death on the chilkoot trai

Steve Cassidy and I finally struggled out of the brush to get a clear view of Windy Arm. That’s when we found the grave.

Steve Cassidy and I finally struggled out of the brush to get a clear view of Windy Arm.

That’s when we found the grave.

You find the most unusual things as you travel through the northern wilderness, but you don’t expect to find someone buried in the middle of nowhere.

We had spent the day returning to Windy Arm from Tutshi Lake.

We were conducting an archaeological survey along the route of the future road to Skagway.

It was 1973, and the bulldozer sat at the BC border waiting for me to give consent to start clearing the way.

The dead man’s name, J. F. Whitcomb, was inscribed on a metal plaque mounted on a large chunk of granite at the south end of the Tagish Lake arm.

Later, I found the mounted police report stating the cause of death.

It was one of those tragic accidents that often occur.

He was on the trail to the Klondike when he stumbled and his gun discharged. That was the end of his Klondike story.

The plaque mounted on the boulder remains in its isolated location to remind the occasional visitor of Whitcomb’s demise.

During the gold rush, this story was repeated many times along the trail north to the Klondike.

Resting on a sandy hillside behind Bennett is a graveyard filled with the bodies of stampeders who died on their golden quest.

On a rocky terrace overlooking the former site of Lindeman City is a second graveyard with a dozen permanent residents overlooking the magnificent view of Lindeman Lake. There are also individual graves scattered along the Chilkoot Trail.

These hopefuls came from all over Canada and the United States. Others came from England. Both genders are represented — young and old. 

Baby Henry Bluth died at Bennett May 14, 1898. I imagine his parents were about to push their boat off toward Dawson City when the tragedy occurred. 

At Lindeman City, the seven-month-old infant of Mr. and Mrs. Card died in May of 1897. The infant daughter of another couple, Mr. and Mrs. J.D. McKay also died and was laid to rest next to the Card child.

A picket fence was built to protect the site.

A hundred years later, the site that I believe contains these infant graves is located on a high rocky lookout above Lindeman Lake on a segment of the trail now hidden from the thousands of hikers who pass by the vicinity every summer.

The fence, which long since collapsed, and was recently replaced with a replica to mark the site as part of a cemetery restoration project, reminds us of the heartbreaking loss of these children at this isolated spot.

The remains of North West Mounted Police constable Pearson are buried in the cemetery at Bennett.

A new marker was placed on this site by the RCMP in 1998 to remind us of one who, in the service of others, was stricken with typhoid and died as thousands passed by the site on their way north.

Five railway workers are remembered in the Bennett cemetery with their names inscribed on a marble headstone.

These people died from drowning, freezing, typhoid, fire and avalanches.

Two were known to have committed suicide.

One of these individuals, J. W. Mathes, attempted twice to float his supplies through the short stretch of rapids connecting Lindeman and Bennett Lake.

After losing his second outfit in the whitewater, he took his own life.

Ironically he was buried on the hillside overlooking, for eternity, the river that brought about his demise.

James McCue, from Hutchinson, Minnesota, was on his way home from Dawson City.

Suffering from heart disease, the 63-year old blacksmith reached Bennett, where he died on a cold October day in 1898, leaving behind a wife and eight children. His possessions consisted of $48 in cash and $5 worth of nuggets.

Thanks to Ed and Star Jones, who just completed a voluminous study of Yukon deaths, and the extensive knowledge of veteran Parks Canada patrol person Christine Hedgecock, we identified one of the gravesites at Lindeman as that of Joseph Fortin, a relative of famed pioneer Emilie Tremblay.

Fortin died at Lindeman two years before the stampede began.

As part of my work, I have been able to add names to the growing list of 70 tragic souls who died on the Chilkoot between the summit and Bennett.

Most tragic of all, however, are those whose identities have been lost to time. 

Often found without identification, or simply not reported fully, these individuals lie along the trail, in simple unnamed graves.

I was able to put a name to one of these unknown individuals.

Buried in Lindeman cemetery, his marker suffered the ravages of time.

The wafer thin cedar panel on which his name had been inscribed had literally fallen apart from exposure to the elements.

The badly weathered inscription was barely legible. What we could discern was that this person, who was from Aberdeen, Washington, was a member of the Masonic order, and that his last name included the letter “n.”

In candlelight, late August of last year, at the Lindeman Lake warden station, Christine Hedgecock, park warden Rene Rivard and I scrutinized the shadows cast by the slightly raised letters on the weathered fragments of the panel, hoping to gain the identity of this individual.

It was to no avail.

I contacted Dann Sears, the director of the Aberdeen Museum of History last winter.

Within days, he responded to my query with some solid information. The June 2, 1898 edition of the Aberdeen Herald reported on this unfortunate death.

His name was William S. Kent, and he had died of typhoid fever on May 16, 1898.

Kent was a steam engineer who had worked for a number of years at a mill in Aberdeen before being caught up in the frenzy of the gold rush stampede.

Two months earlier, he and a friend had left Aberdeen in search of fortune, but now Kent lies in his final resting place, having left a widow back in Aberdeen to mourn his loss.

After learning his identity, and with the financial support of Masonic lodge members from Whitehorse, we placed a new marker on the site of his grave.

Overlooking the peaceful waters of Lindeman Lake, I stood with park warden Simon Johnson beside Kent’s grave this past August.

We had completed our work replacing the Kent marker. The day was bright and warm, and the air still as we paid our respects to the fallen prospector.

Kent’s identity should now survive the passage of time and resist the ravages of harsh weather and long winters.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.