Williams Creek: Windlass and Waterwheel

In his book, “Very Far West Indeed: A Few Rough Experiences on the North-West Pacific Coast”, Richard Byron Johnson recalled his travels to the Cariboo during the gold rush. In the chapter on Williams Creek, Johnson described the chaotic scene near Richfield.

“The unfortunate little stream had been treated in the most ignominious manner. A little above the town it flowed along silvery and clear as had been wont to do; but soon inroads were made upon its volume in the shape of ditches cut from it, and continued along the sides of the hills, to feed the huge over-shot waterwheels that appeared in all directions. Then its course became diverted into five or six different channels, which were varied every now and then as the miners sought to work the surface formerly covered by them.

At intervals dirty streams were poured forth by the sluices, in which the earth dug from beneath was being washed by the water; and here and there the stream was insulted by being shut up for a few hundred yards in a huge wooden trough, called a ‘flume.’

Across the breadth of the little valley was a strange heterogeneous gathering of smaller flumes, carrying water to the different diggings and supported at various heights from the ground by props, windlasses at the mouths of shafts, waterwheels, banks of ‘tailings’ (the refuse earth washed through the sluices), and miners’ log huts.

On the sides of the hills the primeval forests had been cleared for a short distance upwards, to provide timber for mining purposes, and logs for the huts. These abodes were more numerous on the hillsides than in the bottom of the valley, as being more safe from removal.

The town comprised the ordinary series of rough wooden shanties, stores, restaurants, grog shops, and gambling saloons; and, on a little eminence, the official residence, tenanted by the Gold Commissioner and his assistants and one policeman, with the British flag permanently displayed in front of it, looked over the whole.

In and out of this nest the human ants poured all day and night, for in wet-sinking the labour must be kept up without ceasing all through the twenty-four hours, Sundays included. It was a curious sight to look down the Creek at night, and see each shaft with its little fire, and its lantern, and the dim ghostly figures gliding about from darkness into light, like the demons at a Drury Lane pantomime, while an occasional hut was illuminated by some weary labourer returning from his nightly toil.

windlass

windlass

The word here seemed to be work, and nothing else; only round the bar-rooms and the gambling tables were a few loafers and gamblers to be seen. Idling was too expensive a luxury in a place where wages were from two to three pounds per day, and flour sold at six shillings a pound.

The mingling of noises was as curious as that of objects. From the hills came the perpetual cracking and thudding of axes, intermingling with the crash of falling trees, and the grating undertone of the saws, as they fashioned the logs into planks and boards.

From the bottom of the valley rose the splashing and creaking of waterwheels, the grating of shovels, the din of the blacksmith’s hammer sharpening pickaxes, and the shouts passed from the tops of the numerous shafts to the men below, as the emptied bucket was returned by the windlass.”

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