History hunting is more than just history

I have just returned from the site of the old ghost town of Bennett, BC, which is the terminus of the arduous Chilkoot Trail at the top end of…

I have just returned from the site of the old ghost town of Bennett, BC, which is the terminus of the arduous Chilkoot Trail at the top end of Bennett Lake, and now part of a national historic site.

I spent my four days there as a volunteer, completing a project that I started before I retired from Parks Canada, and to which I felt particularly wedded.

Some of you may recall the article that I wrote last year where I described the work that I was doing at the cemetery at Lindeman City, a site which is closer to the summit along the trail, and harder to get to than Bennett.

The cemeteries and graves along the trail had, over the past 110 years, fallen into a serious state of disrepair, and I had developed a project that addressed many of the problems associated with the decay.

The work in this project involved placing new fences around the graves, removing the encroaching vegetation, replacing some badly decayed wooden markers, and preserving the originals for future reference.

As part of the project, I had been in touch with a relative of one of the deceased buried in the cemetery at Bennett, as well as the Masonic lodge in Whitehorse. The lodge was interested in replacing the marker of a brother who had fallen at Bennett so many years ago.

The plans for these two markers took considerable time to develop, as we worked out the details of their markings, wording, measurements and shape. Then I had to negotiate the fabrication with the manufacturers, one a local firm, the other a craftsman with experience in this sort of thing.

The pieces had to be transported to the burial sites, a kilometre from the train station at Bennett.

One of them was made of 10-centimetre thick marble and weighed in at 110 kilograms.

With the help of two Parks Canada staff members, Rebecca Rothgeb and Styd Klugie, I was able to build fences for the graves, install the markers and clean up the site of an isolated grave that overlooked the river connecting Lindeman and Bennett Lakes.

The stories of the fallen exemplify the lunacy, the tragedy and the chaotic nature of the event that was the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Chilkoot Trail came to symbolize the challenges and the hardship of the human odyssey.

In the fall of 1898, James McCue, aged 63 years, was returning from Dawson City to his home in Minnesota, disillusioned and broken from a life of toil as a blacksmith, and in ill health when his heart gave out on him at Bennett. He left a wife and seven children behind.

We don’t know how Laughlen McLean died, but he left a wife and family behind in Richmond, Quebec. McLean was a Freemason.

The death of J.W. Mathes may have been the most tragic of all of them. He tried unsuccessfully not once, but twice the spring of 1897, to navigate an outfit of supplies through the raging waters of the river between Lindeman and Bennett Lakes.

“My God, what will become of Jane and the babies?” He said in despair after the second disaster, as he pulled the trigger of his rifle and blew his brains out.

The project was finished and successful, and I felt satisfied with the accomplishments of the past three years to see this small project to its conclusion.

To complete this year’s work, I brought my food and tent with me, and remained at Bennett for the duration of my stay. This enabled me to be close to the work site and accomplish more work, while my assistants commuted from the warden station at the other end of Lindeman Lake.

Their daily journey, which involved boat trips each way, and then a trek over the sandy northern end of the trail, took a full two hours of their time.

By staying at Bennett, I was able to enjoy some of the other features of the site, including its natural beauty. Buffered from the noise of the White Pass station by a promontory of tree-covered rock.

My tent looked out onto beautiful Bennett Lake. Each morning I could open the door to my tent and look out upon the mountain-bound water.

I appreciated the three-day break in the exceptionally wet cold weather we have been experiencing this summer. My time at the Bennett campground was warm and dry, and it rewarded me on my final morning with a momentary display of crimson-hued cumulus clouds to the northeast as dawn broke.

One evening, the wind died down and the clouds cleared; for 25 minutes before the sun moved behind the wall of mountains on the other side of the valley, I was able to bask in the soothing warmth of its rays.

Early mornings were replete with a changing choir of bird songs, which were followed later in the morning by a chorus of coyotes, whose high pitched, reedy and shrill calls echoed across the calm waters of Bennett Lake from the far shore.

Their symphony was stilled by the lone reply of a full throated wolf howling soulfully from some unidentified point on the opposite side, not far, I imagined from the pack of lesser canines.

I was joined by two squirrels and three grey jays who took cashews and walnuts from the palm of my hand, brazenly returning numerous times for refills.

The last morning a black bear sauntered past my tent while I hurried to tie my food sack and hoist it back up the pole out of reach. By the time I was finished, the bear had vanished.

There was a single party of hikers for company each night of my stay, each with its own story, and all making a strong connection between the history of the place and the exhausting journey they had just completed.

It pleased me to hear them speak about their personal experience, contrasted against the collage of past human events that occurred along the trail.

One man, a Vancouverite, but recently returned from a six-month assignment in Australia, showed me the small book of trail history about the trail he had devoured while hiking the trail.

Another couple, both German, had stopped at the interpretive display in the tent at the Lindeman campsite, the day before, and absorbed much of the history communicated there.

They shared their thoughts with me by explaining how the history made the hike they had just completed so much more interesting.

The third party was made up of a father and son from Anchorage. This was the boy’s first outdoor adventure with his dad, and the father was determined to impress upon his offspring the importance of self-sufficiency and of the ordeal that had tested so many people a century ago.

My project to help preserve a fascinating piece of history was successfully completed. But there is so much more to history hunting than just the history…

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

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