Memorial service held for fallen Mounties
Representatives of Alaskan, Canadian, tribal and local agencies all gathered together in Wrangell on Tuesday to pay tribute to two members of the North West Mounted Police who had died during a storm more than a century ago.
Constable Spence Heathcote and Constable Norman Campbell had both drowned while crossing by boat from the Stikine River to Wrangell Island in late December 1901. Though acknowledged as having died in service to their country, it was not until 2006 that Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sergeant Marc Searle of the Surrey Detachment noticed that neither had been formally memorialized.
An RCMP delegation visited Wrangell last year in order to make preparations for a memorial service honoring the two officers. May 10 was picked for the event, being 114 years to the day since Heathcote's body was discovered. Members of the Alaska State Troopers joined their RCMP counterparts at Wrangell Cemetery for the memorial, which was attended to by representatives of the Yukon provincial government, Wrangell Cooperative Association, and City and Borough of Wrangell.
President of the RCMP Yukon Veteran's Association Helmer Hermanson gave a brief biography of each constable during the memorial service.
Campbell was born in Quebec and joined the North West Mounted Police in 1893. Serving in the British forces during the Boer War, he returned to Canada and was transferred to Fort Stikine in present-day British Columbia. At the time of his death he was 28 and unmarried.
Heathcote was born in England, the younger brother to the Ninth Baronet of Hursley. After serving in the Royal Navy he moved to Toronto, Ontario, eventually enlisting in the North West Mounted Police in 1900. He was transferred to Fort Stikine not long before he died, at the age of 30.
Using a dog team, Heathcote and Campbell were patrolling along the Stikine River from their detachment to the river's mouth. They planned to set out from there to Wrangell to resupply before returning to their detachment. Unfortunately the two were caught in a storm, which swamped the boat and killed both officers and their dogs.
"It was one of the worst storms of recent memory," noted RCMP Deputy Commissioner Peter German (retired).
Until recently a Constable Michael Fitzgerald was thought to be a third member to their party and a survivor in the accident. After closer scrutiny, German explained his presence is now in doubt, possibly due to a muddled initial report. For the present, what is known is that two constables had ventured to undertake the trip across to Wrangell Island when the storm overwhelmed their boat.
Campbell's body was never recovered. Heathcote's was found five months later, on May 10, 1902, by two Tlingit fishermen. He had been buried at Wrangell's cemetery by the townsfolk with full honors.
"A full choir and congregation crammed the church and formed a funeral procession to the nearby cemetery," German remarked. "It was described as one of the largest and most impressive funerals ever held in town."
Subsequent reports noted the grave site had been tended to by children with flowers on Memorial Days afterward, but after more than a century the initial grave site has since been lost. A new headstone has now been placed in the cemetery to commemorate both men.
A great nephew to one of the deceased constables, George Heathcote, and wife Dr. Kate Heathcote both came from England to attend Tuesday's service.
"Kate and I feel very honored," he commented. Heathcote extended his deepest gratitude to the different people involved in not only finding and notifying them of the loss, but for laying his relative to rest. Afterward, the Heathcotes planned to stay on for a week, during which time they plan to travel up the Stikine River in order to explore it by canoe on the return.
Among the guests invited to deliver remarks was Mayor David Jack. For its part, the City of Wrangell helped facilitate the memorial, coordinating with the RCMP and AST to set up a date and providing the plot for the headstone.
"As a retired police officer, I am honored to be a part of this ceremony. It is with great honor and sincerity that we are here today," Jack commented. He welcomed the visitors on behalf of the community.
"I was struck by the level of support and assistance that was offered," commented RCMP Superintendent Brian Jones, acting commander of the Yukon's M Division. He noted that Tuesday's joint service was just the latest example of the close relationship between Alaskans and Canadians, and between police officers of all uniforms.
Commenting on the constables' numerical assignations, Jones said, "It is a reminder and living symbol of where we are in the history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police." From their day all the way on to the present, each member of the force is part of an unbroken string of service.
"They all share that family bond, that special bond," added Doug Phillips, Commissioner of the Yukon Province.
Then as now, he went on to say that each day police officers put themselves into harm's way to keep their communities safe, and that for those who make the ultimate sacrifice it ought to be our duty to keep the tradition of honor and respect alive.
After remarks were made the memorial stone was unveiled followed by the playing of taps and a moment of silence.
"We sincerely appreciate the cooperation and assistance of the City of Wrangell and the Wrangell Police Department in making today possible," German said afterward. A reception was held at the Nolan Center following the service.