The Stable Lantern
by Helen Waugh
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1974, Volume 19, Number 2
Centenary celebrations sprout like mushrooms as Canada grows up. Expo ‘67 started the ball rolling in massive form. Manitoba followed in 1970, British Columbia in 1971 and Saskatchewan and Alberta are coming along in 1975. Perhaps growing-up in the younger Western provinces has been less dignified than their Eastern sisters, but there can be no doubt in any Canadian reader’s mind that all our ancestors were a sturdy, fearless lot. Tales by the thousands have crawled out of family albums, out of dusty attics and many out of the alert memories of Senior Citizens.
Manitoba, one hundred years ago, was well known as “the dry belt”. Not only for the hot dry summers, but chiefly for the intense thirst they produced in a very large majority of the inhabitants. Saloons and taverns flourished. The pioneers could always find a spot to slake their thirst in the heat of summer, or warm their innards on bitter winter days. And warm them happily they did.
My grandfather, Dr. J. H. O’Donnell, one of the early medical men to arrive in Fort Garry, as Winnipeg was called in 1869, could entertain his grandchildren by the hour with stories of the early days. His Irish background lent an air of drama to every yarn and maybe provided embellishment when he felt the sordid facts might not amuse us. One of our favorite tales was the one about the stable lantern.
According to Grandfather, there were many colorful figures around in those days. A man had to have gifts quite out of the common run in order to compete with the unrest of the times. One such man, who left his mark on Manitoba history was James McKay. He was a noted trader, hunter, member of the Legislative Council, and fluent in several Indian dialects, a great asset in those uneasy days. Physically, he must have been the biggest man ever to earn a living outside a circus. He weighed close to 360 pounds. His office was in the same building as Grandfather’s. The old building still stands on the South-west corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street. The two men were great friends, one practising law, the other medicine.
One late November afternoon McKay called Grandfather. “Doctor,” he said, his voice thick, “if your driver is coming down for you, will you drive me home? I’m not in good form and I couldn’t do that drive alone.” From the sound of his voice Grandfather knew the answer, “Sure, sure, McKay,” he agreed, “you just stay in your office and when my boy arrives, we’ll come for you.”
McKay lived in Deer Lodge, a few miles out of town. Grandfather had a good horse and Gordie, his Cree driver, was an excellent man. It was with some difficulty that they managed to get the immense man down the narrow stairway and into the cariole, a low sleigh with wooden runners, a single seat covered with buffalo robes and a high box seat where Gordie sat muffled in furs.
It was snowing, but not particularly cold, as they started off at a brisk pace and soon were well out of town. When they were within about a mile of Deer Lodge, McKay’s celebrating really caught up with him. He slipped sideways, and in spite of Grandfather’s efforts to hang on to him, he rolled gently out of the sleigh and into a soft snowbank. Gordie jerked the horse to a halt as he heard the shout and the two men got out to study their problem.
“Jeez, Doc,” said Gordie, “we can never get him back into the sleigh. I’ll bet he weighs as much as the horse.”
“We certainly can’t,” Grandfather agreed, “you’ll have to go for help. Cover him with one of the robes, light that stable lantern, and tie it on top of him. That will keep any other drivers from bouncing over him. Unhitch the horse and ride like Hell to Deer Lodge. I’ll stay here to make sure he’s alright.”
Off went Gordie into the night. McKay snored peacefully on his snowy bed and every so often Grandfather checked his pulse. Before long he heard the jingle of the harness bells. Gordie had hitched a toboggan behind the horse and on it were three husky lads. In no time they had rolled the huge man onto the toboggan, tied him securely, and with the horse at a slow pace they returned to Deer Lodge. Gordie’s remark when he returned, “Funny thing that, Doc, you know they had that toboggan right handy, just as if mebbe they had used it lots before. Those fellows sure had a laugh when they saw that lantern, said they would never have thought of that!”
“Well Gordie,” Grandfather replied as he climbed back into the cariole, “you have to allow for lots of things in this country, and don’t you ever come calling for me at the office without the lantern!”
The story of that night’s adventure caused plenty of amusement in the town. Grandfather said all who heard it asked him if he was going to give up the practice of medicine and go in for keeping a lighthouse instead.
James McKay died very suddenly one day in his office in the year 1879. Again his immense bulk presented a problem. A casket to fit his proportions could not be moved down the narrow rickety stairs. It was possible to construct one in the office, but how to get it out? After much discussion, it was decided that the only solution was to remove the largest of the windows, frame and all. Slowly, securely, and with great dignity, and with the aid of a block and tackle, the casket was lowered to the ground. A silent, hatless crowd of the many friends of James McKay looked on. That time there was no lantern.
Postscript to this article here.
Page revised: 20 July 2009