Make Bennett great again!

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but an eye for a good hotel location seems to run in the family. Trump's grandfather Fred ran a hotel in Bennett during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but an eye for a good hotel location seems to run in the family.

Trump’s grandfather Fred ran a hotel in Bennett during the Klondike Gold Rush. A flair for improbable marketing slogans also seems to be a family trait. An early ad for the Arctic Hotel in the Bennett Sun from 1899 says the Arctic had “every delicacy in the market” and “cuisine under the management of a scientific chef.”

One supposes it took a lot of science to render frozen packhorse meat palatable. The restaurant is also said to have offered delicacies such as oysters, fresh fruit and ptarmigan.

According to Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations that Built an Empire, despite these amenities the “bulk of the cash flow came from the sale of liquor and sex.” The Arctic was open 24 hours a day and boasted “private boxes” for ladies, which included a bed and a gold scale for payment.

They didn’t have TripAdvisor in 1899, but one writer to the Yukon Sun said that “For single men the Arctic has excellent accommodations as well as the best restaurant in Bennett, but I would not advise respectable women to go there to sleep as they are liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings and uttered, too, by the depraved of their own sex.”

The elder Trump later moved from Bennett to Whitehorse. It didn’t take a flash of Trumpian business genius to see that Bennett didn’t have much of a future once the train got to Whitehorse. Half the entrepreneurs of Bennett seem to have rolled up the track to the future capital (including Yukonomist’s great-grandfather). Nonetheless, there was soon an Arctic Hotel on Front Street in Whitehorse. The newspaper ads said, “Newest, Neatest and Best Equipped North of Vancouver. We have come to stay.”

Of course, Trump grandpere was gone soon after. Like the stampeders who founded Nordstrom department stores and Filson outdoor clothing, Trump didn’t get filthy rich in the Yukon but accumulated enough capital to go home and start what ultimately became a big business for his grandson Donald to inherit.

I was just vacationing in Bennett myself. After slogging in there on skis with a 40-pound pack, I can assure you I was in the market for a warm bed and a bacon-and-eggs breakfast. (I’ll pass on the frozen pack horse, ptarmigan and other Arctic Hotel services.)

To my surprise, Bennett was hopping. Perhaps not by the standards of the Arctic Hotel after dark, but at least compared with what you might expect from a frozen ghost town with no road access. A dozen skijoring enthusiasts zoomed past us near Bennett Station. Their dogs were pulling them too fast for me to conduct an interview for this column, but they seemed to be eco-tourists. Later in the day, as we bushwhacked towards Lindeman Lake we skied into a forest clearing only to find three contented-looking Germans having a wintery picnic.

Bennett is a magical place. It’s a ghost town with a thousand legends and its own picturesque railway, surrounded by mountains that make Switzerland look like a dump.

Unfortunately, we make it so difficult to get there that almost no one visits. The only reasonable way to get there is by train, and that is expensive and seasonal. Getting there from Log Cabin involves bushwhacking since you can’t walk or bike on the train tracks. To get there by boat requires a 40-kilometre trip on the notoriously stormy Bennett Lake. In effect, we spend millions on ads luring tourists to our region, and millions maintaining historic sites, and then make it as hard as possible for the former to visit the latter.

Repurposing Donald Trump’s slogan, it is time to make Bennett great again.

I would suggest a mountain bike and hiking trail from Log Cabin to Bennett, roughly in parallel with the tracks but not so close your wilderness idyll is shattered by passing trains. In the winter, skiers and snowmobilers could use it. Add a small hotel and restaurant with cabins or wall tents. Some day you could even have something like Lake Louise’s famed Skoki Lodge, hidden up in the mountains past the ski resort.

With access and a place to stay, you could have rafting on the Lindeman River and also lots of trails, day hikes and ski touring in the area. It would also encourage Chilkoot Trail hikers to stay one more day in our region and spend a few more bucks.

This idea is so good, it turns out, that I’m nowhere near the first person to have it. As we skied over to Bennett’s old commercial main drag, we found a nearly complete mini-hotel. It turns out that the Carcross-Tagish First Nation in partnership with Parks Canada is working on these concepts and many more.

It is a great idea and they are to be commended for taking the initiative to make it happen. The critical thing will be improving accommodations, activities and access at the same time. A nice wilderness lodge will have a hard time surviving at Bennett unless access gets easier.

I look forward to being an early customer. I can’t wait to tell my wife that I’ve booked us a table and wall tent in Bennett.

I have just one piece of advice. Don’t build a 10,000-foot runway. A future President Trump might land Air Force One there to see where his inheritance got started.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won the 2015 Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.

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