Going Back To The Gold-Rush: Barkerville
Last weekend I made the trip out to my favorite place; Barkerville a historic town and park about two hours from my house.
Barkerville is situated on the western edge of the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia. It was named after Billy Barker from Cambridgeshire, England, who was among those who first struck gold at the location in 1861. His claim was the richest and the most famous. Barkerville was built up almost overnight, and was a case of "growth via word of mouth". It grew as fast as word of Barker's strike spread. His claim would eventually yield 37,500 ounces (1,065 kg/2,350 lb) of gold.
Before the construction of the Cariboo Wagon Road, people hauled their own supplies to Barkerville, either on their backs or in a pack train. Because supplies were scarce, the prices of even the most everyday items were extremely high. High prices for goods in Barkerville did not ease up until the Cariboo Road had been finished, when goods could be transported by huge freight wagons. Soon, movers of freight boasted that they could pack and carry a set of champagne glasses without any breakage - for a price, of course. More women came to Barkerville after the construction of the Cariboo Road. Cattle were driven north up the Okanagan valley via what is now Highway 97 to provide meat for the miners and residents of Barkerville.
At first, the town consisted only of makeshift cabins and tents. By the mid-1860s, however, Barkerville had a population of approximately 5,000, 3,000 of them were Chinese operated by Kwong Lee Company of Victoria. Even though its population was transient and largely dependent on mining, Barkerville was becoming more of a real community. It had several general stores and boarding houses, a drugstore that also sold newspapers and cigars, a barbershop that cut women's as well as men's hair, the "Wake-Up Jake Restaurant and Coffee Salon", a theatre (the Theatre Royal), and a literary society (the Cariboo Literary Society).
Horse racing and prize fighting were common entertainments. Among the so-called "sober set," church services were extremely well attended. The general stores were the most profitable of the merchants. As they had the only source of food, the store owners could increase the price of foods and supplies. In the height of the gold rush, the stores sold flour for as high as $1.25 per pound. Beans, meat, and dried fruit were sold for a dollar a pound. But as the gold rush ended, the stores went bankrupt and finally out of business.
People of Chinese descent were an important part of Barkerville life for almost a hundred years. They established a number of businesses, including the Kwong Lee Company, a general store that sold groceries, clothing, hardware, and mining tools. The company had stores in other parts of British Columbia, but the Barkerville store was one of the most impressive in town. The Chinese community also built cabins (for Chinese miners, who saved money by sharing four or five to a cabin) and Tai Ping (the "Peace Room"), the equivalent of a modern nursing home. Chinese benevolent associations provided social services to the Chinese community, and also resolved disputes within the Chinese community without the use of BC courts.
On September 16, 1868, Barkerville was destroyed by a fire that spread quickly through the wooden buildings. Rebuilding began immediately, and at an impressive pace. Within six weeks, ninety buildings had been rebuilt. Boardwalks were improved, and the narrow and winding main street was widened and straightened. By 1880, there were enough children in the area to build the Barkerville School. It had thirteen pupils and one piece of school equipment - a chalkboard. Even so, Barkerville's population was declining by the end of the 19th century and it eventually had only a few people resident. It had a revival in the 1930s, when the Great Depression caused widespread unemployment, and the price of gold skyrocketed. But as the depression turned for the better, Barkerville declined to a very small village.
In 1957, the government of British Columbia decided that the town should be restored and operated as a tourist attraction. Today, Barkerville appears as it did in its heyday and is referred to as Barkerville Historic Town. The history of each building has been researched and documented. No residents remain; they were either bought out or moved to New Barkerville during the restoration of the site.
In 2008, Barkerville's Chee Kung Tong Building was designated a National Historic Sites of Canada. The two-storey board and batten structure was completed in 1877 and originally used by the Chee Kung Tong organization, a benevolent association for recent arrivals. It is representative of the community building among immigrant Chinese labourers and merchants in new settlements throughout Canada.
Today Barkerville is a open "museum", all people that work there are in period costume and they all have a character to follow. They stay in character when you are talking to them so its interesting to have a conversation with them.
While make the trip to Barkerville is definitely worthwhile there are also many stops along the way that are definitely worth seeing as well. Along the highway to Barkerville you can stop at Lover's Leap, Blessing's Grave, Wells, as well as Stanley and Cottonwood House. I will go in-depth on these next.
Lover's Leap & Mexican Hill
While Stanley today is only remembered as a sign and the cemetery it also has a history like Barkerville.
Gold was found in nearby Lightning Creek in 1861 resulting in the towns of Stanley and Van Winkle springing up as part of the Cariboo Gold Rush. Stanley is located in the Cariboo region of British Columbia’s Central Interior. Stanley can be found by following Highway 26 east from the city of Quesnel. A 45-minute drive along Highway 26 passes by the appropriately named Stanley Road on which the town of Stanley was located.
Stanley once had a sprawling population that surpassed the town of Barkerville at one time due to the gold in the area. Passing by the vicinity one would not even know that there was ever a bristling town full of gold-hungry prospectors and their families. A lone building that is now being renovated is the little visible evidence from the gravel road that there was anything ever there. But just a few steps into the now thick underbrush reveals plenty of evidence of the town of Stanley. An abundance of scrap wood, metal and remnants of buildings can be seen buried in the brush and earth.By the end of the 19th Century (1800's), Stanley had a population that surpassed the nearby town of Barkerville; Over half the population of Stanley consisted of Chinese.
Because of its longevity, much has been written about the Lightning Hotel from its arrival at its current site in 1873. It was originally brought down from the town of Richfield during a great fire that destroyed most of the town. The building was saved by a bucket brigade. Then moved on skids from Richfield to its present location today. The first proprietor, William Houseman, locally nicknamed The Duke of York, renamed his Yorkville Saloon to The Lightning Hotel. The Hotel had many owners from William Ellis, John Lowe, William Morgan and Len Ford. Also super chef and confectioner Hannah Williams owned it until 1947 at the time of her death.
There is some speculation that the Hotel burned down in 1924 and was rebuilt on its original site from buildings purchased by Jimmy Williams at the defunct La Fontaine Mine. During the early 1900s an additional wing (which was the mirror image of the original structure) was built doubling the size of the building. This addition had all the hallmarks of a building built in the 1920s lending to the further confusion of the date of the original building. The 1920s addition disappeared sometime between 1970 - 1990 leaving the current structure all that remains of the Lightning Hotel. The current construction bears all the 'trait's' of a building of the late 19th Century. In fact, hotels of the 1800s were no larger than the building currently standing. In addition, a building such as the one that stands today would never have been found in a mining camp.
It was purchased by prominent Vancouver Mining Executive Mr. Jack LaFleur and his wife Nita who opened it in 1967 for the Centennial year. After that, the building was closed and slowly fell into a state of disrepair with the second half of the building (built in the early 1900s) disappearing completely.
In 1996, Jack and Nita LaFleur's son, Mark LaFleur and his business partner Lawrence Adams took on the job of restoring the property by giving it a new foundation and securing it structurally. The work was done by Mr. Howard Berlin. The restoration process continues today.
Cottonwood House is one of the most famous of the road houses along the Cariboo Wagon Road. It was built in 1864 by John Ryder and Allen Smith. The early years of its operation as a business saw it change owners several times. However, when John Boyd gained title to the house in March of 1874, stability was achieved. The Boyd family operated the house continuously until the fall of 1951.
A landmark, Cottonwood House developed a reputation among travelers as a stopping place of high quality. The barns, fields and Cottonwood River relieved the freight animals of their burden and gave an opportunity to regain their strength. The “hotel” offered fresh wholesome foods as well as a comfortable rest in clean rooms. Both private and dormitory rooms were available and dinner was served in a large dining room.
The hotel was not the only business at Cottonwood. The Boyd farm supplied feed for freight and dairy animals and supplies for the miners were also stocked. Messages could be left here for others travelling or living in the area. News was circulated and a post office was established helping to make the farm a focal point of the community.
In 1909, John Boyd died after a brief illness. John's wife Janet, continued to run Cottonwood assisted largely by some of her children. In 1951 the property was sold to Vagn and Anna Olrik.
The Province of British Columbia bought Cottonwood House in 1963 and designated it as a Provincial Historic Site.
Originally a company town, was managed by Cariboo Gold Quartz Mine. At its heyday of the 1930s, Wells sported 4500 people.In 1942 it had a greater population than Quesnel or Prince George. The closure of the gold and other mineral mines in 1967 took its toll on the town and most of the population moved away. Today it has a listed population of just 300 which doubles during the summer months, and drops to roughly 100 during the winter.
Between May and September, Wells sees over 100,000 tourists pass through on their way to Barkerville. Most visitors stay or camp overnight in Wells, which has an active arts and outdoor adventure life of its own. During the winter months, visitors come for the world-class cross-country ski trails, snowmobiling, and artistic and study retreats. During the summer visitors enjoy galleries and live performances.
Things to read
Remember Me: The Charles Morgan Blessing Story by Mervyn Dykes
Barkerville and the Cariboo Goldfields by Richard Thomas Wright
So there is the summary on my favorite place. I got to Barkerville at least once a year sometimes even up to 4 times a year. I love Barkerville and all things history so I absolutely love this place.
All pictures are mine except for the books and the Barkerville logo.
See you next time:)