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Mount Benson:
Tatch-to-lan or Taitookton

From the Nanaimo Daily News July 15, 2008.
By Paul Walton

Long before the Snuneymuxw, the landmark we now call the 1,000-metre high Mount Benson was covered by ice.

About 18,000 years ago, a glacial sheet covered the Island so that only peaks above 1,600 metres, like Mount Arrowsmith (between Parksville and Port Alberni) at just over 1,800 metres emerged. The first traces of the Snuneymuxw came about 13,000 years later, and according to some stories they originated at the base of what they came to call Tatch-to-lan, or Taitookton - now Mount Benson.

According to Snuneymuxw legend, the first man arrived at the foot of the mountain with a bow and arrow, kneeling on two slaves. While there are also stories of conflict between those who originated below Tatch-to-lan with those who lived at Departure Bay, there is no evidence of First Nations settlements at the foot of the mountain.

After Europeans arrived, and the mountain was named after a Hudson's Bay doctor, it has been the scene of intense logging, a depository for human ashes, a UFO sighting, a plane crash killing twenty-three people, a wedding at the summit, countless hikes to the top and, recently, a debate about green space.

Dave Littlejohn moved to Nanaimo several decades ago when he was sixteen, and within a year he was climbing up the top. He recalls a fire tower at the summit, used for spotting fires not only on the Island but also the Lower Mainland.

"It was great, it was the viewpoint of Nanaimo," said Littlejohn.

The city, he said, had the option about twenty years ago to purchase the 500-acre parcel that became the centre of controversy starting in 2003.

Littlejohn said he was "shocked" the city declined to buy it, at about $1,000 an acre, to preserve it then as parkland. The Nanaimo and Area Land Trust (NALT) and the Regional District of Nanaimo finally paid about $1 million for the same parcel.

While the most popular trail now starts at the top of Benson View Road, a work crew has also brushed out trails to the summit from the old trail that led up from Westwood Lake. When logging started by the private owners, that led to the NALT's fundraising to buy it, much of that trail was obliterated. Several people who got lost had to be helped by Nanaimo Search and Rescue.

According to historical documents, the mountain was named after Doctor Alfred Robson Benson, from Whitby, Yorkshire, who between 1857 and 1862 worked at several Hudson's Bay outposts. It was also known by 19th century settlers to Nanaimo as Wakesiah, in the Chinook language meaning either "a long way off" or "mysterious, sinister or forbidding."

One document indicates that in 1859 Captain George Henry Richards in the British Navy named the peak after Benson. A year later British admiralty charts indicate its name as either Mount Wakesiah or Mount Benson. The doctor is believed to have died in 1909, at about ninety-five, and there is no indication that he contributed anything significant to the Nanaimo area.

Island historian T.W. Paterson describes Benson as either an eccentric or a lazy but honest grumbler. The name Mount Benson was adopted officially on June 30, 1910.

It was proposed as a site for the Dominion astronomical observatory in 1912, but instead in 1925 the fire lookout tower was built and it lasted about fifty years. Though several years ago vandals parked and burned a car where the tower used to sit on the summit, vandalism there is nothing new.

In 1937, when the tower was vacated for the winter, vandals broke in and did significant damage, about $1,000 - a considerable sum in those days. It is reported that fire rangers in that cabin had a UFO sighting in 1966. According to one report they saw a sphere approach from the southwest. It was glowing green, about the same size as the tower cabin, and power went out as it circled the summit. The power was restored when the sphere flew off. A couple watching from their kitchen window in Nanaimo reported seeing the green glowing sphere at the same time.

Logging on the slopes of the mountain started in the early part of the century, and continued until around the 1970s. Today logging activity continues west of the mountain, and several years ago logging companies committed to not logging areas visible from the city. There is evidence of recent logging west of the peak.

Early loggers with the Nanaimo Lumber Company, taking massive first-growth timber, used steam locomotives to move equipment up and timber down the slopes. Though Chinese fallers were hired and paid $1 a day, white crews got $2.50 or $3 a day.

Some first growth timber remains on the south side of the mountain near the summit. Though the former owners had it appraised, they faced the same problem of other logging companies - it would have been too expensive to remove for the market price of the wood.

While in the winter of 2000, two hikers died in a snowstorm on the mountain, the most serious incident happened in October 1951, when twenty-three Kemano workers died when the twin-engine Canso they were flying crashed in foul weather.
The crash came just a month after one of the biggest fires on Mount Benson, when for several weeks crews fought the stubborn fire, and residents living in the south end of the city were advised to keep their windows closed.

But in July 2004 the air was clear and sun shining when on the summit Kirk and Karen Jones were married. They returned to a fundraising event two years later with their two children.

"We've spent so many, many hours up there," said Karen Jones. "That's what made it special to us."

And while people have died on the mountain, others have left ashes of their loved ones at the summit. Though the summit is now owned by NALT and the RDN, except for a small patch at the summit that remains federal Crown land, the surrounding properties are owned by the Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina University-College) forestry program, TimberWest and Island Timberlands.

NALT is currently eyeing a piece of private land west of the summit, but have not started any official effort to make that purchase. "There are a number of steps, it will be a process of several months," she said.

But she said they still need donations for the mountain, and they will be held until the effort for that purchase goes ahead. She said the work has started to get trails into shape.

"That's started, we have a crew on the mountain right now," Adrienne said.

A public consultation process through the RDN is expected to start by next year [2009] that will be part of formalizing trails and managing access.

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