Saturday, February 28, 2015

Klondike Gold (Part 2): John Bentley's homecoming

This installment of Klondike Gold picks up where Part 1, "The Klondike, gold fever, foolhardiness and distaster," ended --- just after three Chariton men and six dogs had boarded a train at the C.B.&Q. depot at midmorning on Feb. 1, 1898 --- a Tuesday --- bound for the Yukon to seek their fortunes. They were Charles W. Rose, age 43; John E. Bentley (left), 35; and Starling "Starl" B. Riggins, 31.

They were bound for Seattle, then planned to board a ship for Victoria, B.C., and the trip up the Inside Passage to Skagway, Alaska.

The Lucas County men were very heavily equipped --- soon after the Klondike gold rush commenced, it became evident to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that many of these hapless Americans were not going to survive because they had no idea how to equip themselves or of the hazards awaiting them. As a result, a rule was imposed that no prospector could enter Canada unless he carried with him enough supplies to last a year --- about a ton of miscellaneous goods. A suggested list of supplies may be found here.

There were some economies of scale when prospectors planned to travel and work together. The Chariton men believed that they carried between them enough supplies to last two years. What's not clear is how much of this was purchased in Chariton and then shipped to Seattle, but most likely much of it was. Railroads were equipped to deal with this sort of thing. As 1897 advanced, thousands of prospectors were headed by rail to Seattle --- in some East Coast cities, special trains were commissioned to haul just prospectors and their equipment across country. Many of these trains passed through Chariton.

A report in The Chariton Democrat of Jan. 28, 1898, gives a fairly comprehensive idea of how Rose, Bentley and Riggins were equipped:

"The clothing which they will take with them from here and which they will wear after leaving Skagway consists of a suit of silk underwear over which will be worn a heavy fleece lined suit, then a sweater. The outer garments consist of a corduroy suit, leather lined, which may be worn either side out, and a duck overcoat with a hood attached to it for the propose of protecting the head. Their footwear consists of a pair of silk hose, over which is worn a pair of ordinary wool socks, then a pair of heavy German socks. For mining purposes they have a pair of heavy rubber boots which reach to the thigh and have thick leather soles. They also have a pair of common rubber boots and when they reach the coast they will purchase a pair of stout walking boots which have heels on the back as well as on the bottom. Their hands will be kept warm with a pair of silk gloves and a pair of heavy German mittens. Each will take a Marlin safety long distance rifle of 38 calibre, with which they will shoot game along the road.

"For reading matter they will take the Bible, Shakespeare, Virgil, Caesar, and perhaps a few other books. Each will be supplied with a good pocket compass, a very necessary adjunct. A good supply of medicine, all labeled and with proper directions, forms a part of their outfit.

"They will take a good tent which with their blankets which weigh ten pounds each, their rubber sleeping pads and other bedding will afford them shelter and a comfortable place of rest. Their provisions will consist mostly of canned goods, tea, coffee, sugar, rice, etc."


Charley, John and Starl reached Seattle at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 4, awed by the scenery of the high Rockies and Cascades, after four days and three nights of travel. They had changed trains twice, once in Lincoln and again, to the Northern Pacific, in Billings.

Once in Seattle, the men made necessary purchases and did a little sight-seeing before boarding the ship City of Seattle for the journey up the Inside Passage to Skagway on Wednesday evening, Feb. 9. Then there was a major snag.

An inspector determined that the vessel was too heavily loaded and some of its cargo --- including the Chariton party's dogs and a portion of its freight --- had to be offloaded. "We could not think of going off and leaving the dogs behind," Charley wrote to his sister, "so one of us had to stay behind, and of course it fell upon me to stay, while Bentley and Riggins went on," Detect just a hint of annoyance here?

Charley was able to book passage for himself, the dogs and the equipment on a small steam schooner, the Hueneme, and boarded at noon on Sunday, the 13th, but the voyage did not begin propitiously. Immediately after finally pulling away at 5 p.m., the schooner bumped into a large Japanese freighter, then when backing away got its propeller tangled in the line of a smaller boat and careened into a couple even smaller wooden craft, splintering them. The trip began, finally, at 9 the next morning.

The voyage north was rough and the weather deplorable, resulting in many delays and close calls. A trip that should have taken five days took 12. But finally at 11 a.m. on the 24th, the Hueneme arrived at Skagway. Freight, dogs and passengers were offloaded onto a scow and at 2:30 a.m. on the 25th, the scow was pulled by tug to Dyea, the launching point for the long trek up canyon on the Chilkoot trail then over the pass to the interior of Canada. Bentley came down to meet the tail end of the Chariton party at 8 a.m.

On the 26th, the reunited men made the day-long 16-mile trek up canyon to Sheep Camp, the last and largest staging area before the steep ascent to Chilkoot pass. This was for the most part a tent city although there were a few semi-permanent frame buildings.


A few days later, during early March, John became ill with what seemed at first to be a severe cold after climbing to the top of Chilkoot to talk with Candian authorities about the procedure for moving men, dogs and equipment over into Canada. As his condition deteriorated and it became obvious this was more than a cold, Charley and Starl moved John from their tent to the hotel in Sheep Camp and on March 8 spinal meningitis was diagnosed. Meningitis was running rampant in the prospector camps at the time and had claimed many lives.

John was treated by two physicians and nursed at the hotel by Rose and Riggins as well as other young men who volunteered to help out. His condition seemed to improve, then it deteriorated. He was delirious much of the time --- and at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23, he died peacefully with Charley and Starl at his side.

There was no way to get messages into or out of this part of Alaska at the time, other than U.S. Mail --- and that was sporadic. Rose and Riggins could not make an emergency telephone call or send a telegram to Chariton. They were determined, however, to ensure that the remains of their friend reached home. There were no undertakers at Sheep Camp, so the men prepared the body as best the could for transport, then carried it down from Sheep Camp to Dyea, then Skagway, and on the 26th placed it aboard the City of Seattle for the voyage to Seattle.

They had recruited Stephen C. King, a desk clerk at the Sheep Camp hotel who was anxious to return home, to accompany the body --- and paid his passage. King was instructed to telegraph Frank Crocker in Chariton upon reaching Seattle. Starl wrote a moving letter to the widow, later published in Chariton newspapers, which King was instructed to hand-deliver when he reached Chariton.

Having done what they could, Charley and Starl then returned to Sheep Camp to prepare for the trek over Chilkoot Pass.


King and John's body reached Seattle early on March 30 and as instructed, Stephen immediately telegraphed Frank Crocker in Chariton. It fell to Frank to inform John's wife, daughters and parents of his death.

Both Frank and John were Knights Templar, members of a Masonic order --- and Frank, a widely respected banker, had many contacts. So he next telegraphed, N.H. Lattimer, a Seattle banker and high officer in Seattle Commandery No. 2, Knights Templar, and requested his assistance.

Lattimer responded immediately, collected John's body, which was taken to a Seattle undertaking establishment, and offered Knight his hospitality.

In Seattle, John's remains were prepared as well as they could be for the cross-country trip and placed in what was described as a "handsome casket," purchased by the Knights. When the time came to transport the body to the train for the final phase of the journey home, 30 Seattle Knights Templar in full uniform turned out to serve as escorts.


Meanwhile in Chariton, planning began immediately for a suitable funeral. It would be imperative to bury the remains as soon as possible after they arrived, but not without considerable ceremony. John had been an extremely popular and widely known and liked young man and this great adventure of his to the Klondike had for reasons that may seem elusive now captured the imaginations of Lucas Countyans far and wide.

As soon as it was known that the body, escorted by King, would arrive at the depot in Chariton on Tuesday morning, April 5, everything was put into motion. Here is an account of the day's events, published in The Chariton Patriot of Thursday, April 7:

"John E. Bentley, who died at Sheep Camp, Alaska, March 23, was buried in the Chariton cemetery, Tuesday, April 5. With one exception the throng of people who gathered to do him honor was the largest that was ever together for a funeral in Chariton. Friends and relatives from surrounding towns; fraternal brothers from neighboring lodges came to our city and joined with what seemed to be the entire population, to pay their tribute to the memory of this good citizen. Nearly all places of business were closed from 1:30 to 4:00 o'clock. (Schools were dismissed, too.)

"The casket containing the remains arrived on No. 1 Tuesday morning, in charge of Mr. King. The train was met by a large delegation of friends who escorted the body to the undertaking establishment of N.S. Melville. Shortly afterwards it was taken home to his sorrowing family.

"At 2 o'clock a marching column of over 200 representatives of the Masonic, Odd Fellows and M.W.A. fraternities and the Fire Department proceeded to the family residence. The casket was carefully carried out by the pall bearers, six brother Knights Templar, and placed in the hearse, which was drawn by six white horses led by the working team of Chariton Camp 272, M.W.A., in full camp regalia. Immanuel Commandery No. 50 K.T. acted as escort and led the sad procession to the Baptist church.

"The board of health objecting, the casket was not taken into the church and remained outside in the hearse throughout the long services. Quite a crowd had already congregated and a large number who formed the procession, together with many others, were forced to remain outside, so great was the gathering.

"The choir was composed entirely of men --- his friends. Mrs. Jessie M. Thayer presided at the organ. The opening hymn was "Rock of Ages," and was sung with much feeling. Rev. H.P. Jackson of the United Presbyterian church pronounced the benediction and Rev. H.W. Tate began the services with a reading of the Scriptures. Rev. W.V. Whitten of St. Andrews Episcopal Church preached the sermon and Rev. Tate followed with a few words on Mr. Bentley as a man. Two other beautiful renditions of the choir and Rev. Whitten closed the service with prayer. 

"During the service many heads were bowed in grief and sympathy and tears glistened in the eyes of not a few of the men. On the altar were many beautiful floral offerings (including) a monument and a fireman's helmet with the word "chief" on the front, both made of flowers. Above the altar hung the chief's trumpet, draped in mourning.

"The funeral procession again formed and proceeded to the cemetery. Here with sorrowing loved ones and friends gathered around the grave, with the beautiful and impressive ceremony of the Masonic order, the last said rites were performed and he was lowered to his last resting place by his brother Knights. The different orders, in turn, passed around the grave, deposited their offerings of evergreen on the casket, which was already covered with beautiful flowers, and turned their faces homeward, feeling that they had lost a friend and a brother."


John, born in Chariton on April 21, 1861, was the only son of pioneer Chariton blacksmith John A.J. Bentley and his wife, Anna M. (Scott) Bentley. He had two sisters, Mary Anna (Dr. Tom M.) Throckmorton and Miss Carrie.

He had married Theodosia Larimer on March 29, 1882, in Chariton, and they became the parents of two daughters, Maude, 14 at the time of her father's death, and Theodosia, age 13.

John followed his father's footsteps into the family business, working as a blacksmith and becoming, as one of his obituaries described it, "one of the best mechanics in the state."

He was deeply involved in his community, serving as chief of the Chariton Volunteer Fire Department, on the City Council and as a School Board member, resigning the latter position in order to go to Alaska. His fraternal affiliations included the Knights Templar (Masonic), Odd Fellows and Modern Woodmen of the World.

The Chariton Democrat of April 8, 1898, characterized him as "a noble man, whose kindly ways and courteous manners won for him the friendship and regard of all with whom he came in contact. Especially in this community where he had always resided he was most highly respected for his excellent qualities of head and heart."

Newspaper reports published before the Chariton men left for the Yukon suggest that John had dreamed of making enough money there to ensure that he and his family would be able live in comfort for the remainder of their lives, but that was not to be.

John's window, Theodocia, outlived him by more than 50 years, dying during 1949 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where she is buried. Daughter Maude married Ed E. Pickerell and survived until 1973, when she died at age 90, also in Muskogee. Daughter Theodosia married Horace M. Russell and died during 1920 in Potter County, Texas.

John and Theodosia reportedly posed for the photo below during late January, 1898, just before John began the journey that would end with his death.

This narrative will resume another time with Charley Rose and Starl Riggins at the base of Chilkoot Pass.

No comments: