The Story of Ben-My-Chree
Ben-My-Chree, British Columbia
This story was published by the White Pass & Yukon Route in about 1939, in a 15-page, 5 x 8.25 inch booklet. It was presented to each guest who visited the remote homestead on a sailing aboard the sternwheeler Tutshi.
THERE is a sense of unreality for most at that journey's end - at Ben-My-Chree. A thousand miles they have come up the indented coast to Skagway. In the climbing train they have surmounted spectacular White Pass, where the only sound is of the roar of cataracts that are draped like fluttering gauze over the rocky ledges. They have coasted Lake Bennett, on which once were the boats and rafts of the gold-seekers going into the exciting north and on which now are only the rufflings of the winds like a hand over velvet. On the steamer Tutshi out of Carcross they have seen that further wilderness of dwarfed spruce trees with blue bloom on them, the time-bitten mountain ranges with glaciers in their high crannies and, at the end of West Taku Arm - after close upon a hundred miles of churning through that loneliness and grandeur of Lake Tagish - have had the surprise of a garden with the summer sunlight on it.
Once upon a time, to meet them there, were Mr. and Mrs. Otto Partridge, who made that garden, host and hostess unexcelled. This is their story, the story of Ben-My-Chree.
Otto Partridge was born in Hertfordshire England, in 1855, and when he was but a boy his people removed to the Isle of Man. The college at which he was educated was the well-known King William's, which is about a mile from Castletown near the south end of the island, and ten miles from Douglas, facing the bay. From the headlands there one can see the deep-sea steamers that have come through the North Channel, rounding the Calf of Man, lurching on their way to Liverpool, or heading for the Atlantic, outward bound. He was not the first King William's boy to hear the call of the sea and respond. In many an engine-room and on many a ship's bridge over the seven seas are old King William scholars.
At fourteen years of age he was apprenticed in the mercantile marine and when nineteen he sailed, with a younger brother, to San Francisco, having heard from an elder brother at that time resident there of an opportunity in a schooner trading to the Farallones and coast ports. Arrived at San Francisco they found that their wandering elder brother was off and away to New Orleans. There was at that time trouble between the States and Mexico, and what had these two young men to do but join a sloop of war under Commander John Phillips, special dispensation being granted them from Washington to sign on for three years.
That little flutter out into the world over, they returned to England. Mr. Partridge then fell heir to a legacy, married the woman who was to share thereafter all his romantic life, and set sail for California again. In the Santa Clara valley they set up their home on a fruit-farm, and there it was that Otto Partridge's interest in horticulture began. That's understandable. There he would see the whole valley when the white foam of spring broke upon it, and would know the view from Mount Hamilton looking over to Los Gatos when the prune orchards were in blossom.
In the year 1897 all the west was excited over the gold discoveries in the far north. Everybody was saying, "Klondike, Klondike . . . " It was like a refrain. One heard it on trains and one heard it in hotel-rotundas and in the clubs. It was in vaudeville songs: the Klondike. Skippers of ships putting into west coast ports could not let the seamen ashore because of the lure of it. If but one of the sailors were allowed to scull a boat to wharf on some business, the boat did not come back. French leave was the vogue then. The Klondike, the Klondike . . .
A friend of Otto Partridge's in Victoria wrote him a plea for his partnership on an adventure into that mysterious north, and in 1897 he was off. Those were wild days on the new frontier. Soapy Smith was very much alive in Skagway with his gang of desperadoes. Otto Partridge was carrying with him $20,000.00 in currency and the stories of Soapy Smith did not sound good to him, so he got permission from the skipper to pay a secret visit to the hold. Among his not wanted on the voyage effects was a bale of oakum - for shipbuilding was in his mind as one of the means of making good in the north. Transport, he realised, would be wanted there. Into that bale he put his ready cash. Soapy Smith's gang did some desperate things but the looting of cargo was not among them. Arrived safely up the trail at Bennett, Otto undid his bale of oakum and had his $20,000.00 again. With a little group of men looking for opportunities he floated the Bennett Lake and Klondike Navigation Company. The Ora, the Flora, the Nora - three of the first steamers on the Yukon - were Bennett Lake and Klondike Navigation boats.
Mrs. Partridge had come only as far as Victoria with him from the flower-scented Santa Clara valley, and was waiting there while he went on to spy out the land. But the following year she "went in" after him - over the famous Trail of '98, the old scar of which you see today from the train as it twines up the spectacular White Pass. Few were the women then in the land. In the old souvenir volumes of photographs of those days a women in any of the groups is a rarity. She went over that trail on foot.
The White Pass railway was being built and with its completion along the shores of Lake Bennett from the town of Bennett to Canyon City (which are now little more than names by the track-side) the Navigation Company's activities there came to an end. Further into the north went Otto Partridge and his wife. He took over a sawmill at Milhaven, a little to the south of Carcross where today you go aboard the stern-wheel steamer for Ben-My-Chree and en route for Atlin. For a home, Mr. Partridge built a house-boat on the lake.
There is no greater mistake than to imagine that those who live at what we call the ends of the earth are untouched by the culture of their time. There is sophistication and there is civilization. The former, a dubious veneer, may easily be chipped off when one is away from the sophisticated coteries. Civilization is more sincere. It can endure. Of those whom one sees when visiting the north, many are there but by reason of their restlessness that has sent them wandering the world over. They have known the great cities of the world, and its lonely places. They may have seen Pavlova dance as well as the dance of their winter blizzards. They know the sound the geese make when migrating, flying over, and the call of the bull moose in June they know, but also in their minds may be snatches of opera heard in New York or Paris - or, for the matter of that, the sound the wind makes rattling the palms of South Sea islands. It is a mistake to imagine that those one meets on the last frontier are all what's called hicks, with parochial minds.
With the history of the north the lives of the Partridges are blent. Bishop Bompas was then in the Yukon on missionary work among the Indians, and it happened that an old-country friend of Mrs. Partridge - Miss Dalton - came out from London to assist him in his labours. Finding Mrs. Partridge there on the house-boat she decided, instead of going in for missionary work, to join the Partridge menage and keep her friend company. It was at this period that they began their expeditions into the hardly known wilderness through which the waterways twine in their lonely fashion. Even today, from the train, you will feel the strange invitation of these regions. The vastness allures. It is an appeal very intriguing - a little terrible, a little fearsome. There are those who, feeling it, become enthralled. There are those who think it would be wise to be gone before it has them in thrall, as in Kipling's lines
They did not flee from it. It had its way with them. Mr. Partridge built a yacht, for the navigation of these waters, which he christened Ben-My-Chree, Manx for Girl of my Heart. All through his life was this romance of his love for his wife and devotion to her, a devotion reciprocated. They were always together. They knew the life of settled lands but the invitation of these wild and secret regions was in their hearts. One does not know the call of the wilderness who thinks it is all a call to come and rifle the gold out of its sands and rocks. There is something else. Even the seemingly hardened, or hard-boiled, old prospector who works for a grub-stake and then is off into the hinterlands in search for precious mineral, often in talk divulges something else holding him there. It is not only the eternal hope of vast wealth come at in a few days that lures him - the Golconda dream, the Quivira dream, the dream of the golden crock at the rainbow's end. There are items of the wilderness life that even those who most keenly are enraptured by them hesitate to speak of. To do so, they feel, would be like wearing the heart on the sleeve. As soon as one begins to speak of such things a sense of embarrassment comes to him in some circles. He is reticent lest he be derided if he tell of his ecstasy in such things as the fanning end of a mountain torrent flowing in liquid amber over the stones, the blue bloom on the spruce, the cry of the loon across the waters that tells him he has escaped from the trammels of the world that is clamped down under paving-stones. His secret might be foolishness to another - that's the idea, the deterring thought. Were you to ask, "What makes you stay away out there in that lonely world?" such an one might reply, if sure you would understand and not mock: the smell of wood-smoke, the hurrying voice of rivers in the idle remoteness, the sigh of wind in pines and that extraordinary silence that follows after, that hush in which one has rumor of eternity.
Go softly by that river-side or, when
you would depart,
You'll find its every winding tied and
knotted round your heart.
The yacht careened with them over Lakes Bennett, Tagish, and Marsh. They went upon hunting expeditions into the further recesses, getting meat for their winter supply. It was in those days that a prospector, Stanley McLennan, came to Mr. Partridge with news of a gold discovery at the end of West Taku Arm. He had found gold, and silver, in the rocks, but had none in his pocket. He had to be grub-staked, and Partridge grub-staked him. Not only that but, with his yacht, he helped in the transportation of supplies. It happened that just then Lord Egerton arrived from England, looking for a virgin hunting country. Otto Partridge was a man after his own heart. They shared that love of the remote. The camp beside the lost lake, the aurora shaking the sky with its plumes, the sense of escape - these they shared.
One day they climbed to the prospect away above the high cliffs, and Lord Egerton became excited over it all. The scene is impressive in its austerity and, for those who can be moved by wilderness as well as formal garden, unforgettable. But not only the grandeur of the scene excited Lord Egerton. The mineral showings, unearthed by Stanley McLennan, he felt, warranted financial backing for development work. All that was needed was capital. So Lord Egerton, Mr. Partridge, and Miss Dalton (who all this while had been accompanying the Partridges on their expeditions) pooled a sum of money to allow of the working of the property. The house-boat was towed all the way from Milhaven. Cabins were built ashore for a mining crew, and the work began in earnest. Lord Egerton went home to England and all was going well when old Nature took matters in hand.
One spring, when the thaws came, an avalanche began to slip on that mountain and in its progress started a rock-slide. The timbers of the trestle-towers of the gravity tramway that had been built up the steep slope were snapped like matches, the mine workings were buried under tons of debris, and several members of the crew were overtaken and killed. Did you ever see a rock-slide? That is no little run of scree for a few yards. The rocks, big as houses, are undermined by the melting of the snows. The slide comes down and thrusts its weight against them. There is cataclysm, havoc. There is a roar as of the tipping of a thousand trucks of steel rails. The boulders roll down and roll not straight, being not, of course, complete and polished spheres but monstrous and jagged things. They roll a little way in a straight line and then, endowed with individual and erratic life, leap sideways. Cannoning into other rocks they send these trundling and bouncing downwards. With the most appalling divagations they descend, and in the momentum they may roll on uncertainly across the flats at base of the mountain from which they have been loosened. Avalanche and rock-slide are among the terrible manifestations of Nature in lands where still it is at work, has not come to rest.
That disastrous slide stopped the mining labours at the head of West Taku Arm. One might think that it would have put a period even to the occupancy, that they would have left the place to Nature then. But no. In the course of all these labours they had come by an affection for the land. They were identified with it; it was theirs. And besides, Mr. Partridge was not of the sort to accept defeat.
They left the house-boat that had been their home. They went ashore and began the building of the cabins one sees there today. To open up the mine again may have been in Mr. Partridge's mind all the while; but in the making of the home he worked on. He made of it a place fit for a woman of culture to live in. He laid out vegetable gardens and flower gardens. They had gone softly by these river-sides; their every winding was indeed tied and knotted round their hearts. Talk of the desert and the sown! In that wilderness they built their home and tended their gardens. The sweet-peas, the tall delphiniums, the enormous pansies of the long northern summer days, the columbines were strange contrast to the hard, the implacable cliffs. And that they might not be cut off from the outer world Mr. Partridge approached the transport company (the White Pass and Yukon Route) and asked them, when the steamer came up the lake to the Engineer mine, some miles below, to send it on to Ben-My-Chree. When people inquired of them if they did not feel cut off there, why no! they said, not they. There is such a thing as the international postal service, and they had many correspondents. Among these, by the way, was Theodore Roosevelt. They had their books; they had, in winter, their dog-team and their sledge should there be any call to "go out;" they had the beauty of winter - a beauty as great as that of summer - and with the winter's cold they knew how to cope. It was not loneliness they felt then; it was a sense of seclusion. The frost drew its white flowers on the pane, lovely as these summer flowers flaming in the garden.
The home Otto Partridge made, he called by the name of that yacht he had built to explore these waters, Ben-My-Chree, Girl of my Heart. Twice a week through the summer the steamer churned on to the very end of that twisting inland fiord and tied up to the cliffs. The passengers went ashore, wondering what there was to see. There were the mountains - they were obvious. They stared down in their austere and eternal fashion. In their high creases were the glaciers. There was the ambient silence, that silence in which all the north is held as if waiting for something, something mysterious that some day will have its avatar. And then round a bend the garden blazed at them - and there was Miss Dalton waiting to receive them at the gate, and Mrs. Partridge at the door. And there was Mr. Partridge to conduct them round and show them the flower-beds and the produce of the glass-house too, and lead them away to the beaver meadows.
The unexpectedness of it, when one seemed to have come to the end of all things, had a strange effect on most. The quality of unreality clung to the visit. It was more like a dream than an incident of the actual day. Indoors, refreshment awaited the guests. The Partridge home was yours while the boat tarried. As a story-teller Otto Partridge was enthralling, a gifted raconteur. Ask him of the old days of the north and the yarns would come forth, extraordinary, whimsical, wild. Here was an experience that, for most, would befall but once in a life-time. That he might not take all the attention - though all were eager to have him go on - he would set them a-singing. No haste to be gone. The day lasts long in summer in these high latitudes. Your watch might tell you it was nine of the evening but the light belied it. Day was still golden in the sky overhead and clinging to the long fiord. And there was so much to see - from the beavers at work in their colony to the glass-houses where the Partridges had their vegetables in season. Yes, and mushrooms in February, he would say, and show the visitors how. On board again, the steamer thrashing its stern-wheel on the way back, and the wave-washed loneliness on either hand, and night at last welling up along the ranges and turning them into high walls with ragged tops, it was indeed as though Ben-My-Chree was a dream.
What, one wonders, will happen to the old harmonium in a corner beside the stairs? It was brought in half a life-time ago. It is an old-timer, too. Its voice fails; it is cracked; it is more a souvenir now than a musical instrument; but in the old days it led the singing, Mrs. Partridge playing, when the guest from outside, loath to go, lingered on. The cards left on the big tray at the table's end by these transient guests before going back to the other world, and the visitors' book, let us know of those who have been there through the years. The Mesdames Nordica, Schumann-Heink, Alma Gluck; Charles Wakefield Cadman - these and many others well known have been there. Queer to remember that lonely water where the moose come down to drink and the house in that surprise of a garden, and how when one strolled alone up the slopes to get an impression of the scene the clumps of trees were as wicker nets to catch the quiet. Queer to remember all that in the midst of the bustle of affairs in the world's centres.
His life had made Otto Partridge what's called a broad-gauge man. The old days of the north (when all races jostled on that desperate trail of '98, and in the camps were men from all ranks of society) had no doubt its effect on his outlook. There are many today, the "great war" over, who think as he thought then, who feel hurt when they hear expressions of international hatred or envy or malice. But long before that lesson of the war it was a dream of Otto Partridge's to work toward the elimination of such really primitive acrimony. On one wall of the large living-room of that home in the wilds, so close to where the boundaries run of American and British possessions, he had the flags of Britain and of America hanging side by side. All were welcome, whatever their nationality.
Those who visited them in those days tell that to see Mr. and Mrs. Partridge together was to be aware of the harmony of their minds and outlook. Each was the complement of the other. Their devotion was palpable without parade. We live in an age of triangle stories - at least in fiction - but all the world loves a lover. And that is one reason why the Partridges are remembered in the north and why, gone from these scenes, the memory of them endures. We cherish the stories of the great lovers of the world, and do so without shame. We think tenderly of Orpheus and Euridice, of Romeo and Juliet. There is something in the stories of these that stands to us as symbolic of the love that endures. Modern men and women, in modern clothes, building their homes, talking over where to plant the cabbages and the dahlias, conferring over the bank's balance-note at the month's end, opening tins of canned goods, washing up the dishes together - they also have their romance. In the most ancient love-stories it was dragons the hero subdued. Other dragons are fought today. Indeed, are not the dragons of the old myths but symbolic? That is one reason why the story of these two, as time passes, becomes a treasured legend of the north. Their happiness in their romance was not a selfish quality but one that was overflowing and that those who came in contact with them shared.
This place at the back of beyond became famous. All the world over were travellers who, when in the mood of remembering, would be back in spirit there. The voice of their host would be again in their ears. His personality, his easy friendliness, they would recall. Early in 1930, just when navigation opened on the lakes, he was suddenly taken ill. Years of clambering in that upended country had told upon his heart. They got him out to White Horse and there, shortly after his arrival, he passed away. To his wife there was but one duty left, one labour - a labour of love and remembering, there she remained, keeping open house as he had done, for all who came. But with all her charm one had the feeling that she had another wish, unspoken, the wish to be with him again. It was at the back of her eyes, despite her kindly attention to her guests. Her friends thought it would be better if, for he next winter, she "came out;" so, with the last boat, before the winter claimed the lakes, she left for white Horse and there, worn despite her rare sprit, and with her secret loneliness, the end came. Otto Partridge had not long to wait for the company of his life's companion in the further travels of the spirit.
Miss Dalton, who had some time earlier gone back to England, expressed a view shared by many - one may say shared by all in the north who knew these two: that the old place might not be left to nature to obliterate. It had become a point of pilgrimage during their lives. Why, just because they were not to be seen there in the flesh, should it be forsaken? For thirty years, associated with Mr. Partridge, had been Mr. Swanson. During the last summer he it was who tended the garden in the wilderness, and now he has taken over the estate, he and his wife resident there.
For those who have not yet been there, Ben-My-Chree - when they know its story - must have a quality as of these other places to which people make pilgrimage for the sake of a dream that has been beautifully lived. If any ghosts haunt that room where the flags - the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack - are draped side by side on the wall in evidence of amity between the nations who share the north-land, be sure they are kindly ghosts. And round that lonely house in the heart of the hushed wilderness, for these two whom even death kept but a little while from each other, is the garden that they loved, for a memorial.