Ben Abel Creek (north fork of Dutch Creek), Abel Creek (into Lake Windermere), Mount Abel
“The most interesting old-timer in the valley… [Ben Abel] was a tall, handsome man about sixty years old, with a long black beard which reached to his waist and which he always rolled up and tucked inside his shirt on leaving the settlement. It was his great pride.” 54
Ben Abel was a reasonably well-known character of the early settler years of the Windermere Valley, but there is not a lot known about his life.
Abel was born in the United States, but this could have been in Vermont,1 Ohio,2 or perhaps somewhere else entirely. So too is his date of birth given in different sources as 12 December 1848,3 14 January 1848, 4 or perhaps sometime in 1846.5 Even his name differs depending on the source, being usually recognized in the valley as Willis Benson Abel,6 but reported elsewhere as Willis Benjamin Abel,7 or Benjamin Able (as he self-reported on census records the names “Willis” and “Benjamin”, the most likely combination is Willis Benjamin Abel).8 What can be said for certain is that he was colloquially known as “Ben Abel.”
We have to rely mainly on hearsay to account for Ben Abel’s activities before he arrived in Canada. In 1897 he is reported as, “having spent a great many years in Idaho, Washington and Montana before coming to East Kootenay.”9 Ben Abel himself recalled driving a “bull team” across the American prairies starting in 1867 until the railroad was completed (the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869). At that time, on the “hunt for a new job”, he got into prospecting, and wandered around Washington and Oregon before finally crossing the border into Canada.10 The only source I was able to find of Abel in the United States is from a few 1891/1892 newspapers, which place him in Kettle Falls, Washington doing various prospecting work on mines there.11
When exactly Ben Abel arrived in the valley is, of course, also unclear, and it is entirely possible that he crossed the border multiple times before settling more permanently. The first verifiable trace of him in the valley that I was able to find was as a labourer on the Kootenay Wagon Road in the East Kootenay at sometime between 1 July 1892 and 30 June 1893.12 His name also appears on a petition drawn up by residents of the Windermere District in September 1893.13
Abel himself variously recalled having arrived in Canada in 189014 or 1884.15 This might be explained by the story, reportedly from Abel, that he arrived into the West Kootenay in 1884, and into the Windermere Mining division in 1890.16 Still, Abel does not appear in any records prior to the ones mentioned above, including in the 1891 Canadian census in the Upper Kootenay area. As the above mentioned American newspapers place him in Washington State in 1891/1892, it is possible that he did not enter the Windermere Mining Division until late 1892 or early 1893. Wherever he did arrive from, Ben Abel lived out the last couple decades of his life in the Windermere Valley.
After arriving in the valley, Ben Abel settled on a piece of land along the Columbia River near present-day Brisco. While there, he experimented with building a large dam in hopes of draining the slough to grow grasses and oats.17 As later reported, “He must have been quite confident of the outcome of this project because he also built a huge hay barn on the property. But the dam did not fulfill the builder’s dream, and the hay barn remained empty.”18 This ranch was loosely reported as having been sold in 1906 to Henry Toke Munn,19 but Abel is elsewhere reported as having lived on this ranch until shortly before his death in 1915.20
Ben Abel also frequently engaged in prospecting and working mineral claims. In 1896 he was working the Swansea copper claim near Windermere, which had been active some years previously. Abel revived interest in the claim by uncovering further deposits.21 Activity on the Swansea began in earnest, with a bond of the claim being given to George B Kirk of London in the summer of 1897,22 and the following year to Fred A Mulholland of Rossland.23 Abel, along with the other owners of the claim (Sam Brewer, Joseph Lake, and George S. McCarter), took steps to obtain a crown grant on the Swansea claim in October 1898.24 Mulholland’s interest in the Swansea claim prompted the formation of the Canterbury townsite company, the precursor to the town of Invermere.
The Swansea was not Abel’s only world-famous-in-the-valley mining prospect. At the beginning of 1897 reports first began to circulate about the, “famous ‘Mineral King’” claim up Toby Creek at the junction with Jumbo Creek.25 Abel later reported having staked this claim in 1895.26 There were repeated efforts to develop the Mineral King starting in early 1897, and Abel himself reported, “that he has put ever spare dollar he had in the claim.”27 It attracted sporadic interest during his lifetime but, despite Abel’s attempts, the amount and quality of ore at the site was unclear, and it would take a large amount of investment to make the necessary geological studies to prove the quality of the claim and to put in the necessary equipment to process the ore. Activity at the Mineral King did not begin in earnest until 1953, long after Abel’s death (I’ve just written two posts on the Mineral King Mine, starting with Part 1).
Abel’s name was attached to yet another well known claim, the Red Line, up McDonald Creek, which was staked in the fall of 1898 by Abel, Wellington Kinnie, C.A. Watt, George Scott, and Pete Larson.28 As discussed in the previous post on the Red Line, there was a massive amount of interest and speculation on the Red Line claim, with large amounts of money changing hands over the ownership of it.
There were other mining claims as well. In 1899 Abel purchased a half interest in the Black Jack group on Ice Creek (likely now Ice River flowing into the Beaverfoot), located by Alfred and David Pedley.29 He was also part owner in the Hot Punch claim on Delphine Creek,30 the Paystone up Horsethief creek,31 and the owner of the Bullion and Diamond R Claims up Toby Creek.32 Abel had his fingers in many different pies: it is little wonder that in 1898 he was appointed president of the newly formed Miner’s Association in the Windermere District.33
Not all of Abel’s attention went to mining. In 1898 he put in for a pre-emption on Lot 4348 (located just north of Horsethief Creek along present day De-Crespigny Road).34 The following year, during the local rush to set out townsites, Abel announced himself as the owner of “Selkirk City”, described as “a very promising townsite, situated between Horsethief and No 2 [Forster] Creeks.”35
Nothing much came of this townsite, and two years later it is announced that Abel had purchased land in the Canterbury townsite with the intention of building.36 It’s unclear if anything came of this, but by 1906 Abel had taken over the pre-emption staked in 1898 by B.H. Washburn just to the south of Canterbury (Lot 4616),37 and was planting more cherry and apple trees on the property.38
It is unclear how long Abel actually owned this Canterbury property, but his name survives in the form of Abel Creek running through it (locals tend to call it Ben Abel Creek). For a time, the point of land near where Abel Creek enters Lake Windermere was also colloquially known as Ben Abel point.39 A deal for the sale of Abel’s Canterbury ranch was pending in 1906,40 and in 1913 it had been subdivided and 5.5 acres given to Arthur Walker by the Columbia Valley Irrigated Fruitlands Company in exchange for the disappointing property given to the Walkers by the company on the Toby Benches.41
Dutch Creek Claims
It is one of Abel’s lesser known ventures that may have led to his name being attached to geographical features up Dutch Creek. In 1897, Abel was one of a group of prospectors to climb up and over the mountains from Toby Creek into the Dutch Creek valley to record a number of claims (the Dutchy, Little Giant, and Nickle Plate).42 The claims were later described as being, “best anything ever before seen in the district in the way of copper ore.”43 The various prospectors to originally stake the properties elected Abel as their legal representative.44
Abel took a long standing interest in these Dutch Creek claims, typically referred to as the “Dutchy” claims after one of the locations. He petitioned the government to partially fund the construction of a trail up Dutch Creek, and was himself given the contract to construct a bridge and a thirty-five mile trail to make Dutch Creek easier for prospectors to access.45 It is likely that this work in developing the area that led to his name being attached to Ben Abel Creek.
The Dutchy group was bonded to Henry Toke Munn, representing capitalists in Ottawa, in late 1897.46 This didn’t last, and Abel together with Arthur Austin continued to do work on the Dutch Creek claims in 1900,47 and again the following year.48 The claims were bonded again in 1901 to Henry Edward Neave, again representing outside capital.49
Despite this early attention, these claims do not seem to have been as promising as initially reported: they were never crown granted or developed on any large scale. The last we hear of Abel’s involvement in them is in 1904, when he completed the annual assessment work on the group.50 They reappear briefly in records from 1968 when a survey was conducted of the property, then owned by J.H. Conroy, by a party interested in developing it (it’s unclear who this party was, as documentation is cut off).51 Although notes from this examination do not directly mention the property’s history or its connection to Ben Abel, the location of this claim, the name of it, and its strong showing of copper match with earlier records.
It is only thanks to this 1968 examination that there is a record of the location of the Dutchy claim, as it was never officially surveyed. Interestingly, the location is not on Ben Abel creek (as I had initially suspected). Instead, it is on what is referred to as “Copper Creek”, although this name never became official.52 It is one of the northern tributaries of Dutch Creek, and about five miles south of Coppercrown Mountain (see above map).53 This matches an early description placing the claims on one of the tributaries of Dutch Creek over the divide from Toby Creek.54
Ben Abel passed away on 22 May 1915 in Invermere and was buried in the Windermere Cemetery as Willis Benson Abel (his death certificate was for Willis Benjamin Abel).55 He was remembered at the time for, “his straight forward manner of living, and was well-known locally by his drollness of speech.”56
Abel is later described by Henry Toke Munn as, “The most interesting old-timer in the valley… he was a tall, handsome man about sixty years old, with a long black beard which reached to his waist and which he always rolled up and tucked inside his shirt on leaving the settlement. It was his great pride.”57
Reporter James Butterfield later recalls a story about Ben visiting with Robert Randolph Bruce at his home Pynelogs. The two “discuss[ed] every prospect hole in the near or distant hills. And as they talked Ben punctuated his conversation with streams of tobacco juice. And every time Ben did this, Bob moved the cuspidor with his foot toward the last section of the carpet that had been thus violated. And every time Bob moved the cuspidor Ben sought out and favored new territory. When this silent battle had brought the contestants to the breaking point. Ben was the first to blow up. “Go! darn it, Bob,” he said, “if you don’t take that blame thing away I’ll surer’n hell spit in it, first thing you know. God, yes, boy, that’s the way she doos.””58 (It should be noted that Butterfield could tell a story, but there is no guarantee as to its historical accuracy)
Given the widespread nature of Abel’s activities through the valley, it is curious where his name actually became attached to geological features. Abel Creek (or Ben Abel Creek) in Invermere ran through a (relatively) late acquisition by Abel that he did not own for very long. Abel’s mining claims up Dutch creek, on the other hand, were neither his most famous nor his most successful, and his association with the creek led to both another creek and a mountain being named after him.
Abel Creek near Invermere was first labelled as such on a 1914 map of the area as Ben Abel Creek (officially changed to Abel Creek in 1951 – this likely explains why many locals call it Ben Abel Creek).59 Ben Abel Creek (then Benabel), up Dutch Creek, was adopted in 1915 in place of “North Fork of Dutch Creek”.60 Both Mount Abel and Ben Abel Lakes were later named in association with the creek.
In a historical context, Ben Abel is one of those characters that pops up regularly. It’s rather frustrating that so little is known about his life before arriving in the valley, as once he was here he certainly made his mark. Just take a look at the “See Also” section below for an incomplete snapshot of the various projects/people he was involved with during his adventures!
(Edit: an earlier version of this article included speculation that the Dutchy group was located up Ben Abel creek. Additional information strongly indicates that this is not the case.)