Category Archives: Gold Rush Notes

Brief history facts explained about the BC gold rush

How E. B. Lytton changed the course of BC history

In 1858, gold miners swarmed to the Fraser River. It was also the year that the longstanding Palmerston government was defeated and E. B. Lytton became the Colonial Secretary, responsible for overseeing the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In the past, there had been a push to settle Vancouver Island and the British Parliament had gone so far as to make it a colony, but the mainland was strictly under HBC’s monopoly. There were no settlers there and they liked it that way. As one member of parliament put it, “The Hudson’s Bay Company is by its very existence and its character the enemy of colonization” whose main purpose was to extract the resources of the land and not cater to the whims and needs of the populace.

Until 1858, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an ally in Parliament — the Colonial Secretary Henry Labouchere. That was about to change under Edward Bulwer Lytton.

E. B. Lytton - Colonial Secretary

E. B. Lytton – Colonial Secretary

The new Parliament made its mandate clear that it wanted to colonize the lands that the Hudson’s Bay Company possessed. The first step was to not renew their license which was slated for renewal May 30, 1859. In addition, the government aimed to bring into question the legality of the original Hudson’s Bay Company charter of 1670, this having been assigned to lands which were then under France’s control.

There was no instant communications in those days. It took many months for a ship to arrive with the mail and when it did reach the office of the Colonial Secretary, it took weeks on end for clerks to hand write copies for officials to read and comment on.

While he was waiting to receive an answer, Douglas made decisions as he saw fit. As the head of the HBC’s Columbia Department which oversaw New Caledonia, Douglas took it upon himself to establish mining fees and pricing controls. He also sought to uphold the Company’s monopoly and did his best to keep out the competition. To this end, he used the survey ships that were based in Esquimalt but most of the miners and merchants slipped in without notice.

Trading Rights

E. B. Lytton soon made it clear that the Company’s monopoly only went so far as exclusive trading rights with the Indigenous people and that it could not be the sole provider of provisions, even though Douglas had pointed out all the efforts they had made to accommodate the gold seekers.

Lytton also organized a contingent of Royal Engineers to come to New Caledonia to help build roads and plan towns, to be paid from the colony’s revenue. The other bit of bad news for Douglas came when he received word that Lytton wished to have future administrative appointments come from ‘home’ rather than someone from the Company.

He chose Chartres Brew to be the head of the colony’s civilian police force and Matthew Begbie, a lawyer, was selected to be the judge.

On the day that Begbie was to sail from England, E.B. Lytton boarded the ship to personally hand over the documents to establish the new colony of British Columbia and the appointments of James Douglas as Governor, and Begbie as its Judge. Each document had been signed by Queen Victoria.

British Columbia

Begbie arrived at Esquimalt November 16, 1858. Three days later, on November 19, 1858 the swearing in ceremony and declaration of British Columbia took place at Fort Langley. This marked the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control of New Caledonia.

The following year, Lord Palmerston’s government returned and Lytton was replaced by the Duke of Newcastle as Colonial Secretary.

Although the legality of HBC’s charter wasn’t settled for another 10 years, E. B. Lytton did succeed in terminating their monopoly of New Caledonia and establishing British Columbia.

Had Labouchere still been the Colonial Secretary when the gold rush broke out, things could have turned out much differently.

Captain John and the Alexandra Bridge

If it weren’t for Captain John Swalis, the Alexandra Bridge would have never been built.

‘Captain John’ as he was known, was an enterprising Stó:lō from the Fraser Valley. Having spent his summers on the gravel bars and islands in the Fraser River, Captain John was familiar with the area. So, he set up his own ferry service helping gold seekers cross the Fraser River at Yale.

At first he didn’t accept money as payment and instead asked for a hat or a shirt. Captain John began to see that money could allow him to purchase the things he needed, so he adapted to this new economy and started accepting coins and gold as payment.

The missing link on the Cariboo Wagon Road

By the end of 1862, the Cariboo Wagon Road through the Fraser Canyon was almost complete, running from Yale to Spuzzum on the west bank of the canyon, and from a point almost opposite on the east bank, up the river as far as Lytton. There remained now the important task of linking the two sections with a bridge two miles above Spuzzum.

On February 2, 1863, Joseph Trutch agreed to take on the bridge project and in return he would collect tolls on the bridge for the next five years. Considering the volume of people going back and forth, it was a lucrative deal.

Alexandra Bridge

Alexandra Bridge

Halliday & Company of San Francisco was given the job of building the suspension bridge with a span of a little over three hundred feet using two suspending cables. Spools of cable were carried by mules up the road but how to get the spools of cable across to the other side of the Fraser River?

Captain John told Trutch that he could get the cables across the Fraser River, and Trutch awarded him a subcontract. Captain John assembled a group of his relatives and they unwound cable from each spool and carried it on their shoulders as they made their way along the precipitous cliffs and slippery rocks. Each cable was four inches wide.

There isn’t a description of the event, but to bring back the words of Simon Fraser:

“In these places we were under the necessity of trusting all our things to the Indians, even our guns…Yet they thought nothing of these difficulties, but went up and down these wild places with the same agility as sailors do on a ship.”

What’s the hold up?

The Alexandra Bridge was completed by September 1, 1863. Trutch invited prominent dignitaries for the official opening planned for the following week. In the meantime, Admiral Kingcome of the Royal Navy made a special trip by steamer to Yale just to ride up the Cariboo Road and see the new bridge. Governor Douglas was not eager to see Alexandra Bridge, however, and the official opening was delayed several weeks until finally near the end of September, Douglas made the trip to Yale with Colonel Moody. On Friday, September 25, 1863, Alexandra Bridge was officially proclaimed open by Colonel Moody—Douglas stayed behind in Yale.

Captain John rose to prominence among his people and gained the name ‘Swalis’ which meant “getting rich”. At one point he was earning more than double the annual salary of Governor James Douglas. When Trutch became  Commissioner of Lands and Works, Captain John was elected as the Chief of Soowahlie.

In later years Captain John ran a ferry across the Vedder River (Th’ewálmel) to Cultus Lake and across to Vedder Crossing. In 1891, he helped with the construction of the Vedder Bridge.

Billiard Saloons: a barometer of the gold rush

When he was in Victoria awaiting a steamer to take him south — after a fruitless trip to the Fraser River gold diggings — Herman Reinhart noticed that there was no shortage of billiard saloons including one with six tables kept by a California gambler named Boston. “Here I saw the first 15-ball pool.” Fifteen-Ball Pool was the predecessor of modern pocket billiards.

On September 15, 1858 the Daily Alta California printed an article called “Stagnation in Victoria” which was submitted by their correspondent:

Everything has flattened out – subsided – wilted. We have a town of stores filled with goods, and few to buy…Houses and tents could be bought at almost any price. A large pavilion tent which had been used as a billiard saloon, having room for two billiard tables and seats for spectators, sold for $13…

Billiard Saloons and Fifteen-Ball Pool

In October 1859 it was reported that Fort Hope was flourishing. One of the indicators was that

Billiard Factory

Billiard Factory

billiard saloons “appear well supported.”

Playing billiards was a popular pastime in the 1850s, especially American Four-Ball Billiards, usually played on a large (11 or 12-foot), four-pocket table with four balls – two white and two red. Billiard balls were made from ivory tusks. Even cabinet makers made billiard tables.

Not quite as common as billiards was the game of bagatelle which was played by European miners. Considering there was a large number of French diaspora living in San Francisco, a good many of them probably succeeded in bringing the game up north to British Columbia.

 

In his book, Cariboo Yarns, F.W. Lindsay wrote that the well-known Cariboo packer known as Cataline, ran mule trains to Barkerville, taking a month to get there. Among the items they carried north were billiard tables. How did one pack a billiard table?

Searching for Gold in the New El Dorado

When gold was ‘discovered’ in the Fraser River, a promotional machine kicked in and British Columbia was touted as the “New El Dorado” (after the El Dorado of South America). Soon, all the newspapers began referring to British Columbia as the New El Dorado.

Gold rushes wherever they occurred were almost always promoted. Books were immediately printed, articles were published and even in the case of the Australian gold rush, a board game called ‘Race to the gold diggings’ was created to get young people excited about seeking gold.

Searching for Gold

Herman Reinhart - American prospector

Herman Reinhart – American prospector

Timing was everything, as Californian miner Herman Reinhart remembered. In July 1858, after months of travelling on foot, Reinhart arrived when the Fraser River was high:

“…boats got swamped and whole boat-loads of men were drowned, and many never knew what became of them.”

At Fort Hope he ran into an old friend James Daniels who had just sold his claim at Hill’s Bar and was leaving for San Francisco after having made $3,500.

“He left Sucker Creek in March, only two months ahead of me; he went by water to Victoria, and a little steamer clear to where he now was, and no hardships or danger like me…”

By the time Reinhart arrived at Yale, he didn’t bother going to Hill’s Bar:

“We saw some old acquaintances at Yale, but we were anxious to get down to Victoria, so we did not look around much. We were in a hurry to get back to California before we would get broke or out of money, so we did not go over to Hill’s Bar to see it.”

At Victoria, Reinhart met many gold seekers he knew from California and Oregon who were in a similar situation:

“…Many had no money and made application to our consul (agent for British Columbia) Edward Nugent. He said he would try and make some arrangements with the company of the steamer Pacific to take a lot of American subjects to San Francisco, who had not the money to pay their own fare. It was the duty of the government to take its people to their homes if they were in a destitute condition on a foreign shore or land, and there were over one thousand men in that condition.

“Just when the Californian newspapers were reporting the Fraser River gold diggings were ‘humbug’, in November 1858, Alfred Waddington published a book called “The Fraser Mines Vindicated” which spoke of the gold diggings in glowing terms.

Strapped gold seekers in Victoria

“The perils of searching for gold” – a lecture given January 29, 1860

When 1860 rolled around, the Fraser River gold rush was all but over. Yet young men, many of whom were well-educated, were still arriving in Victoria. Amor De Cosmos, the fiery publisher of the Daily Colonist, sounded the alarm on January 28th of that year:

“From exaggerated and too sanguine accounts they were led to believe that they had only to get here, to begin coining of money without delay. Almost their little all was spent in accomplishing a long and expensive voyage. And so it has come to pass, that some of these enterprising young men have found themselves “strapped.” Instances have occurred in which they have resorted to teaming, carpentering, and even baking bread…”

One can imagine Mr. Cosmos’ reaction when he read the London Times newspaper of January 30, 1860, which included the following report from their correspondent who was said to be in Victoria:

All accounts agree that the individual earnings of the miners are much larger than in California or Australia. It is very common to light upon a man going to San Francisco with several thousand dollars…

In March 1860 a handbook to British Columbia was published to lure Welsh men to leave for the goldfields. Emigration agents in Liverpool were kept busy—by July it was estimated that one in three of the working population in Wales was willing to emigrate.


Note: I have noticed a few maps that show Yale and Hill’s Bar on the same side of the Fraser River, however, I have since verified that Hill’s Bar was approximately a mile and a half south of Yale and on the other side of the river. The Fraser River gold rush historian, Daniel Marshall, mapped out the location of the gold rush bars in his recently published book, Claiming the Land.

Types of gold pans and spoons used in the BC gold rush

Before the Fraser River gold rush got off to a flying start in 1858, Nlaka’pamux who lived by the Thompson River were bringing gold nuggets and gold dust to the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Kamloops.

When news reached Fort Victoria, the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to send them some spoons. What did the spoons look like? What were they made of? For many years, this remained a mystery to me.

The other mystery which has perplexed me for years was the paintings by William Hind which show miners wearing a object tucked into their sash next to a mug.

In the course of digging up information for this blog post on gold pans, these two mysteries have been solved.

horn spoon

horn spoon

In the early days of the California gold rush, prospectors used ‘spoons’ made from cattle horns that were steamed and pressed to allow a person to use them as a scoop. The juvenile fiction book, “By the Great Horn Spoon” describes a horn spoon as half a bullock horn, from 6 to 8 inches long and up to 3 inches wide.

‘spoon’ gold pan made from mountain goat horn

This was copied and revised by the Natives further north who used the horns of mountain goats and shaped them into a shape that resembled a pinched frying pan.

So when the Hudson’s Bay Company met in Fort Victoria and talked of sending more ‘spoons’ to Fort Kamloops which the Natives to use for gold panning – they were referring to iron ‘spoons’ forged by their blacksmith.

blacksmith forged ‘spoon’

The blacksmith forged ‘spoon’ could have been similar to the type of one that was sent by the HBC to their fort.

iron spoon with long handle

iron spoon with long handle

Another example of an iron spoon is one that was typically used in the 19th century. Some people referred to it as a tasting spoon or a ladle. It was often found in pioneer cabins near the hearth and what could be more handier?

Consider this description of a Californian miner from G.A. Fleming’s book “California, its past history, its present position and future prospects” published in 1850:

“Occasionally, he dug the dust out of crevices with his long iron spoon and trowel, and found eight or nine dollars’ worth in a place not larger than one’s finger…a sheath-knife…was always worn in the belt used instead of suspenders, and to which was often attached that very useful article in the “diggings,” a long iron spoon, employed both to cook and mine with…”

Now, look at William Hind’s painting titled “Miner, Rocky Mountains” and you will see what definitely looks like an iron spoon tucked into his belt.

Gold pans are the most basic of mining equipment and there are almost as many types of gold pans as hats.

batea

batea

For thousands of years, people in South America have used a cone-shaped wooden bowl called a batea to wash the gravel. They vary in size but typically are wider than American-style gold pans and because of the wood, fine grains of gold are easily captured by it.

The batea is challenging to work with, but the idea of taking in a larger amount of gravel at a time soon caught on. The early gold pans were simply known as ‘washing pans’ because that is what a prospector did with them – they would gather up some gravel and water and swirl it around, literally washing the gravel.

1850s gold washing pan made from tin

Tinsmiths made gold pans that were tapered at the bottom like this one.

Inspired by the size of the batea, people starting making gold pans of a bigger size. The one I drew is based on a 19th century gold pan measuring 55 cm by 12.5 cm. The gold pans were made from steel. Oil was added in the manufacturing process to prevent the pan from rusting.

19th century gold pan made from steel

In the 1860s, Dickson, Campbell & Co. made galvanized steel “gold washing machines, different sizes” in Victoria at the corner of Johnson and Wharf Streets.

Many prospectors took their new ‘gold washing machine’ otherwise known as a gold pan and cured it over a campfire. This did two things – remove any oils which would cause fine gold to float out of the pan and also give the pan a bluish tinge which provided a greater contrast when gold appeared.

What style of hats did BC gold rush miners wear?

What style of hats did BC gold rush miners wear in the 1850s and 1860s?

In the Victorian era, everyone wore hats. It was unheard of for people to go outside without a hat. To go out ‘baldheaded’ meant also to be unprepared. There were hats for almost every occasion.

Considering that the vast majority of gold seekers who came to British Columbia during the Fraser River gold rush were from California, it is helpful to look at what hats they wore.

Vaquero's hat

Vaquero’s hat

By the mid 1850s, Californians had copied and adapted the Mexican ‘vaqueros’ hats which had a very wide brim and a soft crown.

From these, came the wide brim hats made of felt or straw. The Placer Herald newspaper related a story from the Fraser River — two miners lost their mining utensils so they used their hats to pan for gold! They must’ve been wearing very wide brimmed hats.

broad brimmed hat

broad brimmed hat

Paintings by Edward Richardson and William Hind show miners wearing soft crowned hats with wide brims that could be turned up or down to shield out the sun or rain if needed. Hats, like the rest of a miner’s clothing had to be durable.

In England, a broad-brimmed hat was known as the ‘wideawake’ hat so called because it had no fuzzy surface or ‘nap’. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any reference to it by name until the late 1800s. Perhaps there is a hat story behind the coffee saloon at Barkerville known as ‘Wake Up’ Jake.

One of the best descriptions of gold rush miners in the 1860s comes from the recollections of artist Eleanor Fellows:

“Sombrero on head, bowie-knife in small back trouser pocket, revolvers in broad sash or ample waist-belt, the loose blouse we used to call a “garibaldi” clothing the upper person, the long “gum” boots reaching to the knees which enabled their wearer to work with impunity in water for hours, the tightly-rolled blanket and gold mining implements upon the back and shoulders…”

sugar loaf hat

sugar loaf hat

The sombrero or ‘California hat’ was adapted into other shaped hats. From the sombrero came ‘Sugar loaf’ felt hats. They got that name because sugar was sold in tall cone-shaped loaves. Sugar loaf hats were often seen worn by teamsters who had to walk behind oxen and mules laden with tons of provisions.

Teamsters often wore handkerchiefs to stop the sweat from trickling into their eyes or over their mouths to stop from inhaling dust kicked up by the oxen.

Panama hat

Panama hat

The paja toquilla hat or Panama hat which originally came from Ecuador and had been worn for hundreds of years was also popular with gold miners. These were made from straw. J.A. McCrea listed “genuine Panama hats” for sale on August 3, 1863 in an ad which appeared in the Daily Colonist newspaper.

Chinese straw hat

Chinese straw hat

Many Chinese miners wore woven hats made of reeds. The hat itself had a shape similar to an inverted basket. It was perched on top of the head.

Chinese gold seekers who came here to British Columbia were known in Chinese as gum saan haak.

bowler hat

bowler hat

Bowler hats came into production in England in 1850 and eventually  were sold here. If you look through pictures of Barkerville or other Cariboo gold rush towns in the 1860s, you will see dignified suited men wearing bowler hats. A bowler hat was durable and hard like a helmet.

1860: How to make butter without a churn

New bread and fresh butter was something worth travelling for in the Fraser River gold rush. How rare was butter?

On July 3, 1858 the Daily Alta California reported:

“At Fort Yale there is little or nothing to be had for love or money. Mining and cooking utensils are very scarce, and enormous prices are obtained for them. The Hudson’s Bay Company had seized the mining implements of some miners on Hill’s Bar, for violating the law in regard to trafficking, which excited considerable indignation among the miners.”

For those who could afford the luxury of butter it was imported by ship in cases from California and Minnesota.

By the time gold miners were heading north to the Cariboo, roadhouses began advertising butter.

Peter Dunlevy and Jim Sellers bought a roadhouse in 1861 from two packers who had built it a year before near Horsefly. Generous meals of fresh beef, mutton, lake trout, churned butter, and locally grown vegetables earned their roadhouse a reputation as the best stopping house in the Cariboo.

Many gold miners made their own bread and some even attempted to make their own butter. When they got together many discussed bush cookery and shared tips with each other.

Occasionally, the British Colonist printed “receipts” based on the old French word for recipes.

Here is one printed in February 1860 on how to make butter without a churn:

How to make butter

How to make butter

“After straining the milk, set it away for about twelve hours, for the cream to rise. (Milk dishes ought to have good strong handles to lift them by.) After standing as above, set the milk without disturbing it, on the stove, let it remain until you observe the coating of cream on the surface assume a wrinkled appearance, but be careful it does not boil, as should this be the case, the cream will mix with the milk and cannot again be collected.”

“Now set it away till quite cold, and then skim off the cream, mixing it with as little milk as possible. When sufficient cream is collected proceed to make it into butter as follows:

Take a wooden bowl or any suitable vessel, and having first scalded and then rinsed it with cold spring water, place the cream into it.

Now let the operator hold his hand in water as hot as can be borne for a few seconds, then plunge it into cold water for about a minute, and at once commence to agitate the cream by a gentle circular motion.In five minutes, or less, the butter will have come, when of course, it must be washed and salted according to taste, and our correspondent guarantees that no better butter can be made by the best churn invented.”

George Blair wrote in his diary that his friend “Bill rolled up his sleeves and went at making bread and Kelsie Oregon Butter which I mean to teach the Canadian Ladies to make when I go home as it tasted first rate.”

Ship stories: how passengers travelled to BC in the gold rush

How did most people come to British Columbia during the gold rush? They came by ship.

Tynemouth 1862

In 1862, Charles Redfern, a passenger on the Tynemouth wrote about some of the problems on board the 1500 ton steamship. They ran into a storm not long after they left England which saw  a cow and several pigs get washed overboard by a big wave. Then the coal passers who had been complaining of bad conditions stopped working altogether. The ship’s captain put them in irons and instructed the travellers to fuel the engines. For an entire month, the male passengers took turns filling wheelbarrows with coal, pushing them to the bunkers while another mutiny erupted and more were put in irons. By this time the ship was in the South Pacific with good trade winds. The steam was shut off and volunteers were called to man the sails.

Just before the ship sailed into the Falkland Islands, she ran into another storm and several large stacks of railway ties and iron tanks broke free of their moorings.

The Tynemouth docked at Esquimalt on September 17, 1862.

Passenger Contract

Everyone on board the Tynemouth was given a ‘passenger contract’ which said that each passenger would be given three quarts of water daily and a weekly allowance of provisions:

5 ¼ lb. Biscuit
½ lb. Soup
1 lb. Preserved Meat
1 ½ lb. Indian beef
½ lb. Preserved & Salt Fish
2 lb. Flour
1 lb. Oatmeal
6 oz. Suet
½ lb. Rice
½ lb. Raisins & Currants
2/3 pint Peas
½ lb. Preserved Potato
1 lb. Raw sugar
1 3/4 lb. Tea
3 ½ lb. Coffee
6 oz. butter
2 oz. salt
½ oz. mustard
¼ oz. pepper
1 gill vinegar*
6 oz. lime juice
21 qts. water

“When Fresh Beef is issued, 1 lb. to each Adult per day will be allowed; there will be no Flour, Raisins, Peas, Suet or Vinegar, during the issue of Fresh Meat. 1 lb. of Fresh Potatoes may be substituted for ¼ lb. Preserved Potatoes.”

Third class passengers were given rations and they were expected to prepare their own meals. They were allowed to cook their meal in the galley. The cook supplied hot water for tea, coffee, or drinking purposes.

Thames City 1858

The clipper ship, Thames City, carried 118 Sappers (Royal Engineers), 31 women and 34 children on board. The Thames City had a better voyage (no mutinies and no one in irons) but it was still arduous. This group of Royal Engineers and their families left England on October 10, 1858 and arrived in Esquimalt via Cape Horn on April 12, 1859 after a voyage lasting 187 days. They formed a band and held plays on board. They also brought with them a printing press used to produce a weekly publication, “The Emigrant Soldier’s Gazette and Cape Horn Chronicle” read aloud each Saturday evening.

The final edition of the Gazette included a “Farewell Ditty” that described conditions on board:

Farewell thick biscuits and thin pea soup,
Farewell the suet, grog, and junk,
One was weak, the other stunk.
Farewell to the hen coop, and lonely duck,
Farewell to Longboat Square and muck,
Farewell to Laundry Lane and Galleys,
We’ll cook our grub in glades and valleys…

Farewell to hammocks, farewell to the clews,
Farewell to the would-be Irish stews,
Farewell to the cockroaches and thieving cats,
And a long farewell to those horrible rats.


Note: a “gill” (pronounced jill) is a quarter of a pint. See my post on grog (a mixture of rum and water). “Junk” refers to salt beef or meat. “Clews” are the cords by which hammocks are suspended.

How Mifflin Gibbs made his fortune in gold rush Victoria

Mifflin Gibbs was one of the most successful black merchants in Victoria. Gibbs had a partnership with Peter Lester and their firm ‘Lester & Gibbs’ had everything a miner could want. Some say it was the first provision store in Victoria to rival that of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Born in Philadelphia in 1823, Gibbs was eight years old when his father Reverend Gibbs died. One of three sons, Gibbs helped out with odd jobs while his mother Maria worked cleaning laundry. When they were teenagers, Mifflin and his brother Jonathan apprenticed as carpenters. Eventually, the brothers became active in the anti-slavery movement; a time which marked the beginning of their political lives.

Mifflin Gibbs

Mifflin Gibbs

In 1850, Mifflin Gibbs went to the gold rush town of San Francisco and found work as a carpenter. Two years later, he entered into partnership with Peter Lester and together they ran the ‘Clay Street Pioneer Shoe & Boot Emporium’. Their business was prosperous but it didn’t take long before anti-black sentiment to take its toll. Discrimination supported by increasingly restrictive immigration policies prompted many members of San Francisco’s black community to leave.

As soon as he heard about the Fraser River gold rush, Gibbs headed north to Victoria.
Gibbs arrived in June, 1858 with provisions including flour, bacon, blankets, picks and shovels. Miners bought everything he had and Gibbs ordered more with the help of Lester who was still in San Francisco. Within a few weeks, Gibbs set up the store of ‘Lester & Gibbs’ in one half of a house; the other half, he rented out for $500 a month.

After a successful year, Gibbs travelled to the eastern United States for a lengthy visit. During that time he married Maria Alexander, who had been a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. The couple returned to Victoria to his five acre lot in the James Bay district. Gibbs became a British subject in 1861.

Life in Victoria was not without its challenges. There was still prejudice against blacks; however, at least they could rely on British law for protection. Determined to change the status quo, Gibbs ran for election as city councillor for the new municipality of Victoria in August 1862. Voting was done by a show of hands in public and the results were very close; Gibbs lost the election by only four votes. Despite this setback, Gibbs continued to be politically engaged and frequently made his points of view known.

After seven years of marriage, his wife left him and returned to the United States with their five children. Meanwhile, Gibbs committed himself to expanding his business interests. In 1864, he ended the partnership with Lester and moved on to earn his living from real estate, construction and mining investments.

In November 1866, Mifflin Gibbs ran again for Victoria city council, representing the district of James Bay where he lived and this time, he won. Re-elected the following term, Gibbs was so preoccupied with a coal mining venture in the Queen Charlotte Islands that his seat was declared vacant.

In 1869, Gibbs returned to the United States where he obtained a law degree and became a judge.

Victoria’s first volunteer fire companies

Selim Franklin had endured substantial losses in the 5th of the ‘Great Fires’ of San Francisco. Six times San Francisco had been torched to the ground by an arsonist. Lives and buildings were destroyed. People lost their savings while gangs looted. So when Franklin set foot on Vancouver Island in 1858 and saw all those wood shanties and tents around Fort Victoria, he shuddered to think of what could happen.

Franklin and a few other businessmen convinced Governor Douglas of the need for volunteer fire companies. They purchased fire engines at a cost of just over $5,000. Volunteers, many of whom had served in the fire brigades in San Francisco, were familiar with these heavy machines, tested them out the day they arrived on July 28, 1858.

early fire engines had to pulled by ropes

It was challenging to keep volunteers in Victoria as many left to go to the mainland to search for gold. Interest was revived in January 1859, however, and officers were appointed for two fire companies, and two cisterns (where water could be stored and used in case of a fire) were built  without government help. These cisterns were located on Store Street and on Government Street. Back then it was customary to use gunpowder to blow up buildings to stop fires from spreading. Hooks were used to tear down wooden structures.

The first major fire in Victoria

The first major fire in Victoria occurred on October 18, 1859:

Yesterday morning between four and five o’clock the town was alarmed by the cry of fire. On arriving at the scene of alarm, the flames were bursting from the east end of the large two-story wooden building on the corner of Government and Johnson streets owned by Thos. Pattrick & Co. In a short time it was entirely enveloped in fire, rendering all efforts to save it from destruction futile, and within an hour it was a smouldering ruin.

$8000 worth of liquor stored in the warehouse helped to ignite the flames which burnt one side of the Union Hotel nearby. To prevent the fire from spreading, a house was torn down as well as several small sheds. Three people who had been living in the top floor of the warehouse barely escaped. One threw himself out the window and another managed to get down the stairs just as they collapsed.

The total loss to property was estimated at $13,350. It was believed that the fire was largely stopped by the Marines stationed at James Bay. The fire engine didn’t arrive until later, being under the direction of the police magistrate.

Hook and Ladder

The next day, the Daily Colonist newspaper voiced the opinion that something must be done to set up a permanent fire department. The government was reluctant to spend the money, however, and it was left up to the business community to raise $1,500 for an alarm bell and a hook and ladder rig to be shipped from San Francisco.

On November 22nd, the Union Hook and Ladder Company was formally organized with members given red shirts, black trousers, wide leather belt and cap, similar to the uniforms worn by one of the well known San Francisco fire companies.

the machinery arrived in January, 1860

Contracts went out for a two story building to house a “Hook & Ladder Truck, Fire Engine and Hose Carriage, with Cupola for Alarm Bell.” The first fire hall was built at Bastion and Wharf Streets.

The two original companies were reorganized into the Deluge Engine Company No. 1 and Tiger Engine Company No. 2.

Deluge housed themselves in a rented building on Government between Yates and Johnson, while the Tiger Company leased premises around the corner, on Johnson Street between Government and Broad. Eventually Tiger Company moved into its own hall.

The companies raced each other to the fires and sometimes battled with each other for the sake of being first.  Two men with the Tiger Company fell beneath the wheels of their hand-drawn engine while racing to a false alarm. Their injuries were “painful” but apparently not serious.

Membership in all three companies (Tiger, Deluge and Union Hook and Ladder) was limited to about 70. Applicants were carefully screened and voted on by ball ballot (three black balls and the man was “out”). Benefactors were rewarded with honorary memberships.

Political Clout of Volunteer Fire Companies

It wasn’t long before the volunteer fire companies made their mark on the City’s politics. This came as no surprise to some because in the United States, where many had come from, fire companies had a long history of political influence. Many who wanted to enter into politics first started in a volunteer fire company.

During a debate on the Fireman’s Protection Act, Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken said, “There is no doubt but these fire companies will end in political societies but at present they are the most useful organization in the colony.”

Victoria continued to rely on its volunteer fire companies throughout the gold rush years all the way until 1886 when the City established a paid fire department.