The Manhattan saloon

The Manhattan saloon

Tapping into Nelson’s raucous barroom past

It was Nelson’s most infamous crime: early on December 23, 1911, a would-be thief opened fire in the Manhattan saloon, leaving two men dead.

It was Nelson’s most infamous crime: early on December 23, 1911, a would-be thief, startled at being caught, opened fire in the Manhattan saloon, leaving two men dead.

Albert P. Balsom, initially mistaken for one of the victims, was soon arrested for the murders of proprietor Caleb A. Barton and cook John Le Tual.

When the matter came to trial, for some reason the charge involving Le Tual was dropped, but after deliberating for three hours and 37 minutes, a jury convicted Balsom of manslaughter in Barton’s death.

During sentencing, the judge remarked the verdict was very lenient.

“Two men are dead and you are still living,” Justice Gregory said before sentencing Balsom to 15 years in prison.

The crime, described in the Daily News as “the worst tragedy of the kind which had ever occurred in Nelson,” also caused the downfall of police chief Charles W. Young, who was fired partly due to testimony that suggested lapses in the investigation.

Dr. L.E. Borden wrote in his memoir that the Manhattan was “supposed to be one of the quieter saloons.” Following the double murder, “The trade of this saloon diminished rapidly and [it] was soon closed. The building stood unoccupied for many years and just before I left Nelson in 1955, I saw it being demolished to make room for business expansion.”

Borden added that in its early days, Nelson “could have called itself the Saloon Capital of the Kootenays for among its businesses were 18 hotels and an almost equal number of saloons.”

On Saturday, October 29, Touchstones Nelson and the Nelson Public Library will tap into the city’s barroom past as they team up for Storyteller’s Saloon: a Wild and Woolly Evening of Tales and Ales and Food. The joint fundraiser will benefit the archival and special collections of both institutions.

Librarian Anne DeGrace says while they used to partner with the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy, the latter has shifted its energy away from a big annual event. The library, however, wanted to keep up the momentum, as well as its relationship with Selkirk College.

“Now that the library expansion was finished and our new archives room complete, we wanted to work on making information about our collection more accessible to the public,” she says. “Partnering with Touchstones and its archives made perfect sense.”

With its half of the proceeds, the library will build a regional directory of local materials — not just those in their own collection. The first year of the project will be data collection, the second year will see the results placed online, and the third year may involve digitizing some materials.

“We both recognized that people wishing to access our organizations’ archives have a lot of wading to do to find what they want,” DeGrace says. “We agreed that a directory was a great place to start.”

Touchstones executive director Leah Best says their portion of the funds will allow them to buy software to catalogue their archival collections and make descriptions available online.

“For us it’s more about getting all of this information that’s in [retired archivist] Shawn [Lamb]’s head into a searchable database. Like most small museums we have tons of things we can be doing, but this has risen to the top of the priority list.”

Teaming up with the library was an easy sell, she adds: “We’ve also talked about joint programming, and I think you’ll see some of that in the future as well.”

DeGrace credits Harry Pringle of Selkirk’s professional cook training program — which will provide the food — for coming up with the saloon theme.

“He and Wendy Anderson of the resort and hotel management program know that the students get creative when they have a colourful theme to work with — and so the ‘wild and woolly’ theme was born.”

Storytellers Carolyn McTaggart, Richard Rowberry, and Corky Evans will all spin yarns with rough edges.

“Carolyn’s Gunpowder Gertie tall tale fits the theme in the tradition of barside storytelling, as does Richard Rowberry’s Three-Fingered Frank,” DeGrace says. “Corky Evans is always entertaining, and Ginger Goodwin is just a great story. All of the characters in these stories push boundaries one way or another.”

The fundraiser at Mary Hall starts at 6 p.m. Mark Forsythe, host of CBC Radio’s BC Almanac, is the MC. Advance tickets are available until Wednesday for $45 per person, through Touchstones and the Nelson Public Library.