mysteries of the mysterious 36 solved

A new MacBride Museum exhibit was opened at the Arts Underground on Friday August 28. It was titled simply: The Mysterious 36.

A new MacBride Museum exhibit was opened at the Arts Underground on Friday August 28. It was titled simply: The Mysterious 36.

It is an exhibit of photographs taken by a member of the party of the same name, which entered the southwest Yukon in 1898, looking for gold. They were so named because they were one of numerous “syndicates” that came to the Yukon during the gold rush, but this one was sworn to secrecy about their purpose.

Inspector A. M. Jarvis, of the North West Mounted Police, described them: “As they were very reticent in their remarks, and no one being able to find out what their real business was, they were called the ‘Mysterious 36’ and later on in the season dubbed the ‘Big Push.’ I understand, but not officially, that the lieutenant (Adair, the leader of the party) was representing the Standard Oil Co. and some eastern Canadian capitalists.”

In 1960, Elizabeth Banks Nichols donated to the MacBride Museum an album of photos that had belonged to her father, Henry Dow Banks, who was a member of the party. It had long been thought that he had taken the photos himself.

The photos, approximately 200 in number, depict the activities of this group as they embark from Seattle, and make their way north by ship to Pyramid Harbour. In March, with snow still on the ground, they dragged sleds of food and equipment over the Dalton Trail into the southwest Yukon, where they established several different camps from which they explored for gold.

The collection is a remarkable selection of images showing the people and places involved with the party that summer. The photographer had an uncanny knack for choosing his subjects because of their human interest.

Most of the images show various individuals or groups from the party in the beautiful Yukon landscape, hiking, working, and socializing. In my opinion, they are as good as any photos taken by more famous photographers like E.A. Hegg.

Leighann Chalykoff, who curated the exhibit, stated that the selections were personal favourites, chosen for their content. The exhibition will be on display for the next month and it is well worth taking in. The only complaint I have about the exhibit is that there wasn’t enough wall space to display more examples from this remarkable collection.

I have long wondered who took the photographs. Was it Henry Dow Banks? To add to the confusion, there is a similar album housed at the Alaska State Historical Library in Juneau that belonged to Fred Hovey, another member of the party. Hovey is identified by the Alaska State Library as the photographer for that collection. Most of the photos in the Hovey album duplicate those in the Dow Banks album at the MacBride Museum.

To further confuse matters, the book, Gold Seeking on the Dalton Trail, written by Arthur R. Thompson, contains some of the images captured in the Banks album. Could Thompson be the photographer?

I hadn’t given this question much thought until this spring, when my current study of the Dalton Trail compelled me to consider the question more carefully. With two nearly identical photo albums, we can’t credit both owners as being the creators of the images.

There are clues to this question hidden in the historical record.

Della Murray Banks, who accompanied her husband, Austin, on a trip over the trail in 1898, wrote two detailed articles of her experiences for Alaska Sportsman magazine in 1945. In one of these articles, she referred to Arthur Thompson, whom she describes as a Yale graduate, as ill-suited for the rigours of northern travel.

More interested in scenery than gold, Thompson had brought along a Kodak camera, she writes. At one point, he dropped the camera in Shorty Creek, but when he later had the rolls of film processed, the pictures turned out just fine.

Could these be the photos we see in the Banks album? The photos from his book, which match those in the albums, suggest it.

Prompted by the announcement of the exhibit opening at Arts Underground, my wife Kathy did more digging and came up with some interesting corroborating evidence.

When Thompson returned to his home in Hartford Connecticut, the local paper reported on the event. Banks’ album adds detail to the experience of the Mysterious 36, as does the letter from Banks’ daughter, Elizabeth Banks Nichols, to Bill MacBride.

Banks left Hartford, Connecticut, for Seattle in February. The cross-continent journey took six days. When the boat on which they had booked passage did not materialize, they were stranded in Seattle until they left on another vessel, the Farralon on March 9.

Arriving at Pyramid Harbour March 16, they immediately set out for the interior, each man pulling a large sledge of supplies over the ice and snow.

The snow was as deep as 2.5 metres not far from the coast, and the coldest day they experienced was at Boulder Creek, before they went over the summit. They reached the Chilkat summit April 6 after hauling their supplies up over 1,000 metres above sea level. On April 9, they encountered blizzard conditions.

According to the newspapers, the men suffered considerable hardships and worked on short food rations. They rose at 2 a.m. and travelled early to take advantage of the cooler hours, when the snow was still hard enough to haul over. One day, they were forced to travel nearly 30 kilometres to find a camping place with firewood and water.

According to Nichols, the exertions of her father, especially when he had to drag his heavy load over melting snow and soggy ground contributed to varicose veins, from which he later suffered.

The party attempted to find gold in several different locations over the summer, having the best luck at Shorty and Alder creeks in the Last Chance Mining District, but the isolated location of the diggings made it uneconomical to continue mining.

Thompson returned to the coast with a pack train in early August before the remainder of the party, who were expected to leave the district in September.

Nothing more is heard from Thompson until February of the following year, when the Hartford newspaper reported on his first illustrated talk: “The lecture was illustrated by over 100 views, made from photographs taken by the lecturer,” stated the newspaper.

The article goes on to describe the content of the photos, which along with a report of a second lecture given in April of 1899, includes mining, sled trains, rafting, and the building of log cabins. This could easily be a description of the photographs in the Dow Banks album.

Regardless of the true identity of the photographer, the photographs are remarkable, and the exhibit now on view at the Arts Underground is merely enough to whet your appetite.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.

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