It was in Yale that miners bound for the Cariboo gold fields stepped off the river steamers and began their overland trek, by Barnard’s Express coach if they had the money, on foot if they did not. At its height, it was home to several thousand people. Today it’s a mere blink of a town, a few houses and stores stretched along the highway, with a population of fewer than 200 people.
Most drivers just keep going, although a few stop to check out the tools, clothes and furniture spread out in flea markets by the road. A block downhill on the banks of the Fraser River, though, there is an altogether different hive of activity. Across a stretch of soft sand speckled with boulders and willow shrubs, several trucks are parked along the river’s edge. It’s mid-August and after weeks of drought, the water level is low. A man and a teenage boy fill buckets with gravel and load them onto a truck. Behind large boulders at the water’s edge are deep holes where they and others have removed gravel.
Standing knee-deep in the water is a man who looks to be in his 40s, with a ’70s moustache, a gold chain and thick brown hair. Wearing only a blue boarder bathing suit and battered white running shoes, he’s expertly tilting a black plastic ridged pan filled with gravel, letting water slide over the edge at such a steep angle, you think it’s all going to spill out.
In just a few minutes, however, he displays the pan. The gleam is unmistakable: three bright flakes of gold. He dumps the pan’s contents into a full water bucket. “I’ll probably have two grams by the end of the summer,” he says. Sure, that’s probably only $100 worth, but he doesn’t mind — it’s become a Sunday hobby.
If he’s picked up the gold fever that infected his fellow prospectors 150 years ago, it’s a mild case. Or maybe he’s underselling his find to keep away rivals — a not uncommon practice back in gold-rush days, when competition was fierce and sometimes brutal, and men’s fortunes often depended on keeping mum.
My husband, two kids and I are on the gold-rush trail, following the route from Victoria to Yale and then through the Fraser Canyon, bound for Barkerville, the town that sprung up around the spot where Billy Barker struck it rich on Williams Creek in 1862.
As we pass by the steep, once-treacherous river canyon, the nubbly, sagebrush-studded desert hills and the open Cariboo grasslands, I am conscious of those who walked this route, who took months to cover the same ground we pass in two days by car. Where we speed through tunnels in the canyon, travellers once hugged the steep cliff face while inching along wooden catwalks — boards hung by ropes attached to the rock above.
Many didn’t make it — the number of deaths and other costs of travel on the cliff-side mule trail prompted governor James Douglas to commission the Royal Engineers to build the Cariboo Wagon Road to the goldfields, opening up the interior of what soon became the province of British Columbia.
Prior to the trip, we’d immersed ourselves in gold-rush lore. My seven- and nine-year-old read two works of fiction on the topic — the diary of a girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the overlanders on their trek from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to the Cariboo goldfields, and a mystery set in present-day Barkerville.
I read the captivating Zachary’s Gold, which is just begging to be made into a movie, about a Californian prospector who comes into a large amount of gold in the Cariboo by somewhat nefarious means. We toured the excellent Gold Rush: El Dorado in B.C. exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum, which is on until Nov. 1, and saw the stagecoach and giant nuggets.
We even went to Ross Bay Cemetery to find the graves of Billy Barker and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie. Twice at the cemetery, we were offered assistance to find graves, which was startling, but helpful.
So by the time we rolled into Barkerville, after passing through the funky, colourful mountain town of Wells — “Welcome to Wells. Discharge of firearms prohibited” says a sign on the outskirts — and cruising by a bear eating berries on the side of the road, we were ready.
I had been to Barkerville several times as a kid, so I initially thought one full day there would be plenty. Luckily, a Victoria acquaintance who had recently been there said two days was the absolute minimum. In the end, we could have happily spent three in the town, which certainly puts the “living” in “living history.”
Thirty-five years ago, when I went, it was a collection of old buildings with re-created period interiors, circa 1860s, when the gold rush was in full throttle and the town was booming. Amongst the old china and rugs were cool but creepy mannequins posed in little tableaux: a dentist holding a tooth as the patient holds his jaw in pain, for example.
There was a musical show at the Theatre Royal, but the mannequins were the most memorable spectacle for an impressionable 10-year-old.
Gradually over the past 25 years, the action has moved outside, into the streets, with a lineup of dozens of “shows” — from 10-minute meetings of a literary society to the popular
45-minute waterwheel show. Actors dressed in period costume and employing moderately successful British accents roam the streets, play music on verandahs and engage visitors in exchanges. “Excuse me, sir, are you not going to remove your hat for a lady?” said one bonneted character to my husband one day.
Barkerville employs 115 people at the peak of the season, including 40 regular staff. The rest are actors — many of whom sing and play musical instruments — employed by small theatre companies or professional actor groups that bid on contracts for specific interpretive sites or presentations.
Ed Coleman, CEO of the provincially owned Barkerville Heritage Trust, says those presentations have been revamped in the past two years to include more humour, shorter shows and more interaction with the public. “We progressively have inserted humour into everything,” he says. “We find the learning increases a lot more with the humour.”
The waterwheel show is an example: Explaining how a waterwheel works in a gold mine could be drier than a teetotaler’s parlour, but when you create a scenario involving a woman mine owner — Miss Playfair, played by Lynette Candy — whose presentation to prospective investors is constantly interrupted by her grubby sidekick, it’s entertaining. That sidekick, Mr. Grimsby, has been played for more than two decades by Dave Brown, but still attracts many repeat customers.
The show was definitely one of our highlights. My kids also enjoyed attending 1890s-era school so much, we did it twice. What a novelty to see 21st-century public school students standing to answer questions, ending every answer with “sir” and sitting only when told to.
The schoolmaster, “Mr. Archibald Dods” — played by Don Nelson — stopped short of delivering the strap, but did force lefties to write on their slates with their right hands, per that time period.
It was also worth making the trek out to the former Richfield, a town of the same era as Barkerville that has long since disappeared. Gold was easier to retrieve from the creek at Richfield, so the town went up fast and flimsy and came down just as quickly, unable to withstand a snow load of 30-plus feet annually.
The only building still standing is the courthouse, where you can watch a re-enactment of the 1867 murder trial of James Barry, who shot 30-year-old Charles Morgan Blessing in the head for $60 cash and a gold pin while the two were walking to Barkerville from Quesnelmouth, then was caught when he gave Blessing’s pin to a hurdy-gurdy girl. One actor plays Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, while the other plays all the other parts, from defendant to witnesses. (Sadly, Victoria actor and director Tim Sutherland, who played Begbie for 13 seasons at Barkerville, died suddenly July 30.)
Barry, who was hanged in front of Richfield Courthouse Aug. 9, 1867, was one of only two men hanged in Barkerville for murder, we were told.
To get to Richfield, a half-hour walk, we took the stagecoach one-way for $10 each and walked back so we could read the interpretive signs en route. (On your way out of town, it’s also worth stopping at the memorial erected for Blessing near the murder site.)
The hike is a pretty one — in late August, the trailside is dotted with wildflowers, including Indian paintbrush, fireweed and heather. Over the decades, cottonwood, aspen, spruce and willows have grown in to cover hillsides that were barren at the height of the gold rush, stripped of trees to shore up mine walls and build homes and businesses.
The landscape was reshaped dramatically by the quest for gold. And modern excavators are still making discoveries. Workers doing drainage excavation in Chinatown last winter found an axe with Billy Barker’s distinctive brand. Last fall, they made an even more interesting discovery: a loaded 1840s Colt revolver. They had to turn it over to the RCMP, to check historical records of offences to see if it had been used in any crimes. It hadn’t, alas.
Many of the buildings in Barkerville are original, although some have been recreated, including a replica schoolhouse set to open today, the culmination of a 2 1Ú2-year effort.
The other new addition that’s due to open this weekend — the last weekend of the season — is Billy Barker’s mining shaft house, a long-planned exhibit that finally became reality with the help of the TV show Timber Kings. In an episode to air in late January or early February, the Timber Kings worked with staff to build the replica shaft in July, based only on an 1863 painting. “Where we built it is pretty close to where it was,” says Coleman.
The extra TV publicity won’t hurt this attraction, which is remote enough that many people on the coast either haven’t heard of it or know little about it. Visitor numbers, which had been slumping the past few years, bumped up this year to about 60,000, an increase of almost 20 per cent from last year.
Coleman attributes that boost to a number of factors, including good weather, the strong U.S. dollar keeping western Canadian visitors in Canada and the Gold Rush exhibit at the museum, for which Barkerville provided its “Mona Lisa”: Billy Barker’s watch. The attraction also waived admission fees Sept. 14-27 in hopes of reaching the 60,000 goal.
“The gold exhibit was absolutely fantastic,” says Coleman, who took on the job in January 2014 and hopes to do more collaborations with the Royal B.C. Museum — the two just signed a memorandum of understanding with that in mind.
The attraction also recently took over the three neighbouring campsites and has applied for $1 million from the federal and provincial governments to upgrade them with additional servicing and cabins. (While Barkerville is provincially owned, Chinatown is a national historic site.)
And just to show that Barkerville, while a venerable 150 years old, is keeping up with the times, it recently partnered on a beer with Quesnel’s Barkerville Brewing Company, a craft brewery started by Victoria’s Russell Ovans. Those who bought one of the 8,900 bottles had a chance of winning a free trip to Barkerville or gold.
We didn’t win either, but we did leave Barkerville with a souvenir that just might pay for another trip back one day: a gold pan.
IF YOU GO
Barkerville is located about 750 kilometres northeast of Vancouver (81 kilometres east of Quesnel). Admission fees range from $4.75 for children to $14.50 for adults, or $35 for a family of up to six. A family annual pass is $65. We bought a two-day pass that included gold panning, a stagecoach ride and a Theatre Royal show for all four of us. Visitor programs run from May to September. For details, go to barkerville.ca.
You can stay in one of three B&Bs in buildings on the site (rooms are “cozy,” a.k.a. small), or camp at a nearby campground. Or you can kip at a motel in Wells, eight kilometres away. We stayed at the Hubs Motel in Wells, which was clean and comfortable and had a lovely hostess who baked chocolate-chip cookies daily and kept a huge supply of DVDs on hand. There is also the historic Wells Hotel or the Mountain Thyme Getaway, a cute little guest house.
Food: There are options for eating on the site, but we especially enjoyed the Bear’s Claw Café in Wells.
• For kids: A Trail of Broken Dreams: The Gold Rush Diary of Harriet Palmer, part of the Dear Canada series, by Barbara Haworth-Attard, and Barkerville Gold by Dayle Campbell Gaetz
• For adults: Barkerville by Richard Thomas Wright; Gold and Grand Dreams by Victoria’s Marie Elliott; Zachary’s Gold by Quesnel’s Stan Krumm