The shootout at the Bechtel Ferry: 1945

On August 24, 1945, Charles Bechtel, age 66, was killed by the BC Provincial Police just south of the ranch.

By Bob Jamieson

On August 24, 1945, Charles Bechtel, age 66, was killed by the BC Provincial Police just south of the ranch.

I have heard multiple stories about the event from various neighbors and friends. Just recently I was able to find some actual formal records of the event. It was a western style shootout, but with sad origins and sadder consequences.

In the 1940s there was still a wagon road — also used by vehicles in that era — that ran along the west side of the Kootenay River by the ranch and by the old buildings in the picture below. Charles Bechtel was living in a small house just above the ferry that was used in that era to get from Cherry Creek across to North Bummer’s Flats. You can still see pilings in the river on both sides and the remains of an old cabin at the ferry site, 400 metres south of the old house and barn.

It was a very nice place to live, and still would be, with a grand view of the Kootenay River and the Rockies, a site for a small garden, a small creek by the house and good grazing on the river bottom. What remains now is one old crab apple tree, a few domestic shrubs, the remains of his house, and an old log barn with the roof gone but with the walls still standing.

Bechtel was an a bachelor, 66 years old, retired, living alone and running the ferry, which at that point likely saw little use. He also did road maintenance on the Wasa Lake /Fort Steele road, across from his home.

He was born in Burford, Ontario in 1879, and apparently worked as a camp cook in Alberta in the late 1800s. He was apparently well educated, became justice of the peace at one point, and was a poll clerk in elections in the early 1940s.

The description below is based on information provided by Peter Woods in Ripples, the history book for the Wasa Lake area, and from the police report on the incident. That report is preserved in the Kimberley Heritage Museum. The information below in quotes, i.e. “xxx”, is from that report.

Friday, Aug. 17, 1945. Frank Biddlecombe was riding by, on the old stage coach road that goes south to north across the property. He claimed that he was threatened by Bechtel with an axe, who accused him of stealing his property. (Or having cows on Bechtel property, according to another source). He reported the incident to the BC Provincial Police in Kimberley. He felt that Bechtel was “dangerously insane”.

Sat. Aug. 18. Police visited the Bechtel farm and found him barricaded in his cabin. After a conversation through the open window it was obvious that Bechtel was having hallucinations. “Further, he refused to open the door and informed the Police he had a gun and would use it”.

Wed. Aug. 21. The police returned a few days later. “After an unsuccessful attempt to get him to come out of the barricaded cabin, a tear gas projectile was thrown in, but Bechtel, carrying a rifle, managed to escape through the door into the surrounding bush where an unsuccessful search was made for him until dark.”

There is another wrinkle to this story described by Peter Woods in the Ripples history book for the Wasa Lake area:

“Two young brothers witnessed some of the event that occurred on this day. The oldest is now 74 years of age with a clear memory of what he had seen.” (This was recorded in 2002; he would now be 90 years old.) “These boys, on horseback, met the four BC Provincial Policemen in a police car and were asked if they had seen Mr. Bechtel. The boys told them that they had just spoken to him and obtained permission to cross his meadow with the cattle they were herding. Boys being curious boys; they ran back on foot to see what was going on.

Two policemen were standing on either side of the door and when Bechtel would not open the door, tear gas was shot into a window. The door burst open and Bechtel ran out towards where the boys were watching on a hillside from behind some bushes. Bechtel was carrying a rifle pointed upwards and he was not firing the gun. He was coming toward the boys and they scampered away, leaving the scene. Little is known for certain of what happened next. The boys never did hear any gunfire but Bechtel was shot in the stomach and taken to the Kimberley Hospital where he died.” (This occurred a few days later, as indicated below.)

Thurs. Aug. 22. “Early the next morning, with Police reinforcements from Cranbrook, the search resumed, and Bechtel was found in his barn, a building about 15 feet square, made of heavy logs with only a door and small window which made it quite dark inside. He was waiting for them, and tear gas thrown into the barn, immediately drawing two shots, one of which narrowly missed Sergeant W. J. MacKay. More tear gas was discharged, and after the smoke cleared away, the Police were preparing to rush the building when Bechtel fired through the window, striking Corporal F. Slater in the left side, hitting and discharging his revolver, which back-fired, causing a dirty ragged wound about 2 inches in diameter.

To effect the retreat of the injured man, several shots were fired into the barn as Slated was assisted to a car and driven to Kimberley Hospital. A guard was placed, and about noon the following day Bechtel came out of the barn unarmed and was taken into custody. Found to be suffering from a gunshot wound above the left hip, he was taken to Kimberley Hospital, where, owing to his weakened condition and complications resulting from the wound, he died the next morning.

Corporal Slater was in hospital for some days, but early treatment hastened his eventual recovery. At the coroner’s inquest the jury absolved the Police from all blame in their hazardous duty of effecting the lawful arrest of a person mentally ill and dangerous to be at large.”

Thus ended the last great shootout in the Kootenays. In reality it was just an attempt by the police to help an old man with mental issues that went seriously wrong. There is no record of exactly how many shots were fired. I have looked at the barn logs and though there are lots of holes from wood worms in the logs, there are no obvious bullet holes.

It sounds like the bullet the hit Corporal Slater actually hit his revolver, in its holster, rather than hitting the officer himself. He likely had cocked his pistol, then put it back in its holster without uncocking the pistol and when the bullet hit the pistol, it went off, wounding him in the leg. Forgetting to un-cock the pistol in this circumstance is understandable.

This account, from the police record for that year, suggests that they drove to the cabin in a police car. The wagon road running north to south along the Kootenay River apparently was useable by vehicles in that era; likely from the Hansen ferry road (now River road) a few miles across flat ground to the north.

Today the wagon road has almost disappeared in most areas. Changes in the Kootenay River channel have removed about .5 km of the old route.

The Bechtel home site is now a hike of a couple of km from any road. (It is on private land, now belonging to Leslie Axelrod. The ferry site is now on land that is part of the Cherry Creek Conservation Area where only foot access is allowed).

The information behind this story was located by Marie Stang of the Kimberley Heritage Museum, who found the police record of the event and the reporting of the story in the local Daily Bulletin paper a few days later, as below. The information from Pete Woods is located on page 42 in the Wasa History book. Shane/Harold Brown, who grew up here on the ranch, shared some recollections from his childhood. Pete Lum was the first person to mention the story to me many years ago. One of these brothers who are mentioned in Pete Woods’ recollection of the story came by my place many years ago and told me his version of the story. Unfortunately, I did not get his name, and now Peter Woods is gone.

This part of the story likely occurred, based on the Police report, on August 21, a day before the shooting occurred.

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