BATES MEMORIES SPAN MILES AND YEARS
By: Pat Cary Peck
On the 4th of July, 1896, Sumter (as it was spelled then) and Susanville boomed. Gold brought people here, but timber kept them. The Sumter Valley RR, like a black ribbon to tie the country to Baker City and the outside world, inched closer every day. Bates didn’t exist, but Austin was a stage stop between Sumter and Prairie City.
The settlers came from miles around Sumter with baskets of chicken, pies, and salads for the Fourth of July picnic. As the fiddlers tuned up, but before the fiddles were warm or the day of festivity began, tragedy stuck. A small five-year-old girl tagged along behind her mother in the crowd. Her name was Emma Nelson. She became bored with adult talk and wandered into the woods. Before she was missed, she virtually disappeared into the dense forest. The music stopped and conversation changed to anxious whispers as the word spread; a child is lost!
Now move ahead almost a hundred years, to July 1995. I board a tour bus in Cordova, Alaska, to go visit Child’s Glacier; a few miles out of town. I sit next to a friendly eighty-year-old woman, named Irene Behymer. She has lived in Cordova for sixty-two years, but she hasn’t forgotten her roots. She asks, “Where are you from?”
“Idaho now, but before that, Oregon.”
“Where in Oregon?”
“I went to high school in Eastern Oregon, a little place called Prairie City.”
Her eyes grew brighter and a huge smile rearranged her wrinkles to a new pattern.
“Why, I went to school at Bates!” she said. “Do you know where that is?”
I laughed. “Sure, I lived in Bates for two years. While I was in high school.” We continued to chat as the bus went its way up the Copper River. She said she remembered the Leishmans, Ina Pierce, Babs Brainard, and others around Prairie and Bates.
“It’s pretty country in the mountains around there,” I reminisced. “I remember the icy sled rides down the mountain, with bon fires made from truck tires along the way.”
“The country hasn’t changed much, from what they tell me. My mother was lost in the woods near there when she was five years old.”
“Really? What happened?” Then she related the story as it had been told to her, over and over as she was growing up around Bates in the twenties and thirties.
Little Emma Nelson wandered, alone and hungry, in the mountains. She drank from streams and curled up by mossy logs at night for warmth. Crews of men and dogs searched everywhere. They searched from daylight until dark, one day, two days, three days. Not a trace of the tiny girl was found. The community pitched in to help in every way they could, but it was as if she vanished from the earth.
The fourth day hope lagged. How long could a small child live out in these mountains, where the nights are cold, even in July? Some people stopped looking, but others, including a family friend named John Pierson, didn’t give up.
On the fifth day, John walked into an opening in the forest called Hawkins Flat. He looked across the clearing, and little Emma Nelson was sitting on a log. He approached her cautiously. He didn’t want to frighten the child, but she looked at him as he came closer.
“Hello,” he said quietly.
“Hello, John,” she answered. “Have you seen my daddy?”
Bates people are tough, and their memories are long.