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Melvin R. Gourlie - Memoir and Stories

Obituary, Dated 6 February 2004

This newspaper clipping is probably from the Wenatchee World. Melvin R. "Mel" Gourlie was born on October 31, 1920 and died on February 4, 2004. He was born in the small town of Orient and moved to Wenatchee with his parents in 1927. During the summer months, the Gourlies went to the old mining town of Barron, near Harts Pass, to prospect for gold and higrade some of the old mines of the 1890 Gold Rush. In 1936, they built a small log cabin near Windy Pass and lived there winter and summer. Mel occasionally worked for the New Light Mining Company in summer during those years.

In 1941, Mel enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in the South Pacific and was aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier when it was sunk during the Battle of Midway. He later fought in the Battles of the Peleliu Islands and Okinawa. On April 2, 1950, he married Doris Copple. He did electrical, heating and boiler work in Wenatchee and Spokane until 1974, when he started his own business, Mel's Heating and Boiler Service. He retired in 1982 and his son took over the business at that time.


This 108-page memoir was written in long-hand in 1989. On page 4, Mel mentions that in high school he achieved "the highest honors and certificates in penmanship there was." Mel's handwriting is beautiful.

p. 2: Miscellaneous childhood memories. Mel sold newspapers in the streets of Wenatchee after school to buy bread and sandwich spread. He recalled that it tasted good. "It had to, that's all we had."

p. 4: Despite good grades, Mel had to quit school after the tenth grade because his family "went to the hills to live beyond Harts Pass." (Assuming he entered first grade in the fall of 1926, that would have been the summer of 1936.) The Gourlies spent every summer for 12 years in the Windy Pass area prospecting and higrading for gold. They spent four winters trapping in the area. Mel wrote:

"It's impossible to describe how beautiful, serene, lonely and wonderful it was, nobody within 25 miles. It was snowed in for eight months of the year, we were nearly 7000 feet high."

p. 6: Since they didn't have money to buy skis or snowshoes, the Gourlies made their own. The skis were made from old boards shaped with a small axe and heated in boiling water then bent to the proper shape. Old belting was used for binding straps. On p. 26, Mel wrote that they used a single ski pole about five feet long and three inches in diameter. "You sat on it to break your speed going down hill if needed." On p. 29, Mel describes how they made ski climbers using deer hide. Snowshoes were made from spruce limbs and strips of deer hide. "They didn't look so good," Mel remembered, "but sure kept our buns out of the deep snow when they were needed." The Gourlies had a 15-mile trap line from their cabin toward the Canadian Border. They trapped silver fox, cross fox, pine marten, ermine, and anything else they could catch. Mel wrote: "I felt sorry for them, really I did, but it was either they live or us. There were lots of them and only one of Mom, Dad, and I."

p. 7: "Looking back on it," Mel wrote, "I realize how lucky we were, miles and miles from civilization, no one to call on for help if we needed it, we could have broken a leg, fell in the Pasayten River while crossing, or frozen while camping overnight in the snow. We had no sleeping bags, just the garments we had on." Mel recalled a time when he went hunting a cougar with only one 32-caliber bullet in his rifle (p. 8). He admitted that it was a good thing he lost his quarry, but "fifty dollars bounty in those days was a lot of money."

p. 7: Mel prospected, panned, sluiced and higraded for gold. He had some good luck, but mostly bad. "It helped pay our food bill, along with the natural items growing around the cabin and some things that seemed to stray in our vicinity."

p. 8: At the bottom of this page Mel begins a nice description of the feeling of autumn arriving at Windy Pass. The toughest winter recorded in the Gourlies' diary had nearly 400 inches of snowfall with 12 feet of snow on the ground (even with the cabin roof). Mel recalled, "It's beautiful to see it snow over a foot an hour like it did sometimes. It's terrible though, when you have to shovel it." They had to shovel out the cabin door and windows, the outhouse, the spring where they got their water, and the woodshed door.

p. 10: The Gourlie cabin had only two windows and one door and was a little over 12ft square. Mel's parents slept on the ground floor and Mel slept in the loft. The cabin was made of spruce logs (p. 5) which they cut and dragged to the site. It had a 15-gallon barrel stove for heat and a small cook stove for baking bread and oatmeal cookies.

p. 11: They had two sled dogs and two pet silver badgers which they found motherless and abandoned during a prospecting trip. The dogs were "part Husky, Wolf, and Bernard (p. 39)."

p. 12: "We didn't do too much in the winter besides trapping except shovel snow, went cross-country skiing when the weather would permit, and just take it easy. We would ski to the mountain ridges and look for many, many miles toward the coast, could see Mt Baker and its steam a hundred miles away to the West on a clear day, could look due North into Canada, and also see the high peaks to the South, you see we were standing right on the Cascade Divide." On pp. 12-13, Mel briefly describes the winter visit of his friend Bill Long (long-1985).

p. 13: Once or twice a month, Mel would ski out to where the road was plowed, 18 miles one way, leaving at 10 o'clock at night with a flashlight or by moonlight when the occasion arose. The main reason for going was to pick up fresh vegetables in town. The secondary reason was that he was taking a correspondence course in radio and electronics and he had to pick up the lessons. The trip back to the cabin was gruelling, over 12 miles up hill. "I figure we were very lucky though while doing this," Mel wrote. "Over the years three people were buried in snow slides and two perished on the trail."

p. 14: Mel describes the time his mother had a gallstone attack and had to ski out to surgery (see ww-1940-Feb-3-p1).

p. 15: A brief description of working for a mining company in summer at age 16. On p. 16, Mel describes prospecting with his mother while his father worked. "Found just enough to keep going and wishing the next place would turn out better," he wrote. He also describes herding sheep and fighting a forest fire.

p. 17: While living at Windy Pass, the Gourlies listened to news for 15 minutes a day on an old battery powered radio. They could tell that war was coming, so in the autumn of 1941 Mel enlisted in the U.S. Marines. Basic training was a shock. "I seen things, heard things and learned stuff I never knew existed," he wrote. He was assigned to the U.S.S. Yorktown, which was sunk in the Battle of Midway. He was back in the states for a while after that and was able to attend electronics school in Nebraska (p. 21). He later joined the 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division and participated in landings at Peleliu and Okinawa. He wrote: "Sure was glad I'm a small fellow, three quarters of my buddies didn't make it." He served in the Marines for about four years.

p. 22: After the war Mel returned to Winthrop where his parents had bought seven acres of land where they raised rainbow trout and muskrats. Life in the mountains was, for the most part, behind them. Mel's father was having heart trouble. Mel did odd jobs around town. The money he'd accumulated when he left the service was gradually running out.

p. 23: In the fall of 1946, Mel and his father decided to return to the Windy Pass cabin to do some winter trapping. His father was about 45 at the time (p. 26). They were able to stock the cabin with provisions for only a month's stay. After skiing in, Mel noticed how his feelings about the place had changed:

"Now the isolation and loneliness seemed to grow and grow, after being with people and seeing how the rest of the world was. The mountains, trees and beauty was still there, no noise, pollution or anything like that, just Dad and I plus the two sled dogs."
They had regular manufactured skis now. "Not the best," Mel recalled, "but a lot better ones than those we had made out of old boards ourselves during the other winters we spent there." The trapping was good, but on the day they selected to leave (having eaten nearly all of their food) a major winter storm arrived. Two feet of snow fell in one night. It snowed steadily for three days. Mel provides a gripping description of their ski out to the plowed road, hungry and near exhaustion. In a moment of reflection, he expresses the pioneering spirit. (p. 33):
"I admire the prospectors and trappers that done this many, many years ago under worse conditions than this, and wish that I could of been there with them. I loved this kind of life, not necessarily this trip, but being there first, wherever it is, means something, and you can say to anyone, I was there, oh yes, I remember that place. Even though I wasn't the first on this trail, I'll always remember this trip."
Mel describes coming upon a fresh bear track (p. 36) and crossing Dead Horse Point (p. 37). They used a small hand axe to cut foot steps across the steep slope. Mel's uncle Walter Gourlie had been swept over these cliffs by a rock slide in the 1930s and just barely lived to tell about it. Late at night they were lucky to flag down a state plow truck (p. 41), which drove them all the way to Winthrop. They never trapped again (p. 42).

p. 42: The remainder of this memoir deals with Mel's life after the mountains and the war. I've noted several milestones for reference:

p. 90: Following the death of his father in 1975, Mel felt that the last link to the experiences he shared with his parents had been broken:

"There would be no one to talk over the many hardships, happy times, trips together etc, during our years in the hills, just me now and some old photographs. Soon we will be gone and forgotten just like all the ones before us. Until then, all I can do is tell the kids and grandchildren some of the tales of what happened way back when, just like all the grandparents do and hope that the stories will be remembered for a few years to come."

"My Bedtime Story"

This is a very condensed story of Mel's life, told in the third person as a bedtime story. On p. 9, he writes that he was 10 years old when his parents first told him they were going to the mountains for the summer. They lived in a tent on a bed of fir boughs. They returned from the mountains around the 1st of September (p. 10). On p. 13, he writes that they spent 12 summers and two winters in the mountains. I think they spent four winters (as described in his memoir) not two. The rest of the story is in agreement with the memoir, but much shorter.

"A Summer in the Hills"

Written in 1989, this story describes the summer of 1932, when Mel was 11 years old. That was the first year he was old enough to really remember his family's time in the mountains (p. 11). When I photocopied Mel's stories I found two copies of this one. The second copy was entitled "The Phantom Letter."

p. 1: Mel's last day of school was May 1. He skipped the last month of school to head to the mountains with his parents. On p. 54, Mel writes that he returned to school a month late at summer's end.

p. 2: The Gourlies lived in a small apartment in Wenatchee. "We three seemed to own nothing from my point of view except for what clothes we wore and the very few necessities needed to keep a person going from day to day," Mel recalled. "My things could of been put in a small cardboard box and stuffed under a chair. We had no car, only two small trunks and some tools Dad needed for up in the hills."

p. 3: Mel describes packing their things for the summer. The possessions they left behind were stored in two small trunks in Wenatchee (p. 7). During the summer, packers resupplied the Gourlie camp every month with groceries ordered from the Shafer store in Winthrop (p. 49).

p. 4: After school Mel sold newspapers in the pools halls and streets of Wenatchee. On a good day he would make 50 cents or more, of which he saved 10 cents to see a cowboy movie on Saturday mornings. The rest was used to buy day-old bread and sandwich spread to eat. He remembered going down to the railroad tracks with friends to watch the steam engines and hobos (p. 6).

p. 8: Description of the truck journey from Wenatchee to Chelan, the Methow Valley, and Lost River.

p. 20: At Robinson Creek, Mel found and adopted a stray dog that he called "Shep."

p. 22: Description of the horseback trip from the Robinson Creek to Barron. At Harts Pass they encountered three to four feet of snow through which they had to walk the horses (p. 26).

p. 30: Describes the tent used by the Gourlies to spend the summer near Barron, including their bough bed.

p. 33: Mel's father teaches him the basics of prospecting.

p. 35: Mel learns the truth about higrading: "I knew somebody must own all these old mines, so how come we were digging in them for this gold? Asking the question a little later, Mom said, we aren't supposed to do this, but who cares if they don't know about it. It's called higrading. A little later we hope to locate a claim for ourselves, but first, while no one is present we will find what we can in this place."

p. 36: Visit to Allen Basin.

p. 40: In the 1890s, 1500 people lived in and around Barron.

p. 41: Visit to Windy Pass. The Gourlies always carried a little 32 caliber saddle rifle when hiking and prospecting in the mountains (p. 43).

p. 44: Mel's father decided to focus their efforts on Allen Basin. They built a sluice box in a creek to pan for gold there.

p. 47: Mel found more than gold in the mountains around Windy Pass:

"It made me feel as if I was intruding on some sacred place, and yet I wanted to be here and enjoy all of this. It was meant to be seen by someone, why not Mom, Dad, and I along with our faithful dog. Of course I knew that years ago the real old timers had looked this ground over and seen all this, but finding gold was the most important thing to them then, strike it rich and get out. I guess Dad felt the same way they did. As for me I was enjoying it all."

p. 48: An old prospector moved into one of the cabins near the Gourlie campsite.

p. 49: There was rumor that the Azurite Mine might build a narrow-gauge road into their working. Mel's parents were concerned that the increased traffic could end their ability to sluice and higrade at Windy Pass.

p. 50: A close encounter with a cougar.

"Remembering at Fox Creek"

This story records memories triggered one morning (around 1991) at a place called Fox Creek. Mel writes, "Who knows how it happened to be called that. If it's like other places were named, then this place is hoping maybe a fox will show up here sometime within the next thousand years, so that whoever named it wouldn't have made a mistake." Mel was reminded of a day of fishing on Canyon Creek with his parents in the 1930s:

p. 4: From their cabin near Windy Pass, the Gourlies hiked seven miles downhill to Canyon Creek. The hike started on an old narrow-gauge road left from the early days of mining in the 1890s. The rest of the walk was on an old trail.

p. 6: At the confluence of Slate and Canyon Creeks was a place called Chancellor in the old days. A Mrs. Farrar and her husband had a cabin on their gold claim there. An old turbine powered electric plant was still standing on the hillside but had not been used for forty years. It supplied power for the three big mines that were six miles away. Powerlines had been strung from the plant straight up the mountainside to Airplane Flat, southwest of and a bit higher than Windy Pass.

p. 7: The Gourlies decided to return to their cabin via Canyon Creek, which was supposed to have an old trail. Along the way they came upon what Mel's father called an old "arrista" (arrastra). It was a machine used to crush gold ore, driven by a donkey.

p. 9: Farther along they found a lean-to probably used by early trappers. They followed blazes cut on the side of trees. As they climbed higher in the valley (Baron Creek), the blazes were getting higher on the trees, showing that trappers had used this trail in winter. They eventually crossed the ridge between Airplane Flat and Tamarack Peak to return to their cabin at nightfall. They completed the loop carrying the fish they had caught in Canyon Creek.

"And Life Goes On"

When I photocopied Mel's stories I found two copies of this one. The second copy was entitled "Nothing stays the same."

p. 1: This story begins as the Gourlies arrive at Barron for another summer at their tent camp (probably 1935). While spring has arrived in the valley, winter still grips the mountains. The family was initially alone, but a nearby mine was expected to reopen after many years of inactivity. In the past the Gourlies sometimes higraded what was called the "Glory Hole," but with the mine opening up again they would have to forget it. (Although this story never says so, I believe it was the New Light Mine that reopened.)

p. 3: About a month later, a bulldozer began carving out a road on the hillside where the trail went. "The tranquility of the area was finally being broken after 45 years," Mel wrote. Mel's father decided to move camp to Allen Basin, about 1-1/2 miles uphill. They packed their things to the new location in several loads on their backs. Mel liked the higher camp better than the old one. They returned to their routine of sluicing and prospecting. On p. 6, Mel describes a "strike" at Airplane Flat that turned out to be nothing.

p. 7: On July 4, a storm dropped a foot of new snow. The next day, Mel's father visited the big mine to see what was going on there. The mine operators gave him work and offered him a job for the rest of the summer. Mel's father took the job, which meant the family was short-handed for sluicing. Mel and his mother went on prospecting hikes instead, taking a lunch, their dog, and their Winchester rifle (described on p. 16) to seek "that ever elusive vein of gold."

p. 10: In the early days, nearly two million dollars in ore were extracted from the Glory Hole. From Mel's description, it sounds like the Glory Hole was located above Barron, closer to Windy Pass. On p. 24, Mel writes that the new mine owners re-established the tunnel that tapped the bottom of the old Glory Hole where the gold had been taken out many years before.

p. 12: After a visit to Windy Pass, Mel and his mother suggested that they move their camp there from Allen Basin. Mel's father agreed. They located a fine campsite about 1/4 mile from the Cascade Crest and staked a few mining claims, including an old shaft near the pass. The basin was not patented ground, and no one had staked claims there for 40 years or more, so it was open to anyone. Moving was easier this time because the new mine owners had bulldozed a rough road to the Glory Hole that passed within 500ft of the new campsite. The miners hauled the Gourlies' belongings up there (p. 14). Mel's father continued to work at the mine and Mel and his mother resumed their prospecting hikes.

p. 17: Mel and his mother hiked to Jim Peak, following sheep herding trails along the divide north of Windy Pass.

p. 24: According to Mel, the Barron mines were working and shipping out gold in the 1890s until the big Yukon gold strike was uncovered, and then "everyone left here like a flock of birds for a better life they thought." That's why so much equipment had been left intact around Barron.

p. 25: Mel's father filed six mining claims in the vicinity of their new campsite. While he worked at the reopened mine, Mel dug into a vein they had found with a pick and shovel. When he hit solid rock, he used a hand drill and dynamite.

p. 29: When autumn weather arrived, the big mine boarded up everything and the Gourlies took down their tent, loaded their stuff in a company truck, and rode in the truck to Wenatchee. Mel entered the tenth grade that fall. His father got a job in one of the fruit sheds, so Mel didn't have to sell newspapers anymore. The following spring (p. 30) they returned to Barron, this time riding in trucks instead of on horseback. A bulldozer had cleared snow from the road at Harts Pass. They stayed at the big mine about a week, until the road could be repaired close to their campsite. After re-establishing their campsite Mel's father returned to work at the big mine and Mel resumed work in their prospect hole.

p. 33: "What fun we had together, searching for our pot of gold, yet never finding it."

p. 34: Mel's father had worked in mines all his life when it was possible. It was his idea to come to Barron, hoping to strike it rich so he wouldn't have to worry about making a living for his family. After Mel blasted the prospect tunnel a bit deeper, his father inspected it and threw up his hands in despair. The vein they were following had fractured at a fault and there was no way of knowing how far or which way the rocks had shifted. "Now I knew how those prospectors of early days felt when the same thing happened to them," Mel wrote. All that was accomplished was sore hands, aching muscles, blisters, hard times, isolation, and then have a dream disappear like a feather in the breeze." They gave up on the tunnel and Mel and his mother resumed their prospecting hikes, "but our hearts just seemed to not be in it."

p. 36: The big mine was working full blast now, with three or four dump trucks hauling ore from the mine "at the top of the mountain" to a new 25-ton ball mill a couple miles away, below the basin where the Gourlies lived. Mel went to work at the big mine doing various jobs. The pay was "six bits an hour" (p. 37). Mel nursed the ambition to become a mining engineer, but abandoned the idea when he learned how much it cost to attend mining school (p. 44).

p. 38: Later in the summer, Mel's father suggested that they build a log cabin to replace their tent. The idea was prompted by an offer of a job as winter caretaker of the mine buildings and equipment. "If we built a cabin up here then Mom and I could stay with him," Mel wrote, "otherwise he would be here alone and us two in Wenatchee." The family agreed and they started work immediately. Mel describes the cabin construction, with walls made of spruce logs and cross beams and rafters of tamarack. Lumber and sheet metal from an old mill building were used for the roof. The cabin was finished by mid-August (p. 42). The floor space was 12ft by 14ft (p. 45).

p. 43: Mel's father took the caretaker job, and they prepared to stay through the winter, eight months, from mid-September through mid-May. Mel would not finish 11th or 12th grade. "I thought of me not having to go to school anymore and will miss it along with my friends," he wrote, "but there wasn't anything I could do about it" (p. 45).

p. 45: They built a woodshed that was twice as large as the cabin. Mel's parents went to Wenatchee to get supplies for the winter while Mel began cutting wood to fill the shed. After the mine workers left the area in early September, the Gourlies were alone again. "It was a strange feeling to me," wrote Mel, "knowing that in a short time we would be snowed in on Windy Pass and that our activities would be controlled mostly by the weather." Mel describes final preparations for winter, including construction of a new outhouse, complete with Monkey Wards catalogs.

p. 48: Mel describes making skis in late September. Winter arrived a few days later and he tried out the skis for the first time (p. 51). Some time later they made snowshoes (p. 53) and deer skin climbers for the skis (p. 55). Mel describes winter settling in on pp. 53-54. Getting around in winter took longer than in summer but Mel wrote, "Now we had nothing but time on our hands, so who cares how fast we go."

p. 57: Describes a big storm and digging out the cabin. Mel learned that the weather at Windy Pass could go from clear to stormy (or vice versa) in half an hour (p. 59).

p. 59: About once a month, Mel's father would ski 18 miles out to Lost River to hitch a ride with the mailman to Winthrop for fresh vegetables and other goodies for special occasions.

p. 60: The following spring, Mel's father worked part time at the big mine, showing people around in hopes of selling stock in the venture. Mel and his father returned to Jim Peak to investigate prospects in that area more closely. Mel describes finding an old cabin from 1890s (p. 62) and several tunnels (p. 61, 63, 66). Of the last tunnel he wrote, "Once more someone had dug a mining tunnel by hand drilling to no avail, 45 miles from the nearest town, Winthrop, over four mountain passes and lived in here probably winter and summer like we have, only they done it 50 years earlier" (p. 67). Of the Gourlies' ambitions he wrote (p. 70), "It has to be gold bearing rock that we are looking for away back here in the wilderness, nothing else is worthwhile."


This notebook of "xtra stuff" contains various clippings, writings, and photos. I copied the following:

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