Ben Nelson – the Cataline of the Babines

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.

Ben Nelson at his cabin on Driftwood Creek (Photo courtesy Bulkley Valley Museum).

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.

Ralph Dieter, circa 1983

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.

Ben Nelson, Ralph Dieter and Al Fletcher working a mineral claim, circa 1936 (Photo Courtesy Bulkley Valley Museum). Al Fletcher took over Nelson’s packing operation after his disappearance.

 

The McCabe Creek probe

Lynn and I have, for many years, hiked with friends who are up for almost anything—and who will set out under almost any circumstances because you just never know. That fog might lift, that threatened rain might not materialize, there might be an inversion that raises the valley bottom -25° to something more pleasant.

The view from Harvey Mountain looking down at the junction of the creeks.

Here at the cusp of winter, it’s especially hard to adjust. To stuff the down jacket, the warm mittens and the toque into a day pack that’s already fat enough. To be sure to carry a headlamp because it gets dark so damn early. But good hiking companions won’t quail when you ask them to join you on a little bushwhack, a little probe. Karen Diemert and Jim Pojar took the bait when we told them we wanted to try to find an old cabin built in 1936 by Al Fletcher* and his brother Edison on the banks of Driftwood Creek just below its confluence with what we have now named McCabe Creek.

You won’t find that name on any map, but if you’ve walked along the north side of Harvey Mountain you will have seen it. It is created when a triplet of creeks—one that runs out of two little lakes on the south end of Hyland, one that runs out of Copper Lakes on the McCabe Trail and one that runs down the headwall between the two—join forces to make its way through some wet meadows to join Driftwood Creek below Silverking Basin.

Morgan Hite map showing McCabe Creek’s junction with Driftwood Creek.

Our Gilbert Road neighbour George Loset—George has done more solo exploring of the Babines than almost anyone alive—directed us to drop down to Driftwood Creek where Valhalla Creek crosses the Silverking trail and follow the creek upstream. When he was last there, close to 40 years ago now, he found an old horse track and Fletcher’s cabin, its roof caved in but otherwise intact. He also snowshoed up into the meadows, a route he said the prospectors took in winter to avoid the avalanche chutes crossing the McCabe Trail. That was the route, he said, that Ralph Dieter, Ben Nelson and a policeman took when they packed out the body of Martin Cain, who died on a snowshoe trip into Little Joe where Axel Elmsted was “living a hard-working, solitary life … working in the tunnel alone.”

It seemed like now or never. We could still drive to the summer parking lot, there was just a skiff of snow in the bush and that could all change in a week or two. Plus there was a little window of clear weather.

Karen follows the old horse trail.

Valhalla Creek crosses the Silverking trail just above the four km marker. We were ready to get soaked in the underbrush, but the descent was dry—our boots sank into the frozen moss, the few deadfalls were easy to skirt. Just a few minutes and we were there. We stuck close to the creek until a tangle of downed trees sent us higher where Jim spotted the remnant trough of the trail outlined by the snow. We found a few blazes on the trees, but nothing clear enough to guide us when the trail lost itself in the underbrush.

When the current road was driven into Silverking in 1946, the old trail was likely only used if Fletcher was trapping or perhaps guiding hunters—in 1949, he was given the first guiding license in the Babines and his third client killed the goat that set the Boone and Crockett record and is memorialized near the junction of Highway 16 and Main Street. Now that the mountains are protected, signs of the older uses—the mineral workings, cat trails and sawdust piles—are disappearing back into the bush. As is Fletcher’s old cabin.

We had dropped back down to the creek after losing the trail and there it was, an insignificant heap of logs, the sawn ends still visible, a few lengths of stove pipe and one lamp. A small flat spot near the creek but high enough to survive any big runoff events. Dark though.

One success. The confluence, George had told us, was nearby. Steep banks and more deadfalls sent us up away from the creek. We were getting ready to give up and look for a good lunch spot in the sun dappling the moss when Driftwood Creek made a hard turn north. A beautiful little esker, all green moss, led us back down and sure enough, there was the tributary joining the main flow.

As we stood there, jubilant, two dippers flew down Driftwood Creek and paused, chattering and bouncing at the confluence. The first we’d seen in months.

It was enough. Those alluring meadows were on the other side of a very cold creek and a rocky scramble up into who knows what. We already had a few hours of hiking remaining, first finding our way up to the Silverking trail and then back down to the summer parking lot. Another time perhaps.

 

*Al  Fletcher was our neighbour for several years. He lived on the ranch his parents, Eli and Laura, homesteaded in 1913. The year he built the cabin, he also registered a trapline, one that had been registered in 1926 to Peter Bazil or Wah tah K’eght—and the trapline, which followed Driftwood  Creek up into Silverking, was in his territory—now that of the current Wah tah K’eght, Henry Alfred. That’s another story I hope to chase down.