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B.C. history brought to life in Gold Rush town of Barkerville

Visitors to historic site can try panning, explore buildings original to frontier settlement

Miss Florence Wilson, wearing a substantial hoop skirt and waving a parasol, very primly informs us prior to our tour of Barkerville that “no matter how hot you are I’m hotter.”

There’s little doubt this gold rush town, on the western edge of the Cariboo Mountains, was challenging for early settlers like the over-dressed Miss Wilson.

Wilson was on the first bride ship in 1864 from England, and was meant to be a future miner’s wife. Instead, she became a saloon keeper, a major shareholder in two mining claims and Barkerville’s librarian.

On the day I visit, Miss Wilson is played by actress Danette Boucher, who is one of many costumed, reenactors who help bring this 19th century frontier town, 81 kilometres east of Quesnel, to life to a throng of late-summer visitors.

It’s Miss Wilson who first tells us how Barkerville’s story begins with the Fraser Gold Rush of 1858 when 30,000 American miners left the California Gold Rush to seek their fortune in B.C., on the lower Fraser River.

When the Fraser Gold Rush ended only a few thousand miners, like Billy Barker, travelled further up the Fraser and began searching its tributaries for gold.

Barker hit pay dirt in 1862 on Williams Creek, which flows through the town of Barkerville.

“Williams Creek is one of the most auriferous creeks in the world,” says Miss Wilson, thoughtfully adding “it means all filled up with gold.”

In total four tons of gold were taken from a three km. (2 mile) stretch of Williams Creek.

The world’s largest creek-side, gold nugget deposit would make Barker one of then wealthiest men of his time. Barker himself took out 2,350 pounds of gold dust and nuggets, valued then at $600,000, from his shaft.

Miss Wilson tells us the exact whereabouts of Barker’s gold site discovery was never known but after recent excavation work done during Barkerville’s shutdown during the pandemic, a shaft was discovered under the Theatre Royal Stage in Barkerville. Speculation is this may be the site where Barker got rich.

Barker either spent or gave away his fortune during his life, leaving him penniless at the end. He died in a Victoria nursing home in 1894 and is buried at Ross Bay Cemetery.

Miss Wilson tells us the town named in Barker’s honor has 140 structures of which 107 are original to the boom town. These buildings, with the exception of two that weren’t destroyed, were actually rebuilt after a devastating fire in September, 1868.

“In under two hours Barkerville was burnt to the ground,” Miss Wilson tells us.

While this was a tragedy it also offered an opportunity for Barkerville to be rebuilt with permanent settlement and fire prevention in mind, she says.

For instance, Miss Wilson explains the main street was expanded to allow two stage coaches to pass and there were larger gaps between the buildings so should a fire happen again it would be less likely to spread as quickly.

Strolling the boardwalks of Barkerville today there are many well-kept wood-framed buildings that visitors can explore, with countless displays housing original artifacts. There are also lots of activities, from panning for gold at the Eldorado Gold Panning and Gift Shop to taking a ride on a horse-drawn stage coach to watching the outstanding afternoon performance at the Theatre Royal, where all the costumed reenactors show off their acting and musical abilities. The show was written and directed by Boucher (Miss Wilson) and produced by Stewart Cawood, who is also a long-time reenactor at Barkerville.

At one end of town is Barkerville’s Chinatown, since half of the estimated 5,000 residents at the height of the Cariboo Gold Rush were from China. Some of the gold they mined was sent back to China to help fund the Revolutionary Alliance, that eventually overthrew the last dynasty to create a republic.

And since 2019, Barkerville has added two indigenous interpreters to bring a first nation perspective to the town and help educate visitors.

Cheryl Chapman, who plays her great-grandmother Lucie Charlie Sellars born in 1867 at Soda Creek and Mike Retasket, who goes by his real Indian name Sintse, share some of the stories and the culture of the indigenous people who lived and traded at Barkerville.

“The work we are doing here is about truth telling and education thorough the heritage site. We’ve always been here to welcome people to our territories and it’s healing to see the genuine interest our guests often show,” says Retasket.

Chapman says prior to the settlers’ arrival, Indigenous people have always travelled through the Barkerville area and knew there was gold here well before Barker’s discovery.

“We followed the animals and the medicines and the berries and the different things that we maintained our sustenance from,” she says.

“One hundred and sixty-five years ago only Indian people were here.”

She adds if it wasn’t for the Indigenous people the miners and other settlers to the region would have had an even tougher time trying to survive without their knowledge.

Barkerville Historic Town and Park is a provincially owned heritage property and a Government of Canada National Historic Site.

During the main season from mid-May to Sept. 11, about 65,000 tourists visit Barkerville, says James Douglas, Barkerville’s director of public programming and media.

While the historic site is open year-round, the activities in the fall and winter are more limited with all of the businesses in the town, such as the restaurants, the saloon, hotel and bakery, shut down after Sept. 11. But visitors are free to still explore many of the buildings and displays.

The Kelly Guest House, on site, and the guest cottages nearby are still open for accommodation in the fall and winter as well.

The gift shops reopen around Christmas when Barkerville holds its annual Old-Fashioned Victorian Christmas and again around Halloween when ghostly town tours are offered.

Barkerville is at the end of the Cariboo Wagon Road, that followed an ancient network of First Nations trails. The first Cariboo Wagon Road was built in 1862 from Lillooet, known as Mile 0, ending near Soda Creek. Travellers would stop for food and lodging at road houses such as 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House and 150 Mile House, so named because of the distance they were from Lillooet.

The second Cariboo Wagon Road was built during the period of stage coaches and freight wagons and started in Yale and ended in Barkerville by 1865.

I drove the Cariboo Gold Rush Trail beginning in Vancouver with stops at other heritage sites, such as Historic Hat Creek Ranch at the juncture of Highway 97 and Highway 99.

The ranch has a collection of historic buildings and is one of the few remaining roadhouses that catered to travellers between the interior and B.C.’s coastal regions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Another stop I made was at Cottonwood House Historical Site, east of Quesnel, which was built in the 1860s to provide accommodation and meals to miners and travellers heading to the Cariboo gold fields.

Although the drive from Vancouver to Barkerville is approximately nine hours, I would recommend planning your trip with many stops and an overnight stay half-way to further explore the Cariboo-Chilcotin region.

kpemberton@shaw.ca