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History Hunter: Ben Warnsby was a Yukon Pioneer

I was saddened to learn that Ben Warnsby had passed away recently in his 93rd year.

I was saddened to learn that Ben Warnsby had passed away recently in his 93rd year.

I remember him well, especially when I lived in Dawson. At that time in his life, he was in a mining partnership with Mike Stutter on a bench overlooking the lower end of Hunker Creek. In more recent times, I frequently encountered him walking the Whitehorse Millenium Trail below the dam on the Yukon River. He always had an interesting story to tell.

Warnsby was born Oct. 23, 1929 and grew up in Lincoln, England and as a young man gained experience working as an operator at the Lincoln power plant. After serving two years with the Royal Engineers during World War II, he returned to the same job. This work experience would gain him entry into the Yukon a few years later.

He was 23 years old when he arrived in Canada in January 1952. He made his way across the country to Vancouver in search of work. He turned down an opportunity to go fishing because he was prone to seasickness. Instead, because of his work experience before coming to Canada, he was offered an opportunity to work at the North Fork power plant, which was operated by the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation (YCGC) some 45 kilometres outside of Dawson.

He arrived in Dawson in early May, and was taken aback by the terrible wet weather in the small town with wooden sidewalks. He considered flying out the following day, but at 7 a.m. the following morning, Jack Seeley of YCGC knocked on his door and took him out to the North Fork Plant, where he was introduced to Newt Webster, the power plant superintendent.

There was a bunkhouse and mess hall at North Fork, but the cook wasn’t scheduled to start for another month, so Warnsby had to go back to Dawson to pick up supplies to carry him through until the cook arrived. It was there that he met Fred Caley, who operated a grocery business in Dawson.

Warnsby was flat broke and couldn’t pay for his food so he selected sparingly from the shelves. Finally, Caley intervened and added the essentials he would need to carry him until the end of the month. Caley then told him to pay for his purchase when he could afford to. Warnsby said they became good friends.

Warnsby started working for the princely wage of $1.18 per hour. It was two years later that Stutter arrived at the power plant to begin working for YCGC. They became lifelong friends (Stutter passed away in June 2022 at the age of 91). Ben saved enough money that by 1961, he and Stutter were able to purchase the river freight boat Brainstorm for the sum of $8,500 from Frank Burkhard, who had been operating the vessel the previous two years.

Stutter and Warnsby started hauling freight to Old Crow, supplying local trader Joe Netro with supplies as well as the Mounted Police and other government operations in the tiny northern village. For the next 14 years, they continued to carry freight to Old Crow often making five or six trips a summer. Warnsby admitted that they didn’t realize how foolish their enterprise was and they never knew until the end of the year if they made any money.

Sometimes when the river was low, they couldn’t reach Old Crow by the Porcupine River, and had to cache their shipment ashore for delivery the following season. The trip required their constant attention 24 hours a day for a round trip that took nine or 10 days. It was exhausting work that required them to be always alert to river conditions. Thanks to their crew from Old Crow and Dawson, (Percy Henry, Henry Henry, Paul Ben Kassi, John Kendi, Gordon Frost and Alfred Charlie), they were able to safely bypass the many the hazards on the Porcupine River.

Meanwhile, they hauled freight for other customers up and down the Yukon River whenever the opportunity arose. In 1964, for example, they hauled supplies to the new mine at Clinton Creek.

They decided to haul non-perishable supplies overland to a point 160 kilometres above Old Crow during the winter, and then the following summer, they could bring the goods into Old Crow without having to make a complete return trip to Dawson City.

In 1970, Warnsby ventured forth with several others on a small truck convoy of 1,300 kilometres over an improvised winter road to reach Old Crow. At times, the temperature dipped to -50 Celsius. Gas lines froze up and so did fingers. Brake fluid solidified and they suffered mechanical problems. But they wired a moose roast to the manifold of one of the truck engines and it was done to a turn in less than 300 kilometres. Unfortunately, they were unable to reach their destination, but returned safely to Dawson City.

In 1962, Stutter and Warnsby purchased the Orpheum Theatre in Dawson. It was operated in their absence by other family members from 1962 until 1966. Sometimes, the theatre was closed during the coldest months of the winter. In 1969 Warnsby entered into another partnership with Hank Dubois and Cedric (Sid) Carr, purchasing the N.C.Co. mercantile store in Dawson and operating the DCW grocery store until it burned down after the flood of 1979.

But if that wasn’t enough, when the price of gold was allowed to float, Warnsby and Stutter formed Miben Mining in 1970. They ran a placer mining operation on Dago Hill, three kilometres up Hunker Creek, for 25 years. I visited their operation on several occasions while they were hydraulicking the deep gravel deposits and then washing the pay dirt through a screening plant that had come from one of the abandoned YCGC dredges.

In between times, Warnsby and Stutter cut firewood in the winter. Warnsby tended bar, drove a cab and even purchased the Bank of Montreal building in Dawson in 1968, when the bank ceased operation. He then sold it to a speculator from Calgary. In 1975, Warnsby incorporated as Warnsby Holdings with share capital of $110,000.

Warnsby met and fell in love with a Dawsonite Loretta Barber. They were married in Merritt, British Columbia in 1970. They had a son they named Bruce, who is now a lawyer practising in Whitehorse. Loretta passed away on New Year’s Eve 2022.

In 2013, Warnsby and Alex Seely, his partner in a mining venture on Bedrock Creek in central Yukon, were the recipients of the Robert E. Leckie Award for “outstanding and responsible practices in placer mining.”

HHe and Stutter were later inducted into the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame as the 2015 Yukon Transportation Pioneers of the Year. Warnsby was also a member of the Dawson Lodge in the Yukon Order of Pioneers.

A true pioneer, indeed!

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net