By Maine Game Warden Kale O’Leary
According to a newspaper article published in an unknown newspaper from November of 1938, Chief Warden Brown and Warden Johnson hiked from Caucomgomoc Lake on November 12th and arrived at Loon Lake the following day.
I was a brand-new Game Warden, attending the Advanced Warden Academy in the spring of 2017, when Warden Dave Georgia first told the class of the mysterious circumstances regarding the line of duty deaths of Wardens David Brown and Mertley Johnson, nearly 100 years ago in their pursuit of illegal trappers in the vast forests of the then untouched St. John River headwater lands.
Since I first learned the story of the tragic events that lead to two of the Maine Warden Services 15 line-of-duty deaths, I have researched and read many newspaper articles, the only historical accounts left 98 years later to help us piece together the clues and evidence.
It is a case that leaves as many questions unanswered as it has answers, which adds to the mystery and intrigue. The facts, circumstances and timeline that I write about below was pieced together from newspaper articles from the time, a Downeast magazine article, a published book called “Two Wardens Found” which details these events, and personal conversations with retired Lieutenant Bill Allen and retired Warden John Reedy, both of whom have connections to this case.
This is the story of two brave Wardens who lost their lives in the performance of their duties and I write this article, in honor of both men who sacrificed everything for the people of Maine. David O. Brown and Mertley F. Johnson.
The setting and stage is important to start this story. Maine in 1922, especially north western Maine near the Quebec border, would have been a virtually untouched wilderness teeming with resources. Only a few years prior to these events, Caribou were still seen on Mount Katahdin. Eduard “King” LaCroix, the famous lumber baron of the Allagash region was operating his Eagle Lake Tramway with dreams of building the now popular tourist attraction formerly known as the Eagle Lake/West Branch Railroad, but today more often called the “Ghost Trains”.
Beaver prices during these times were exceptionally high and trappers could make a full-years wages in other occupations, in a only a few short months if they found enough of woodland critters. Northwestern Maine in 1922 was an inhospitable place for people, a paradise for wildlife and a haven for poachers.
In early November of 1922, Chief Warden David Brown of Greenville, an experienced, veteran Warden with many years of service, set off from Greenville with a young Warden from Patten named Mertley Johnson. We know that David Brown was “Chief Warden”, which in today’s Warden Service meant he was an experienced and accomplished Warden who oversaw several district Wardens who worked for him. Mertley Johnson would have been one of these Wardens.
Their mission was a couple week journey on foot into the rugged woodlands of the St. John River headlands to search out Canadian beaver poachers along with other nefarious individuals entering Maine intent on doing harm to the valuable and high paying beaver trapping industry. Market hunting would have still been occurring and with so much land to cover and so few Wardens, this mission would have been important and vital to the mission of the Maine Warden Service of the time. Little is known of specific plans, but both men told their families before they left that they would return by Thanksgiving.
THE JOURNEY TO BIG BOG
According to a newspaper article published in an unknown newspaper from November of 1938, Chief Warden Brown and Warden Johnson hiked from Caucomgomoc Lake on November 12th and arrived at Loon Lake the following day. Based on this account, it is obvious the Wardens were headed to the south west, potentially making a wide swing from the east to Big Bog, which was their apparent destination. I can only speculate that the Wardens were weary of word reaching out to the west that they were coming and took a wide course off their planned target. A few scarce woods camps dotted the vast forests of this area and the Wardens plotted courses to each of these outposts. It is hard to imagine hiking through this wild country, even today, for such a great distance.
The article from 1938 further states that the Wardens stopped at St. John Lake and then left their names in a camp log at the “Half Way Camp” a few days later and indicated they were headed for Big Bog. This information was found later by the ensuing search parties and specifically a Warden named in the article as Bert Duty.
It is said that along the trail to Big Bog, Wardens Brown and Johnson stopped at “LaRoche’s Camp” and were given , which included boxes of raisins. This would be a key piece of evidence found by searchers later that year who located a small man-made blind overlooking Big Bog and along with several boxes of raisins, but no trace of either Warden…
Next month we will finish the story of David Brown, Mertley Johnson and “The Mystery of Big Bog”.
For more articles about hunting, fishing and the great outdoors, be sure to subscribe to our monthly outdoor magazine the Northwoods Sporting Journal.
For free access to our digital magazine issues, please click here.