THE BIZARRE MYSTERY OF B.C.'s "champagne safari"
In mid-depression a millonaire friend of the Windsors squandered a quarter of a million dollars on acomic-opera trek into the Canadian wilderness.Even the ladies who went along weren't quit sure why Charles Bedaux did it
In a field behind a farm at Fort St. John, a British Columbia village forty-nine miles up the Alaska Highway, three old Citroen half-track trucks lie rusting, crumbling and overgrown with weeds. Another of these French-built vehicles is slowly falling apart up a Rocky Mountain trail, thirty miles to the northwest. A fifth, which has been put into fair shape with hits and pieces from the derelicts, may be seen in a Saskatoon museum.
They arc relics of a bizarre adventure, highly and speciously publicized as the Bedaux .SubArctic Expedition. Its professed aim was to give a wealthy businessman the thrill of crossing unmapped frontier territory. In the light of subsequent events many British Columbians insist it had a more sinister purpose.
Consisting of thirty men, three women, a hundred and thirty packhorses. a fleet of river boats and the five Citroen tractors, the expedition set out from Edmonton in the summer of 1934 across an unexplored region of the Rocky Mountains toward Telegraph Creek, a tiny settlement standing just behind the Alaska Panhandle on the Stikine River of B. C.
It was abandoned on the Sifton Pass, two hundred miles short of its goal. Its failure was due to the unsuitability of the tractors in a country of precipitous mountains, scrubby foothilis. swampy valleys and fast-flowing rivers; to the exhaustion of packhorses overloaded with champagne, elaborate clothing, fireproof tents and other luxuries; to the reluctance of the women to get up in the mornings; to interminable delays caused by the shooting of phony movie scenes: and to the erratic conduct of its multimillionaire leader, Charles Eugene Bedaux.
The last three hundred miles of the route were littered with broken tractor parts, dead horses, pack saddles, clothing, blankets, scientific instruments and cases of canned food. Although the safari took place in one of the bleakest years of the Depression Bedaux squandered on it a quarter of a million dollars. It was one of the craziest expeditions in Canadian frontier history.
In the middle Thirties Bedaux was a chunky five-foot-six man around fifty, with a closecropped bullet head, leathery features, big brown smirking eyes, and a passion for women, expensive clothes and fine food and wines. He derived his fortune, reputedly, from a world-wide industrial time-study business. In 1937 he was famous as the owner of the fairy-tale French chateau in which the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were married. During the excitement of the ceremony Bedaux embarrassed the Windsors by announcing to the press: “I'm an out-and-out Fascist.” A wartime traitor to his native France and udopted United States, he was arrested in North Africa in 1943. Flown back to Florida under military escort, he committed suicide rather than face trial on charges of trading with
Bedaux surrounded his 1934 Canadian expedition with a fog of ballyhoo. He himself wrote garbled reports ot his progress, telegraphing them to New York and Paris to be relayed to newspapers by publicity agents. These accounts gave lise to the illusion that the expedition was facing great hardships and hazards. Actually most of the members were living off the lat ol the land and encountering nothing more dangerous than the odd curious small animal.
To make the journey appear more perilous Bedaux deliberately started a bush fire, provoked a stampede of packhorses and blasted two tractors over a cliff while his movie cameras turned. Among his stories to the press was a whopper about a man being drowned during an enforced packhorse swim across a stream. The most serious casualty in fact was a cowboy’s twisted knee. Bedaux wrote as if he were boring through country where no white man had been before. Actually only about seventy miles of his route was unexplored and this had been traversed by Indians.
Until the outbreak of the last war Bedaux was a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure. One side of his character figured in newspaper gossip columns, the other in the files of many a secret service. His public personality was that of a minor celebrity, a familiar dandy on Park Avenue, New York. Bond Street, London, and the Rue de Rivoli. Paris.
In New York he threw torrid parties with an A^ian or African motif, usually in Bohemian Greenwich Village apartments rented under an assumed name. His Manhattan home was a Fifth Avenue apartment sprayed daily with quarts of lilac water and rented, when he was out of town, to Gertrude Lawrence, the actress. In Scotland he owned a grouse moor. In France he owned a seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousanddoilar castle staffed by thirty menservants in silk knee breeches.
He was a friend of the Herman Rogers, a wealthy American couple who lived on the Riviera and introduced Bedaux to the Duke of Windsor. Bedaux’s wife was the former Fern Lombard, daughter of a wealthy industrialist from Grand Rapids, Mich. Madame Bedaux stood half a head taller than her husband.
As a businessman Bedaux appeared to epitomize the American success story. The son of a French railroad worker, he emigrated in his teens to New York in 1906 and made a living washing dishes, filling whisky bottles, swinging a hammer and shoveling sand out of subway constructions. He became an American.
Suddenly, shortly before World War One, he set up in Cleveland as a business efficiency expert. He had invented what he called the B-unit. a means of relating time to movement in factory operations. At an astonishing speed he became rich. By 1920 he moved to New York where, eventually, he made his headquarters, on the fifty-third floor of the Chrysler Building. From an office done up in carved weathered oak to resemble a mediaeval monastery, he controlled time-study experts in eighteen countries.
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B. C.'s "champagne safari" continued from page 29
Bedaux’s contacts with the Nazi hierarchy after World War One were at first clandestine and later, as World War 1 wo loomed, tlagrant. On visits to Germany in the Twenties he was frequently in the company of Maj.-General Karl E. Nikolas Haushofer, the mentor to Hitler in the writing of Mein Kampf.
Although Bedaux’s income was supposedly derived from industry he traveled endlessly in underdeveloped lands. In 1926 and 1932 he made expeditions into the same remote regions of B. C. that he explored in 1934. In 1930 he drove ten thousand miles across North Africa, from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean through the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, to Casablanca on the Atlantic. In 1937 he made journeys to India, Tibet and Persia.
Ordinary citizens in Canada knew little of Bedaux’s background when, early in 1934, he began to prepare for his third trip into northern B. C. In contrast to the earlier expeditions this one was widely publicized.
In January Bedaux employed Austin Carson, a New York public-relations man, to whip up press interest in the venture. That same month he engaged Jack Bocock. an Edmonton geologist who now lives in South Africa, to accompany the expedition. Bocock received provincial sanction for the trip from the B. C. Department of Lands.
Bedaux intended to pass through seventy miles of country between the Muskwa River and Dease Lake which the Department of Lands had never bothered to map. Here was a chance to get the mapping done partly at Bedaux’s expense. Two provincial geographers, E. C. W. Lamarque, of Vancouver, and Frank C. Swannell, of Victoria, accompanied the expedition and the province contributed six hundred dollars. Bocock also engaged a third surveyor, A. H. Phipps, and a radio operator, Bruce MeCallum.
The main party gathered in Edmonton early in July. The Canadians found Bedaux in a luxurious Macdonald Hotel suite with a polyglot entourage. This included Fern, his wife; Josefina Daly, his wife’s Spanish maid; Signora Bilonha Chiesa, a delicately built and enigmatic Italian-Swiss woman who was described as “a renowned big-game hunter”; John Chisholm, a heavily mustached and aristocratic-looking Scot who was the game steward at Bedaux’s French chateau; Charles Balourdet, a lean French mechanic supplied by the Citroen company; and Tommy Wilde, a cowboy from Rose Prairie in northern B. C., who had been hired as cook and is today a construction man on the Alaska Highway. From New York the expedition was joined by Floyd D. Crosby, a movie cameraman who later made a name for himself in Hollywood as photographer of such films as High Noon. From Toronto, as Crosby’s assistant, came a youngster named Evan O. Withrow. From Jasper, Alta., there was a professional alpine guide named J. A. Weiss.
A pirate with a pack of dogs
All except one geographer, Lamarque, were to travel from Edmonton in the tractors. Lamarque. with Jack Stone, an Indian, and four packhorses, had already left Fort St. John to blaze the trail. Bedaux had supplied him with a bundle of French tricolor flags to mark the route.
Lamarque was followed out of Fort St. John by a party of six men and twenty horses whose task was to cut trails through trees for the tractors. Phis was led by a burly Englishman named Edward Reginald Geake, who always wore a piratical black-silk handkerchief tied around his head and kept at his heels a pack of angry-looking dogs.
At Fort St. John about a dozen cowboys and sixty-five packhorses were waiting to join the tractor party. Jobs had been scarce and Bedaux was paying cowboys four dollars a day, about twice the going rate.
In Edmonton Bedaux acted like a movie star. He spent money lavishly entertaining local bigwigs. In reply to questions about the purpose of his expedition he talked about finding a northern outlet to the Pacific for the prairies; about the possibilities of prospecting for gold; about mounting big-game heads for a Paris museum; about testing the tractors for Citroen. Once he said: “I am just a nut who likes to do things first.”
Every day the tractors, in gleaming white paint and nickel-plated accessories, were taken on practice spins around the city by various members of the expedition. By July 5 the expedition had aroused as much excitement as a circus.
An oil-rich Arab sheik might have envied the camp kit Bedaux loaded onto the tractors next day. There were fireproof tents woven out of an asbestos fibre, folding aluminum tables, chairs, beds, baths, wash bowls and bush toilets; skiver cutlery; crystal stemware; fancy French cooking pots; rugs, cushions, mosquito nets and serving trays. The victuals included cases of champagne, still wines, pité de foie gras, caviar and canned or bottled French delicacies ranging from truffles to chicken livers. The clothing for Bedaux. Chisholm and the women of the party included silk pyjamas, tropicalweight shirts, cashmere sweaters, fur parkas and quilted pants. For relaxation there were several hundred pounds of French literature, some of it decidedly spicy. Each of the tractors sagged under a weight of more than eight thousand pounds.
On July 6. after an I 1 a.m. champagne breakfast, attended by distinguished citizens of Edmonton, the convoy ground up Jasper Avenue through cheering crowds and camera flashbulbs, paused at Government House to hear a farewell speech by Alberta’s lieutenant - governor, William high Walsh, and squelched down into the mud of the unpaved highway that led north for five hundred and fifty miles to Fort St. John. With frequent stops to swill mud out of clogged tracks, the tractors thrashed onward at an average speed of four miles an hour, the riders sleeping by night in wayside hotels, private homes and sometimes in tents.
At the French-Canadian settlements of St. Albert and Morinville inhabitants turned out waving tricolor flags and carrying banners inscribed "Bon Voyage" and “Vive Bedaux.” At Smokey River a drunk, waving a whisky glass, tried unsuccessfully to divert the convoy down a bush trail where, he said, two thousand people were waiting to hold a rodeo in Bedaux’s honor. After discovering that this was a hoax Bedaux pressed on to Grande Prairie. Here, under a hastily erected welcome arch, the mayor expressed the hope that from the expedition "materialistic advantages will accrue.”
Breakdowns became more frequent as rain and wind lashed the caravan and gumbo mud threw off tracks, choked feed pipes and gummed up transmissions, differentials and brake drums. Bedaux began to show flashes of caprice. At Tupper Creek, where the expedition bogged down for forty-eight hours, he flung himself under a tractor and helped clean out the mud. On emerging he found Bill Murray, a young dental student who had got a job on the expedition at the last moment, surrounded by admiring local girls. The girls giggled at Bedaux’s bedraggled appearance. Bedaux fired Murray on the spot.
Swannell, the geographer, was quickly disenchanted about the importance Bedaux placed on mapping. When one day Bedaux was persuaded to lighten loads he jettisoned not one ounce of his personal kit. Instead Swannell was ordered to leave behind more than a hundred pounds of surveying equipment. Furthermore Bedaux appropriated Swannell’s assistant. Phipps, as a major-domo to his own menage. On nights when the expedition camped, Phipps was in charge of erecting and furnishing the elaborate tents occupied by Bedaux and his wife, Signora C'hiesa and the maid Josefina and the steward Chisholm.
On the twelfth day out, at Taylor Flats, a few miles south of Fort St. John, the expedition halted for another two days. Here a horseman brought a message from I.amurque, the trail blazer, who. using pack and saddle horses, had reached Whitewater, three hundred and forty miles ahead. The courier wanted a hundred and fifty dollars for the six days’ ride back to Lamarque with a message. Bedaux paid.
When the expedition reached Fort St. John, then a straggling village devoted to prospecting and mixed farming, villagers gaped at Bedaux’s fine tents, pitched on the local baseball field. Bedaux lit a fire on top of one of the tents to prove it was fireproof.
In Fort St. John. Bedaux paid seventyfive dollars apiece for a hundred head of horses. Bert Bowes, I he garage owner, made him fifty galvanized tanks for packing gasoline. After buying food, bridles, pack saddles, blankets and other supplies in Fort St. John Bedaux spent between forty and fifty thousand dollars, Bowes figured. It was a windfall for a small community in the Depression. In gratitude Bowes, the president of the Board of Trade, threw a banquet for Bedaux and his party at the Fort Hotel.
Next morning, as the expedition prepared to leave, Bedaux distributed tîveil nd ten-dollar bills to men, women and children who took part in a farewell scene filmed by Crosby, the captive movie man. The shooting occupied nearly two hours during which nervous packhorses bucked off the unfamiliar gasoline tanks.
Just as the expedition got under way a band of Indians rode into town. Previously engaged by Bedaux to meet the expedition ten miles north of Fort St. John, they had tired of waiting and had ridden in to seek him. Now there was another delay for more movies. At last the tractors got going along a rough trail that led to Montney. the last village. Over the objections of Balourdet, the Citroen mechanic, Bedaux tried to force them across a deep stream. The first two tractors stuck in the middle and had to be winched out. Finally a log bridge was built to get them across. That day the expedition covered eight miles.
Next day the tractors failed to climb a grassy slope and once more the laborious winching operations occupied many hours. At the top of the slope the front wheels of one overloaded tractor splayed apart and it had to be ditched. A tree-cutting party had failed to cut low enough and the tractors were constantly jamming their axles against stumps. It took three days to cover the forty-two miles to Montney.
Two days out of Montney, Bedaux. much to everybody’s astonishment, fired Bruce McCallum, the radio operator, and sent him back under escort to Edmonton. This left the expedition without any direct communication with civilization save by the couriers, who were sent back from time to time with Bedaux’s dispatches, these were telegraphed to New York and Paris from Fort St. John.
The loss of the radio operator put surveyor Swannell at a further disadvantage. He was no longer able to get Greenwich time signals for fixing positions and had to rely on chronometers.
Those crazy palefaces!
The next four weeks saw an arduous struggle to drive the four Citroens across packhorse trails in wooded foot h i i l country. They were rafted across streams, lowered down precipices by winch, hauled out of muskeg and dragged through scrub. Crosby took movies constantly. But the truth was not always dramaticenough for Bedaux and he wasted hours staging fake scenes for his movie cameras.
In one shot a tractor was shown racing over hard ground. Bocock and Swannell stood on the sidesteps, axes in hand, grim determination in their expressions. Near a clump of scrub the tractor pulled up in a cloud of dust. Bocock and Swannell dashed forward and began hacking a tractor trail through the trees. The scene, repeated over and over again until Bedaux was satisfied, was watched in bewilderment by a tribe of Beaver Indians.
After a day during which it took eight hours to cover one mile a second tractor was so beaten up it was abandoned. On Aug. II, thirty-seven days out and 641 miles from Edmonton. Bedaux decided to get rid of the remaining vehicles. He ordered all hands to help make anothei movie.
A rock bluff, 120 feet above the Half way Kiver, was undermined. Two tractors were driven to the edge, which caved in. As the cameras turned the drivers leaped clear and the loads of empty boxes scattered like confetti down the gorge. The last tractor was placed on a raft and shoved off. Downstream a cliffside was plugged with dynamite. It was hoped that at a critical moment the explosives would collapse the cliff on top of the raft and tractor and submerge them. But the dynamite failed to go off. The raft and tractor sailed safely downstream twenty miles and then grounded on a sandbar. Eventually the tractor was recovered by a rancher.
These scenes were reported by Bedaux as genuine accidents. In another dispatch, circulated through his New York and Paris publicity men, Bedaux reported that Jim Blackman, one of the cowboys, was missing. Blackman was merely taking a rest at a nearby ranch, and soon rejoined the party. The drowning of a packhorse during a swim across a stream was enlarged by Bedaux into an imaginary story about the drowning of a man.
With the tractors out of the way Bedaux bought thirty additional horses from Ed Westergaard, a rancher, and the expedition continued in the saddle. Bedaux assumed a Prussian air of authority. All members had to mount at his cry of "Aux chevaux" or dismount on his order, "Aux pieds.” But he kept the men in good spirits by issuing every night several stiff toes of rum. When the main party caught up with Gcake's trail-cutting party, and Bedaux decided they should now remain together, he split nine bottles of champagne among about fifteen cowboys. They drank it out of enamel mugs. In Fort St. John Bedaux had bought four hundred dollars' worth of cigarettes and these were issued daily. For nonsmokers there was an issue of chewing gum.
As the horses fell sick they were shot and other horses staggered on with Bedaux’s load of wines
Madame Bedaux and Signora Chiesa rarely spoke to the men in the party. Phipps, who still works for the B.C. Department of Lands, recalls: "Signora
Chiesa was especially uncommunicative. As soon as camp was pitched she retired to her tent. She seemed to find the trip hard going. She didn’t look like a biggame hunter to me.” But Josefina, the maid, mingled cheerfully with the men. One night they rigged up a saddle on ropes between trees and by tugging on the ropes gave her an imitation bronco ride. She screamed with delight.
In the mornings the show was often hard to get on the road. At first the packhorses were saddled and ready at six o’clock. Then they might stand around loaded until Madame Bedaux and Signora Chiesa finished their toilets in the hands of Josefina. When the time was put back until ten o’clock the women were rarely ready before noon. Bedaux made no effort to hurry them.
The country now was getting wilder, a hummocky land with valleys heavy in muskeg. Constant travel through mud afflicted the horses with a disease known as hoof rot, and almost every day one, two or three had to be shot. Their burdens were distributed among the remainder. Although much kit was dumped Bedaux wouldn’t sacrifice any of his personal comforts. It took one horse to carry the women’s footwear and several more to carry the wines. One afternoon Bocock insisted that the loads by lightened. Bedaux agreed to jettison hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Instead of dumping the boxes, however, he ordered the men to fire it off into the air. "It took several hours,” says Swannell. "It was the craziest scene you ever saw.”
After crossing the Muskwa River on Aug. 31, the expedition entered unmapped country and Swannell was kept busy surveying. He was hampered by lack of instruments and the diversion of his assistant Phipps to Bedaux’s “court.” Even so he named Mount Bedaux after the leader and Lake Lombard after Madame Bedaux.
Delays for movies continued. Once Swannell heard a fierce crackling and on running out of his tent saw Bedaux had started a bush fire in the hope that the packhorses would stampede and make a thrilling movie shot. Swannell pointed out angrily that bush fires of that nature were against B. C. forest regulations and Bedaux reluctantly agreed to have it put out. The rest of the day was wasted as Bedaux waited for night. At night he succeeded in stampeding the horses by flares and a fusillade of rifle shots.
When September snows were in the air Bedaux decided that Weiss, the alpine guide, must be ready to make a quick reconnaissance on skis. Every day Weiss had to ride with a pair of skis strapped to his pack, a highly uncomfortable arrangement.
Balourdet, the French mechanic, meanwhile had been demoted. Having lost his tractors he was ordered to look after the lanterns. He considered this a blow to his dignity and at times was morose. Tempers were frayed all around. At four o’clock one afternoon, after hours had been spent pitching camp by a river, Bedaux decided to move to the opposite bank. It was after midnight before the move was completed and there was a chaotic fumbling around in the dark for blankets.
By Sept. 8, sixty-five days out, it was
getting harder to find feed for the horses. The animals wandered so far at night in search of pasture that it took up to four hours next morning to find them. Balourdet was distressed by the animals’ emaciation and weakness. Each night he held up his hands and wailed: "Vaire ee going, ze 'orses, for eating?” Temperatures at night went down to zero. But Bedaux clung to his elegant dining table and his wines. Among stuff dumped surreptitiously by the cowboys were whole cases of canned food, blankets, cooking stoves and reels of movie film.
On Sept. 13 the expedition passed through Whitewater, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at the junction of the Fox and Findlay Rivers. Here Bedaux must have anticipated failure. Though he had intended originally to 11 y the party out of Telegraph Creek at the conclusion of the journey, he now sent two men down to the river to rent power boats and bring them up to Whitewater.
Pushing on up the valley of the Fox, the party reached the summit of its last great obstacle—the Sifton Pass. Bedaux decided to go no farther. “Much consternation,” wrote Swannell in his diary, “as all here are for pushing on.”
During the night of Sept. 27, the last on the pass, the horses were tethered in sub-zero temperatures to prevent them from wandering in search of food. This cruel expedient took its toll. There followed a hurried nine days’ trek back to Whitcw'ater with horses "playing out” and having to be shot every night.
Horses stranded to starve
Movie shots of dead and exhausted horses were not gripping enough for Bedaux. He staged another scene in which cowboys were pictured crawling along on their stomachs as if in the last throes of fatigue. While this was going on Lamarque and the Indian Jack Stone reached the camp. They stared at the actors in amazement. Then Bedaux spotted them and decided to include them in the picture. "Go back into the bush,” he cried, “and come into the scene on your hands and knees.” Lamarque refused.
When the expedition reached Whitewater it had left behind fifty dead horses. The remaining eighty were turned loose. Most died of starvation the following winter. The expedition embarked in the power boats and sailed down the Findlay River to Taylor Flats, near Fort St. John. By water the party covered in thirteen days a journey that by land had taken fifty-nine days. Much gear was left at Whitewater but Bedaux kept enough to equip his own boat with a tent and stove. For the women. Chisholm and himself there were fur parkas and quilted pants. The remainder of the party, wearing sweaters and cowboy pants, shivered in open boats. But when he was paying off the cowboys at Taylor Flats Bedaux shared among them rifles, binoculars, stoves, saddles and cameras. Some cowboys backtracked up the trail and recovered saddle packs, blankets, tents and food.
Over the years that followed Bert Bowes recovered four of the tractors. One served his garage as a wrecker until a couple of years ago. Another was used all through World War Two as a tractor on a ranch. Recently Bowes, with parts from three tractors, reconstructed a fourth and sent it to a Saskatoon museum.
Bowes was one of the last to profit from Bedaux’s trip. From Taylor Flats to the railroad station at Pouce Coupe he conveyed all those members of the expedition who were not remaining in Fort St. John. Bedaux still carried so much personal kit that it took three trucks and two taxis. At Pouce Coupe Bowes presented Bedaux with a bill for two hundred dollars. Bedaux gave him two hundred and fifty.
Bedaux entrained for Edmonton on Oct. 25. There he was given an enthusiastic reception. A few days later he left with the women, Chisholm and Balourdet for New York.
Why had he undertaken the fantastic trip? Was it merely the whim of a rich eccentric or was there another reason? According to George Murray, publisher of the Alaska Highway News, “when Bedaux’s Nazi sympathies became palpable, people around here began to think there was something sinister about his so-called Sub-Arctic Expedition.”
“Looking back on it,” says Bert Bowes, "the man was obviously a spy.” The firing of the radio, operator, the fake moviemaking, the strategic importance of the route that later paralleled part of the Alaska Highway—all these details have a suspicious ring when looked at with the wisdom of hindsight. Some people claim that Gcake, the English trail cutter, was actually a British Intelligence agent sent along to keep the expedition under observation. Geake’s melodramatic end serves to heighten the aura of intrigue: he set off for Mexico in 1938 accompanied by a blind man to seek a lost gold mine and was murdered by unknown assailants.
But on the other hand there is no real evidence that Bedaux was on anything more than an expensive joy ride. Swannell, Lamarque and Phipps insist it was nothing more than a publicity stunt for the time-study business. The RCMP oificially denies tiny knowledge of spying.
The truth will probably never be known. Bedaux remained front-page news in the days that followed. He took a house near Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden, conferred with Hjalmar Schacht, the Nazis’ financial oracle, arranged a tour for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor through Germany, and almost succeeded in sponsoring a second one across the U. S. When war broke out Bedaux was in the forefront of negotiations between Pierre Laval, the chief of the Vichy French government, and the Germans. His wartime activities caused his arrest and, in Miami, Florida, he finally succumbed to an overdose of a sedative he had been using. Whatever secrets he had died with him.