The Search for Nurse Mary Warburton

Mark Warburton recently sent me the following link. It links to the story of William Alfred “Podunk” Davis, and his role in the search and rescue of Nurse Mary Warburton. Further research found additional links here, here, and here.

The last link gives access to pages from Riding the Skyline by Allerdale Grainger in which he describes meeting a Miss Allen who is identified as Mary Warburton. The meeting was during one of her annual treks, and sometime after her adventures in 1926.

In fact the book is authored by Martin Grainger and Peter Murray from the writings of Allerdale Grainger. Peter Murray also wrote Home from the Hill is a ‘triography’ on biographical materials pertaining to the lives of M.A. Grainger, Clive Phillips-Wolley and Warburton Pike, all of whom were authors who wrote about British Columbia.

The Search for Mary Warburton

From these sources I discovered that Mary Warburton (circa 1871-1931) went to Canada from England in the 1920s when she was in her late 50s, and settled in Vancouver where her brother lived. She was a nurse, working mainly in private homes. I assume Warburton was her maiden name, but have seen no indication either way, or any information on who her brother was.

Mary developed a habit of taking long walks in the British Columbian wilderness, probably as her annual holiday. Two of her trips were reported in the news – one from Hope to Princeton in 1926; the other from Squamish to Princeton in 1931. Both trips were made in the autumn.

Nurse Mary Warburton

In August, 1926, Mary was aged 56. She had just completed a long nursing session with a terminally ill patient and decided to take a working vacation as a fruit picker in the Okanagan. She determined to walk from Hope to Princeton and camp along the way. She arrived in Hope on August 24 and discussed her plans with the local provincial policeman.

On August 25 she left Hope for Princeton, a 65-mile journey. She set out wearing a light khaki hiking outfit and supplied with food which would last four days: “4 packets of RyeCrisp, a half pound each of bacon, butter, and cheese, a pound of raisins, 2 oz. of almonds and some tea.  A frying pan, a billy [cooking pot], a spoon and a single-bladed pocket knife, plus a sketch map of the area and a compass, completed her kit.” She left behind her groundsheet to lighten her load as good weather was forecast. She apparently despised overeating.

On the second day of her hike (and having travelled about 25 miles), Mary  took a wrong turn. On Day 3, she stumbled and lost nearly all her food in a mountain stream, except what remained of the half-pound of butter. She conserved the butter by eating only a small portion morning and night; but in a few days, it was all gone. From then on, the only nourishment she got came from chewing leaves and fungi, which she did not swallow. She claimed that after the first week, she didn’t feel hungry.

On August 26, according to writer Joan Greenwood, “she came to Bill Robinson’s cabin, 23 miles from Hope. It was early morning and Bill was still in his bunk. She rapped on his door but did not wait for an answer and by the time Bill had pulled on his trousers and opened up he was only in time to see her brisk figure disappearing towards the east. Later, while investigating a mining claim, he saw her footprints near Snass Creek.” Days later, after hearing of her disappearance, he compared notes with another prospector named White who had also seen her. A packer named Alf Allison had passed her on the way out and expected to catch her up on his way back to Princeton but missed her and reported it.

This was before the end of August and a search party was launched, joined by Mary’s brother from Vancouver. On September 16, three weeks after she’d last been seen, a four-inch snowfall covered the mountains. By September 21, however, the search was all but called off.

Meanwhile, after becoming hopelessly lost in the Paradise Valley area, Mary stumbled onto the cabin, “a rough cedar slab shelter”, of a Princeton old timer known as Willard Alfred “Podunk” Davis. He had left matches inside a piece of paper in a tobacco tin in the cabin. Desperately wet and cold, she lit a fire but managed to set the shack alight. Evidence of the recently burned cabin rekindled the search for her, and a final effort  was undertaken by BC Provincial Police Constable Dougherty and  “Podunk” Davis.

Shortly after pitching camp in Paradise Valley they heard a faint ‘hello’, and after a search Davis came upon the nurse, who, supported by a stick, was tottering in the direction of the camp-fire smoke.  She was in an emaciated condition and her clothing was in tatters. All that was left of her shoes were the soles, which were bound to her feet with pieces of rope. “You’re an angel from heaven,” was the woman’s greeting as she collapsed at Davis’ feet.

Mary was transported by pack horses and automobile to Princeton , and “after arriving at the hospital, insisted on taking a hot bath, unaided, before she was put to bed.”

The area of the Paradise Valley near the headwaters of the Tulameen River has been named Warburton Park, and there are interpretive panels in the Manning Park headquarters office. Podunk Creek drains into the Tulameen River nearby.

Five years later, and by then 60 years old, Nurse Warburton was again missing, this time walking from Squamish to Princeton.

From the start, however, her prospects on this trip seemed grimmer. The search seems not to have been initiated until 9 weeks after she left Squamish. And by the time of the search, it was the first week of November and accumulated snow would have been a factor along mountain trails. The length of her planned trip was also substantially greater (although for some reason the searchers confined the scope of the searches to the area between Squamish and Indian Arm.)

On the first search, a note from the nurse was found, along with other “traces” of her. A second search the following week was unsuccessful. Neither Mary nor her body was ever discovered and she was presumed dead.

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