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Book of BC Gold Rush Short Stories just published

Gold Rush Short Stories

Mayhem at Rock Creek and more Gold Rush Stories

My new book of BC gold rush short stories has just been released on Amazon! Mayhem at Rock Creek & more Gold Rush Stories includes:

  • Trouble in Fort Yale
  • The Trial of Justice Nuttall
  • Rations in a Prosperous Land
  • Captain Hovie’s Messenger
  • The Molasses Letter
  • Disputed Claim
  • Justice Arrives in Lillooet
  • Mayhem at Rock Creek

What did the Royal Engineers eat?

Alexis Soyer

Alexis Soyer, chef and inventor

Alexis Benoist Soyer was a French chef who believed that soldiers could be saved through good food. He invented a field stove which he took around to every regiment he visited in the Crimean War. It’s no wonder then, that the British Army adapted his recipes and his field stove.

When the Royal Engineers came to British Columbia to chart the boundary, they were well prepared. Soyer’s recipes included “Salt Meat for 50 men” and “Soyer’s Food for 100 men, using two stoves”. This worked when they were stationed at Fort Victoria and later as they surveyed New Westminster.

It was a different story when they were out in the bush surveying a road to the Cariboo:

“our fare consisted almost exclusively of bacon and dampers, with tea and coffee. Now and then we might be lucky enough to shoot a grouse.”

Dampers were “cakes of dough rolled out to the size of a plate and one or two inches thick. They are cooked either by being baked in the wood ashes of the fire, or fried in the pan with bacon fat.”

Here is a recipe I found for dampers:

2 cups self-raising flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup milk

Add salt to flour, add sugar, then rub in butter. Mix in milk to make a medium-soft dough. Knead lightly on flat surface until smooth. Pat into a round shape. Place damper mixture on coals or hot ash. Cook for maximum of 40 minutes. Discard burnt outside and eat the inside. Serve with butter, syrup or jam.

Gold Rush Careers: Packers

The following advertisement appeared in the British Times Colonist on January 4, 1862:

P. Smith & Co. Packers Over the Douglas & Lillooet Route Are still Packing and Forwarding to LILLOOET And are Prepared to Forward 250 Tons per Month AT MODERATE RATES. All goods marked in our Care will be received and forwarded without delay.

P. SMITH & Co. Packers, Douglas and Lillooet, B.C.

During the gold rush, merchants relied on packers to carry food and supplies either by mule, horse or sometimes camel. The routes that the packers followed went through difficult and treacherous terrain.  In the early days, the packers would follow the Hudson Bay Brigade Trails. The Douglas to Lillooet route was a trail that was carved out by miners and involved many portages.

The Hudson’s Bay Company employed skilled Mexican packers from as far away as Sonora in Mexico.  Later, these same packers worked during the Cariboo gold rush, with the advantage that they were already familiar with the fur brigade trails.

Here is some recollections from a gold rush prospector:

“Pack trains went out from Walla Walla into Boise, and also from Walla Walla clear over the international boundary up into British Columbia, carrying supplies for fur traders, hunters and prospectors. With my brother who came up to this country with me, I located a ranch near Walla Walla and I left him in charge of it. I came in to town one day and found an auctioneer who went by the name of Tea Garden in the act of selling a horse. I had $20 to pay for one, and I got this one for $17.50.

“With my blankets and enough food for the trip I set out for Boise, then a placer gold camp. I spent the summer there working at ground sluicing and then returned to Walla Walla, where I sold the ranch and went into packing, which I followed for several years. We got as high as a dollar a pound for supplies of different kinds in the interior, and our route was through the Spokane country or into northern Idaho and down the Kootenai River across the international boundary to Wild Horse, British Columbia.

“The Hudson’s Bay Company in the early days had a monopoly of the trading business in this country, but when I arrived the independent American traders were driving the Hudson’s Bay men out of the territory. A pack train would consist of 30 or 40 mules or horses with a head packer and about five other men, including a cook for the outfit. The horses would carry about 300 lbs. each, the weight depending on the kind of merchandise. One trip I made too late in the winter and was caught by heavy snows and cold weather. Instead of turning my horses out on the Kootenai Meadows, I tried to make the journey back to Walla Walla. I bought feed for my horses at stations along the way for a dollar a pound, but they nearly all died. I started with about 40 and got into Walla Walla with seven or eight.


Gold Rush Sternwheeler Captain

A sternwheeler captain was an important figure in the gold rush. Sternwheelers plied the rivers and lakes throughout BC for nearly a century from the early 1850s.

Sternwheelers were popular because they had a flat bottom which made the craft buoyant and their wooden construction made them easy to repair. During the gold rush, passenger accommodation was the bare minimum. Passengers were sometimes asked to help load wood for the boiler, fight a fire on board, or use their blankets to plug a hole in the hull.

Collisions and explosions weren’t uncommon and many sternwheelers were also holed by dead trees floating in the rivers or became lodged on bars.

Competition amongst sternwheeler companies was fierce and despite the dangers of navigation, captains often raced their sternwheelers against their rivals.

Captain William Moore

Captain William Moore first came to BC in 1852 when he piloted a sternwheeler to the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) at the time of the gold rush there. He survived several bankruptcies to become one of the longest entrepreneurs in the business. In 1859 he had a sternwheeler built, Henrietta, which was one of the first to arrive at Yale. Later, he built the Alexandra which was intended to be the largest on the coast. It wasn’t profitable, however, and Moore lost the boat to creditors.

He got a government contract to build a pack trail from the Stikine River to the gold bearing creeks and charged two cents a pound toll. Flush with money, he returned to Victoria and ordered a new sternwheeler, Gertrude, to be built which he ran on the Stikine River. He tried several times to return to the Fraser River with other sternwheelers, but each time he lost business to the competition.

Several times, Moore was accused of carrying excessive steam. On one of his sternwheelers, the Western Slope, the steam guage was registered 40 pounds low. In addition, one safety valve was wedged shut and couldn’t release without first blowing out the floor of the cabin above. The second valve hadn’t blown even with 40 percent more pressure added over the limit. Moore and his chief engineer were each fined $200.

Cariboo Camels

Camels in the Gold Rush

In 1862, an advertisement appeared in the British Colonist advertising 25 camels for sale. Who brought them to BC and why?

Camels were commonly used in southwestern United States. In fact, the U.S. had its own Camel Corps. Camels could pack twice as much as a mule and with their long legs, could travel very quickly.

These Bactrian camels originally came Mongolia and arrived first in San Francisco before making the trip north to Victoria in April, 1862. From the British Colonist newspaper:

The Hermann – this steamer left San Francisco at 8 o’clock on the evening of the 10th and arrived here at 7 o’clock yesterday morning, making the trip in three days and eleven hours. She brought about 350 passengers, 23 camels, and 200 mules…

On this last portion of their trip they were looked after by a man named Hadji Ali, also known as Hi Jolly. Hi Jolly had been a driver in the U.S. Camel Corps. Many people came down to the wharf just to see the camels, as it was such an unusual sight.

A few weeks after the advertisement appeared, John Calbraith bought 23 camels (two had gone missing in Victoria). He must have had a change of heart because the camels stayed in Victoria until early May when another man, Frank Laumeister, brought them to Lillooet by way of the Port Douglas trail.

At first there were high expectations that the camels would carry as much as six hundred pounds a trip and travel through snow unimpeded. One of the first problems someone noted was that they were highly excitable and did not react well to seeing other mules and horses on the trail. Stampedes were very common. Mr. Laumeister was threatened with court action if he didn’t get his camel trains off the Cariboo Wagon Road.

The camels probably suffered without their usual desert diet and it was reported that they would “eat anything from a pair of pants to a bar of soap.” Their feet suffered from the difficult terrain. Some died in blizzards or fell off the steep cliffs. One miner retired to a farm near Hat Creek and used a camel to help pull a plough. The camels were bought and sold and some made it to the gold rush at Wild Horse Creek.

The last known surviving camel was treated like a pet at a family’s farm at Grande Prairie (now Westwold) in the interior of BC. It died in 1905.

What about Hi Jolly? He stayed around for the gold rush for a short time but he didn’t have very good luck either. He lost all his money to some gamblers and returned to the United States.

Red House in Victoria

This poem appeared in the British Times Colonist on February 5, 1863. It’s a wonderful example of poetry in advertising. I kept the punctuation and capital letters as they were printed.

Machine Poetry by Mike Cohen

A miner from the Diggings once came down,
Whose wretched aspect was perceived by all the town;
His boots were soleless, and his pants were torn –
In fact, he looked an object, quite forlorn.
He sought a bed – but where to get that bed
He did not know nor where to rest his head
While pondering this, a good sight met his view;
The El Dorado Beds – price 50 cents and 5 and 20 too.

“Let’s have a quarter’s worth,” our miner said,
And quick as he thought, he soon in bed was laid.
He slept a weary sleep, and the next morn arose,
The more refreshed, for he had doffed his clothes.
Those pants he did not wish again to wear,
And thought perhaps his host would sent out for a pair;

He called out for the landlord, and much surprised was he,
Our friend Mike Cohen, of The Red House, there to see.
“What, Mike, you in this line!” our miner said:
“Then bring me up some pants, and something for my head.”
Mike brought them up, and quick as thought,
Our friend the miner a new suit had bought,
Paid down his money, then, looking in the glass,
His compliments to Mike he thus did pass:
“Whenever a man wants rigging out in something new,
For little money, Mike, I’ll send him straight to you.

And now, friend, Mike, pray tell me where
For breakfast I can get good fare?”
“‘Tis but next door, a Restaurant I keep!”
Says Mike, “and you will find it good and cheap!”
The miner went, and breakfast had,
And said that for a quarter ’twasn’t bad;
For Mike, I see, knows how to do the trade,
And put all the others right into the shade.

The role of gold commissioners

In 1858, after news of the Fraser River gold rush had reached the British Parliament, the Colonial Secretary E.B. Lytton wrote:

“…it would seem desirable to appoint if you have not already done so Gold Commissioners armed with the powers of Magistrates.”

Gold commissioners were expected to act as the district’s land recorder, coroner, postmaster, justice of the peace, Indian agent, and revenue officer, as well as its stipendiary magistrate.  Gold Commissioner Richard Hicks recalled:

I came to Fort Yale when great excitement existed … the population amounted to upwards of five thousand and included some of the worst California could produce . . . I had to perform every office and work – even to grave digger. My hands were full night and days.  I worked hard.

Scandals broke out when it was discovered that some of the gold commissioners, including Richard Hicks, had profited from their position. In 1859, Chartres Brew, who was the Chief of Police, was also given the title of Chief Gold Commissioner. At the time, Governor James Douglas wrote:

“Matters were becoming complicated from the want of an active and intelligent Chief to supervise and instruct the Assistant Gold Commissioners. I was hampered by not having trustworthy and capable men at my disposal…”

Gold rush lottery ticket

Gold rush lottery ticket with Neversweat claim in background (BC Lottery Corp)

If you are at a lottery counter in BC, take a close look at the Gold Rush lottery tickets. Different historical photographs are printed on each ticket. One background features a reproduction of the “Neversweat” claim shown below.

The Neversweat claim on Williams Creek (near Barkerville) yielded $250,000 from a depth of 120 feet. Gold miners worked under arduous conditions; cold water often dripped from leaky flumes and saturated their clothes. Wages at the time were $8 to $10 a day; half of which was spent on food sold at exorbitant prices.

In the photograph you can see one Chinese miner. The British Columbia census of 1871 counted 1,548 Chinese in Barkerville of which only 53 were women, but by the late 1870s, Chinese families began to arrive in the Cariboo.

There were many ways to get gold that was deep in the ground. One of the options was to dig a tunnel horizontally into the side of a hill or at the bottom of a gulch or a ravine.  The sides and the roof of the tunnel had to be supported against cave-ins by the use of heavy timbers.  Rock and gravel would be removed from the tunnel using either wheelbarrows, or a narrow track of rails and a rail car.

Bill Barlee: BC’s gold rush historian

One of British Columbia’s most enthusiastic historians, Neville “Bill” Barlee, has passed away.  Born in Grand Forks in 1932, Bill became interested in the history of BC and began a collection of gold rush artifacts. Samples of his extensive collection have been displayed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. In addition to writing books on gold panning and frontier life, Bill published a magazine called Canada West.  There was a long-running tv program called “Gold Trails and Ghost Towns” from 1986 to 1996 hosted by Mike Roberts. Here is Bill Barlee talking about the gold rush at Rock Creek:

Murder at Wild Horse Creek

When they discovered gold in Wild Horse Creek, it was kept such a secret that it was just a rumour at first.

The Hudson’s Bay Company knew about it because the Kootenay tribe had traded gold nuggets at the fort as early as 1857 when the honourable Company expressed interest in acquiring gold. Like any secret, it attracted interest and as other gold bearing streams in Idaho and Washington became more challenging, gold seekers like John Galbraith set their eyes on the area north of the border.

Gold seekers followed the Kootenay River north to where the rumours swirled around at Wild Horse Creek.  By the summer of 1863, hundreds of American prospectors were following the river north.

By the time John Galbraith arrived, there was a town called Fisherville. It wasn’t a town in the proper sense; quite unlike some of the towns in eastern Canada where he was from. There were shanties from logs, shakes and bark or whatever else was lying around but everything looked like it could be dismantled with a good kick. There were two saloons that could withstand a strong wind and a hotel that was operated by a woman they called Axe Handle Bertha.

He handed over his money to Bertha who showed him a room that looked as though it had been used that same day.  He stayed one sleepless night at the hotel listening to doors slamming and drunken men arguing.  He woke up early the next morning and ate lukewarm bacon and boiled cabbage. Then he gathered his belongings and set out with his gold pan.

Galbraith spent the better part of the morning walking along a well-worn trail beside Wild Horse Creek. There were men with gold pans and some with shovels full of gravel they put into rockers.

“Where can you stake a claim?” he asked one of the miners.

“Not around here.”

Galbraith trudged on with his gold pan tucked under his arm.  There were a handful of men on either side, some with guns at the ready, eyeing him warily.

As he walked by he caught snippets of conversation.

“stolen in the middle of the night.”

“there’s going to be hell to pay – a real western necktie party.”

Galbraith shuddered at the thought of a lynching. At one point in the river there weren’t many people about and none of them seemed vigilant.  He got out his pan at the river’s edge and rested it just under the water and shook it vigorously with a slight circular motion. His eyes focussed on the bits of gravel as he raised and lowered the lip of the pan into the water. Just as he thought he spotted some coarse yellow grains in his pan, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“You see that point up there by the boulder at the bend? That’s our claim from here to there.”

Galbraith turned around to see who was talking, a gruff bull-headed man with a large droopy moustache.

He looked to see where the man was pointing to but it all seemed very hazy.

“Yeast Powder Bill has the point beyond that to the boulder about a mile up.”

Galbraith shook his head, “I don’t see a stake in the ground. Do you have a record of it with the gold commissioner?”

The man gave a sharp laugh, “there doesn’t need to be. That’s the way it is.”

Galbraith trudged back to town empty handed. There were two saloons on the street and he stepped inside one of them. There was an Irish flag nailed to the exposed log behind the bartender and a ceramic figure with a Gaellic expression underneath. There were several men playing a lively game of cards on an overturned keg.

“C’mere and close the door behind you. Those damn flies like my beer too much.”

Galbraith drank some beer and asked about the man who had ordered him off the river.

“That would be Overland Bob, or so he calls himself. He and Yeast Powder Bill and his group have laid claim to just about every square inch of the river.  It isn’t right I tell you, there’s nothing but Americans here. They want to see us starve out and now they’re accusing our Tom Walker of going through their damn rockers and picking out the gold!” The bartender slammed his fist down on the counter.

Galbraith commiserated as the bartender, Crowley, ranted and told him the story of how he had paid every penny he had to take one of the ‘Ghost Ships’ to the new world and worked his way west. Crowley had been to every gold rush camp along the way and met quite a few unsavoury characters but none as bad as Yeast Powder Bill.

“He’s ruling this place like a feudal lord here in this fly infested swamp ridden bush nowhere near civilization. It’s a good thing we have a lively group of friends here, we make sure we stick together.”

“Friends of Ireland?” Galbraith asked. He had heard about these clubs from his brother Robert who had said that the Fenians as they were known, were stirring up trouble and harassing government officials in Canada East.

The conversation was interrupted by Tom Walker, who was one of the young men playing cards.  He had made friends with some of the Kootenays, he said and they had allowed him and a couple of others to pan for gold but there was still a simmering conflict with Yeast Powder Bill.

Galbraith figured as long as there as gold in Wild Horse Creek then gold seekers would be willing to pay good money to see that their horses or mules were safely transported across the Kootenay River just below where Wild Horse Creek empties into it.  He wrote a letter asking for permission to set up a cable ferry and in the meantime, he set to work building a wooden raft and then making rope with bark, hemp and any other fibre he could find.

One sunny afternoon in August, he heard someone had found a nugget that weighed 36 ounces. There was a lot of talk and excitement at first. It was hot and the air didn’t move an inch even when the sun turned down onto the horizon and the liquor was flowing, the heat didn’t dissipate.  Crowley was irritable and sweaty as were all the miners swatting flies. It didn’t take long before fights broke out.

Galbraith took a shortcut past the back of the hotel where he saw Gunpowder Sue fanning herself. “It’s so hot you would think there has to be thunder somewhere,” she said.

“There are some clouds over there, but I don’t think –“

Suddenly gunshots exploded and people yelled and shouted. Galbraith peered around the corner and saw Yeast Powder Bill and Overland Bob being chased down the street while Crowley leaned over Tom Walker who was lying on the ground, his shirt ripped and bloodied from gunshot wounds.