Slaughter on the Klondike trail

I have just returned from a trip to Bennett City, British Columbia, at the terminus of the Chilkoot Trail, where I went to investigate a century-old abattoir site.

I have just returned from a trip to Bennett City, British Columbia, at the terminus of the Chilkoot Trail, where I went to investigate a century-old abattoir site.

In previous articles, I have reported on the extensive slaughter and butchering of livestock during the gold rush that took place along the banks of the Yukon River at the end of the Dalton Trail. All that remains today are the whitened bones scattered amongst the undergrowth, slowly being enveloped by nature.

Large herds were brought in from the coast, and reached the Yukon River below Carmacks late in the summer. In the cooling temperatures of September and October, the animals were butchered and shipped down river to Dawson City in barges or on large rafts.

While the Dalton trail was the main route to supply meat to the hungry miners of the Klondike, it wasn’t the only route. Former colleagues from Parks Canada, including historian David Neufeld, directed my attention to a site of interest near Bennett City, on the shores of Lake Bennett.

An archeological report dating from 1991 described a pile of cow, horse and moose skulls near Bennett City, with “a single bullet hole in the left parietal area of every skull,” and a scattering of skulls and jaw bones over a 39-metre radius. I had to see this with my own eyes. What secrets would this site reveal about the early beef industry in the Yukon?

I took the White Pass “hikers’ special” train from Carcross to Bennett to spend three days investigating the site that lies hidden in the forest a short distance along the trail. Despite a blustery start to the trip, for the next two days the sun shone in all its glory and I was blessed by picture-perfect weather.

Accompanying me on this brief expedition was fellow history hunter Murray Lundberg. Murray has placed an excellent photo essay of the trip on his blog site ( The plan was to conduct a low-impact examination of the site, and any others that might be found. No holes would be dug, and no remains displaced; the site(s) would look untouched after our examination.

We were met by Parks Canada’s Christine Hedgecock, who is a seasoned Chilkoot Trail veteran. Christine knows more about the Chilkoot Trail than anybody alive. We followed her as she wove her way through the forest until we came out to an area littered with bones. This was the site we were to examine.

We checked the area briefly, and then returned to the site the following day to take a closer look. We counted the left and right jaw bones, and whole, or nearly whole skulls, to determine the minimum number of animals represented, and came up with 32.

The largest concentration was piled next to a big boulder. A dead pine tree lay across the pile of bones; complying with the instructions not to disturb anything, we did not remove this obstruction, nor was any attempt made to disturb or move anything from this pile. Close inspection made it obvious that even more skulls were buried below the surface layer, indicating that a larger number of cattle were slaughtered here than our minimal count indicated, either in a single event, or over a short span of time.

Our observations raised many questions. I noted an absence of foot bones, which were prominent in similar sites that I have visited. Did this reflect a different butchering practise? I couldn’t think of any other plausible explanation. The only other bones that we noted were a couple of C-1 and C-2 vertebrae.

Bullet holes visible in the foreheads of several of the skulls confirmed the cause of death. Consistency in this means of slaughter suggested that they were all killed at the same time in the same manner, perhaps by the same person. One anomaly was a skull from which the horns had been cut, presumably for decorative purpose.

We could see no evidence of corrals, or butchering apparatus. There was a small clearing nearby. Did this feature in some way relate to the cattle or the butchering of them? A bundle of barbed wire also found near the site might have had some association with the abattoir, but it was not strung out in a fashion that suggested a fence.

There were more questions raised than answers provided by what we saw. Who butchered the cattle, and when? Why did they choose the location that they did? How did they set up their work at the site, and what apparatus did they use? Photos of the area taken during the gold rush suggest that there weren’t many trees left standing. If they had built fences, corrals or other apparatus, would the materials have been scavenged by stampeders after the cattlemen abandoned the site?

The historical record provides some tantalizing, but not conclusive clues to the identity of the owner of this herd of cattle. Willis Thorp and the Waechter Brothers, both American outfits, brought cattle to Bennett City in October of 1897. The Waechter Brothers slaughtered, butchered and cached 50 beeves for the winter; they then moved the meat to Lake Laberge and on to Dawson City in the spring. Could this feature at Bennett City have been their butchering site?

Pat Burns, of Calgary, had cattle at Bennett headed for Dawson and Atlin. Mounted Police records from Bennett City reveal that they purchased beef from Burns and Company. Was the Burns outfit responsible for the pile of skulls?

A photograph taken on the shore of Lake Bennett showed a butchering operation under way. Stephen Layton Dowell is identified in the photograph. Murray and I were able to identify the location of this butchering operation from reference points visible in the photograph, so this abattoir was eliminated as a suspect.

I have documentation for more than two dozen herds coming over the White Pass through Bennett between 1897 and 1906. Eliminating those that were sheep and hogs, those that were herded live to market in Dawson, and those that passed through Bennett on the train leaves very few choices. Of course, there are plenty of others for which I haven’t yet found any records.

I can’t say for certain who was responsible for the pile of skulls at Bennett, but given the information now available, I would bet that this abattoir site was connected with the Waechter Brothers, who slaughtered 50 head of beef at Bennett City in October of 1897.

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A proposed Official Community Plan amendment would designate a 56.3-hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. Whitehorse city council will vote on the second reading of the Official Community Plan amendment on Dec. 7. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
Future area of Whistle Bend considered by council

Members set to vote on second reading for OCP change

The City of Whitehorse’s projected deficit could be $100,000 more than originally predicted earlier this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City deficit could be just over $640,000 this year

Third quarter financial reports presented to council

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speaks during a COVID-19 press conference in Whitehorse on Oct. 30. Masks became mandatory in the Yukon for anyone five years old and older as of Dec. 1 while in public spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
As mask law comes into effect, premier says $500 fines will be last resort

The territory currently has 17 active cases of COVID-19

Crystal Schick/Yukon News file
Ranj Pillai, minister of economic development, during a press conference on April 1.
Government rejects ATAC mining road proposal north of Keno City

Concerns from the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun were cited as the main reason for the decision


Wyatt’s World for Dec. 2, 2020

The new Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation council elected Dec. 1. (Submitted)
Little Salmon Carmacks elects new chief, council

Nicole Tom elected chief of Little Salmon Carcmacks First Nation

Submitted/Yukon News file
Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to the unsolved homicide of Allan Donald Waugh, 69, who was found deceased in his house on May 30, 2014.
Yukon RCMP investigating unsolved Allan Waugh homicide

Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to an unsolved… Continue reading

A jogger runs along Millenium Trail as the sun rises over the trees around 11 a.m. in Whitehorse on Dec. 12, 2018. The City of Whitehorse could soon have a new trail plan in place to serve as a guide in managing the more than 233 kilometres of trails the city manages. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2020 trail plan comes forward

Policies and bylaws would look at e-mobility devices

Snow-making machines are pushed and pulled uphill at Mount Sima in 2015. The ski hill will be converting snow-making to electric power with more than $5 million in funding from the territorial and federal governments. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Mount Sima funded to cut diesel reliance

Mount Sima ski hill is converting its snowmaking to electric power with… Continue reading

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Most Read