Col. James Baker: A Man of Odds

Janus' fourth look at the famous Baker brothers — this time coming closer to home.

Cranbrook town founder James Baker

Cranbrook town founder James Baker

Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them volley’d and thunder’d;

Storm’d at with shot and shell; boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death; into the mouth of  Hell rode the six hundred

From “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyso

Jim Cameron

It is remembered as one of the most stunningly heroic, stupendously pointless and ultimately disastrous cavalry charges in the history of modern warfare. That day in October, 1854, when, among others, the horseman of the 8th Hussars Light Brigade charged pell-mell down the field at Balaclava to try to retake British cannons captured by the Russian army.

And what has that to do with our fair city of Cranbrook, you ask? Well, it’s about the odds. If not for a military whim, the odds would have been six to one in favour of our town making its scheduled appearance on the map at the proper moment.

You see, there is good reason to believe that our founding father, James Baker, was to take part in the cavalry charge that saw 673 horsemen attack and some 120 die — roughly one out of every six. It has been recorded by reputable authors over the years that James, serving in the Light Brigade at the time, was reassigned to General Raglan’s staff at the last moment and therefore missed joining his fellows on their fateful ride into history. Instead, he lived to tell the tale — which he apparently rarely, if ever, did — and went on to found our present day community, but that is getting somewhat ahead of the story.

James Baker, one of seven siblings, was the youngest of four brothers born to Samuel Baker and Mary Dobson. Although ultimately less acclaimed than his brothers Valentine and Samuel Jr., he certainly contributed his share to the propagation of the Baker family name. This is readily apparent in and around our town of Cranbrook when you observe Baker Mountain or tour the Baker Hill heritage district looking at the dense shrubbery or contemplate the slow dissolve of Mt. Baker School or stop at the Mt. Baker Hotel for a beverage, or walk by the Baker Home in Baker Park and wonder, perhaps, how it is that a city park went from a 125-year-old historic green-space to a senior’s housing development or drop into the Baker Hill Dental Clinic (if they take drop-ins) or the Baker Hill Heritage B & B or the Mount Baker RV Park or the Bakery department of your local supermarket which is possibly the only thing in Cranbrook that isn’t somehow related to James Baker, even though it theoretically is.

James Baker is such an integral part of our community that we have erected a statue in his honour on Baker Street (Cranbrook’s Baker Street, not Nelson’s) except the statue is of a small elephant.

Ah well, it is a statue and, if nothing else, those of us historically inclined and overly imaginative might envision James’ brother Sir Samuel sitting astride a much larger elephant (except it was a camel) as he makes his way through the wild African jungle on his journey to discover Lake Albert above the Nile. Or perhaps his brother Valentine as he sits astride his elephant (except it was a white horse) leading his men into battle. Or perhaps his grandfather Valentine riding an elephant (except it was a small 1-gun British sloop) to confront a much, much larger French frigate of 342 guns which the little ship soundly thrashes to great acclaim throughout the kingdom and to the complete mortification of the French captain and crew.

Or perhaps Captain Vancouver’s navigation officer Joseph Baker, great-uncle to James Baker, who, upon his trusty elephant (only it was the ship “Discovery”), spots a rather large outcropping in Washington State which his captain promptly names “Mt. Baker”.

You see, in terms of English history the Baker family has been around for a long time and have largely been associated with aristocracy and money and large land holdings and wise business dealings and numerous adventures and occasional scandals and many books on how to improve things such as the British Army and Abyssinia and wild beasts and Turkey (the country, not the bird) and a whole lot more.

So, even though our only civic statue is in memory of a rogue elephant (no offense to Cranbrook Ed, who certainly deserves the recognition) it may, with a little imagination, represent more than that.

Perhaps we may imagine James himself astride the elephant as he headed up the heights of Balaclava to join blundering British commander Lord Raglan in observing the flower of English youth ride blindly and brilliantly into death and chaos for God and country and minimum wages. James may have thanked his lucky stars on that particular day. He may have thought, “Now that I have miraculously escaped that brew-up I will go on to study at Cambridge and eventually travel to the wilds of British Columbia to start a farm that will become a town that will become a city that will become the subject of this article.”

In truth, he stayed on in Crimea fighting with the army for a time, along with his brother Valentine and joined briefly by his brother Samuel but not by his brother John, who settled more or less permanently in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to oversee one of the large family plantations, but we are getting ahead of the story yet again.

In fact we are so far ahead of the story that we will have to give it a week to catch up.

janusthenandnow@shaw.ca