Life and death on Black Hills Creek

In 1981, Yukon photographer Richard Hartmier brought me together with Fred Dorward, who was the vice-president of Territorial Gold Placers Ltd. At the time, the company had extensive placer holdings in the goldfields surrounding Dawson City.

In 1981, Yukon photographer Richard Hartmier brought me together with Fred Dorward, who was the vice-president of Territorial Gold Placers Ltd. At the time, the company had extensive placer holdings in the goldfields surrounding Dawson City.

Learning that the company’s mining activity would ultimately rework much of the old diggings, destroying the old mining camps, the cabins and everything associated with them, I proposed a reconnaissance of their property to assess the impact that their mining might have on the historic remains.

Using helicopter, truck and old-fashioned legwork, Fred, Richard and I spent five days in mid-September surveying various creeks more than 100 kilometres south of Dawson. From the air, we covered 140 kilometres of creeks and observed 124 sites. These consisted of old workings, log cabins in varying states of disrepair, old boilers, mining machinery, and various ground features.

A large number of these old remains were photographed from the air, but at some that were more accessible from the ground, we were able to photograph them up close and document their features.

I was astonished by the abundance and extent of the early day activities. There were cabins for living in, and cabins containing equipment. There were abandoned boilers, ditches, quarries, flumes, and old shafts plunging down into the frozen ground. We saw several roadhouses, cemeteries, and one community consisting of a cluster of more than a dozen buildings.

Of the dozen or so creeks that we explored, I thought the most interesting was Black Hills Creek. There we noted almost 40 separate sites, of which we were able to examine only a few on the ground, but these revealed a fascinating piece of human history.

Black Hills Creek was accessible over a rough gravel and dirt road 100 kilometres south of Dawson. To get there, you have to cross over two divides. From the second divide, we zigzagged down a mountainside into the Black Hills drainage. Black Hills Creek empties into the Stewart River, the next large river that drains into the Yukon south (upstream) of Dawson City.

Walking up Black Hills Creek through muskeg and bush, we saw one old cabin with a large spruce tree growing out of the roof. Renowned Yukon artist Jim Robb has immortalized this in one of his watercolours. Another cabin was slowly collapsing as the creek undermined its foundation. We were able to crawl inside through the tilting doorway, and there we found old correspondence addressed to Dan K. MacDonald. From the postmarks, we could tell that he was living in this old cabin during the Second World War.

But the history of Black Hills goes farther into the past than that. The creek was named in the 1880s after the mining district of the same name in South Dakota. During the Klondike Gold Rush, Black Hills Creek was prospected and staked by a syndicate of Scandinavian miners from Minnesota who called themselves “The Monitors.” Soon, the entire creek “was alive with hopeful men frantically engaged in digging holes.”

After the initial frenzy of the gold rush, things quieted down. The claims staked in 1898 expired, were renewed and expired again. It wasn’t until 1908 that records suggest it was re-established as a serious mining district. A police detachment was requested for the area, but that didn’t happen. A baseline survey was conducted that year, in response to the pleadings of the miners on the creek.

In 1911, Dr. Alfred Thompson promised that the road to Dawson would be rerouted along Black Hills Creek if he was elected to Parliament. Thompson was carried into office on a Conservative victory, and in 1912 construction of the road began. There was even a ferry across the Stewart River, and the White Pass stage line used the road for winter travel. It remained in use until about 1925 when another road was built farther to the east, to reach the mines of the Mayo district.

It was at what later became known as Marsh’s Roadhouse that the most tragic incident on the Creek occurred. “Mysterious Triple Tragedy Occurs on Black Hills Creek,” proclaimed the Dawson Daily News of January 29, 1913.

Eric Burwash, the driver for the White Pass overland stage, brought the news with him from Black Hills Roadhouse, where a local miner known as “Coffee” Jack had found the bodies of William and Hannah Smith and Mike Kelly the day before. “Coffee” Jack found Kelly’s body in the barn when he went to pay him a visit around 1 in the afternoon. The Smiths were found lying across their bed in the roadhouse. The roadhouse was still warm when the bodies were discovered.

It appears that Smith had a jealous disposition, which, no doubt would have been aggravated by the isolation of the roadhouse and the winter darkness and cold. He reportedly resented the friendly conversations between Kelly, the stable hand, and his wife. It appears that Smith shot Kelly, a former Mountie, first. Evidence suggests that Kelly lived long enough to try to dress his wound before he expired.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Smith was inside the roadhouse, trying to scribble a note to her daughter Jessie:

“Dear Jessie,” it said, “Will is going to shoot me and himself after. I did not think….”

Hannah Smith did not live long enough to complete her note. She was found with a bullet to the heart.

Her husband was found at the foot of her bed, shot in the chest. Between Smith’s knees was a rifle with a string attached to the trigger. The shoe and sock from one foot had been removed.

By 1923, there were at least 65 people listed as residing on Black Hills Creek. There were two roadhouses; Charles Marsh, the proprietor of one, was also the postmaster. There was also Wells Fargo service and Dominion Telegraph service to Black Hills. In 1917 the price of a stage ticket from Black Hills to Dawson was $10, and to Whitehorse, $65. Then, after the road was moved, most of the miners moved out.

Black Hills Creek and all of its old cabins and workings lay quiet and relatively undisturbed for decades until the price of gold started to rise in 1980. Since that time, there has been ongoing large-scale placer mining on the creek. I imagine that most of the old remains that fascinated me during my visit in 1981 have since been pushed aside.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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