Tag Archives: Cariboo gold rush

Robert Burns McMicking: Telegraph and Telephone

Robert McMicking: Overlander, Goldseeker, and Telegrapher

Robert McMicking: Overlander, Goldseeker, and Telegrapher

Robert Burns McMicking was born on July 7, 1843 in Canada West. The McMickings were a long established family descended from United Empire Loyalists. His grandfather had received land near Queenston for services rendered during the War of 1812.

At the age of 13, Robert was hired by the Montreal Telegraph Company.

Six years later, when news arrived of the Cariboo gold rush, Robert and his brother Thomas decided to head west with several others using the now famous overland route. The party of Overlanders arrived in the Cariboo in September of 1862 after a five month harrowing journey, later recounted by his brother Thomas for the British Columbian newspaper. Three men died along the way and horses and oxen perished.

Some of the Overlanders went to seek their fortune in the Cariboo goldfields while others, including the McMickings, worked for a short time on the Cariboo Wagon Road, earning enough money to get them to New Westminster.

In 1865, the Collins Overland Telegraph Company had just installed a telegraph cable from New Westminster to Barkerville. There were telegraph stations at various intervals along the Cariboo Wagon Road, including ones at Clinton, 83 mile house, Soda Creek, Quesnel and at Barkerville. The company was looking for telegraphers and Robert McMicking was hired.

In 1870, after Collins Overland Telegraph was taken over by the Western Union Telegraph Services, McMicking was promoted to the head of the company and moved to Victoria. Ten years later he started the Victoria and Esquimalt Telephone Company in 1880 and worked to have telephone services in Victoria.  He also played an important role in bringing electric lighting to that town.

The rise of Antler: Cariboo gold rush town

After discovering the creek which bears his name, W.R. “Doc” Keithley and George Weaver decided to look for gold in the creeks beyond in the late fall of 1860.

Americans John Rose and Ben Macdonald joined Keithley and Weaver in their search and came upon a creek which had a number of cast antlers there, and so named it Antler Creek.

They filled their gold pans with gold lightn1ngs from both sides of the creek; just two pans retrieved $175 worth of gold. Realizing they had found a major opportunity, the group staked out areas on the creek for themselves. After several days when their food supplies were dwindling, they headed back to the town of Keithley.

Despite their best intentions to keep Antler Creek a secret, the rumour leaked out. It wasn’t long before other goldseekers followed despite the heavy snow, necessitating the use of snowshoes. Dozens of parties set out from Keithley, trekking over five and six feet of snow to Antler to stake claims which led to much dispute. Many lived in snow caves by the creek and some even managed to retrieve gold in the early months of 1861 despite four feet of snow on the ground.

By the Spring of 1861, there was much activity along Antler Creek fueled by reports such as $900 for two days’ work. One claim brought $300 a day per goldseeker. A sawmill and ten cabins were built by June. Within two months, there were 60 buildings, including saloons, stores, residences, and numerous tents.

On August 17, 1861, a correspondent for the British Colonist newspaper wrote:

“Robberies are not infrequent in Antler. Recently, $130 in gold dust and two pistols were taken from Cameron’s Golden Age Saloon. A slight stabbing affair is also noted. Watson and Taylor’s Minstrels are still performing at Antler.”

Building roads north in the Cariboo gold rush

Building roads north during the Cariboo gold rush was a much debated topic in 1862. Even the British Columbian newspaper which was usually quite favourable to the government wrote on March 13, 1862:

“As for the other roads into the upper country – the Yale, Lytton, and the Similkameen roads, they are not entitled to much consideration in this connection. The former is a mere mule trail, and the latter is from its location, of little present utility…it is better…to grant a temporary monopoly to a road or a lake, upon liberal terms, and under wholesome restrictions, than have the country ruined and population starved and disgusted a second time for want of these indispensable facilities – roads and steamboats.”

There was public criticism about the lack of infrastructure planning and the routes that the government had favoured such as the Douglas to Lillooet trail had proven to be to be of little use.  In March of 1862, the ill-fated Waddington & Co. officially gave up on their quest for a coastal route to the gold diggings while the Royal Engineers led by Colonel Moody reserved large sites for future towns at Bentinck, Bute and Dean.

Finally bowing to public demand, the colonial government started to provide money for road building north of Yale.

Boston Bar to Lytton Road

Boston Bar to Lytton Road

On April 3, 1862, the British Columbian newspaper reported,

“…the Boston Bar-Lytton Road has, after more than six months shuffling, been awarded to Mr. (Thomas) Spence for $88,000. Spence came up by the steamer Otter, and is making arrangements for placing 300 men upon the work forthwith which is to be completed in June…we have been given to understand that a party of Royal Engineers will operate upon the portion of the road between Yale and Chapman’s Bar, the balance to be let out by contract.”

Barnard’s Express

Barnard's Express

Barnard’s Express to the Cariboo and Big Bend -1866

Francis Jones Barnard’s stagecoach express provided an important mode of transportation and communication during the Cariboo gold rush. Barnard, who first started carrying mail in 1858, soon acquired horse drawn wagons and expanded his business north as the Cariboo Wagon Road was built.

Hugh Nelson and George Dietz purchased the Fraser River Express from William “Billy” Ballou in September of 1858. Dietz and Nelson’s British Columbia Express linked up with Barnard’s Express to the north and Well’s Fargo Express in Victoria. As the advertisement says, a gold miner’s “treasure, letters and valuables” could be conveyed from Barkerville for all parts of the world.

Cast iron cooking stoves of the gold rush

“Cast Iron Cooking Stoves” promised to be of first rate quality and guaranteed to “bake well” were advertised in the Cariboo Sentinel newspaper. These cast iron cooking ‘stoves’ were described as between 6 to 9 inches in diameter.

English dishes such as fried fish, doughnuts or fritters required “frying pans” as distinguished from other kinds of pots such as stewpans.  Frying pans were manufactured in varying depths to suit the cook’s need of lard or butter.

A typical frying pan in the 1830s had a flat thick bottom, and was made into an oval shape – 12 inches long and 9 inches wide with perpendicular sides.

John Keast Lord, a member of the British North American Land Boundary Commission during 1858–62, wrote:

“I never carry more than a frying pan and a tin pannikin; the former I strap behind my saddle…It is wonderful what a man can do with a ‘frying pan,’ it is equal to any emergency. Why, it would make any civic dignitary’s mouth tingle with delight if his nose only sniffed the rich appetising odour that exhales from a moose steak…fried in its own fat. Then I can bake bread in my frying pan, make and fry pancakes, or ‘slap-jacks’ as trappers call them,roast my coffee, boil the salt out of my bacon before I fry it; I can also stew birds, or putting a crust over, produce a pie few would be disposed to turn away from…”


Quesnel Forks: Cariboo gold rush town

Quesnel Forks was a thriving town during the Cariboo gold rush. Located at the junction of the Cariboo and Quesnel Rivers, it was the ideal location for trade.

Established in 1859, when gold was discovered nearby, Quesnel Forks quickly grew to include boarding houses, saloons, stores, over twenty houses, and many tents. Pack trains entered town along a narrow trail above the river.

In September 1860, gold commissioner Philip H. Nind travelled north along the HBC brigade trail with Constable Pinchbeck to oversee the the new gold diggings.

Most of the gold seekers left Quesnel Forks soon after striking it rich; many left to avoid the winters and headed south.

In March, 1861, a bridge was constructed over the South Fork and another bridge over the North Fork was completed in 1864.

A visitor to Quesnel Forks in 1862 wrote:

Quesnelle City, consisting of some 30 or 40 houses and shanties and 70 or 80 tents, stands on a small flat at the junction of the south and north Forks of the Quesnelle. It is surrounded by lofty thickly wooded mountains. A small space has been chopped and burnt off. The south fork is crossed by a very good wooden bridge. It is the depot where the Cariboo mines are supplied.

By 1863, Quesnel Forks had a large Chinatown and its population increased to over 3,000 by 1869. Stores including the Kwong Lee (referred to as the Chinese Hudson’s Bay Company) were established here.

The creeks a few miles north of Quesnel Forks were panned for gold and even as late as 1866, there were reports that mostly Chinese miners were recovering gold that was “very rough and of superior quality.”

The Kellys: Barkerville Pioneers

Andrew and Genevieve Kelly of Barkerville

Andrew and Genevieve Kelly of Barkerville

Andrew Kelly, originally from Ireland, came to British Columbia in 1862, after spending time in the  goldfields of Australia and California.

At first Kelly came to the Cariboo with the intention of staking a claim, but he soon realized that his occupation might be more valuable. Kelly was a baker and from his experience, he knew that gold miners wanted fresh bread and baked goods.

By 1863, Kelly was the owner of a claim in Barkerville and right next door was his own bakeshop which he named the Wake-Up Jake Bakery and Coffee Saloon. A sign indicated that he also served lunch. For the next two years, both the claim and the saloon were very successful.

In 1866, Kelly married Elizabeth Hastie in California. Shortly afterward, they travelled to the Cariboo where Kelly sold the Wake-Up Jake and built a boarding house and a bakeshop at Grouse Creek.

It was said that Kelly built his large brick oven using clay and rocks in a manner which was common during that time. Flagstones or bricks were placed on the floor and the sides and top were formed with rocks and clay to form an oval. The back of the oven was built up to form a chimney. A door of tin or rock was made to fit tightly into the oven. The whole oven was encased in firm earth.

Andrew Kelly’s oven could handle dozens of loaves of bread, pies, cakes or cookies at a time. To bake the bread, a fire was lighted in the oven and the door closed. When the bricks were sufficiently hot, the ashes were removed, the chimney blocked, and the bread put in.

In 1870, the Kellys returned to Barkerville where they established the Kelly Hotel which they operated for many years before turning it over to their children to carry on the family business.

Food Prices and Wages in the Cariboo Gold Rush

What was the cost of food at the beginning of the Cariboo gold rush (or the tail end of the Fraser River gold rush)? How much did workers earn? Here is a list of prices and wages published in the British Columbian newspaper June 6, 1861:

Food Prices:

Potatoes 2 cents (per lb)
Onions 6 cts (per dozen)
turnips 4 cts
carrots 4 cts
parsnips 4 cts
beets 4 cts
cabbage 4 cts
Cranberries 75 cents (per gallon)
eggs 50-75 cents (per dozen)
chickens $10-12 (per dozen)
fresh salmon 10 cents (per lb)
other fish 8-10 cents (per lb)
salt 2 cents (per lb)
wild geese 75 cents to $1 each
ducks 50 cents to $1 per pair
grouse 50-75 cents per pair
snipe $1 per dozen

Wages per day:

Carpenters and joiners $3.50 to $4.50
Bricklayers $5-$6
*Compositors (per 1000 ems) $1
Laborers $2.50-$3.50

Wages per month:

Merchants clerks $100-150
Bookkeepers $150-200

*Before typesetting machines, workers known as ‘compositors’ manually set type for newspapers and were paid according to the number of characters placed. The total width was measured against 1,000 of the letter ‘m’.

Where did the Cariboo Gold Rush start?

Many say it was the discovery of gold at Antler Creek in 1860 that started the Cariboo Gold Rush.

Just a few weeks previous, “Doc” Keithley and his friends had found gold in the creek that bears his name. Eager to explore the area, they climbed the mountain range and stumbled onto Antler Creek whereupon they made the richest strike up to that time.

A staggering $75 worth of gold lightn1ngs were found in their gold pans. They ventured back to Keithley Creek and kept their discovery secret. Somehow, word leaked out.

Not surprisingly, there were gold seekers who felt left out, as this story from April 6, 1861 relates:

“It appears that Martin, who had been in partnership with the original explorers, having come to loggerheads with his company during the winter, thought his partners were trying to deprive him of his interest in the diggings by keeping the location secret.”

“Being something of a pioneer and a prospector himself, he finally purchased a pair of snowshoes and started out, in mid-winter, in quest of gold. Having travelled over the deep snow for several weeks, he came at last on [Antler] creek, where he saw several notices posted up, a large number of claims staked off, and holes sunk for the purpose of prospecting.”

“Upon examining the dirt that had been thrown up, he discovered that it was gold-bearing, and succeeded in picking out several pieces weighing from a dollar upwards. Having satisfied himself that this was the place he was in pursuit of, he started back immediately in order to communicate to his friends the discoveries he had made.”

“So eager were the people to reach Antler Creek that the natives were busily employed in making snowshoes for the miners at $20 and $30 a pair; and when the news first reached the Forks the natives were awoke at the rancherias [villages] at midnight and set to work making the snowshoes.”

“The diggings were first struck by a prospector late last fall, who from prudential reasons filled the hole up again and kept his discovery a secret. He told Mr. Beedy, in November last on meeting him in Victoria, that he had obtained over $100 in a few minutes from the bed-rock and that he had filled it up again because he had occasion to go to San Francisco and did not wish the discovery to be made before the Spring.”

Claim jumpers in the Cariboo gold rush

The term ‘jumpers’ referred to goldseekers who seized gold claims from their rightful owners. In his poem about gold rush gamblers, James Anderson writes: “it’s my belief that jumper is Chinook for thief.” 

A story printed in the Cariboo Sentinel on May 14, 1863, showed just how competitive it was to stake a claim.

“Messrs. Levi and Boas, who were packing to Richfield by natives, had been stopped, in consequence of the streams having swollen from the melting snow. The Gold Commissioners had not arrived. Jumpers were causing much annoyance.”

“When the crowd from this place arrived at the diggings and read the notices that were posted up, they discovered that the original locators had more ground staked off, than they were entitled to according to the Gold Fields’ Act and hence “jumping” commenced right off.”

“This would have led to serious difficulties had not the stronger party gave way and concluded to have it settled in the legitimate way. A courier was immediately dispatched for the Gold Commissioner who resides somewhere near Mission Ranch, in a farming community, several miles from any mining camp. What a ridiculous location!

He came plodding along on snowshoes after several days’ delay, and I hear, has at length succeeded in reaching the field of gold and “jumpers,” and will no doubt, endeavor to settle matters. As soon as the snow melts off and the miners get operating, I will write you again..”