Flood waters have obliterated site of prospector’s grave

As Dan Clarke raced back to town for his medicine, Archie, alone and in intense pain, slipped into unconsciousness and death.

Few Vancouver Island locales can rival the Alberni Valley region for colour. As the late Charles Taylor III, grandson of the first permanent white settler, recalled 50 years ago, Alberni seems to have had "more than her share" of characters. He thought this was because (speaking geographically of more than a century ago) Alberni was "the end of the line".

For some of its pioneers, it literally proved to be so, often tragically.

"There was an old prospector named Archie McLaughlin, a Nova Scotia man. And a very fine one, too," Taylor told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1964. "He prospected a lot around China Creek. Well, one spring [1892], he went hunting bear with a woodsman named Dan Clarke. They went to the head of Central Lake and over a little divide to Elsie Lake. McLaughlin was no hunter; I imagine he just went along for the sport."

One night, while camped at Elsie Lake, McLaughlin was taken violently ill. Apparently he’d had "the spells" before. Clarke later said he thought McLaughlin had stomach cancer.

When the pain grew worse, McLaughlin asked Clarke to fetch some medicine from his cabin in town.

It meant a long hike and canoe ride but Clarke really had no choice. After making McLaughlin as comfortable as possible, he headed back to Alberni. It was a rough trip at any time; pressed by urgency, Clarke over-exerted himself, to the point that, in Mr. Taylor’s view, he was never the same man afterward.

The next day, Clarke was one his way back to camp, having enlisted the help of his nephew, Willie. But they were too late; McLauglin was dead. They buried him there, wrapped in his own blankets, in a shallow grave covered with logs so as to discourage foraging animals.

A bachelor, McLaughlin had no family other than some nephews back in Nova Scotia. Several years passed before they learned of his death on remote Vancouver Island. Determined to have him "home," they arranged to have his remains brought out of the bush.

Because of the mountains, they commissioned the construction of a special coffin and shipped it to Alberni. Built like a barrel, complete with hoops and staves, it was intended to be watertight, their theory being that Archie’s mortal remains would be floated downriver and across the lake.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that all this was quite unnecessary. Assuming that his grave could be relocated, and that animals hadn’t penetrated the Clarkes’ log covering, Archie was nothing but bones. A gunnysack would have done the job if neatness and decorum didn’t count.

But Dan Clarke wouldn’t go back. Some thought him superstitious; Mr. Taylor thought it more likely that he wasn’t up to it after his initial ordeal. So young Willie agreed to lead an expedition to the gravesite. It was late in the fall and snow was setting in when they packed into the bush. Willie became flustered, couldn’t find the grave. So the barrel-like casket was placed in storage in an Alberni warehouse; years later, it was still there.

As Archie’s last resting place was uncertain, McLaughlin Lake was christened in his memory. (Whether in fact McLaughlin Ridge, between China Creek and Cameron River also owes its provenance to this ill-fated prospector, I can’t say.)

Fifteen years after he died alone in his bedroll and as Dan Clarke made a hard dash to town for his medicine, a survey crew began working on the shore of Elsie Lake. Coincidentally, they set up their camp at the very site on which the bear hunters had camped in 1892. While pitching their tents, they found what appeared to be log flooring and began to dig. Upon unearthing some rotting blankets, they knew they’d found Archie McLaughlin. That was enough for their native helpers who refused to make camp with a dead man.

Charles Taylor, camped across the river, "decided to go have a look. One of the survey party placed a crude wooden cross with Archie’s initials over the spot while I was there. I was back in that country some years later and I crossed over to have another look. The old cross had rotted and fallen away so I cut a slab of cedar and carved his name and year of death on it…

"Now Archie lies under about 30 feet of water since they dammed the lake for power."