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.

 

Driftwood Creek Bush Mills

Thanks to Lynn Shervill and Hans Tugnum for putting this piece of history together.

Today folks accessing the Babine Mountains via Driftwood Creek can be forgiven if they fail to notice the several log-hauling roads branching off the creek below Sunny Point. Alder thickets, devil’s club and wind falls have obliterated them. But 40 years ago, when my wife and I moved into Driftwood Canyon, they were obvious and each ended in a sawdust pile and a story of enterprise, hardship and, sometimes, tragedy.

Working up the creek from the winter parking lot (just above the third bridge crossing of the creek on Driftwood Road), there were a couple of mills on the bench above the true right side of the creek. One was owned by George Sharpe and Louis Wick and the other by Emil and Steve Mesich.

bush-mill-one-2The next mill, owned by Bill Hickmore, was located between the third and fourth bridges,  and there was another one, again to the north of the creek,  just above the fourth bridge.

We often roamed through these old sites, cutting firewood and wondering what life must have been like for the people who lived and worked here. Maybe not so bad, we thought, having once found a decaying piano at the site near the fourth bridge. It was at this same location we managed to bury a neighbour’s borrowed pickup to the axles at the edge of a sawdust pile, sawdust we wanted as mulch for our hand-watered garden.

bush-mill-2-2Smithers rancher Bill Morris had a mill just above Driftwood Creek on the Lyon Creek Trail, the remnants of which are still visible, and Onie Leighton ran mills part way up the Harvey Mountain Road, just past the fifth bridge, and at Sunny Point.

 

Between the end of World War Two and the mid to late 1950s there were almost a dozen bush mills along the creek, each cutting from 2,000 to 10,000 board feet of lumber a day.

According to Hans Tugnum, whose family emigrated from Switzerland to the Bulkley Valley in 1936, there could be six sawmills operating along the creek at any given time, employing 40 to 50 people.  A typical mill crew consisted of one or two fallers, a skidder using horses or a cat, a sawyer, a slab packer, who disposed of the outside cuts in a fire pit, a swamper (labourer) and a cook.

gordon-jewell-2

Gordon Jewell

Top price was $35 per 1,000 board feet of prime spruce or pine two by 12s or two by 10s, according to Tugnum.  Two by fours and two by sixes went for about $30 per 1,000 board feet. Mill owners – men like the Lubbers brothers, Jake Zust, Ralph Dieter, Al Fletcher, Jack Thomas and Danny Lemire – sold their lumber to a local buyer such as Gordon Jewel of Northern Interior Forest Products in Smithers where it was planed before being shipped out by rail.

Mill employees were often paid according to daily production, say $3 per 1,000 board feet. If the mill was producing 5,000 board feet a day, the employee would get $15 a day.

Tugnum, who owned a mill located between the Driftwood Creek corridor and Old Babine Lake Road, said employees lived on site in bunkhouses and worked from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. “Supper,” said Tugnum, “was served in the cookhouse about 6:30 or 7 and then the guys would return to the bunkhouse to BS or play a little poker.  About 8:30 or 9:00 cook would leave a fresh pot of coffee or tea on the stove.”

On Saturday the crew worked until noon and then headed for home and their families. “And yes,” said Tugnum, “some of them headed for the bar. But they were on their way back to camp on Sunday afternoon or evening.”

It was good work, according to Tugnum, that paid reasonably well. But it could be dangerous. “George Sharpe was killed when a slab flipped the wrong way, was kicked back by the saw and hit him in the head.  A cat driver working for Onie Leighton was killed at Sunny Point when his machine rolled on him and another guy, working for Bill Morris, was killed when a tree fell on him.”

Safety standards, according to Tugnum, were non-existent. “You took what you got,” he said. “The mill owners paid into the workers’ compensation but there were no safety rules.”

harry-haywood-2

Harry Haywood (l) and Ben Miller.

Tugnum said there were probably 100 small bush mills in the valley like the ones on Driftwood Creek during the ten years after the war. But then it slowly came to an end. More restrictive BC Forest Service regulations and big industrial mills, like the one in Houston, made it impossible for the little guys to keep their books in the black.

“Bowater & Bathurst bought Harry Hagman’s big mill in Houston,” Tugnum said. “And after that all the timber started going to Houston.

ralph-dieter

Ralph Dieter contributed to many a musical evening all up and down Driftwood Creek, including at our place. This was taken in 1983.

Another mill owner, the late Ralph Dieter, who operated three different mills during the 40s and 50s, said the big mill owners bought up all the quotas held by the independents. “They spent millions just buying people out. They’d offer almost anything to get rid of you.”

The last logging operation on Driftwood Creek – a small clear cut in the fifth bridge area – was done by Tony Mesich in  the mid-1970s, just about the time work started on creating the Babine Mountains Provincial Park. For many years, we could still drive up the road and happily picked huckleberries there, often meeting the Yeker family. Like many of the other roads, it too is long lost to sight.