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 (explorenorthblog.com). 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 msgates@northwestel.net

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