, more than a century later, the events of the men’s deaths and even the whereabouts of their remains are still somewhat of a mystery.

The deceased, Charles Blair and Arthur Chapman, and a third man, Arthur Wilson, were returning on horseback from Penticton to Summerland on that cold, blustery Christmas Day.

The three worked in the restaurant of the waterfront Summerland Hotel and had decided to make the trip to Penticton Christmas morning. They left Summerland at about 7 a.m., completing the 15-mile trip in just over an hour.

To cover this distance in so short a time means that they must have galloped the whole way,” reads the Press story about the deaths.

After checking their horses in at the downtown Dignan & Weeks stable, the trio went to the B.C. Hotel for a few drinks and then to Hotel Penticton where they had one more, according to witnesses at the subsequent inquest.

They were reportedly seen around noon back at the first hotel where they had another drink before purchasing two, half-pint flasks of spirits and leaving for Summerland.

“For some reason or another the horses got away from them or they got off to walk to keep warm. They were wearing cotton clothes and were freezing and soaked to the skin,” said Randy Manuel, a member of the Penticton branch of the Okanagan Historical Society who has been researching the story for a number of years.

“One of them then stops and the other two proceed further and then the other fellow drops behind.”

The Press story reads: “Nothing more was heard of them until the next day when Val. C. Haynes, stock manager for the Southern Okanagan Land Co., reported finding the dead body of a negro in a gulch off the Summerland Road.

At that point Provincial Const. Tooth became involved and went to get the body, which was Chapman. When he learned a second person was also missing, Tooth organized a search party that eventually found Blair’s lifeless body.

Dr. R.B. White, the coroner at the time, conducted an inquest on the body of Chapman after the six-man jury viewed the body at “Steward’s undertaking rooms.”

The jury heard evidence as to the men’s alcohol intake and then the lone survivor, Wilson, gave his testimony, to the best of his memory.

He recalled losing contact with his companions, eventually falling asleep under in a dry spot under a pine tree several miles from home.

He got back to Summerland the next day at about 1 p.m.

The next witness was Dr. McGregor who performed an autopsy, saying there were no signs the deceased had “imbibed a large quantity of alcohol.”

Druggist Henry Main also testified that the three stopped at his store about 11 a.m. and purchased a perfume atomizer and a “lady’s work case” and that they were sober.

The jury eventually ruled the cause of death to be exposure and exhaustion.

The pair were buried over the following days, the services conducted by Rev. Hibbert and Rev. Father Verbeke respectively.

According to Manuel, this is where the plot thickens.

“Now when these two guys died the town had just been incorporated, literally days before,” he said. “So when the burial comes the municipality doesn’t have a cemetery or any place to bury someone.

“The Anglicans, who had the cemetery on Fairview Road, wouldn’t take them.

“I don’t know why but I suspect one (of the deceased) was Catholic and potentially because they were black or that they just weren’t Anglican.”

The only other cemetery was on the Penticton Indian Reserve where they were also apparently not welcome.

Manuel did find one report saying the two were buried on empty municipal land on Roy Avenue on the south side of Pines Mobile Home Park (formerly the Pines Drive-In Theatre) on Okanagan Avenue.

“It’s possible they’re buried somewhere along that fence line and they may not be deep because it’s all boulders and they’re blacks and it’s cold and the ground is frozen,” he said.

READ MORE: White campaign a dark spot on Penticton history

Manuel also learned they may have been buried somewhere on Lot 150 where a small industrial plaza has since been built.

He believes there are a couple scenarios in play.

“They (construction crews) were working, digging up the ground and a skull pops out but you don’t recognize it as a skull because it’s round and it’s the same colour as the boulders or, are they underneath the building?

“And what happens to our survivor Wilson? Does he go back to Summerland or does he go back to where they were from originally to tell the relatives of the other two what happened? We may never know, it’s all just supposition.”

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