Sproule had prospected in Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Washington Territory. There are even reports that he spent time in South America and possibly South Africa, looking for diamonds. He’d come close in Oregon. He’d found a promising deposit of coal near Tacoma, but rival interests apparently “framed” him on a charge of arson and forced him to leave or face the possibility of imprisonment.
In the Kootenay District Sproule was convinced his luck had finally changed. His claim was clearly prior to anyone else’s. And any idiot could see that Big Ledge was tremendously rich in lead and probably some silver as well. There were technical difficulties, for sure. There was no easy route to the mine site. No apparent way to move the ore out. And Sproule, personally, had none of the financial resources necessary to build the needed infrastructure.
Nevertheless, Sproule was certain he could build his fortune here. It came as quite a shock that, within weeks of his initial claim, rivals were hot on his heels, a syndicate of prospectors and businessmen headed by John C. Ainsworth of Oakland California. They had big plans for the area, which included not just staking out as many mining claims as possible, but building rail lines and putting steamboats on Kootenay Lake. In a very palpable way, things had set themselves up as a David vs. Goliath story at Big Ledge.
To my knowledge there is no existing photograph or portrait of Sproule. He seems to have had no distinguishing physical features but he is variously described as strong, a good worker, a tough mountain man, and an experienced miner. Most important perhaps is his age. He was forty-something when he first came to Big Ledge, at least ten years older than most of his peers. He would have been considered an “old-timer” by the young bucks and, in his own mind, he must very much have regarded Big Ledge as his last chance to strike it big.
There is much disagreement about Sproule’s character. His friends describe him as reliable, trustworthy, a good worker, knowledgeable. Hendricks, who became his great financial backer in 1884 had no hesitation in hiring him as his superintendent of mining operations.
His enemies, however, paint a very different picture. They describe Sproule as a man of unpredictable movements, vengeful, argumentative. Indeed some describe him as a criminal, not only guilty of arson, but probably murder too—more than one.
There seems little doubt that Sproule had an intense dislike of Thomas Hammill who just before the close of the mining season in 1882, jumped his claim. His many threats against Hammill’s life are well documented. So when, on June 1, 1885, Thomas Hammill was found shot in the back, Sproule immediately became the prime suspect.
All the evidence against him proved to be circumstantial and, right to the moment before his hanging, Sproule continued to profess his innocence.
Who was the “real” Sproule? And what exactly happened on the day of the murder? That is the work of Big Ledge to explore and hopefully for my readers to enjoy.