Peter W Rainier

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Peter W Rainier

Birthplace: Ehlanzeni, Mpumalanga, South Africa
Death: July 06, 1945 (50-59)
Red Lake, Kenora District, ON, Canada (Hotel Fire)
Immediate Family:

Husband of Ruth Aileen Rainier

Managed by: John Richard Michael Weeks Jr.
Last Updated:

About Peter W Rainier

Peter William Rainier, born 1890 near Barberton, Swaziland (South Africa), died July 6th, 1945 in Red lake, Ontario, Canada. He was a Big Game Hunter, Civil Engineer, Mining Engineer (gold, diamonds, emeralds & coal), a "scout" in the South African Forces campaign against German Southwest Africa during WW I, a Major in the British Royal Engineers during WWII, and an author of several books; one of which was made into a major motion picture, Green Fire (1952). His family name, which came from the French “de Regnier,” was changed many generations ago to the more English-sounding “Rainier.” He came from a long line of British naval admirals and sea captains and he was the great, great grand-nephew of Peter Rainier, the British naval admiral for whom Mount Rainier, Washington, was named.

First years (1890-1918)

Peter was born in 1890 in an itinerant's tent during the Barberton gold-rush in Transvaal, South Africa, with a native Swazi midwife presiding (wife of the local witch doctor). His father had been a midshipman in the British Mercantile Marine who jumped ship, married his mother, and wound up as a transport rider regularly herding an eleven-wagon "oxen-train" from the Barberton gold strike to Lorenço Marques (a seaport on the Indian Ocean) and back.

He was raised with natives as playmates, educated at home by his mother, and his first sport was hunting game with throwing sticks. Beginning at the age of nine, his first real school (called Weston College - an overseas branch of the English Public School System) was in Natal where his father had bought a farm with the idea of settling down to educate one boy and four girls. There he learned "rugger" (rugby) and cricket instead of Zulu sports and was drilled twice a week in army matters in the cadet corps. The Boer War began on October 12th, 1899 and he had to leave school in only his first year because the area which included his parents' farm became occupied by the Boers and he had to live with other families in safe-haven until the war ended on May 31st, 1902 with the Treaty of Vereeniging.

Military service

When he came of age, he joined the Natal Carbineers (cavalry) as a trooper and participated in ending a Zulu rebellion. After demobilization he searched for diamonds in the desert of present day Namibia, hunted elephants in Mozambique, prospected for gold on the Ruenya River (a tributary of the Zambesi River) and learned how to assemble and operate a giant gold dredge on the Revue River (a tributary of the Busi River) in Mozambique, while functioning as the deputy to the dredge camp manager. Based upon his prior military service, he was accepted as a hard-riding cavalry "scout" in the South African Forces campaign against German Southwest Africa when WWI first started. He was in the battle of Gibeon, the little known but decisive WWI battle wherein the Germans lost their southwest colony forever (now called Namibia) leaving only German East Africa (once called Nyasa Land and now called Tanzania) as a further threat to the Allied Forces.

Transfer to civil service

After his second demobilization from the South African military, he volunteered for the Western Front in France but to no avail. This was because the Essential Industries Board of South Africa transferred him on "foreign duty" as a civilian to the important war-effort job of speeding up severely lagging production on the gold dredge that he had helped to assemble years before on the Revue River in Mozambique. It was thievery that was side-tracking the gold and he caught the persons who were responsible. He married Winnie Miller from a farm near Estcourt (he first met her at age 16 when he had once boarded with her family) and left her behind with her people in Beacon Hill, South Africa, when the Essential Industries Board again sent him on "foreign duty" to construct and operate two giant tin dredges on the Bauchi Plateau 525 miles Northeast of Lagos, Nigeria. Later, his wife joined him and they were waiting for their first child to be born when his wife contracted influenza, the scourge that accounted for hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide during World War I. She bore her child while unconscious but both mother and child died. The war ended shortly thereafter, but there was no joy in it for Peter W. Rainier. He stayed on in Nigeria until his relief arrived in March, 1919, and then set sail for England, as all "colonials" did when they had a chance to visit the "Mother" Country. After a short stay in the British Isles, as a widower at age 29 he decided to go to the USA to seek his luck there.

The land of unlimited opportunities (1919-1927)

His first job was as an erecting engineer for the Bucyrus Steam Shovel Company of Chicago, Illinois. After a short on-the-job training by the shores of Lake Michigan, he was sent to the coal fields of Pennsylvania to assemble and prepare the giant steam shovels at several coal mines. While there, he threw in with a clever mine operator and in the Spring of 1920 they formed an independent strip (surface) mining operation as partners with Peter W. Rainier employed as mine superintendent. During this time he was married again to a "Pennsylvania Dutch" widow named Margaret with two children, Minnie (16) and Walter (14). They soon had two more children, Margaret (born 1922) and Dorothy (born 1924). After enduring several coal strikes and in spite of other obstacles, they enjoyed amazing strip-mining success - now operating six mines. Just when they were about to pay off their mines within the year, the big coal operators, who now could no longer ignore their successes, ganged-up on them forcing their businesses into receivership and an ultimate total loss to the partners.

Prospecting and Developing Land

Undaunted, Rainier left his wife and children behind on her farm in Pennsylvania and on Christmas Day, 1925, headed out to prospect for gold a little west of the Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. He work there for six months without much luck and returned to Miami, Florida, to get in on the gigantic land boom there, joining-up again with his former coal-mining partner, Bill Bitard. They spent the next 18 months in Florida, and ended up developing a property on the west coast of southern Florida in the Lostman River country. Rainier actually finished the Official Land Survey of the United States Of America when he uncovered an error (a hiatus) in the original survey which was duly accepted by the U.S. authorities and corrected. On the Plat records of that part of the Florida Everglades there is a now a National Park with a Lake Rainier; "to match the mountain in the State of Washington which was named after my great-great-grand-uncle, the Admiral, by the explorer Vancouver."([1]Green Fire) Then, after eight years in the USA, Peter W. Rainier decided to return to the southern hemisphere and the "delectable" lands "down under", sold his interest in the Florida land development, left his wife and the youngest two children behind in their new house in Florida (their third child, a boy, was born there), and traveled to Colombia, South America, to take over an ailing emerald mine.

South America, Continent Beneath the Southern Cross (1927-1938)

The Chivor Emerald Mine near Somondoco, Colombia, once a mine operated after the Spanish conquest that had been "lost" and then re-discovered again in modern times, had become almost a "white elephant" in mining circles. It had not paid for itself for a long time when Peter W. Rainier took over management of the mine. Without prior experience with this kind of gem, he turned things around in the next years, made a great deal of money for the New York owners, and, in the process, became one of the world's leading authorities on emeralds and emerald mining (see first item, Bibliography). While there, in 1929, he was reunited with his wife Margaret and two daughters Margaret (Marge, 7), Dorothy (5), and his Infant son Peter,Jr. (3) who had been born while they were waiting back in Florida to join him. They bought 5,000 acres of virgin mountain land and established an estancia called Las Cascadas (The Waterfalls). Then the Chivor Mine was lost to him because it had become too valuable as a mining property; the stockholders battled for control, and after having given them his "all" for four years (including chasing armed bandits off the property for the owners), he was squeezed-out in the struggle.

A civil servant again

He was then hired-on officially as a mining consultant by the Minister of Finance of the Colombian Government in an effort to revive the languishing government-owned Muzo Emerald Mine. While there, he assisted in making it pay well again and stopped an age-old epidemic that the workers had been cursed with for many years; called locally "muzo fever". After a couple of epidemics, Peter W. Rainier had told the medical authorities that it resembled "yellow jack" that he had seen before in Africa and he was positive that it was Yellow Fever. After the doctors dismissed his theory, it turned out to be, in reality, Yellow Fever. It had been spread regularly by the South American bedbug called "la chinche" and 200 gallons of FLIT did the job. He said in his book "Green Fire" (see Bibliography) that a famous medical foundation confirmed this in writing and their doctors had penned a two-page apology letter.

At loose ends - an independent mining consultant

His contract with the government of Colombia allowed him to also take on private clients once the Muzo Mine was producing again, and he did so until 1938 or shortly before the outbreak of WWII in Europe. On the side, he had tried his hand at newspaper publishing in mile-high Bogota until he found out there was no money in it and his competitors were happy to buy him out. He built a suspension bridge across the middle of a sixty-mile length of the Guavio River which was otherwise known as un-fordable due to its high embankments on both sides. His wife died on the operating table and he became a widower for the second time. Because of health complaints due to mourning and the stress of straight-up and straight-down mining surveys on horseback in this mountainous region, his doctor told him to get back down to sea-level again for a couple of years. He sold his estancia, left South America forever and sailed for Egypt to become engaged to marry Ruth Chesborough, now a widow and former wife of an old friend from his years in Florida.

Getting into "The Show" (1939-1943)

Peter W. Rainier, who started writing while an emerald miner, continued this from his home on the Nile River in Maadi, near Cairo, Egypt, assisted by Ruth, his third wife. He was back down at sea-level again and really "fit", as predicted by his doctor in Colombia, and itching to get into the "fight" after Poland was invaded on September 1st, 1939 and Great Britain had declared war on Germany on September 4th, 1939. Notwithstanding his regained healthy physical condition, being accepted by the British military was not easy at age fifty years (plus). Becoming a "Sapper" (British Royal Engineers)

He had tried to get into the military once through normal recruiting channels; however, after admitting he was over 50, he was turned down as being "too old". But, after hearing Winston Churchill's "blood, toil, sweat and tears" speech on the Radio on May 13th, 1940, with Ruth at his side, he attempted it again by going direct to the Commanding Brigadier (General) of the British Royal Engineers (Egypt). He got in because they were desperate at that moment for personnel with railway experience. When he related that in 1923 he had built a short 15 mile long "Z" shaped 8% gradient railway line in mountainous Pennsylvania at the Bitard Moshannon Coal Mine to be used with a new-fangled gear-driven locomotive that could handle up to 10% grades, they practically dragged him into the Sappers and offered him a commission to boot . . . his age was "accidently" forgotten!

Becoming known as the "Water-Bloke"

He became the oldest Junior Subaltern (Second Lieutenant) in the British forces and became known later as the "water bloke" by building an ever-extending pipeline to furnish filtered fresh-water to the British troops pursuing Rommel's (The Desert Fox) army into Tunisia. From the very beginning and especially from the Battle of El Alamein onwards, he traveled the whole 2,000 mile mine-ridden way providing life-sustaining water to the British Eighth Army who spearheaded the allied Tunisian Campaign in a dozen bitter battles that ended in victory on 13 May 1943.


British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (later, in 1953, Sir Winston) had paid his tribute to the battle-weary but victorious british troops by saying: "if any man asks you what you have done in the war it will be sufficient to say 'I marched with the Eighth Army'." The Sappers retired Peter William Rainier as a Major in June 1943 just after the hostilities in Africa had ended. He is remembered as one of the few original members of The Army of the Nile (General Wavell's "thirty thousand") who survived the three long years of fighting allowing him to witness the final victory over the Axis powers in Africa.


Peter died as the result of burns sustained in a hotel fire in Red Lake, Ontario, Canada on July 6th, 1945, while there attending a mining conference. He had attempted to jump through a window when his room was suddenly inundated by flames, and as fire licked his fingers and singed his feet below, he clung to the windowsill before falling into flames. He survived several days and was able to give a full account to his wife, Ruth Rainier, who later wrote about his experience in her memoirs.

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Peter W Rainier's Timeline

Ehlanzeni, Mpumalanga, South Africa
July 6, 1945
Age 55
Red Lake, Kenora District, ON, Canada