Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Five envelopes mailed in 1885 by a camp cook working near present-day Revelstoke as the Canadian Pacific Railway completed its cross-country line sold at auction this month for a combined total of nearly $7,000.
What made the envelopes so alluring to collectors — besides the letters inside, revealing one man’s longing to hear from his wife and children in Manitoba, his bread-baking plans, and his troubling stomach pain — was the rare postmarks they bore: End of Track.
The unusual name was given to a mobile post office that opened on Oct. 1, 1884, operating from a railcar, with Thomas A.W. Gordon as postmaster. It moved west with construction of the CPR main line.
Several photos exist of Sir Donald Smith driving the last spike on the CPR at Craigellachie, but this one has rarely been reproduced. City of Vancouver Archives CVA 256-01.17
The last spike was laid at Craigellachie on Nov. 7, 1885 and the End of Track post office was replaced with a new office named Farwell on Feb. 1, 1886, after the owner and surveyor of a new townsite on the Columbia River.
However, the CPR wasn’t interested in negotiating with Farwell and laid out its own townsite nearby, which it dubbed Revelstoke after one of its British financiers. At the company’s request, the post office was renamed Revelstoke on June 1, 1886.
Gordon ran the post office under all three names and remained postmaster until sometime in 1888, when he disappeared under questionable circumstances. That story and the story of how Gordon landed the job in the first place is detailed in a 2014 edition of the British Columbia Postal History Newsletter.
Previously, only eight End of Track postmarks were known to exist, as described by Tracy Cooper in a 2018 article for the British Columbia Postal History Newsletter.
The five envelopes, which a Calgary seller listed on eBay, were said to come “from an old collection.” George Mitchell sent them all to his wife Melissa in Oak Bank, Manitoba between July 31 and Sept. 17, 1885. Three included handwritten letters in purple ink.
Sold for $2,120
In his opening missive, datelined “Selkirk Mountains, BC,” Mitchell told his wife “I have got away up here in the wilderness at last. It took us seven days to come from first crossing [Donald].”
He described how he and three others walked the whole way, about 100 km. En route, a Mr. Heather who was pushing a mule-drawn wagon loaded with supplies was nearly killed along with his team. As they went down a hill, one mule went over a bank, dragging the rest behind him. Heather jumped to safety.
“He may thank the Lord for planting a big tree which held the wagon from upseting [sic],” Mitchell wrote. The mules were all right once untangled, and the wagon was only slightly damaged.
Mitchell went on to relate to his wife how he was recovering from stomach cramps. Some friends gave him the only medicine available — liquor — while another began to walk 3½ miles to find a doctor. But the doctor was away, “so he had his trip for nothing in the night in the wild woods.”
Mitchell assured his wife he was getting better, but taking a few days off to recover. In the meantime, he was planning to bake some bread to test his yeast.
Sold for $3,400
In the next surviving letter, from a few weeks later, Mitchell said he had nearly recovered from his illness but complained of loneliness, for he hadn’t received any letters from his family. However, a friend in the camp named Albert apparently heard from them and loaned them money. Mitchell fretted about their financial situation but had nothing to offer beyond sympathy, for he feared any money he might send would get stolen along the way.
In the third surviving letter, Mitchell is despondent because he still hasn’t heard from his family: “It is simply awful not to hear from you but I must grin and bear it … I would feel a great deal better if I knew how you were getting along.”
Mitchell further lamented that “every thing here is an awful price. Flour $8 per sack, beans 10 cents per pound, bacon 22, sugar 19, baking powder 60 and everything else as high as possible. It is to be hoped when the track is laid up this far that we will be able to get things a little cheaper … It is a pure fright now.”
Sold for $633
Mitchell said he was cooking for about 15 men on a sheet iron stove and although proud of his bread, he was feeling glum, for “the most predominant feature here is selfishness.” He expected to be home early in the fall. “There is no good chances here now to make money and nothing would keep me in the blooming place,” he wrote.
He signs off with a startling aside: “There was a man shot dead a short ways from here at a saloon the other day. They don’t think much of that up here.”
Possibly he was referring to an incident described in the Victoria Daily Times of July 27, 1885: “A report reached the city on Saturday that a miner known as Jeff Davis had been shot a few days ago in the Big Bend country.”
However, a few months later the Victoria Daily Colonist met Davis, who appeared very much alive: “Mr. Davis looks well after the numerous mishaps that have been credited as having happened to him. He was not aware of his being shot until he reached Farwell, when the first item he noticed in the paper was an account of his death. However he is still a very lively corpse ...”
The letters that were enclosed in the last two envelopes did not survive.
Sold for $588
Sold for $214
As for George Mitchell, we don’t know what became of him immediately afterward, but we do know he died in Calgary in 1904, age 55, and was long outlived by his wife, who died there in 1931, age 85 or 86. They had two children, Amy and Wellington. Amy’s daughter-in-law, Agnes Goodwin, only died in 2008, age 103.
The envelopes sold for $214, $588, $633, $2,120, and $3,400. The two highest-price items appear to have been purchased by the same bidder. Another envelope Mitchell sent to his wife from Canmore, Alta., postmarked July 9, 1885, sold for $628. The envelopes are sequentially numbered in pencil. The Canmore letter is No. 6 while the End of Track ones are Nos. 8, 10, 12, 13, and 14, so Mitchell presumably sent a few more that were not part of this collection.
The full transcriptions of the letters are below. I have added punctuation, paragraph breaks, and capitalization for clarity, as for the most part, George didn’t use any.
July 14th Selkirk Mountains, BC
I have got away up here in the wilderness at last. It took us seven days to come from First Crossing. It is a tremendous road. I don’t think I should call it a road at all. Nevertheless, we had to get over it as best we could. We had a wagon and a load of outfit for the camp. It costs seven times the price of the goods to draw them but he had the stuff and he thought we would take it with him. Some of it he could not get to buy up here. There was four of us altogether. Three of us walked all the way. He very near lost his life and his mules too.
He, Mr. Heather, was driver and going down a hill one of the hill one of the mule stoped [sic] a little to one side and away they goes over the bank and he on top of the load. Well the men in the mountain [?] could not save them when once they got started. It was so quick he jumped over the mules and came out safe. He may thank the Lord for planting a big tree which held the wagon from upseting [sic].
The poor mules got badly pulled [?] up. We had to cut their harness several places to let them up. The poor things could not tell us how they felt. They came out very safe from being cut but they must have been bruised very bad. However they took our load up all right. Nothing broken but the wagon tongue.
Well I go on with something that will concern you more about myself. The last night on the road I took such a pain in my stomach that I did not know what to do. I was clean willed with it. The boys done all they could for me. The only thing we had was liquor [?]. They made a fire and gave me lots of that. One started back 3½ miles for the doctor who we seen in the evening but he was away so he had his trip for nothing in the night in this wild woods.
They put hot clothes to my stomach for about two hours. I think only for that I could not stand it much longer. I have not got over it yet but I am getting better slowly. I won’t go to work until I feel able to. They have got a fellow to cook for a few days until I get round again. Now I don’t want you to think that I am still sick when you get this letter.
I hope to be well long ere that but you remember you told me to write and tell you if I was sick. I am not sick this time but very weak. I got a bottle of stuff from the [illegible] for my stomach and I am taking plenty of pills. I have got set my first yeast to rise. I am longing for it to get up to see how it will do. I am going to set bread tonight.
I got some knives and forks on my way up here at some old camps and a shirt or two, one pair pants and drawers that are good. I could have a lot of clothes if I could have carried them. the old camps are strewen [sic] with clothes, some of them very good ones.
I got a [illeigible] mill on the trip too and a lot of little things too numerous to mention. I can’t think of any more news at present. Hoping you are all well, I remain your loving husband, George Mitchell
Selkirk Mts BC, Aug. 9th 85
Dear wife and children,
I am going [to] write you another few lines altho it is very lonesome not to get any letter from you. I don’t know where they are. I may get a lot of them some day and no dout [sic] I will not be able to answer them all at once. It is hard for me to write. I have so little time and if I got your letters I would know better what to write. You may be wanting some particular news that I can’t think anything of just when I am writing.
I saw Albert since I wrote last time. He was up here. He went as far as the crossing selling views. He got along well. Sold all he had, about $170 worth. He started back last Thursday. He told me he had a letter from you and that you were getting along pretty well only you were hard up for some money which I knew you would be.
He told me he had sent you $10 and that he would try and send you some more when he went back. He is pushed for money himself. He sent Sid $40 and thought he would have to send him more on account of the company not passing any more men up here. Bennett was pushing him for a big [?] but notwithstanding all that I done my best to induce him to send you some more when he went back.
I told him how things were with me, that I could not get any just now and that you would be terriably [sic] disappointed if you did not get it. God knows I fell [sic] sorry for you but that does not help you out of your troubles. He intends to be up here in about three weeks time and I told him I would try and get him some money their [sic].
If he would send you what you wanted he said he would try. I told him if I had it I would not care to send it from here as there is no safe way of doing it and I know you will not blame me. It is so hard to earn it and we have nothing to lose. I hope something will tempt him to do what we both want him to this time.
I have not time to write to Amy and Wellington but I hope that they will be good to ma, and try and look after the things for her all they can, and be good to that little colt. I almost forgot about it. I hope you made a good bargain and that you will have good luck with. I suppose I will be in for getting a mate for it. I hope I will be able to.
I have written to you every week and intend keep at. Suppose I don’t get any letters it is enough for one of us to [be] disappointed. I hope you get all my letters.
It is a terrible country for white people to live in. They should not be here at all. Your neighbours has been using you pretty rough by rather pity them for not knowing better if they deserve it, pity. I am awful glad to have a wife that get along if she has half a chance. You will have to do as you think best and it will please me. Have your breaking [?] plowed if you can get it done this land [?] to suit you.
Although I don’t get your letter I feel satisfied that get along to the best advantage you may adress [sic] my letters in an anvelope [sic] to Albert with my own name inside and he will forward them to me, suppose they are small. I will be glad to get any. I can generally let him know where to send them too [sic] altho I could not tell you now. I have had you send them so many places and have not got any of them. He will be up and down the line and he can bring them to me himself.
I feel nearly all together well again. I am in hopes that you get some of my [letters] so you will know what was wrong with me as I told you in two of them that I had a very bad time of it comming [sic] up here. I took cramps in my stomach. I can’t tell you how I was untill [sic] I go home. They left me very weak for a time but don’t be uneasy about me. I feel first rate now. Able to cook for 18 men and I have only got a tin cooking stove to do it on. I get great praise for my baking at home and abroad it is beginning to spread. I am making yeasty today, instead of going to Sunday school. It is rising splendid. It wants to climb out of the dish. I can’t think of much more news. I
Our work here will last about five weeks. We have gone some Finlanders working. They can’t talk English, only one or two of them. I don’t know where they are from. I guess Amy will be able to tell me when I come home. I must go and feed them. Excuse my scribbling. I wish I could get a letter from home. Good bye from your loving husband
West Slope Selkirks August 23, 1885
Dear wife and children,
I am going to write to you again. I hardly know what about, only I can tell you that I have not had any letters from you yet it is simply awful not to hear from you what [?] but I must grin and bear it. I hope you get at least some of mine. I hope you are all well and getting along far better than I expect.
Keep up a correspondence with Albert and I will hear from you occasionally that way. I expect he will be here some of these days, I suppose Sid and Sophia are up before this. Our job here will be done in about three weeks. I don’t know what we will go at next but it does not pay to be idle up here and pay for board.
Every thing here is an awful price, four $8 per sack, beans 10 cents per pound, bacon 22, sugar 19, baking powder 60 and everything else as high as possible. It is to be hoped when the track is laid up this far that we will be able to get things a little cheaper. I forgot about potatoes they are 8 and 9 cents per pound. Those things I mention by the pound are just the same to take a quantity. The last beef we got was 22 cents and butter 50. It is a pure fright now.
I hope you are all well which is the only thing which troubles me very much at present. I would feel a great deal better if I knew how you were getting along. There is other things bothering me too you know but then they are not unbearable at present. I think I will be home early this fall. There is no good chances here now to make money and nothing would keep me in the blooming place if they will pass me out free.
I will try and save all I can while I am here. I have picked up old clothes enough to do me so that I won’t have to buy any. I am pretty well now and pretty busy on an avrige [?] I have about 15 men to cook for and nothing but a sheet iron stove to cook on. I surprise the natives with my bread. It’s so good.
Oh I will have a lot of news to tell you when I get home. What people has to go through here would kill a mule in civilization. The most predominant feature here is selfishness. I know there is a good deal of that all over. I have no news that I can think of. I arranged with Albert to send you some money now and then and I would pay him when I got mine. I would be satisfied if [I] knew he would do it. It bothers me to know how you make out. If I knew you were getting along pretty well I would feel better. I would not risk to send 50 cents from here I am so disgusted with the mail and you won’t wonder at it. There was a man shot dead a short ways from here at a saloon the other day. They don’t think much of that up here.
Good bye for the present from your loving husband, Geo. Mitchell
I hope you got my last letter. I expect Albert up some of these days with a letter or something for me. Send my letters to him so that I may get an old one now and then. this is bad scribbling but you will know who done it and of course it will be all right.
he feels bad about not getting your letter so does somebody else