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Mysteries of Comaplix

The ghost town of Comaplix on the northeast arm of Upper Arrow Lake was and is a fascinating place for lots of reasons.


Start with its unusual name, which is a pretty close approximation of the Sinixt village in the area, nk’mapeleks, meaning “head of lake.” The Incomappleux River also takes its name from this village, although its spelling looks French.


Comaplix was a sawmilling town from 1897 until a suspicious fire laid waste to it in 1915. Of note, the Bowman Lumber Co. employed many Japanese Canadians and South Asians and, for one summer, Doukhobors as well. Here are some of them on the 1911 census.

This diverse workforce was not uncommon for the Arrow Lakes but unusual for the rest of West Kootenay. By contrast, in 1905 the arrival of Asian labour in Salmo sparked a near-riot among white folks that required the intervention of the provincial police to quell.

This postcard of a woman standing on the hillside overlooking Comaplix recently sold on eBay for $55. Presuming that the woman pictured is also the writer of the message, her name was Lizzie Reid. The card was mailed in 1912 from Comaplix to Miss Frances Latham of Kaslo.

The message, verbatim, reads:

Well Dearie
Hows the little girl and hows all those nice little Chickens of yours. Will you be glad when school closes. Now little Frances just sit down and write me a little letter.
With love to you all
I remain
Your swell friend
Lizzie Reid, Comaplix, BC
The place marked is where I work.

No Reids were listed in Comaplix on the 1911 census, but there were two Elizabeth Reids elsewhere in the Kootenays, one in Fernie and one in Nelson. Nothing suggests either was our postcard-writer. There was also a Lizzie Reid from Fauquier, but she was born in 1905 so would only have been seven at the time, whereas the handwriting looks like an adult’s.


The recipient, however, was an eight-year-old girl whose parents had recently become co-proprietors of the King George Hotel (which burned down in 1953, and is now where the SS Moyie is parked).


In the photo, the mountains in the background are washed out, but the Arrow Lakes Historical Society has a similar view in which you can see them.


To the right of Lizzie is the Queens Hotel, run by Chief Young, with the sawmill peeking out overtop. I don’t know what the building is where Lizzie indicated she worked, but we can see a view of it in the opposite direction in another Arrow Lakes Historical Society photo.

While it had long since been abandoned, part of the Comaplix townsite was drowned when the Hugh Keenleyside Dam was built. However, its cemetery, one of the most remote in West Kootenay, was above the high water mark. I’ve written a history of it and did a blog post a while back providing an update on the tragic death of a pair of siblings who died of scarlet fever, and whose wooden markers survive, bearing poignant epitaphs in French.


Another unmarked but extremely noteworthy grave is that of Fanny Sinclair, or St. Clair, who ran a brothel on the outskirts of Comaplix.


Last month at the BC Archives, I listened to an interview with Eugene Leveque, who spent part of his youth in Comaplix. (His grandson Milton Parent was, with wife Rosemarie, a longtime driving force behind the aforementioned historical society.) Of Fanny, he recalled:

There was one house down by the wharf. Old Fan is all I ever knew her by and I don’t think she was old. To us kids she was. We used to go down and sell her flowers. We’d pick wild roses and she was always good for 50 cents for a bouquet of wild roses so we could always get money …
Fan was killed. Old Fanny was killed and nobody knows how. They never did find out who did it but she used to come up to Chief Young, who ran the Queens Hotel quite regularly for liquor. That’s where she bought her liquor. She hadn’t been up there for a couple of weeks. It was in the wintertime. Old Chief said to a couple of fellows who had a trapline just a little ways past there toward Arrowhead to drop in and see if Old Fan was sick. She hadn’t been up for a couple of weeks and that was unusual.
The two fellows knocked at the door. The trail went right by her place. They knocked at the front door and no one answered. They went around the back door and nobody answered. So they looked in the kitchen window. Here she was lying on the floor, blood all over the place. Apparently there had been quite a fight because there’s blood scattered from one end of the house to the other. But they never did find out, as far as I know, who did it or what the reason was or anything else. She was buried up there in the graveyard and that was the end of that. Nobody took her place.

In 2005, I looked up the BC Provincial Police report on her murder at the BC Archives, which revealed local steamboat captain Selby Soules was the prime suspect. He and Fanny were “paramours” and lived together until about a year and a half before her death in late November or early December 1910. He owned her house. He left the area around the time of her death, which drew suspicion, but returned a few months later. Although there is no paper trail on it, Soules was apparently questioned by police, but never charged.

Police also identified a second suspect, Pete Cameron, although they didn’t explain why they thought he might have been involved. Locals felt a man named Red Eye Rennie might have been an accomplice.


The police report revealed one other important detail: Fanny’s real name was Elizabeth Howard Crandall. However, there was no explanation how they determined that. (Police reports from that era often leave a lot to be desired.)


My efforts to learn more about who she was and where she came from came to naught. For some reason, no death registration was ever filed. Online genealogy sites turned up nothing.


But we do have a few signs of her before she arrived in Comaplix. Revelstoke’s Kootenay Star of Sept. 26, 1891 listed “Miss Fannie St. Clair” of Nelson as staying at the Columbia Hotel.

I can’t find her on the 1891 census, but she reappears on the 1901 census, somewhere in the Slocan, probably Silverton. Her birthdate is given as April 2, 1860 and her birthplace as somewhere in the U.S. It’s indicated that she came to Canada in 1889 and was of Scottish descent.

Her profession was listed as dressmaker, which was apparently a euphemism on that census for what we we now call sex trade workers. Two other single women were staying in the same place: Mattie Jones, 38, another so-called dressmaker, and the curiously-named Alamo Ganroot, 36, who said she was running a boarding house.

Listening further to the Leveque interview revealed something unexpected: one of his teachers was a Miss Crandall. What’s more, a Google search reveals she was Elizabeth Hope Crandall, and only taught in Comaplix in 1910-11. What are the odds of two women named Elizabeth H. Crandall being in a tiny, remote town right at the time that one was murdered?


There were several possibilities:


• Perhaps it really just was a coincidence.


• Perhaps they were the same person. But I quickly ruled that out. There is lots online about Elizabeth Hope Crandall. She was born in Maine in 1884 to Alexander Fownes and Mary Bradshaw Crandall and shows up with her family on the 1901 census in Carleton, New Brunswick.


I’m not sure when she came west, but she attended the BC teachers convention in Nelson in March 1910, where she was listed as “Miss Hope Crandall” of Camborne, another ghost town up the Incomappleux River. It appears she may have had a temporary teaching certificate at the time. She received her third-class certificate that summer.

She married Earl Harold Gaunce in Calgary in 1912. They appear on the 1921 census living in Magrath, Alberta with sons Ronald and Lionel. Lionel was killed at sea in 1941. Earl died in Vancouver in 1959, Hope died in Montreal in 1977, age 93, and Ronald died in 2002.


• Perhaps the police made a mistake in identifying Fanny and somehow mixed her up with the local schoolteacher, garbling the middle name to boot. This might be, but Fanny’s coroner’s inquest file also identifies her repeatedly as Elizabeth Howard Crandall. Once again, no explanation is provided.


• Perhaps the two were related. This seems plausible, but if so, how? Hope Crandall did have seven paternal aunts, but none named Elizabeth. Three, however, have unknown fates: Lucy, Sarah, and Luretta, born in 1846, 1851, and 1854 respectively. But I think they are more likely to have died in infancy than to have moved to BC to run a brothel. Fanny was also younger than them.


I also considered whether Fanny may have been married to one of Hope’s paternal uncles, but that didn’t check out either.


Plus, if the two were related, why was Fanny buried in a pauper’s grave at government expense? Wouldn’t Hope have taken charge of the body and had it shipped back east? Then again, there’s a good chance Fanny was estranged from her family on account of her line of work.


But if they were related, it seems highly likely Fanny’s presence at Comaplix was the reason Hope moved to the area. Fanny had apparently been there for seven years except for a few months at Silverton in the summer of 1909.


I’m still pondering it all.

• 

I only learned about Fanny’s coroner’s inquest file last month. You can see it below, but it’s handwritten and very difficult to read for the most part.

The inquest was convened within a day of the discovery of Fanny’s body by coroner John G. Elliot. The jury members were Gordon Sutherland, W.F. Graham, R.M. Evans, J.F. Stanhope, Harold E. Wallis, and J.W. Moses, who rendered the verdict that Fanny died “at the hands of some person or persons unknown.” They asked about Selby Soules’ relationship with her, but most of them probably already knew the answers.


Overall, the inquest file didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. The exception was the evidence of Harry Smith, who delivered some meat to her a couple of weeks before her death.


Fanny initially didn’t hear him knock.

She said “I guess I must have been drunk. I got home about 3 o’clock and fell asleep on the bed.” I put the meat down and she asked me to sit down. I told her I was in a hurry. She asked me to have a cigarette which I took. She said “I have some money but I have forgotten where I placed it.”
She went out of the kitchen into her bedroom. She came back [and] said she couldn’t find it … She said she was going away to Kelowna. When asked why she was going away she said she was going back to her man. I asked his name. She said it was Jim Bowes. She said she had a letter from him in which he stated to come back to him for when her money was gone. He had plenty.

Jim Bowes is the Silverton connection. He was the proprietor of the town’s first hotel, the Victoria, built in 1893. He sold it in 1906 to Amy Carey, having by that time moved to Kelowna, where he spent 26 years running the Lakeview Hotel.


There does not appear to be any probate file for Fanny that might give us other clues.

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Bob Herring
Bob Herring
13 dic 2022

An intriguing story, Greg. I appreciate your efforts to find some resolve.

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