Four murders and a lost gold mine! Dead Man’s Valley still holds the secret of the murders. The gold mine has been found. Late in 1933 word flashed that the missing mine had been found. Only a few months remained of the year. But the secret was out. By December 31 the Canadian government had registered approximately 100 claims.
The tributaries of the South Nahanni River in the Northwest territories, near the boundary of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, are alive with prospectors who have answered the call of another placer gold field not so many hundred miles from where the great Yukon gold rush took place.
In February, 1909. word came to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, then the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, that two prospectors had been missing since the Summer of 1906. Relatives had hunted for them, had found their dead bodies, but had failed to find papers and gold which they were known to be carrying. The circumstances looked liked murder.
Will and Frank McLeod, born at Ford Liard in Northern British Columbia, had started out in 1905 to look for placer gold in the mountains north of their home, in what is still a remote part of Canada. They crossed through a wild country, unknown, unmapped, probably never before traveled by white man. They struck fast-flowing rivers with canyon walls. They traveled in waters where 15 miles a day was considered fast going by those who came after them. They made portages over mountains.
They pitched camp here and there and hunted with prospectors’ ax and spade. They went on till one day they found something. They built sluice boxes and hauled their gold pans out of their pack sacks. They built a shelter and worked day after day. They stored up nuggets, dust and gold flakes. Their treasure chest became bulkier and bulkier. Then, before the first snows were on them, they hid their find, hid their tools and started for home.
They kept a secret. Yes, they had picked up a little bit here and there, but nothing much inquiring friends were told. But next Spring Will and Frank McLeod started out, taking with them this time, a Scotch engineer named Weir.
In 1908 Charles McLeod, a brother of the two prospectors, found their bodies, wrapped up in blankets. No gold, maps, nothing was found near them, except a watch which hung on a tree. Charley burled his two brothers, and marked their grave. The Mounties started on the trail the following Spring. Corporal A. H. L. Mellor left Smith’s Landing on the Slave River, and set out across a region he had never traveled before to Fort Liard.
He had a hard trip, through swift rivers, white foaming mountain streams, but he made the South Nahanni River, and headed for the spot where the McLeod brothers had been reported buried. There on the opposite bank of the river he found a couple of prospectors, the vanguard of many to come in the following years. They were waiting for the river to go down a bit. It was July and the melting snows made travel on the river impossible. They knew nothing about the McLeod’s, except the grave which they had seen.
They found tools, sluice boxes and gold pans. But the spot was 75 miles distant from where the bodies of the brothers had been found. J. J. Byrne, mining man of Northern Ontario. Interested in mines in the Great Bear Lake area, became claim holder of the long lost mine. But many men were to hunt for that lost mine before Mr. Byrne’s men located it. And two more were to die in that remote country.
Mr. Byrne is an authority for the facts about these two additional deaths. He has delved deep into the secrets of Dead Man’s Valley. In an Interview in the Northern Miner, leading Canadian mining paper, he tells that some years after the McLeod’s disappeared, and after other prospectors had unsuccessfully looked for the mine, an old Klondike gold miner named Jorgenson crossed the mountains which divide the Yukon Territory from the Northwest Territories and prospected along the Nahanni River.
Jorgenson had evidently heard the McLeod story, and hunted near where the bodies had been found. He wandered somewhat afield. Near the junction of the Nahanni and Flat Rivers he found something. An Indian must have carried a message to his partner in the Klondike. He came to the Jorgenson camp as directed in the message. But of Jorgenson there was no trace. There was no mine, only some rich samples. His partner followed trails days old and finally found Jorgenson. He had been killed, his head severed from his body. The murderer, if there was one, has never been found.
Phil Powers, also hailing from the Klondike gold fields, took up the trail to the McLeod mine some years later. He also hit the Flat and Nahanni Rivers and worked up the Flat River. What he found has never been learned. But when he was missing for sometime, police are said to have found his body in the center of his burned down camp. Again murder, perhaps by Indians, perhaps by whites. Case unsolved. Powers was not far from where the McLeod’s had hidden their mine.
These are secrets of Dead Man’s Valley. Jack Hammell, one of the Dominion’s best known mining men, was responsible for the aerial armada that landed on the lakes of the Nahanni River region in 1928. He was looking for the McLeod workings. His planes flew in with food supplies for several years, with camping equipment, drums and drums of gasoline and oil, sectional canoes and prospectors.
He intended to fine-comb the country, Re-establishing caches so that his men could hunt continuously. He brought big business into the hunt for the lost mine. With the aerial armada went Charles McLeod, the brother who had found the bodies of Will and Frank. Charley knew the country, he had looked for that mine himself for many a year But now he could travel quicker and was better grubstaked.
The planes with Charley and geologists and prospectors searched from the air and from the ground. They spent 1928 and 1929 in that country. Hammell did not give up for several years after that. But the McLeod mine remained lost. The McLeod mine remained hidden until 1933.
It is a vast country, that around the Nahanni River. Few Indians live there, and those that do are credited with superstitious beliefs. Stories are told of their cruelties and witchcraft practices. Some claim those stories have been circulated by them to keep the white man out. Perhaps that is one reason the secret of the McLeod’s was kept as long as it was. But the lure of gold is stronger. White men have gone, have failed to find what they went after, but now that the gold has been found, whites will rush in for some time to come, Indians or no Indians, unmapped and unexplored country notwithstanding.
Now J. J. Byrne comes into the picture. Hammell and those who went before him failed. Byrne won because an old-timer from Fort Liard learned one day by accident that a priest who had been in that country many years had a map of the location of the diggings. Will McLeod Is said to have given the old priest the map. Why, no one knows. But the reverend father kept it all these years and never gave away its secret till 1932, when, 85years old, he came back to Fort Liard from a well-earned rest in France.
The old-timer who had heard that the priest had the map asked him for it. He must have known the priest very well. He was given the map. He went into the country with a partner, and airplane, pilot and mechanic. They searched carefully and long. The map was old and none too explicit. It was impossible to bring the plane down on the spot indicated by the map as the site of the find. More than 12 miles distant was the nearest place on the fast waters where a plane could make a landing and be assured of taking off again. The four men pitched camp and started out on foot.
Then, one day, one of them saw through the heavy carpet of leaves, twigs, dead trees which are found in this virgin territory, an age-blackened stump which could only have been made by a sharp ax. They were on the trail. Now more tree stumps, cut through by an ax, were seen. Then one of them spied the outline of a shelter, poles placed to hold a tent. They were nearer the lost mine.
The map showed the proximity of the mine. Some one saw a squared stake standing out of the ground. There were markings. The name McLeod could still be made out. That stake was a corner post on the McLeod claim. It did not take long to find the shelter in which the brothers lived. There they found some tools, sluice boxes, gold pans, and so on.
The modern prospectors, who had come to the old find by air, and the airmen stayed a few days. They did some work, they picked enough dust, flakes and nuggets to substantiate their claim, re-staked it, and flew out. That was in July of 1933. Since then the planes have been busy and the prospectors and geologists, have come in large numbers.