In search of ‘Dead Horse Cliff’

Researchers trying to locate actual horse-kill site

— X marks the spot.

Armed with a small topographical map and global-positioning devices, three history buffs and a journalist headed into the hills above Riverside on Thursday in search of the kill site from which Dead Horse Canyon gets its name.

After seven hours, the searchers – Don Hruska, Wayne Carpenter, Barry George and myself — failed to turn up a single clue. Not a bone or a horseshoe.

“If this is right, we have about 500,000 feet to go,” Hruska said, joking about the steep climb into the backcountry above the original homestead of Carpenter’s family.

“My grandfather homesteaded this area in 1916,” Carpenter said, noting the canyon the searchers were planning to comb was originally called Carpenter Canyon.

The name was unofficially changed to Dead Horse Canyon after a Feb. 24, 1925, story appeared in the now-defunct Okanogan Independent newspaper detailing the slaughter of more than 85 horses.

The Omak Chronicle newspaper, in March 12, 1925, reported the following from an eyewitness:

“At one place, the walls are almost perpendicular and hundreds of feet high. The bottom of the canyon is just a few feet wide and filled with jagged, cruel rocks…”

The unnamed eyewitness said he found a killing field he described as “a distorted, broken, bloody mass of hair, hinds, bones and flesh, some places five feet deep… Hardly a bone but what is crushed and broken.”

Historical records do not pinpoint the slaughter’s exact location, a significant event the searchers believed should be marked for future generations.

The records say the site is

generally located at the top of Carpenter Canyon. But at least one account identified the site as “Swapkin or Swiptkin Canyon.” Today, Carpenter Canyon is commonly referred to as Dead Horse Canyon and the other is called Swipkin Canyon.

According to historical accounts, the horses were illegally rounded up and driven over “Dead Horse Cliff.” The horses that didn’t leap to their deaths were shot atop the precipice and their carcasses pushed over. Another kill site for at least 20 horses is reportedly located in nearby Kilgore Canyon.

Hruska, George and Carpenter all said they had heard tales of hunters, hikers and others stumbling onto the boneyard and decided to see if they could locate it.

The trek began along Tunk Creek Road, at a locked gate leading stopping motor vehicle traffic from accessing public lands managed by state Department of Natural Resources. The group was able to pass through that gate, thanks to owner of private land at the start of the road.

A well-maintained road led up the hillside from just northeast of Riverside to the top of the ridge dividing Tunk Valley from the Omak area. Another locked gate crossed higher up, blocking access to public land.

Hruska had requested assistance from Natural Resources officials, who ultimately said the road was off limits and closed to motor vehicles. A sign also said the road was closed to motor vehicles. But truck traffic, as evidenced by small ruts in the road, showed the road was being used.

With a locked gate in front of the group and no assistance from Natural Resources, the group continued the expedition on foot, climbing another 500 feet or more in elevation until the road leveled out at “Reed Spring Road,” a spur road off the main route. County maps mark the same road as “Rock Spring Road.”

The route passed through a previous timber sale area, where there was evidence of more recent tree thinning efforts. Good timber was down along the route.

“We’re waist-deep in thinning slash,” George said, as the party located one of two ponds they would ultimately find high atop the ridge.

Hruska noted that leaving the felled trees and slash on the ground was increasing the fire hazard, which is in direct contradiction to state efforts to “protect” forests.

“When they’re doing thinning and leave all this stuff laying around, it’s a fire hazard,” he said.

“Yep. It’s called ‘slash and dash’,” added George.

The expedition followed the Reed Spring route for a short distance, until approaching two rocky knolls. Pulling out maps, party members noted the “X” marking the kill site was less than a half-mile away to the southeast.

The searchers scrambled over logs, through brush and up rocks to get to a higher point to look down into several draws and canyons, any one of which could’ve matched the variety of descriptions of the actual kill site.

A pond that contained cattails, ducks and frogs turned out to be an important landmark for the researchers, who used the sound of the frogs’ ribbits as a directional reference. Along the route, the searchers split up and regrouped multiple times in an effort to cover more ground.

George also noted GPS coordinates at stops that looked promising.

However, none of the searchers found any bones or any sign of the kill site.

“It’s always fun to put these points on a map,” George said, noting that after he plots the course he expects the searchers were “all over the place and never got close.”

Anyone who has first-hand knowledge of the kill site or who has personally been there, is asked to email or call 509-826-1110.

The explorers are planning another expedition to see if they can actually put GPS coordinates and X on the historical site.


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