Thanks to Lynn Shervill for writing this piece and to the BV Museum for the older photos.
In the Winter 2014 issue of Mining Exploration Magazine local mining historian Tony L’Orsa mentions some of the colorful characters who scoured the Babine Mountains east of Smithers for viable ore deposits, men like Jack Mackendrick, Joe ‘Kicker’ Kelly, Peavine Harvey, Axel Elmsted and J.J. Herman.
Working conditions for these men, some of whom worked through the winter on their claims, must have been dreadful, not to mention the rigours of accessing those claims via horseback or on snowshoes. One of those prospectors, Martin Cain, actually died when he got lost in a snowstorm while trying to get to a claim near the Little Joe Lakes and another died in a blasting incident at the Cronin mine.
The challenges that faced those men were somewhat relieved by a man who actually lived on Driftwood Creek at the site of what is now known as the Silverking Ranch.
J.J. Ben Nelson, Danish by birth, emigrated to the Bulkley Valley from the United States where it is thought he worked for the US Army as a horse wrangler. The date of his arrival is unknown but the Bulkley Valley Museum has a photo of his pack train in Smithers circa 1914.
Nelson worked as a prospector but was best known as a horse packer, supplying all of the mining camps in the Babines with food, tools and building materials. His pack trains were also used to bring ore down from the various Babine mines to the rail line. According to the late Joe L’Orsa’s history of the Babine Mountains, Nelson was also responsible for naming Lagopus Mountain and Valhalla Basin.
That same history also records the fact Nelson, along with fellow prospector Ralph Dieter and a policeman, brought Martin Cain’s body out of the mountains by horseback. That was in 1938.
The next summer Nelson, along with Ralph Dieter and fellow prospector Joe Murray set off on a journey from which only two of them would return. Joe L’Orsa told that story in an Interior News article from 1989.
[They] left Driftwood with a string of packhorses following a lead that gold had been found near Chuckachida Lake in the headwaters of the Stikine River many years before. The route lay up the old Telegraph Trail from Hazelton to Blackwater Lake, through the famous Groundhog Range, across the Skeena River at Jackson Flats and north to Table Mountain.
They finally stopped [at what might have been] the Spatsizi River. Ben Nelson camped here and Joe Murray and Ralph Dieter returned to Smithers for supplies. Murray went back with … Gus Hildebrandt, returning afterwards to bring the horses [home].
Nelson spent the winter in Hildebrandt’s cabin in the Groundhog, then started out again in March pulling a sleigh carrying about 250 pounds of supplies, mostly mining steel. On April 12 he met P.M. Moncton, a surveyor who was involved with the proposed Alaska Highway, and Ed Borders, a young man who was hiking from Alaska, at the headwaters of the Spatsizi River. They camped together and had a long talk.
Ben asked Borders, who was headed for Hazelton, to send a message to Joe Murray asking for a plane to meet him at Chuckachida Lake around May 1. He then headed down the Spatsizi River with a map drawn by Moncton who knew the country and explained the best way to get to Chuckachida Lake and where the Stikine River should be crossed.
On April 31 Caribou Hide Indians found a note on the door at Hyland Post, abandoned at the time. It said that Ben Nelson had lost everything—provisions, clothing, even his guns—when his raft capsized on the Spatsizi River.
The Caribou Hide people did not find Ben, but did see his tracks at Sanabar Creek, only about 30 miles from Chuckachida Lake and the Toodoggone area.
When Joe Murray flew in to meet his partner he found no trace.
Subsequent searching by the provincial police and others failed to find the missing man and a mystery was born.
Only a few years ago [from 1989] Ralph Dieter was approached by a Native Indian man who told him that many years before, he and his father had met Ben Nelson. They gave him some food and gave directions how to get to their camp.
When they returned they found Ben dead and buried him beside the trail.
Forty years later, the Dupont Baker gold mine, and subsequently the Cheni mine began production not too many miles from Chuckachida Lake.