The following guest post article has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print). His own blog can be viewed at www.frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com and his website is www.frontiersmenhistorian.info
To clarify, I am not related to the Roger Pocock who is the subject of this article, without tracing back many centuries (at which point just about everyone is related to each other in some way!)
The little town of Wallace, Idaho, is a popular destination for many types of recreation. It is also known for being used as the town for the 1997 film, Dante’s Peak. A century and a quarter ago it was a far less civilized and not somewhere that people would visit for recreation. It was the main town for the Coeur d’Alene silver mines in the Bitterroot Mountains. Life was certainly different then! “On an average seven miners a night were clubbed in the streets, or drugged and robbed in houses of ill-fame. One went abroad after dusk with a revolver in the side pocket and forefinger on the trigger.” One saloon was run by probably then the most notorious rogue in the town, known as Denver Shorty.
In the Fall of 1890, a rather eccentric young Englishman of around twenty-five years drifted into the town. He wore a battered old slouch hat, a shirt, overalls, and a pair of boots. He had no coat for the hard winter weather due to start very soon and looked as if he had not had a decent meal for months. He had virtually no money in his pockets and went into Denver Shorty’s saloon for warmth and possibly something to eat and somewhere to sleep. Unfortunately he was still rather naive and was soon cheated out of his little money. The next day he pawned his camera, which had been part of his livelihood for some time, and lived on the proceeds for three days. In a boom town where much money was being made from silver-mining, nobody wanted to give work to this Englishman with no coat, who looked little more than a tramp.
Who was this Englishman and how had he ended up in Wallace? His name was Roger Pocock. He was a son of a retired English Naval officer and he had served in the North West Mounted Police in Canada at the Riel Rebellion. There, through his own carelessness, he had suffered frostbite and lost the toes of his right foot. Invalided out of the Canadian Mounted Police, he had decided to make a living as a writer and had been traveling the western parts of Canada and U.S.A. sending stories and reports to various newspapers. In desperation he sought out the town Marshal. That public servant had an impossible job as he could by rights have arrested almost every citizen and closed down every business, as they were all breaking one or several laws. That also included the Church for running an illegal gambling show, although it was advertised as a bazaar. He probably could even have arrested himself. At heart the Marshal was a kindly man who took pity on the young Englishman, who told the Marshal that his belongings had been stolen when he had been in Spokane and that the Police there had ignored his request to have them returned. The Marshal wrote at once to Spokane Police and got the Englishman’s belongings back and sent on. With the belongings when they arrived was a welcome cheque from a magazine. The Englishman now had money. The kindly Marshal had offered in the meantime to buy him a coat from the local store.
The Englishman, who we will call from now on by his name, Roger, decided there was money to be earned in this boom town, but how could he achieve this? The drinks business was covered, as there were fifty-five saloons for a population of fifteen hundred: there were eighteen brothels and in any case Roger did not fancy getting involved with them. There were (illegal but untroubled) gambling joints, dance-houses and a theatre, so all local requirements were fully catered for. What Roger had spotted was the wooden bridge over the gulch containing the Couer d’Alene River. At that time this bridge connected Main Street on the south side with the railroad depot on the north side. This bridge was busy all day with people of all ages crossing over and also, according to Roger, with men chewing tobacco, chatting and spitting ruminatively into the gulch. Halfway across, the bridge took a noticeable bend. Roger went to see the main local trader, Dan McPhail, who also happened to be the Chairman of the local Vigilance Committee and a man of some influence to tell him he wanted to trade on the angle of the bridge. “You can’t trade on the bridge”, said Dan. “I don’t want to – who does the air over the middle of the river belong?” “To the Almighty,” replied Dan, “If you want to trade there you’ll have to take out a licence from Heaven.” “Will you interfere?” “Outside my jurisdiction,” said Dan.
So, Roger bought a supply of cigars conveniently from Dan MacPhail and next day Roger had fitted a plank across the angle of the bridge and, standing calmly with a raging torrent beneath him, began selling cigars to an amused but ready clientele. So, from then on Roger became known locally as “The Man on the Bridge”. Within a day or two he had two dry good boxes for a counter with an official trading licence stuck up, a stock of apples, two kinds of cigars and various trinkets. Within three days he was doing a roaring trade and had bought himself a new warm coat to wear. After a while of trading he had added more planks to make a floor plus walls and a roof. He then added a glass front along the handrail with sliding sashes followed by a small stove to keep him warm. He had enough space on the floor to roll out his blankets to sleep on. He did think about running supports to the ground below, but that introduced the unpleasant subject of taxes and possible rent. So he remained perched in the air gently rocking in any strong winds. In six weeks he had one hundred and fifty dollars in the bank and was making eight dollars a day, which was a good steady income in those days. Roger was descended from several noted artists, especially the well-known marine painter Nicholas Pocock. He had inherited considerable artistic talents and used these in drawing advertisements which he posted all over the town. He drew pictures of cats smoking cigars, babies crying for them, pelicans stealing them and all kinds of men and animals enjoying them. He put up a blackboard with drawings and comments which he changed daily. His poetry skills did not match his artistry and the lines of doggerel verse he also put out as advertisements possibly caused attention because they were so bad:
Here’s the tedious song of a bore;
You have heard of him doubtless before,
For in Wallace his name
Has a wonderful fame
And you buy your cigars at his store…
He saw that the prospect was fair,
If he only could find him a lair,
But no place could be found
On the firm solid ground,
So he built up his house in the air.
Throughout his life, aided by two devoted sisters, Roger saved his photos, cuttings and drawings in albums. These albums are now in the Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta and a number of his Wallace drawings amazingly still survive.
The local villains were unhappy at Roger’s success, so one of Denver Shorty’s toughs had two pine trees laid across the river behind Roger and began to build a saloon on it. He offered the town authorities to widen the bridge up to his saloon at his own expense. As one side rested on railroad land and the other on the private land of a respected citizen, this caused considerable upset. The Vigilance Committee led by Dan and the Marshal decided that lawlessness had gone too far. So the local villains were rounded up one at a time and locked in the gaol until all twenty-five of them, including Denver Shorty, were herded with stock whips and driven out of town and told not to return. One or two objected but they were dumped in the river to cool off. And so, life in Wallace calmed down and Roger was able to continue, but not for long. There was a bank collapse, which took out all the local banks in Wallace and with it Roger’s savings. Many of the mines closed and eventually Roger was starved out. Those were hard times. Roger told of a woman who used to come and visit him most nights to cadge a cigarette. She was dying from some illness for she was a prostitute. The town women crossed to the other side when they saw her. As she could no longer earn money to keep her man, her “tough”, he abandoned her and moved on to another town. She learned that he had been shot in a fight so she had sold everything she owned so that she could pay for his funeral. One night she did not turn up and Roger never saw her again. He wondered whether she had decided to find her final rest and peace in the raging river.
Roger moved on and had many more adventures, most notably when he created a distance horse riding record in 1899 by riding from Canada to Mexico down what is called the Outlaw Trail. On the way this eccentric and unarmed Englishman interviewed a number of the famous outlaws for a London newspaper.
To read more of the extraordinary adventures of Roger Pocock, see: Outrider of Empire: the life and adventures of Roger Pocock by Geoffrey A Pocock (University of Alberta Press 2008)
Other than that biography, the main sources for this article are:
A Frontiersman by Roger Pocock (1904)
“The Man on the Bridge” by Roger Pocock, Black and White magazine, March 31st 1900
“Lone Wolf Pioneer” News of the World June 23rd 1935 and Roger Pocock albums
Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta.
Photos of Wallace today by courtesy of Wallace Chamber of Commerce.
Photos of Roger Pocock by courtesy of the Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.