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The secret life of Eli Carpenter

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

West Kootenay prospector Eli Carpenter (?-1917) was chiefly famous for two things: co-locating the Payne mine, which started the Silvery Slocan rush in 1891, and walking a tightrope across Slocan’s Main St. on May 24, 1897 as part of Queen’s birthday celebrations (depicted below in a mural in the Slocan campground). He is also the namesake of Carpenter Creek, which flows through Sandon and New Denver.

Both the Payne’s discovery and the tightrope walk are part of local folklore, with many conflicting versions. The former was acrimonious, with Carpenter and partner Jack Seaton going their separate ways amid accusations that Carpenter showed Seaton fake assay results to hide the claim’s true worth. The pair raced back to the site with new partners, but Seaton’s team got there first and staked the better ground.

Contemporary accounts of the tightrope walk, at least, separate fact from fiction. We know a rope was tied between the Arlington Hotel and the Cousins and Cavanah store. Using a long piece of pipe for balance, Carpenter went forward, backward, and gave a trapeze performance. Contrary to some later accounts, the stunt was advertised in advance, Carpenter was sober, and didn’t do it to win a bet (although a collection taken up on the spot came to $50).

Until that day, few would have known he was capable of such a feat. He was said to have worked for Barnum’s circus and understudied for the celebrated Blondin, who walked across Niagara Falls, but that cannot be verified. The World Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin has no record of him. He was also said to have “created a great sensation by carrying his wife across a thoroughfare at the height of five stories” in New Haven, Connecticut around 1882, but this can’t be verified either.

Nor do we know exactly when or where he was born. Some sources say France, others Quebec, while Vermont is another possibility. However, his appearance on voters lists in the 1890s suggests he was at least a naturalized Canadian.

Thanks to the digitization of old newspapers, I’ve discovered a few news stories that confirm some of his earlier stunts — and also reveal a very dark secret. The first item was in the Charlemont, Mass. Gazette & Courier of Aug. 25, 1873:

A foolhardy Frenchman, named Eli Carpenter, amused several hundred people on Saturday, by sailing over the dam at Holyoke in a small boat. He landed in the ‘foaming abyss’ right side up and concluded the show by standing on his head in the boat. He wants to do so again for $25.

While I didn’t know for sure if this was our Eli, several factors suggested it was: the year, the fact he was described as a Frenchman, and that it occurred in New England, where Eli was said to have lived. The Springfield (Mass.) Republican reported on this event the same day, but suggested Carpenter had already been paid: “Eli Carpenter scaled the dam across the Connecticut in a boat, Saturday night, and for the brilliant feat received $25.”

Three more items appeared over the next month in the Republican.

Aug. 29: Eli Carpenter has signified his intention of “sweeping” the dam on a log, Saturday.
Sept. 3: The low water has vetoed, for the present, Eli Carpenter’s dam-scaling exploits.
Sept 25: Eli Carpenter on Tuesday passed over the falls on a board [?] fastened to two barrels. Saturday, he will ride the waves on a plank.

Another instance of his derring-do was in the Brattleboro (Vermont) Phoenix of July 25, 1879:

Williamsville — Last Saturday evening a novel sight was witnessed here. Eli Carpenter, a workman on the bridges of the new railroad, walked a rope 30 feet in air and across the ‘square’ from the hotel, walking forward and backwards upon the rope several times, standing upon his head on the rope, etc. and showing great skill in that line.

The next feat happened in Montana in 1883, as recounted in The Missoulian on May 1, 1983, in a this-day-in-history feature (the original papers do not appear to have been digitized):

When the Marent trestle was completed in June 1883, it was the highest wooden railroad bridge in the world — 226 feet high and 668 feet long. Its height and length made it a natural for daredevils. The Missoulian reported that “visitors to Marent’s Trestle Gulch on next Sunday will have an opportunity to witness a grand feat. A workman, Eli Carpenter, known as ‘Frenchy,’ proposes to walk a rope 50 feet in length, suspended 225 feet from the ground and perform gymnastics while crossing.”
The next issue of the weekly newspaper reported: “The Marent Gulch rope-walking brought a crowd of from 300 to 500 people last Sunday. The day was quite windy, and it required no little nerve to venture out upon a slender tightrope at such a height in a gale .... After walking the rope, ‘Frenchy’ went through the usual gymnastic formula of rope-walkers, completing his task in a safe and satisfactory manner. A collection of $53 was taken and Joe Marent also made him a present of $50.”

The Butte Daily Miner’s account of May 31, 1883 estimated a larger crowd:

A thousand visitors to Marents gulch last Sunday were entertained by the daredevil feat of a workman known as “Frenchy” who walked a rope 50 feet in length suspended 225 feet from the ground, and performed gymnastic feats while crossing.

Interestingly, the latter two stunts were both in connection with railway work. Although several railways were built during Carpenter’s time in West Kootenay, he did not work on them, sticking to prospecting instead.

Eli Carpenter walked a tightrope suspended from the original Marent’s trestle in 1883. (Wikipedia image)

The first sign of Carpenter in the Kootenay is in the 1887 BC directory, which listed him as a miner at Bull River. A dubious account of his life and the Slocan tightrope walk appeared in the Chicago Chronicle, likely written by E.D. Cowen, who witnessed the latter event as editor of the Slocan Pioneer. It was reprinted in the New Denver Ledge on Sept. 22, 1898 and said in part:

[Carpenter] landed in Wild Horse Gulch, British Columbia … and took up a patch of placer ground. His wife was home in New Hampshire in the same town in which his married sister lived. Every fall for six years Eli sent by express from Fort Steele … not less than $2,000 in pure gold to his wife. One day he got a letter from his sister telling him that his wife was about to become a mother. He promptly quit the Wild Horse diggings and went west into the Slocan range …

Writing in the Vancouver Province on Dec. 29, 1934, H.M. Walker also said Carpenter “had drifted to the hills to shake off and forget the pigmies of infidelity that follow men in life’s struggle upward.” This might have been based on the Chronicle story, or perhaps Walker had some firsthand knowledge. He worked on The Ledge in the 1890s.

I was excited and astonished to discover a news story that confirmed some of this — but then profoundly dismayed to learn of the violence that accompanied it. From the Fitchburg (Massachusetts) Sentinel of Oct. 1, 1875:

There was a lively shooting scrape the other day at Turners Falls. Eli Carpenter, a Frenchman from Montgomery, Vt., came to town with his wife, bought a revolver, got drunk, and attempted to shoot his wife and a former friend, but was too drunk to aim straight enough. He was locked up, got away, was re-arrested and taken to the Greenfield jail. The assault was made in consequence of domestic infelicity, to which the friend had been an accomplice. Eli is the man who used to “shoot” the Holyoke dam, two years ago, on boat or plank.

(Other papers ran the same item but gave Carpenter’s hometown as Montpelier, which led the Argus and Patriot of that town to issue a rebuke: “Montpelier has had no ‘Eli Carpenter, a Frenchman,’ among its population. Our citizens of French descent are decent people and not after this Eli Carpenter style.”)

Very fortunately, while Turners Falls is a small town, the relevant newspapers from that era have survived and been digitized. This is the full story from the Turners Falls Reporter of Sept. 29, 1875, including its curious typography and vocabulary:

A Man Essays to Shoot his Wife and her Quondam Lover
The Shooter of Dams as a Shooter of Pistols
Some years ago a Frenchman by the name of Eli Carpenter became acquainted with a young woman who had been keeping company with another Frenchman, who now lives in the Beehive on L street and married her. They had not been married long when Carpenter was chagrined to discover that his wife was enceinte [pregnant], and had been so a longer time than, according to the natural course of events, he could with what knowledge he possessed of physiology and physconia [?], account for to his own satisfaction. In due time — or rather before what should have been due time — a child was born, and the “father”
Swore Vengeance
on his wife’s quondam [former] lover. He did not attempt to carry out his threat, however, till this morning, when he arrived in Turners Falls with his wife and put her up at her late lover’s house in the Beehive. Carpenter then went to Braddock & Webster’s hardware store and purchased a pistol and cartridges with which
To Deal Death to his Wife
and her late lover. Fortunately, after buying his weapon he took several drinks before proceeding on his
Awful Errant,
which unsettled his nerves and destroyed his aim. At about 11 o’clock this morning he presented himself at the house where his wife was stopping and getting sight of the object of his fancy,
Leveled the Pistol and Fired
the ball passing out of the window, without doing any damage. He then tried to shoot his wife, but she eluded his aim and escaped. The neighborhood had by this time become alarmed and the terrific
Screeches of the Women
rent the air and brought a crowd to the scene. Clarence Jones and his clerk made their way into the room and
Grappled with the Jealous Man
for possession of the pistol, which they succeeded in getting. In the meantime messengers were sent for officers and Constable Allen came and took the fellow to the lock up, where he remained quiently till afternoon, when he awoke from a drunken sleep and
Battering the lower Panel from the Door
escaped. He had no sooner gained his liberty than he was again
by Constable Allen and taken to Greenfield jail. He will be examined to-morrow morning.
Eli Carpenter is the man who made himself famous some time ago by shooting the Holyoke dam in a small boat, and afterwards on a plank.

The following issue reported in a single line a no less astonishing outcome: “No one appearing against Eli Carpenter for attempting to shoot his wife, he was fined only for drunkenness, in the sum of $10.”

An excerpt of the story from the Turners Falls Reporter of Sept. 29, 1875.

So it wasn’t just infidelity Carpenter later took to the hills to escape; it was his own dreadful act. His wife and the other man were not named, nor was there any explanation what happened to the child.

It’s deeply troubling to realize that Carpenter planned to murder two people and alcohol was the only thing that prevented him. I’ve long felt Carpenter’s reputation needed rehabilitating after the controversy over the Payne mine’s discovery, but this makes it impossible.

A large family of Carpenters lived in Montgomery, Vermont, but I haven’t been able to fit Eli into the tree. His nephew, T. Carpenter, came to Slocan with plans to settle there, but must have changed his mind, for there is only a single reference to him in the Slocan City News of Jan. 23, 1897. In 1903, a Luke Carpenter took out an ad in the Yukon Daily Morning Sun looking for Eli, but their relationship is unknown.

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