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HAPHAZARD HISTORY: William Pinchbeck is not alone on the hill

Most of us know the location of William Pinchbeck’s grave on the knoll above the Stampede Grounds
The fenced graves of William Pinchbeck (right) and Jack Aitchison (left) overlooking the Williams Lake Stampede Grounds circa 1925. The Lake House can be seen at the bottom right. (Ben Clarke photo - History and Happenings in the Cariboo-Chilcotin by Irene Stangoe)

Most of us know the location of William Pinchbeck’s grave on the knoll above the Stampede Grounds.

He passed away on July 31, 1893 in Victoria, the victim of “a lingering disease,” probably cancer, at the age of 62.

At the time of his death, Pinchbeck was heavily in debt, and his ranch was very quickly auctioned off to pay out his creditors. The auction made only pennies on the dollar, and Pinchbeck’s wife, Alice, was left virtually destitute.

Friends paid for his funeral and internment in a plot overlooking the Lake House where he had lived.

His gravesite is surrounded by a white picket fence and has a marble headstone placed there by his descendents.

But did you know that William Pinchbeck is not the only occupant of that little piece of land? Therein lies an interesting story.

In 1921, the young village of Williams Lake was becoming a boom town.

The second Cariboo Gold Rush was just beginning.

READ MORE: Rich history behind the ‘Evans place’ near Williams Lake

Gold had been discovered above Cedar Creek, near Likely, and goldseekers were starting to flood into the area.

Typically, they would come to Williams Lake on the railway, disembark and set up a tent, then either pick up supplies and try to find a way out to the new goldfields, or stay around town looking for temporary jobs to raise enough money for a grubstake and transportation.

Williams Lake consisted of three stores, two hotels, some log residences, the PGE Station House, the grist mill, four or five frame houses and not much else.

It was almost impossible to rent a room, and a tent city had sprung up along the railway right of way and on a gently sloping field (now our cemetery) just outside the village boundaries.

It is estimated that by the summer of 1922, there were more than 2,000 tents on the outskirts of town.

Along with the influx of goldseekers came gambling, prostitution, scams and alcohol.

There was no doubt that Williams Lake would benefit from the mining boom, but the cost would be high in terms of petty crime and social disruption.

In September of 1921, a man named Jack Aitchison arrived in the Laketown. He, too, was seeking his fortune in gold, but he was also a seasoned card player.

Shortly after his arrival, he got involved in a high stakes card game in a small log cabin on First Avenue. The booze was flowing freely, and things deteriorated.

Someone accused someone else of cheating, pistols were drawn and shots were fired. When it was all over, Aitchison was dead.

His body was taken to the nurse’s clinic next to Pinchbeck’s grist mill — there was no hospital, morgue or doctor at the time.

Nobody really knew very much about the deceased.

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He had only recently appeared in the town and he hadn’t told anyone much about himself.

Efforts were made to locate the next of kin, but they proved fruitless.

The land for the Williams Lake Cemetery had not yet been appropriated, and since there was no proof that Aitchison was Catholic, he was not accepted for burial at St. Joseph’s Mission.

The body had to be buried somewhere, so it was suggested that a grave could be dug next to William Pinchbeck’s final resting place, since that was the only area in town that could be considered to be a cemetery site.

Thus, a collection was taken up among the townspeople and the itinerants, and Jack Aitchison was laid to rest next to Pinchbeck.

A picket fence was built around his grave to match the one that was already there.

For years, the two gravesites were clearly visible on the hill, but over time, with no one to remember or care for the grave, Aitchison’s plot gradually deteriorated until no trace of it was left.

It was not until 1923 that the village was able to have Victoria designate land for a new cemetery, and that only happened after a telegram was sent to Premier John Oliver stating “We are expecting a man to die in a few days and we wonder what we should do with the corpse.”

The Pinchbeck gravesite is very much a part of our City’s history, however, the next time you view it, you should remember that there are two people buried there: one, a respected leading citizen of early Williams Lake and, the other, a murdered itinerant card player.

Sometimes history, itself, deals an interesting hand, doesn’t it?

Barry Sale is a retired teacher and historian from the Cariboo.