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The Chilkoot Trail - Reliving the Klondike Gold Rush

by Murray Lundberg

Part 2

To Part 1
To the NPS Trail Guide

      To explore Bennett is at least a half-day project, and unless you arrive prepared, you'll miss most of the good stuff. Other than the church and the railway station, the other artifacts and important sites are well-hidden. During the Klondike Gold Rush, there were 5 important cities - Seattle, Skagway, Dyea, Bennett and Dawson - many other cities tried hard, but were at best of secondary importance in creating and maintaining the stampede. Some cities still try to latch onto the Klondike's coat-tails - until 2006, Edmonton celebrated "Klondike Days" rather than being embarrassed by their city's part in it.

      The community at the head of Lake Bennett first grew as a tent camp over the winter of 1897-1898 as stampeders stopped to build their boats and wait for the ice to melt from the lakes. By late spring, the population had reached about 10,000. Although a smaller community grew at Lindeman Lake, moving boats through Lindeman Creek was a hazardous undertaking, and the loss of a boat and outfit in the rapids led to at least one suicide:

[Frank] Matthews and his partner, George Folsom, had safely crossed the divide, and were rafting their supplies along the lakes toward the Yukon. In the rapids between Lakes Linderman and Bennett the raft went to pieces, the supplies were scattered along the river, and Matthews was rescued after a severe injury to his leg. His partner placed him in a comfortable position and started back for help. Before going a hundred yards he heard the report of a rifle and was horrified to find Matthews shot dead. Undoubtedly he committed suicide. (A.C.Harris, Alaska and the Klondike Gold Fields)
It's worth taking an unmarked but fairly obvious side trail to see Lindeman Creek, about a mile before reaching Bennett - I'm surprised that any boats made it through intact.

      Once the ice broke, on May 28-29, 1898, and the main rush of people moved on, Bennett's importance shifted to that of a shipping transfer point and construction camp for the White Pass & Yukon Route railway (WP&YR). The WP&YR originally planned to have their line reach Bennett by September 1898. The company, however, faced enormous technical difficulties, was blocked by Mounties who refused survey crews permission to cross into Canada for several weeks at a crucial period, and by a chronic labour shortage. There was violent opposition to Michael Heney's proposal to hire Chinese workers, and on August 7, 1898, over 1,000 workers left for the newly-discovered goldfields at Atlin. Many of those workers took the company's tools with them rather than wait for their wages.

      Through 1898 and 1899, Bennett City took on a permanent look as log and frame buildings replaced the tents. The commercial centre of Bennett formed at the mouth of Lindeman Creek, and was the location of a wide variety of services, including hotels and saloons, customs brokers and freight offices, barbers and laundries. Nearby, sawmills screamed night and day, and construction of sternwheelers, steam launches and scows was carried on at many points along the beach. The hilly topography and dry climate at Bennett combine to make signs of the town reasonably clear even after 100 years - many tents and later buildings were either dug into and/or terraced out from the hillside, or built partially on pilings over the lake. The wooden structures haven't rotted away, they were merely removed to be used elsewhere. One of the most famous moves is that of the Vendome Hotel, which was towed to Carcross over the ice in 1911 - it remains in downtown Carcross, as the 2-storey section of Matthew Watson's General Store (seen in the photo below).

Johnnie Johns, Yukon guide and storyteller, 1898-1988
Johnnie Johns, a Yukon legend, passes on his
stories to the children of Carcross in 1983.
Photo courtesy of the Government of the Yukon.
      The population of Bennett was largely transient, with even a high percentage of the businesses changing hands often as the owners' dreams shifted towards new areas. One businessman whose family would later gain fame was Fred Trump, father of Donald Trump (yes, The Donald). He owned the Arctic Restaurant, and a comment in The Bennett Sun of June 24, 1899, said upon his return from a quick trip to Skagway that "Fred touches only the high places when he hikes along the pike." A year later, Fred moved his restaurant to the new boom town of White Horse (now Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory).

      As of July 1st this year (1998), hikers will again be able to get sourdough pancakes at a tent restaurant in Bennett. Sponsored by the Yukon Outdoors Club and several Whitehorse businesses, and run by volunteers in period constumes, the cookery will use sourdough starter which was brought across the Chilkoot in 1898 by Wesley Ballentine and his sons - Wesley's granddaughter, Ione Christensen was born in the Yukon, and the sourdough was passed down to her. The tent is even to be located on the exact spot where a bakery was located in 1898 - sounds like a marvelous addition to Bennett's summer attractions. (Note that this restaurant is no longer being operated)

      Despite common stories that Bennett died as soon as the ice broke in 1898, it was still very much a viable town even in February 1901, with James Russell holding services in St. Andrew's Church, and The Bennett Sun still publishing weekly. The July 7, 1900 edition had devoted much of its space to a report on the new town of White Horse, but it wasn't seen as competition, merely as another town to serve miners and travelers on the route to the goldfields.

      I had set up my tent on the waterfront, right beside the rock-cribbed steamer dock - the best view in town (and the best rates too!). Sometime during the night I apparently had lots of company, although I didn't see my neighbours. For the last 5 miles or so on the way in, the number of piles of moose and caribou droppings on the trail had increased rapidly, and in the morning, the extensive beach had plentiful tracks, with 1 or 2 moose near my tent and 2 caribou to the east. It rained heavily all night, but most of the tracks were still very clear.

      The weather cleared in the morning just long enough to allow me to shoot off a couple of rolls of film. Then the skies opened up again as I was just finishing off my White Pass shots. The appearance of the WP&YR depot area changed dramatically from its historic appearance when, on March 29, 1974, the water tower and the original 1899 section house burned down. There is still a lot of rolling stock (mostly flatcars) sitting on the spurs at Bennett, reminders of the railway's heyday in the 1970s (this rolling stock was all moved to Carcross in 2001).

      It's time to leave Bennett. I must warn you here that my trip from here on is illegal - I was hiking on White Pass property, which is posted against trespassing, and is in fact dangerous once the track crews start working (2 weeks after I made the trip). The only options during the usual hiking season are to hike out, or take the WP&YR train back to Fraser, and bus from there to Skagway, Carcross or Whitehorse.

      I left the station in a cold, driving rain - looking back towards the Summit, though, I was really glad to be on the lake instead of in the pass. Along Lake Bennett, all remaining Klondike flavour is lost, with one brief, but very moving exception (that I'll tell you about shortly). The railway controls both the land and most of your attention.

      The section of track along Lake Bennett was the final one to be authorized by the British financiers of the line. For a while, it was firmly decided to just use steamers and barges between Bennett and Carcross, at which point freight and passengers would be transferred back onto trains for the run into Whitehorse. But on October 20, 1899, the Bennett section was approved, and 150 blasters went to work on the granite shores. Within a mile of the Bennett station, a shelf had to be blasted into a massive cliff. That section has now largely fallen away into the lake, and the ends of the ties are hanging in midair 20 feet above the water - crews have got some serious work ahead of them in the next 2-3 weeks to get ready for the new railbus (those repairs were made in 1998).

      In 1899 in particular, mining properties were being discovered regularly along Lake Bennett. While some were probably staked and promoted by dreamers and schemers with Bennett property to sell, there were legitimate discoveries as well:

Capt. John Irving, of the John Irving Navigation Co., arrived from Atlin yesterday morning, bringing with him the assayer's report on the ore sent to the Bank of British North America at Atlin for a test. The ore was from the recently discovered ledges 10 miles from Bennett on the lake shore. Several sacks of the same ore has been sent South for a further test. That taken to Atlin yielded $13 in gold, $63.90 in silver and 4 per cent lead ... the great width of the ledges from which this ore was taken and the advantageous position of the properties insures a very lively boom in the Bennett mining section, and points to the certainty of Bennett City becoming the great mining centre of the inland lake region.
Although a fair bit of work was done on the property, it produced little ore, and was abandoned the following year.

      Any of you who have hiked along a railway know that such 'recreation' is reserved for the self-abusive. I'm sure that tie spacing was designed specifically to discourage hikers. But, it is incredibly beautiful, even with pelting rain, and an even worse storm bearing down on me from the south.

      There are few structures left along the line - one that surprised me, and that I can't explain, is a large steam boiler plant at about Mile 46 (5 miles north of Bennett). It's really in the middle of nowhere, and I can't imagine what it powered. Just past the steam plant, I got another reminder of who is really in charge here at this time of year - very large, very fresh grizzly prints in the mud between the tracks! I moved my pepper spray to a outer vest pocket.

      On a long forced march like this, I found it useful to count off the distance with the mileposts - 6 miles down, 21.4 to go...

      As I came around the last corner before the station at Pennington, two caribou were standing on the platform - I wasn't quick enough to get a photo, but it was great to see them so close. The station itself was a very pleasant surprise, too - I hadn't expected such an impressive building. It's a large 2-storey section house that, although abandoned in the late '70s, looks like it could be put back into business in a few hours. And what a location for a B&B! It made for a superb lunch stop, with the sun still out, fresh snow very low on the mountains, and the icy wind churning up whitecaps on the turquoise water. As you read that, don't forget that this was May 22nd - anything can happen here, weatherwise.

      At the B.C./Yukon border, the Klondike reappeared in a strange way. Due to extremely low water, a series of islands were connected to the lakeshore by sandspits. The sun had come out for a little while, and I explored the little island right at the border for no particular reason. I found what might be expected - nothing. I had hiked past the next, larger island when something stopped me - I tried to 'logic' myself into continuing towards Carcross, but just had to go back for a look around that island. It was like a park - absolutely magnificent forest with no underbrush. After about 20 minutes, on a small plateau in the centre of the island, I found a stone-ringed grave with 2 wooden headstones. Although the names were eroded away, I could vaguely recall seeing an 1898 manuscript that explained how these people died, and had no problem re-locating the document at the Yukon Archives when I got home. Thomas A. Barnes and Luc Richard had joined a group from Iowa, and were freighting materials to Caribou Crossing (Carcross) to build a pair of steamboats. On May 10, 1898, Tom and Luc had gone though the rotten ice with their sled, and were drowned along with either 4 horses, or their entire team of sled dogs, depending on which report you believe. Their partners were able to recover their bodies a few days later, and buried them facing back towards home. This was truly the most deeply spiritual event of my trip - I wanted to camp there for the night, but the wind was still howling, and another nasty storm was rapidly approaching. I'll be back...

      The rest of the hike was very much anticlimactic - just mile after mile of adjusting my steps to coincide with the tie spacing. At about 10:00 PM, a light rain started, but by then it didn't matter. Another 45 minutes and I was able to unlock the cabin door, light a fire, pop a beer, and just sit back and try to comprehend all that I had experienced over the past 5 days.

      So that was the Klondike - Phew!!!

      If you'd like to continue on to Dawson City now, I've posted another 3-part article on canoeing the Yukon River, starting at http://www.explorenorth.com/library/yafeatures/bl-canoe1.htm

To Chilkoot Photo Album

References & Further Reading:

(Click on the book covers for more information)

David Neufeld and Frank Norris
Chilkoot Trail: Heritage Route to the Klondike
(Whitehorse, YT: Lost Moose, 1996)

Pierre Berton
Klondike Fever
(Toronto: Carroll & Graf, 1985)

Pierre Berton
The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay, 1897-1899
(Stoddart, 1997)

Don McCune
Trail to the Klondike
(Washington State University, 1997)

©1998-2008 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.