Vices and Stolen Firewood

In the early 1860s, the cost of living during the Cariboo gold rush was extremely high. Eggs and candles cost a dollar each while sugar and flour averaged a dollar per pound. The candles were made from marlin fat and could burn for six or seven hours.

Complaints of high prices were explained with the cryptic phrase, “it’s the freight.” Freight was a factor. Goods had to be back-packed from Quesnel Forks to Barkerville via Keithley and Antler Creeks. There were only narrow trails at this time; no roads existed.

Each gold seeker packed anywhere from 80 to 100 pounds of provisions, not including a pair of snowshoes. The trip took four to five days and this meant they had to sleep in the bush or build themselves a snow cave to lie in.

There is the story of Gai Sai who “packed over the trail a barrel of rum that weighed in excess of 100 pounds” not to mention his food and cooking pail.

In addition to bringing provisions, the gold seekers also brought with them their vices. One of them was opium spoking which was prevalent amongst the Chinese. Containers of opium were made of horn or bone and sold in various weights for ten cents up to a dollar. The dollar containers were about four inches long and an inch in diameter.

Opium smoking produced a foul taste in the mouth, and regular users always looked for something sweet to eat before retiring late and sleeping until noon the next day.

A Chinese liquor called mui-kwa-lou, which was 75% alcohol, was also consumed.

The sale of lottery tickets and constant gambling left little time for mundane tasks like gathering firewood. Here is a story from Bill Hong’s book, “And So…That’s How it Happened”:

“Characteristic of the early mining centres, female companionship was at a premium, and at least one Chinese had two “sporting girls” living with him. The girls spent many of their summer days on the banks of Lightning Creek, gathering and drying wood which had floated downstream. Large supplies of the heating fuel were necessary for the cool evenings and long winters.

When on one occasion, some of the lazier Chinese men snitched wood from the girls’ piles, their boss—Chan Toy Shan—issued a firm reprimand and branded the men as thieves. Among those scolded was Hun Ah Ton…He took exception to Chan Toy Shan’s reaction, and the two had a spirited quarrel.

Hun stomped over to Coulter Creek where he worked and returned to Stanley with some dynamite and fuse. After waiting until everyone had gone to bed, he went up onto the roof, and stuffed down the stovepipe a salt sack containing six sticks of dynamite.

After lighting the fuse, Hun Ah Ton ducked into a nearby cabin for a smoke of opium while waiting for the explosion that never came. The fuse had become kinked and ineffective.

However, when the two girls arose the next morning and attempted to light the stove, the house soon filled with dense smoke. Aroused from sleep and angry at the girls and the smoke, Chan Toy Shan went to the stove and worked the damper. In twisting the damper back and forth, he released the dynamite-filled sack which fell into the stove. Further investigation revealed details of the plot and Chan and his girls escaped unharmed.”