Wild West Mountain Race
The real-life adventures of Jo Curtis Flieger were the stuff of movies — action! Joseph Curtis Flieger was born October 5, 1901 in Chatham, N.B. As a boy Joe played Cowboys and Indians, but he noted, “I was as far away from cowboy-land as a trip to the moon.”
In 1918, he headed West, where a brief stint building track got him to Lone Butte, B.C. It was here he found work as a cowboy in spite of a woeful lack of the necessary skills.
Jo (dropped ‘e’) stated,” Becoming a cowboy was like trying to join a society of magicians where everyone jealously guarded his own secrets. One had to steal the trade. Sneak a peek and try to figure out how it was done.”
In 1919, Jo was part of a group that mounted a Wild West-type show at the train station for Pacific Great Eastern Railway passengers. This show is generally acknowledged as the first (unofficial) Williams Lake Stampede.
By 1923 Flieger was announcing and riding in the first daredevil downhill mountain race. He had also dreamt up a trick riding act. It featured him standing in the saddle with the aid of special foot straps while holding a bottle of beer. He’d start his horse, Grey Eagle, down the track, whoop and holler, swig back the beer and lurch this way and that, seemingly out-of-control. Then he would “accidentally” rip off the horse’s bridle, all at a full-speed gallop past the grandstand. He called it “the Drunken Ride” — and the crowd loved it.
Jo Curtis Flieger showing off ca. 1920s
The new mountain race he was staging was based on a similar event Jo had viewed in Kelowna B.C., where Indian riders raced wildly down a steep mountain. He marked out the Williams Lake course — a mile-long run with a 700-foot drop down Cougar Mountain, across the highway and into the Stampede arena.
“We had only eight entries, including myself, for that first Mountain Race event. One was a girl named Olive Curtis, and another was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and several were Indians. I was riding Grey Eagle and felt confident we could show the rest of the competitors the way home,” writes Flieger.
He was right; Grey Eagle kept him in front of “the thunderous pack” and he won easily. The race was such a thrill for one notable spectator, General A.D. McRae of the Canadian Army that he asked to meet Flieger.
“I’ve been all over the world and seen all kinds of horse races, steeplechases, everything, but that race down the mountain was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen. For next year’s race I’ll put up a big silver trophy for the winner. I hope you’ll be here.”
The next year, the general donated an ornate silver trophy and 14 racers lined up for the start on July 2, 1924.
“The starting gun cracked and we shot out like a thundering herd down the mountain, with rocks and twigs and dirt flying everywhere. Eagle and I were in the lead, but Pierre was right on my hip, whacking his horse and hollering like a crazy man. We had gone maybe a hundred yards when Pierre’s horse tripped and fell, and in a split second Pierre flashed over and landed on his head and broke his neck. Horses began to fall right and left, as if someone were shooting them. Later, I heard this caused quite a commotion in the stands, and several women fainted. Grey Eagle was running as wild and hard as he could go because he loved to run, and we still held the lead. We pounded along the flat to the finish line, and won by a hundred yards. The time was 1 minute and 34 seconds. I picked up General McRae’s trophy cup and $40 cash. Only four riders finished that race. The rest were scattered over the side of the mountain in various states of disrepair. One man and two horses were killed.”
|Jo Curtis Flieger, left, and Antone Augustine Boitano in conversation behind the chutes at the Williams Lake Stampede many years ago. Although Flieger left Williams Lake for good very early in 1928 and ended up living in the U.S. for the rest of his life, he and Antone maintained their friendship.
Photo courtesy of Terry Crosin
In the winter of 1927, Grey Eagle died and somewhat dispirited, Flieger began to contemplate leaving the Cariboo. He stayed long enough to honour commitments, and then left for New York City. In April, 1928, Flieger hired on as a bronc rider with California Frank’s Wild West Show based in Paterson, N.J., and once again, life got more exciting for Flieger.
After a lifetime of wild adventures, Jo Flieger died in 1998.
All information and quotes in this story are taken from the book: Dreams Come True For Cowboy’s, Too! The Remarkable Life Story of Jo Curtis Flieger as told to J.G. Harcourt Huckle.