Murder, Mayhem, and Mystery on the Cariboo Gold Rush Trail
Magic Carpet Journals invites you to join Margaret Deefholts as she takes you on a journey along British Columbia’s historic Cariboo Gold Rush Trail.Story and Photos by Margaret Deefholts.
I am travelling with ghosts. Their earthly lives ended perhaps fifty years, or even over a century ago. But their shadows lie across my pathway today. They were ruffians, hustlers, gamblers, and adventurers. Some were unlettered, others were gentlemen investors. But all of them had one thing in common: a lust for gold. Their trail lies through the history of British Columbia; my trail follows the outline of their footprints.
Yale B.C. where this story begins. Well, perhaps it begins with Donald McLean, a chief trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He’d been thunderstruck when one of the members of a local Indian band handed him 800 ounces of gold dust which had been dredged out of the upper reaches of the Fraser River. McLean sent this to the Company’s trading post in Fort Langley, who then forwarded it on to the mint in San Francisco for conversion into coin.
A miner, James Moore, was at a fireman’s meeting in San Francisco in February 1858 when he got wind of the packet en-route to the mint. Galvanized into action, Moore rounded up a foursome of prospectors and lit out for the Fraser River forthwith. A month later, Moore and his group had paused for a meal in the vicinity of Yale. One of his party, T.H. Hill, noticed shiny flecks in the moss covered rocks, and proceeded to pan around a sandbar, (now known as Hill’s Bar) discovering in a matter of minutes one of the richest gold bearing sites on the Fraser—a find which would eventually yield two million dollars in placer gold or, in today’s money, roughly thirty-five million dollars.
“Gold Discovered on Fraser’s River!” screamed the headlines in the San Francisco newspapers, and the frenzy was on. Over 30,000 prospectors, some from of the now defunct California gold fields others from Europe and Australia, jammed the queues clamouring for a miners licences from the Gold Commissioner’s Office in Victoria. Hudson’s Bay trading post at Fort Langley raked in $1,500 a day as swarms of men stocked up on provisions, clothing, and tools. The prospectors then surged along the Fraser in dugout canoes, rusty tugs, and roughly lashed rafts. Those few who could afford it travelled on paddle-wheelers or hired pack mules, but many trudged on foot from Mission and Hope along rugged trails up into the Fraser Canyon.
Yale mushroomed overnight into a seedy frontier-type town with gambling saloons, bordellos, and cheap boarding houses. Drunken brawls were commonplace—but when serious violence broke out between the Americans and the native Indians, Governor James Douglas rushed to declare British Columbia a Crown colony, subject to British civil and criminal law.
Enter Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie. A imposing 6’5″, Begbie was a larger than life character both literally and figuratively. Although history has saddled him with the appellation “Hanging Judge”, Begbie, in actual fact handed down the death penalty in relatively few instances. Despite his acerbic tongue and formidable temper, he earned a reputation for meting out swift and fair justice. At Yale, Begbie ruled in favour of the Indian band, tamped down the rambunctious American element and, with the help of the military arm of the Royal Engineers and a constabulary force, he restored civil order to the town.
Apart from the ghosts of history, I am also travelling with a group of flesh and blood companions. Today, as our driver and guide, Brent Rutherford, approaches Yale, the Fraser River is running high and Hill’s Bar is submerged. But off the Trans-Canada highway and the roar of logging trucks, and beyond the rumble of goods wagons along the railroad tracks, the town of Yale is tranquil. The lovely heritage church of St. John the Divine is dappled by light and shade; the river where paddle boats and steamers disgorged a ragtag bunch of unshaven men, is now deserted except for a solitary crow which throws an indignant glance our way before taking wing. Here too, is a monument commemorating the start of the Old Cariboo Wagon Road, completed by the Royal Engineers in 1862, which once teemed with pack mules and packers, horses, wagons, and coaches ready to embark on the 400 km, month-long journey to the El Dorado of the Cariboo: Barkerville.
Yale was the cork in the bottle as far as river traffic was concerned. North of the town, the Fraser was un-navigable, churning downstream as it did, in a maelstrom of white water. To proceed further up the canyon, miners and mule trains picked their way along a perilous shelf-like track clinging to the sheer rock facade of the gorge. Today’s four lane highway follows the same route, but the canyon walls now resound with the rush of semi-trailers and camper vans, and as I pause to aim my camera at the torrent of water fuming through Hell’s Gate, a train shrunk to toy-like dimensions, caterpillars its way along the opposite bank.
We board the Hell’s Gate Airtram, swing on cables across the seething river, and on dismounting I discover another wisp of the past: a pigtailed Chinese cook named Ah Foo Yu whose claim to immortality is that his culinary expertise was so prized by a company of railroad workers that pandemonium broke out when he was abducted by a rival camp. Worse still, his stove refused to light. Eventually Ah Foo Yu was found and brought back and he happily continued to turn out meals until his death on July 10th 1880. Legend has it that his stove, now displayed on the boardwalk, turns warm on the anniversary of Ah Foo Yu’s death although it has never again been fired up. It is a charming little tale, and I like to think that the venerable old Chinese cook’s spirit does hover around the area, but since the stove stands bathed in fierce sunlight in July, its heated surface probably owes more to natural causes rather than any supernatural intervention.
Our route winds through Lytton and then up via Spencer’s Bridge, Ashcroft, Cache Creek and Clinton. Lytton’s main claim to fame is that it is the hottest spot in B.C., and today in early June, at 36 degrees centigrade, it lives up to its reputation. Beyond Lytton the earth turns ochre and the hills are pimpled with cactus. The landscape has a strange, eerie beauty: desolate and wild for a few miles and then, as we swing into the town of Ashcroft, the sagebrush gives way to homes and ranches. At the Ashcroft Museum I find myself in a sepia world surrounded by images of the weather-beaten faces of pioneers, homesteaders, and transient miners; of mule train operators, and stage-coach drivers.
A few hours later at Hat Creek Ranch, I meet up again with Donald McLean, whose packet of gold at the San Francisco mint set off the initial prospecting delirium. McLean, having retired from the Hudson Bay Company, decided to build this roadhouse as a staging halt along the Old Cariboo Road in 1861. Business was brisk through the next couple of decades as coaches and wagons halted to change horses, while miners and pioneers relaxed overnight, enjoying a hot meal and a bottle or two of whisky. Today the old coach road still exists as does McLean’s original log building, its walls adorned with photographs of the owner and his native Indian wife, its furnishings reminiscent of a long vanished era.
But not everything at Hat Creek Ranch has dissolved into the past. Some of its previous occupants are still in residence and have been known to make their presence felt from time to time. The most frequent other-world visitor is a woman who knits away while sitting in a rocking chair in one of the bedrooms on the first floor of the house. Horrified onlookers report that she usually melts away within a few seconds, but an icy-cold draft along the passageway sends them rushing down the stairs in panic. Also frequently heard along the path running through the property, is the clatter of phantom hooves making their way to the barn, where the sound of a hammer wielded by an invisible blacksmith rings against an anvil. And most unnerving of all is the spectre of a man who sometimes materializes in the granary swinging from a noose tied to the rafters. To my disappointment none of these apparitions show up during our visit, so instead I content myself by clicking my camera at a very real horse and carriage as it makes its way along the old coach road.
No ghosts frequent the Clinton Museum, although Judge Begbie’s chair reposing in one corner is a reminder of the years he spent on judicial circuits in the Cariboo. My attention, however, is caught another curious object—a battered metal safe, with its lid askew. It is only about a cubic foot in size, but it weighs a formidable 100 lbs. It had been found near 100 Mile Hill by the Chief Constable at Clinton in 1914.
There was little doubt as to its history. Back in 1886, a desperado named Jack Rowlands had staged the first coach robbery in Cariboo history near 82 Mile House, holding the BX Express carriage up at gunpoint. How he managed to single-handedly lift the heavy safe containing $15,000 worth of gold dust as well as two gold bricks, and hoist this onto his horse, remains a mystery. Attempts at tracking the bandit down turned out to be futile, but a short while later Rowlands showed up at a bar in Ashcroft bragging that he’d struck it rich at Scotty Creek. Scotty Creek had been cleaned out several years previously, and a local policeman, Constable Burr, grew suspicious. He decided to examine the gold dust Rowlands had stashed in the F.W. Foster store safe and straightened up with an “Aha” of satisfaction: the dust wasn’t from Scotty’s Creek; it was of a coarse variety, typical to the Barkerville area.
Rowlands was found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to five years in jail, but escaped two years later and vanished across the US border. The gold bars were never found, but according to a letter addressed to F. Tingley (son of the legendary BX stage coach driver Steve Tingley) on November 10th 1914, the safe found by the Chief Constable at Clinton, contained “a bundle of waybills, vouchers and reports along with a small leather treasure bag” (presumably empty). The letter concludes “The safe was apparently opened with an axe, and I do not think it has any value.” Perhaps not in terms of utility, but as part of gold rush history the little strongbox holds within its buckled frame the tale of a highwayman brought to justice by a savvy police officer.
Mere robbery pales into insignificance the next morning.
We are standing at the 108 Historical Site, looking at an idyllic scene—an old barn, the schoolhouse and a rustic log cabin set against the backdrop of evergreens, their images mirrored on the still waters of a deep blue lake. Hardly the setting for murder most foul. But if the story is to be believed, this is the neighbourhood where Agnes McVee, her husband Jim McVee, and her son in law, Al Riley, set up McVee’s Inn during the 1870s.
Agnes, a Scotswoman of voluptuous proportions, was the leader of the trio. She was also Lucretia Borgia, Lizzie Borden, Countess Elizabeth Bartory, and a female version of Marquis de Sade all rolled into one.
For starters, Agnes enticed young women (many of them looking for a husband along the gold rush trail) into the hotel. Once inside, the girls were imprisoned in the basement, bound, chained, beaten, and starved into terrified submission. In addition to dealing in the sale of these women, Agnes also provided food, liquor, and lodging for miners and merchants travelling solo on their way to or from Barkerville. Many of them never emerged alive. While Agnes plied her victims with booze, and glimpses of her cleavage, Al Riley armed with a shotgun, drew a bead on their backs from a window, killing them instantly. The bodies were then bundled into a covered wagon, and Jim McVea dumped the remains into one of the many wilderness lakes in the area. Agnes meanwhile cleaned out their possessions, and buried gold and coins in the vicinity of the Inn. As a sideline, Jim collected the men’s horses and when he had a sufficient number to make up a string, he sold the animals at a profit in Fort Kamloops.
Incredibly—perhaps because of the Inn’s remote location—the murderous trio remained on the rampage for ten years, until Agnes made a fatal mistake. A young gambler named McDonald strolled in one night and Agnes, smitten by his debonair good looks, decided she would make a bargain with him: She would sell him a young woman for $4,000 on the condition that he came back to visit her in a couple of months. Perhaps she’d figured on getting rid of her husband in the meantime and installing McDonald in his place, but it didn’t pan out that way. McDonald and his newly acquired girl took off on his horse, while Jim McVea, outraged at losing the large bag of money he’d spied in McDonald’s possession, sneaked out after him. He returned in the early hours with a sack of $8,000 in gold coins, having shot McDonald and disposed of his body in the usual manner. Agnes was furious, but by the next morning she appeared to have simmered down as she served breakfast to her husband. He’d barely taken a few mouthfuls when he rolled off his chair in violent convulsions, and by the time an appalled Al Riley burst in, Jim was a slab of dead meat on the floor. Agnes coldly set about wrapping her husband’s body in a blanket while Al set off hastily to bring the carriage around.
They were just about to drive off with the corpse when the police arrived. With them was McDonald’s girl, shivering and frightened. In his haste to get rid of the gambler’s body, Jim had forgotten about the young woman who had managed to escape into the night.
And that was that! The remaining six girls in the basement were released, Agnes and Al were convicted of kidnapping and murder, and incarcerated in the New Westminster jail. In 1885 Agnes committed suicide by poisoning herself (possibly with the same powder she’d administered to her husband); Al Riley swung on the gallows shortly afterwards.
Nobody is sure how much gold Agnes collected from the 59 victims whose bodies have come to light from time to time. She is believed to have hidden all of it in the nearby area, and estimates range from $100,000 to $150,000. Of that, an amount of $2,500 in gold nuggets and coins was unearthed by a farmer in the 1920s, and a further $6,000 came to light when Block Brothers developed the area some years later.
Whether apocryphal or not, the tale is a grisly one, and I take a second look at the historical buildings at Mile 108. Some of them are constructed with wood salvaged from the McVee Inn when it was torn down in 1892. Would closer inspection reveal a smear of congealed blood or a strand of human hair lodged in the grain of a beam? Does a human skeleton or two still lie submerged in the placid lake?
We veer off the highway at Lac La Hache, onto a gravel back road snaking through true Cariboo country—rolling meadows fringed by cottonwood trees and ranches bordered with distinctive Russell split-rail fences. Free range cattle saunter across the path, and a moose in the shadow of a clump of evergreens freezes into startled immobility.
We are on the fringe of Horsefly and Likely, both small towns with a big chunk of gold rush folklore tucked into their yesterdays.
As the Fraser River gold rush began to fade, some prospectors headed for home. Others like Peter Dunlevy, Tom Moffitt, Tom Manifee, Jim Sellers, and Ira Crow figured that the gold dust washed down was an indication that a richer mother lode of precious ore lay further into the Cariboo.
According to an article written by Sage Birchwater—a writer living in the West Chilcotin—and published in the Cariboo Sentinel Vol II, at some point along their journey up river, Dunlevy and his group encountered a Shuswap Indian, Tomaah. The Indian looked on curiously while Dunlevy panned gravel in a wooden sluice box. “Why you wash stones?” He asked. When Dunlevy talked about gold, Tomaah shook his head in puzzlement, so from the bottom of his rocker, Dunlevy held out a fleck of gold. It was approaching dinner time, so the group invited Tomaah to join them. At the end of the meal, his face lit by the flicker of a campfire, the Shuswap went back to the subject of gold. He was contemptuous of the dust the men were laboriously sifting from the river bed and offered to show them where to find big shiny stones. How big? Tomaah flicked a bean off his plate: “That big!” He said. His words caused an uproar among the prospectors. A stunned Dunlevy questioned Tomaah further, and the man drew a rough map in the sand. Before parting company, the prospectors agreed to meet the Indian near Lac La Hache.
Fortified with fresh provisions, they headed for the rendezvous, arriving in time for a big tribal celebration of sports and contests. The next evening, true to his word, Tomaah appeared, and with him was his friend, Long Baptiste. But all was not well. The party of white men was not welcomed by all the bands, many of whom were suspicious and hostile. What had started out as a sports contest unexpectedly developed into a council of war. Dunlevy and his group hung on the edge of uncertainty. Were they about to be massacred, their bodies flung into the thick woods and forgotten? However, reason prevailed as the Shuswap and Yabatan chiefs pointed out that the fur trade at Hudson’s Bay had proved lucrative to them in the past, and it was obvious that the white men had superior fire power. Rather than precipitate a war that would only result in loss of their people, it was best to reap the benefits of co-operation. It was a turning point in the history of the Cariboo gold rush.
Unlike the Agnes McVea tale, this one had a happy ending. Baptiste led them up to the Horsefly River and, although there is no formal record of how much gold Dunlevy’s party took out of the area, it is estimated that they cleared over a million dollars in today’s currency. Baptiste on Dunlevy’s recommendation became Judge Begbie’s personal travel guide and companion.
Both Horsefly and Likely doze in the afternoon sun, as we stop briefly to look at the Horsefly River where Dunlevy and his group once made their fortunes. The waters no longer hold any shiny nuggets, but later in the year they will shimmer coppery red as sockeye salmon seethe past fly-fishing enthusiasts drawn here, much like the prospectors over a century ago, but with a different haul to cache!
We are now on our final stretch to Barkerville. It is late afternoon and the sky has turned sullen. By the time we dismount in the parking lot, a cold malicious drizzle whips against our faces. Most visitors have gone home, and we make our way to the Lung Duck Tong restaurant in the Chinatown sector. The building dates back to the early 1900s and the hospitality, like the food, is generous. And piping hot!
Barkerville is where illusion and reality merge. The rain has disappeared by morning, and the main street buzzes with activity. At the door of the school house, Miss Mary Hastie stands primly awaiting the arrival of her pupils, and further up the road, a whiskered gentleman in a top hat and cape bows a polite, “Good morning Ma’am” to a pretty young woman dressed in a crinoline. A couple of kids emerge from the costume shop: the little girl wears a bonnet and pinafore; her older brother is in a waistcoat, necktie and burglar cap. Mum and Dad are also in period costumes, and the family beam as an obliging miner puts down his shovel and clicks a shot before handing the camera back to Dad. Visitors peer into the windows of miners’ log cabins; some stop to watch Mr. Cameron at work in the blacksmith’s shop, while others buy candy and postcards at the Mason & Daly General Store. A group of school kids, also wearing Victorian costumes, whoop and wave as their stage-coach rumbles past me.
I’m just in time at the Visitors Reception Centre to join Mr. Joshua Thompson and the saucy Miss Rebecca Gibbs as they conduct a group through historic Barkerville. The lady informs us that not only is she the town’s best laundress but she is also a poet of considerable talent, who Mr. Thompson, as the owner of the Cariboo Sentinel, is privileged to have as a frequent contributor to his newspaper. Mr. Thompson raises his eyebrows at this, but knows better than to comment.
Mr. Thompson leads us along the main street and points out the Tregillus home. Fred Tregillus, who owned the longest mining licence in British Columbia, lived here from1886 till his death just a few months shy of his 100th birthday in 1962. A little further along the boardwalk a spanking white house, with curlicued gables, was the home of John Bowron, Barkerville’s Gold Commissioner, Town Librarian, and Postmaster.
Across the street is an original pre-1900s house, occupied by John’s son William Bowron. His business partner, Joe Wendle, lives next door, and I peek into the kitchen where Joe’s sister and housekeeper, Julia Wendle, is preparing a special pudding as a celebratory treat. “Joe came home with wonderful news last evening,” Julia tells us, her eyes dancing. “They’ve hit a lode at the Hard Up claim, and it looks like a bonanza! About time too—its been two years of bitter disappointment up to now.” She urges us to come back and sample her dessert later that afternoon.
It is here in Barkerville that I finally meet the formidable Judge Begbie. He is striding down the street on his way to hold Assizes court at the Wesleyan church hall. “Will James Barry be in the prisoner’s dock?” I ask. He shakes his head. “No, Ma’am, not today. But if you wish you may attend the Richfield courthouse in July,” he says. “That’s where I will be passing sentence on Mr. Barry.”
The story leading up to the sensational trial, was an unusual one. In May of 1866, Charles Morgan Blessing and a companion, Wellington Delaney Moses, were on their way to Barkerville when they met up with James Barry at Quesnellemouth. Barry persuaded Blessing to join him on a side trip, while Moses continued on to Barkerville where he opened a barbershop. Several weeks later Barry showed up in Barkerville alone, claiming to have no knowledge of what had happened to Blessing.
Moses distrusted Barry’s evasive manner from the outset, and his misgivings grew stronger when—as the tale goes—shortly after Barry’s arrival, Charles Blessing walked into the barbershop one morning indicating that he needed a shave. Moses was relieved to see him, but was nonetheless, shocked at Blessing’s appearance—his clothes were torn and filthy and his eyes were hollow. The barber sharpened his razorblade, but when he turned around, he was aghast to find that the moist towel he’d used to covered his friend’s face was soaked in blood. He’d no sooner let out a cry of alarm, when the apparition vanished. This all but convinced Moses that Blessing had been murdered, and his suspicions were confirmed when a Hurdy-Gurdy dancer showed him a distinctive gold tie-pin in the shape of a skull given to her by Barry. Moses recognized it instantly. Meanwhile Blessing’s corpse, with a bullet hole through its skull, had been discovered in the bush. Witnesses testified to the fact that Barry was armed with a pistol, but the definitive piece of evidence was Blessing’s gold tie-pin.
With the hindsight of time, I know the outcome of the James Barry case. To quote Judge Begbie as he pronounced sentence on Barry: “You have dyed your hands in blood, and must suffer the same fate. My painful duty now is to pass the last sentence of the law on you, which is that you be taken to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
I am not sure whether Blessing’s ghost still stalks the streets of Barkerville, but the town plays host to several other spectral inhabitants. Certainly everyone I chat to on the subject seems to have a favourite yarn to spin. Although no one has been able to identify him, a man in top hat and tails has been known to materialize briefly, on stage left at the Theatre Royal. A shadowy woman at an upstairs window of the old Barkerville Hotel (now converted to a heritage museum and gift shop), has been sighted on several occasions, even though the building is empty and locked up at the time. The St. George Hotel, too, has a mysterious phantom, a young blonde woman dressed in white, who appears around midnight by the bedside of lone male visitors. Women guests, it would seem, aren’t worth her wile!
Some of Barkerville’s ghosts are prankish poltergeists, others are solitary and wistful. None of them appear to be evil or violent. Perhaps this because Barkerville’s past contains few heinous criminals. Other than Barry’s hanging, the only other execution that took place here, was that of a native Indian found guilty of murdering a man at Soda Creek. The town, then known as Williams Creek, had none of the rambunctious lawlessness of other American gold rush frontier towns, and while it had its share of gambling dens and sporting houses in the Chinese quarter, its saloons, dance halls, and rooming houses operated discreetly and—as in the case of a bordello run by the colourful Madam Fanny Bendixon—even with some measure of style. A few saloons offered entertainment by German or Dutch Hurdy-Gurdy dancers, and although some of them were women of easy virtue, others were from respectable, if impoverished backgrounds. Many of them married into Barkerville families and settled down in the Cariboo. Today, at the Theatre Royal, where I peer nervously at the shadows lurking in the stage wings, an amply endowed Hurdy-Gurdy dancer dressed in a traditional red dress, recounts her life in Williams Creek. The audience chuckles loudly at her double-entendres, and applauds enthusiastically at the end of her show. The racket is enough to discourage any self-respecting spook.
Barkerville’s most famous character is its namesake, Billy Barker. Yet Barker would never have come anywhere near the area, if it wasn’t for Dutch “Bill” Dietz, one of the first prospectors to discover flecks of gold dust in the waters of Williams Creek (named after him) which resulted in a frenzied of rush of prospectors in 1861—among them the choleric 44 year-old Billy Barker. Apocryphal tales about Mr. Barker abound, but a favourite among them is that he was haunted by a recurring dream in which the number 52 seemed to carry a mysterious significance. Bearing out the tale is a laconic marker along Barkerville’s main street recording the spot where according to legend, Billy Barker on August 17th 1862 hit pay dirt at a depth of 52 feet! Billy Barker realized half a million dollars in today’s currency, but squandered it all in abortive mining ventures, to die penniless at the age of 77. He is reputedly buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Victoria’s Ross Cemetery.
As if to make up for our soggy welcome two days earlier, Barkerville bids us farewell in brilliant sunshine. Beyond Wells, the gold rush trail leads to Cottonwood House estate, which literally straddles the historic Old Cariboo Road. Like Hat Creek House, this too was a hostelry and stagecoach stop for drivers, prospectors, and merchants who needed to stock up on provisions and rest overnight while saddlery and wheels were repaired. Owned by the Boyd family from 1874 to 1951, Cottonwood House is a jewel in the treasury of the Cariboo region’s heritage homes. Meticulously restored rooms are set with antique furniture, ornaments, photographs, silverware, and crockery, and it is easy to ‘hear’ again the clink of glasses and hum of conversation in the large dining room as guests gather for a meal. I am regretful that time doesn’t permit a visit to the rustic log guest cabins dotted around the estate, or the opportunity of looking in on the farmyard poultry and animals—or even to browse through the collection of heritage wood products offered for sale. But that said, what better reason is there than these missed opportunities, to return another day!
I probably wouldn’t remember much about our next stop at Quesnel, if it wasn’t for Mandy. She lives in the Museum, and is far from being pretty—in fact her face looks like that of an abused child. And perhaps, like a child who has suffered cruelty, she is vindictive. For one thing, sitting in her glass case with her frilly doll’s bonnet framing her cracked face, she has been known to turn her head away from a camera’s intrusive eye. For another, she has caused immeasurable grief to photographers who have tried to capture her image: they’ve had to deal with messed up development equipment, and in one instance, the destruction of a video camera hopelessly jammed with snarled video tape. Time and again negative film has turned out to be blank. Her previous owner was relieved to get rid of the eighty-year old doll, after hearing intermittent wailing sounds and cold winds (at the height of summer) whirling through the house. I peer at Mandy, who looks stony-eyed past me, but my digital camera remains out of sight. No sense in risking a hard-drive crash when I start downloading my travel shots onto my desktop.
As Brent hits the back-roads beyond Quesnel, we are once again on a twisting trail, following the Fraser River, far, far below us, with walls of evergreen forests rising from the river’s edge, and reaching up into a cobalt blue sky. There is little traffic, other than the occasional logging truck, and the air smells of earth and grass. A lone eagle circles a distant peak. Conversation dies away, and the only sound is the thrust of the diesel engine as we climb and dip around corners.
One of the highlights of a trip such as this, is staying overnight at a typical Cariboo ranch. Big Bar Guest Ranch sprawls across undulating country, against a backdrop of mountain ranges smudging the horizon. I stand out on the patio in the crisp morning air, a mug of freshly brewed coffee in hand, and listen to the whinny of horses in the surrounding paddocks. Drawn back into the dining hall by the smell of sausages, bacon, and fried eggs, it is hard to believe that just the night before, after a country-style dinner of immense proportions, I thought I’d never be hungry again!
The back road from Big Bar Ranch meanders past fields of riotous wild flowers, and then, heading towards Lillooet, we once again we emerge onto the highway edging the Fraser River. The town lies along an earlier route to Barkerville, (before the construction of the Old Cariboo Road) which snaked up from the north end of Harrison Lake via Port Douglas. All the way along our route through the Fraser Canyon I’ve noted the mile markers (used as an aid to stagecoach drivers who had to stop along the way to change horse teams) but now, at Lillooet we are at Mile 0. This was the starting point in terms of distance measurements and roads radiated outwards towards the Cariboo (and Barkerville), or in the reverse direction towards Pemberton.
The “Bridge of 23 Camels” across the Fraser River into Lillooet commemorates a quirky little anecdote of gold rush history. Frank Laumeister, a prominent Victoria merchant and packer, came up with the idea of introducing camels as pack animals to transport goods along the trail. A camel could carry twice as much and travel twice as far as a mule, and if these animals worked well in desert territory, well why not along the gold rush trail too? Fine in theory; a disaster in practice. The 300 camels purchased from the USA were healthy animals, but their hooves couldn’t deal with the rocky terrain, plus they spat, bit and kicked everything within sight. Worse still, when they were in heat, the overpowering smell drove all the other pack animals into a mad stampede. Eventually the camels were either auctioned off or turned loose into the wild.
Beyond Lillooet, lake vistas open up—irresistible to photography buffs—and we are on the home stretch via Pemberton and Whistler to Vancouver. The ghosts of history have ridden alongside me through the trip, and now in New Westminster, only one more remains to bid me farewell. In some ways, he is the most important of all. I stand near his bronze statute at the New Westminster quay, watching the swirl of the river which bears his name, thinking about the story which began at this spot almost two centuries ago when he arrived here to open up a fur trading route to the Pacific. He is Simon Fraser, intrepid explorer, adventurer, and founding father of the Province of British Columbia. The year was 1808. By 1827 the Hudson’s Bay Company had set up a lucrative trading post at Fort Langley, several miles up-river. The stage is set for Don McLean, and the Indian who handed him a bag of gold dust. My journey has come full circle.
Story and pictures by Margaret Deefholts
Last updated December 18, 2020 by Matthew George, Webmaster
IF YOU GO:
By car: Barkerville is 80 km east of Quesnel on Highway 26.