Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 26 miles – Time out: 3 days
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: 4,688 ft.
June 18th – 20th 2014
I jumped at the chance to explore the North Fork of the Skokomish River with a friend who knows many of its secrets. Donovan told me we’d be backpacking in the footsteps of the famous O’Neil expedition of 1890, and we’d also be following the path of a little-know group of explorers – the Banner Party.
It looked like the summer of 1890 would be the year that the last of the unexplored regions of the Olympic Mountains would finally give up their secrets. The public couldn’t get enough of the story. Because the Olympic Mountains were not on the direct path of commerce, their geography was little understood by cartographers until the end of the 19th century. Now the race was on to find what was inside that impenetrable maze of peaks and valleys. During the winter and spring of 1890, the Seattle Press had sold a lot of newspapers by funding and promoting James Christie’s heroic expedition up the Elwha and down the Quinault Rivers. Now other newspapers where poised to cover Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil’s US Army explorations up one of the last unknown areas in the Olympics, the North Fork of the Skokomish River.
In the south end of Puget Sound was a tiny newspaper, the Buckley Banner. Its struggling editor, Charles E. Joynt, was not going to miss out on a chance to pump-up his circulation just like the Seattle Press had done that spring. The Banner Party would also head up the North Fork of the Skokomish and “out-explore” the seasoned Lieutenant O’Neil as they both raced into the unknown together.
The Banner Party consisted of three couples. Tacoma Probate Judge James Wickersham and his wife Deborah Susan Bell Wickersham. The judge’s two sisters joined in on the outing. Miss Clyde Wickersham was the fiancé of Charles Joynt, the Buckley Banner editor, and Mrs. May Taylor had just married Charles E. Taylor a few days earlier. The Taylor’s honeymoon would be tramping over a hundred miles of unexplored mountains. The Buckley Banner hoped that, “The remainder of their lives will be less rough and tiresome than was the first few weeks.”
Of the three parties of explorers trying to unlock the secrets of the interior of the Olympics in 1890, how did the Banner Party compare to the other two groups of experienced explorers? The well-funded Press Expedition were mountain men who had already explored the length of the Olympics. Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil and his men were efficient soldiers who were supported by the U.S. Army in their quest to not just explore, but to build a mule trail that could someday become a highway through the mountains. Meanwhile the Banner Party’s two men, two women, and two honeymooners with their vague plan on crossing through the Olympics from Hood Canal to Port Angeles, looked more like an extended family on a backpacking vacation.
Donovan and I drove to the Staircase Ranger station which was the location of the North Fork of the Skokomish trailhead. To begin our journey, we simply parked our cars, shouldered our packs and began hiking. But for the Banner party in 1890, just getting to this trailhead was an exhausting journey. From Tacoma the Banner Party traveled by ship, two small steamers, canoe, mule and by foot. It took them three and a half days to arrive at the point where Donovan and I had driven our cars in just a few hours.
Staircase Ranger Station is at the northwest end of Lake Cushman. The Banner party spent the evening of July 21, 1890 at Lake Cushman before they jumped off into the unexplored region beyond. Judge Wickersham complained of the poor accommodations and the exorbitant rates (75 cents for a dinner!) that were charged. “Eden was occupied by a serpent,” Judge Wickersham lamented. “A good hotel run by a competent man would get a large trade at this lake,” The Judge predicted.
Judge Wickersham’s lamentations were answered nine summers later when the luxurious Antlers Hotel on Lake Cushman opened its doors. The owners, Russell Homan and Stanley Hopper were both rich, single, avid outdoorsmen with an unquenchable thirst for whiskey. The partners built a two-story rustic building, hewn from logs, fitted with stone fireplaces, a poolroom, an exclusive dining room and a bar where the drinks flowed liberally. In each room hung a set of deer antlers, but lest you think the Antlers Hotel was some backwoods affair, Homan and Hopper personally purchased nine tons of hotel furnishings from New York City and before dinner, Holman, an accomplished musician, would play several selections on his Eolion organ. Nothing was too good for guests of the Antlers, and visitors from all over the country and abroad stayed there through the early years of the twentieth century.
Back in the summer of 1890 the race was on to grab headlines! While the Seattle Press wrote many front page newspaper stories about Christie and his journey, and Lt. O’Neil eventually entered his exploits into the United States Congressional Record, the Buckley Banner did what they could to publicize their unknown band of explorers. They boldly proclaimed that there were women in their party. “Considerable interest was taken in the trip, for the reason that no woman had before attempted to scale the lofty and broken peaks of the Olympics or even to break through the almost impenetrable forests at their base.” Even better, the Buckley Banner promised, “hairbreadth escapes” because, “It was not to be expected that these ladies could make a journey that had deterred many hardy mountaineers.”
Donovan and I met Ed Hefflinger and his wife Sue on the trail with their pack horses. Back in 1890 when exploring the North Fork of the Skokomish, Lt. Joseph P. O’Neil depended on his mule team and their packers to transport his supplies back and forth on the rough trail. Today Ed and Sue are the spiritual descendants of those early mule packers. Ed and Sue are volunteers with the Back Country Horsemen and they help with trail maintenance in the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest by packing supplies in and out for the trail crews. It looked like hard work to me, but Ed said, “The worst day packing is better than the best day on the flatland.”
Back in the summer of 1890, Judge Wickersham felt they were being extorted in their lodgings on Lake Cushman, so the Banner Party moved up the river and spent their last night in civilization sleeping in a half-finished miner’s cabin. Today, though the buildings are gone, evidence of mining is still visible. Donovan and I peered into long, dark mine shafts and down into narrow holes where prospectors dug for copper, gold and manganese. Miners filed over 400 claims between 1880 and 1942 in this river valley. What were those early miners like? What kind of person lived so far from civilization and spent their days digging into the earth? Most didn’t talk much and lived without complications or restrictions. They were characters who, according to Robert Keatts, “liked to live alone most of the time but occasionally (went) to town to get drunk and chase women.”
Donovan and I packed light as we were exploring the North Fork of the Skokomish for only three days. Meanwhile back in the summer of 1890, the Banner Party needed enough supplies to last six adults for three weeks in the wilderness. They had purchased, “Twenty pounds of flour to the man, 10 pounds of meal, five pounds of salt, 15 pounds of bacon, three cans of baking powder, six tin plates, three tin cups, fish hooks, chewing gum, French Harp and tin whistle, and a long-handled frying pan. Add to these three blankets, guns, ammunition, knives, Kodak, knapsacks, 100 feet of rope and extra clothing.” While Donovan and I each brought our own tent, conspicuously absent was any Banner Party tent or shelter, and that would cost Judge Wickersham’s group sleepless nights when it began to rain.
While both Lt. Joseph P. O’Neil and his soldiers and Judge Wickersham and his family were slowly hacking their way through the same dense forests and through the same narrow canyons, the Buckley Banner began to belittle Lt. O’Neil. The newspaper wrote that O’Neil and his soldiers were traveling through a region they had explored previously, while Judge Wickersham and his tiny band were headed, “through the heart of the Olympics, penetrating a district that no one had ever gone through.” The Buckley Banner intimated that O’Neil’s men were slackers, while on the other hand, Judge Wickersham’s little group were prepared for hard work and “would leave all pleasure behind at Lake Cushman.”
On our way up the Skokomish River Valley, Donovan and I crossed Donahue Creek, named after prospector J. Frank Donohue. Mining, not tourism, was what settled the Lake Cushman area. Though the 1890 O’Neil expedition advised prospectors that the Olympics had few valuable minerals, this information was ignored by many. What kept those men pursuing their dreams of riches year after year without success? Perhaps it was the beauty of the Olympic Mountains or maybe it was the hunting (a permit to mine also granted you a permit to hunt elk for subsistance). No matter the reason, most mines were a bust. A handful of the mines managed to ship out a little copper and manganese ore, but they were the exceptions. All that didn’t stop J. Frank Donohue. Donohue was an old man in 1929 when he searched for his fortune in the Olympics. Donohue spent many years panning for gold and prospecting for valuable minerals. Like many of the old prospectors, he faded away without striking it rich and left nothing behind but his name on a tiny creek.
Donovan showed me the location of the “Darky Mine”. Beginning in 1890 and continuing during the summers for half a century, Joseph Moss, Smith Keller, and George Thomas faithfully burrowed into the hard rock, searching for their elusive pot of gold. During the winters they returned to Seattle where they convinced enough people, with their yarns of treasure, to finance the next season’s grubsteak. Pointing to a stack of cordwood, Moss once gushed, “We have gold, silver, platinum and copper stacked higher, wider and deeper than your stack of wood.”
When the Banner Party passed through here in 1890, the valuable mineral deposits had just been discovered, and that was big enough news to interest financiers from San Francisco and New York. Mines began to produce iron and copper ore, but because of their isolation, the ore had to be packed out by mules through the wilderness to the smelters where it could be processed. A railroad was needed, so the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad was organized and it began to lay tracks southward toward the mines. But first the railroad went bust and then it became apparent that the mineral wealth of the region was exaggerated. The money men disappeared and most of the mines shut down. All that was left on the North Fork of the Skokomish were small-time miners like Moss, Keller and Thomas. They didn’t let the cycle of boom and bust affect them. These men chipped away in their shaft for 50 years. Though they never became rich, the miners were respected by the community and they aided the Forest Service every spring by opening up the trail.
Donovan told me about another old Skokomish Valley prospector, Chris Hammer, and where his cabin could be found. We left the main trail, crossed the river, and followed a faint path. Hidden on a tiny bench of land, Donovan showed me the remains of Chris Hammer’s cabin. Chris mined and trapped the high country from 1909 until his death in 1920. He was found dead in his cabin with an order to Sears Roebuck filled out for his trip to town. Chris left his cabin only three or four times a year to journey down into Hoodsport. Mining and trapping in those mountains were a tough way to make a living, but Chris must have been attune to his surroundings and good at what he did to live so far from civilization for so long.
At the end of the day, Donovan and I made camp. Preparing dinner was as easy as pouring boiling water into a pouch of freeze-dried beef stew, but back in 1890, dinner was a more formal affair. Lieutenant O’Neil and the Banner party were exploring the wilderness of the North Fork of the Skokomish in tandem at this point, so on the evening of July 23rd, O’Neil sent over an invitation for supper to Judge Wickersham and his group. The Judge accepted and together the men and women dined on bacon, coffee and Son-of-a-Gun which was a “boiled mess of bread and crackers, meat and onions.” Judge Wickersham said, “It was good as we all can testify, and later on in our travels we essayed to make a similar dish very successfully too.”
Around the cheery campfire here on the North Fork of the Skokomish, I read to Donovan from an old issue of the Buckley Banner. The newspaper reported on the explorations of Judge Wickersham’s party and Lieutenant O’Neil’s soldiers, both of whom were exploring this river valley in tandem at this point. The Army had graciously used their mules to carry the heavy Banner Party supplies. Back in 1890, when an issue of the Buckley Banner reached the O’Neal camp, the hard-working soldiers were surprised to read that a reporter had written that the Army was, “out upon a pleasure trip, traveling elk trails, living off the fat of the land.” Furthermore the soldiers were mightily aggrieved to find the author of the dispatch was none other than Judge Wickersham’s son-in-law, Charles W. Joynt. It could have gotten ugly on the North Fork of the Skokomish back in the summer of 1890, but O’Neil and his soldiers philosophized over the insult, “However we passed it by, well knowing that our work would mark our course with brands more lasting than printer’s ink or serpent’s sting.”
A half-mile upstream of this site at Blaine’s Meadow, Donovan and I parted company with the Banner Party’s path. At this point the North Fork of the Skokomish River makes a sharp bend to the east. Back in the summer of 1890, Judge Wickersham and his tiny band naturally followed the river, while Donovan and I continued north on two miles of easy trail to the pass at First Divide.
The Banner Party had difficulty following the North Fork of the Skokomish to its source in the rugged glacier country of Mt. Stone. There, Judge Wickersham’s wife Susan slipped and rolled over and over on the snow to the edge of a 500-foot precipice where rocks stopped her fall. Judge Wickersham observed that his wife didn’t seemed frightened by her experience. But that might have been because, “women never do know when they are in real danger.”
In the evening, Donovan and I swapped yarns around the campfire and then crawled into our tents for a good night’s sleep. Back in 1890, the Banner Party cheechakos seemed surprised when it rained. The Judge wrote, “During the night the dense masses of clouds came down upon us again and we were rudely awakened by the great drops falling in our face. By replenishing our fires, drying our blankets and again turning in we passed the night – but not comfortably.”
As the days passed, the Banner Party acclimated themselves to the foul weather. This seems amazing to me as these three men and three women were well-heeled city dwellers. The Banner Party just got tougher. Judge Wickersham boasted, “It rained all yesterday afternoon and until 10 o’clock at night tonight. Without a tent we got wet, of course, but a blazing fire kept the dampness from doing us injury – in fact, while we all lay down on the ground, within 20 feet of a great snow bank, and cover our six persons with three blankets, not one of us has even caught a cold. Not even a case of sniffles has resulted, all owing to the purity of the air and the regular temperature to which we are all the time exposed.”
Donovan and I didn’t see any elk as we explored the North Fork of the Skokomish River and back in 1890 neither did the Banner Party. The reason the Banner Party didn’t see any was because the elk of the Olympic Peninsula were headed toward extinction. Trappers, miners and homesteaders hunted for subsistence, wealthy hunters for sport, while some hunted the elk just for their teeth. Elk possess a rare remnant of prehistoric tusks called “ivories” located on the upper jaw near the front of the mouth. Elk are one of the only animals in North American that have ivory canines. There’s a fraternal organization of men in particular who once sought these ivory elk teeth – the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. A prized possession of Elks Club members was a jewel-encrusted, gold-mounted, elk teeth pendant.
Donovan told me that the elk of the Olympics have developed a wonderful relationship with their home. When Donovan was a park ranger he helped biologists fence off an area of the elk’s habitat. The vegetation inside the enclosures grew into a dense, thorny jungle, but outside the enclosures, the grazing elk kept the landscape open and well groomed. A decade later, the open space allowed for more species to be growing outside the enclosures than inside. The elk may even influence the forests themselves. By preferring the seedlings of the hemlock over the Sitka Spruce, the Roosevelt Elk may have been instrumental in the growth of the vast spruce forests of the western Olympic Peninsula.
Back in the summer of 1890, the Banner Party finally reached the pass at First Divide after a difficult few days of traversing mountains, ridges and glaciers to the east. Judge Wickersham said, “We crossed the divide from the Skokomish, leaving it behind to be seen no more – bidding it a long farewell, and made our camp on the headwaters of our newfound river of unknown name.” While Judge Wickersham and his tiny Banner Party continued on to explore the headwaters of his unknown river (it was the Duckabush), and then the source of the Dosewallips, our busy, modern world demanded that Donovan and I turn our backs on further adventures in the Olympics and head for home.
Lieutenant O’Neil and his soldiers continued building their mule road over mountains and down into the Quinault River valley. Their trail over O’Neil Pass is still used by hikers today. Lieutenant O’Neil’s organized expedition drew detailed maps and kept accurate scientific records that were used by many who followed. Books have been written about O’Neil’s exploits in the Olympics.
While Lieutenant O’Neil accomplished much, what do the wanderings of the three men and three women of the tiny Banner Party matter to us 125 years later? O’Neil’s account was set down in the United States Congressional Record, while the stories about the Banner Party’s adventures would have faded into obscurity were it not for this; after the Banner Party returned to Tacoma, Judge Wickersham became one of the first public officials to advocate for Olympic National Park.
Judge Wickersham was a well-connected man in his day, and when he sent letters to Washington DC they were read. Not only would Judge Wickersham’s proposed park be a “pleasure ground for the nation,” but more timely, the park would also protect the magnificent elk of which the Judge estimated to number only 300. (There were probably around 1,800). At the rate the elk were being hunted, without protection, they would soon have been extinct. Fellow explorer, Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil, said the same, and others took up the early hue and cry, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Within a decade, Olympic National Monument was created by presidential decree and the elk were named in President Theodore Roosevelt’s honor. Today, the Roosevelt Elk thrive in Olympic National Park. Personally, I think they should have been named the Banner Elk, in honor of those plucky three men and three women who explored the rugged Olympics back in 1890 and championed the elk’s survival.
Acknowledgments: The story is based on my backpacking trip in the summer of 2014, but the information is corroborated from a number of wonderful books. The Land That Slept Late by Robert L. Woods had an informative chapter called Wickersham’s Wanderings. Mining information came from Mining the North Fork Skokomish by Robert Keatts. The description of the Antler’s Hotel was from Early Settlement of Lake Cushman by Larry Overland. When I couldn’t read the old newspaper print, I turned to Judge Wickersham’s diary in Exploring the Olympic Mountains by Carsten Lien. The information on the grazing habits of the Roosevelt Elk was from Olympic National Park, A Natural History by Tim McNulty.
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