Billy Ballou’s Canoe


William “Billy” Ballou sank back in the leather chair opposite his future boss, Mr. Morgan from the Freeman Company. Ballou had eaten too much for dinner and his quench for spirits was over indulged. They were sitting in the newly built “American Hotel” in Fort Victoria.

“You’ll be our sole agent up here.” Morgan said, waving his cigar in the air for emphasis.  Ballou heard the words “contracts” and “a significant commission.”

With a handshake the deal was settled. He would regret it later, but his normal wariness had been dulled.   Ballou was now the chief agent for Freeman and Company. He didn’t get an office, but it didn’t matter to Ballou; he would rather be spending most of his time outdoors getting the job done.

New Westminster in the early days (BC Archives)

A few days later, Ballou departed for New Westminster and was sitting in the Highlander Saloon with a pint glass of porter in his hand at Steamboat wharf.  Marshall, the proprietor, came around to give advice.

“Talk to the ones that are heading to Fort Victoria,”  Marshall said. “Spot the ones with the frowns on their faces and their clothes torn to shreds.” As if to emphasize the point, he held up the latest editorial cartoon from one of the papers which showed a man in nice clothes and hat ready for gold digging adventure and then the same man, this time bedraggled and hagard, heading back with no pockets or bags to carry any gold.

The first miner that Ballou spoke with seemed enthusiastic enough, until Ballou realized that he was just picking his brain for ideas on how to run an express company.  Ballou told him stories about how he started his company, “Ballou’s Express” as soon as he came to Victoria in the spring of 1858.

“I couldn’t afford to hire anyone at first, I bought a canoe for forty dollars and followed everyone else up the Fraser River.  Later, when the money came through, I could hire some native packers.  These days, it’s not really possible to start doing a one man operation; a lot has changed in just a few years.”

The man was enthusiastic at first until Ballou told him how much he could earn. Then he declined.

After about the third miner came and went, Marshall came over to his table. “There’s a young fellow who’s been doing odd jobs around here for the last week or so. Give him a try.”

The chap Marshall was referring to was tall but looked too young to be handling the responsibility of transporting gold dust, but as a helper.

Ballou was drinking porter.  The young man sat down and said his name was Hamilton.

“How old are you John?”

“Almost fifteen. I’ve been looking after horses all my life,” Hamilton said. “I know how to manouever a canoe too.”

“The most important thing is you have to keep track of everything. If someone gives you gold dust, you have to write it down.  It’s not enough to keep numbers in your head, I give a lot of people credit if they can do that, but you’ve got to write it down.  How are you with numbers?”

“I can add numbers. Back at my uncle’s farm I sold eggs and cheese,”  John said.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ballou caught sight of Horace Muldoon with both elbows on the bar.

“Good enough for me,” Ballou said. “I need someone to go from Lillooet to Yale. I’m setting out tomorrow for the Cariboo, what do you say?”

Hamilton agreed and Ballou walked him down to where he had his canoe tied up.  Marten the wharfinger was there untying the rope.

Ad for Steamers Colonel Moody
Ad for Steamboats (Victoria 1860 directory)

“You might save me the trouble of moving this beast along. We’ve got a new steamer coming in today and they don’t want anything in the way.”

Ballou handed the rope to Hamilton. “Your first assignment.”

He was impressed at the ease with which Hamilton hauled the canoe. He hovered over him giving instructions on how to tie it up.

“Be here first thing in the morning. I’ll be leaving at five sharp.”

Ballou wandered back to the Highlander. Muldoon was standing near the doorway with his coat open despite the wet cold. His eyes were blood-shot.

“Nice canoe,” Muldoon said. “I could use a ride myself.”

“I don’t take passengers. Try the steamboat.”

“Figured you’d say something like that, a scoundrel like you. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have two legs to stand on. You beetled out of California and left me owing money on that grubstake!”

A few miners stumbled out of the doorway and one of them jostled Muldoon, who pushed him back.

Ballou focused on Muldoon. “I don’t owe you for anything. You were the one who insisted on making the claim. When we were in business I told you that I wanted to stick to the Express. If you owed money, that’s your problem.”

Muldoon’s eyes went from pink to red. “You’re going to pay for this, Ballou!”

After that argument, Ballou kept a watch on his canoe.  He asked Marshall if he could keep an eye out if Muldoon returned.

Ballou found some lodging and woke up in the early hours the next morning, having slept soundly.  Then he remembered his canoe. With some trepidation, Ballou made his way to the wharf and in the moonlight saw that the rope they had secured was still there. Peering over the edge of the wharf he could see the canoe was there alright, except there was someone in it.

Bending over, Ballou smelled the stench of liquor. Muldoon.

Acting on an impulse, Ballou yanked on the rope and the canoe flipped on its side, sending Muldoon into the inky depths of the Fraser River.  Ballou expected to hear Muldoon cough and sputter at any moment. There was nothing. All was quiet.

William T. “Billy” Ballou 1830-1878 carried mail and freight on the Fraser River from 1858-1861. Before he came to BC, Billy had an express company in California at the height of the gold rush there.