The accidental postal service of the BC gold rush

In 1862, there was a strong demand for a government postal service in British Columbia. Mail was the only form of communication gold seekers had with the outside world. Letters were transported  by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company from England to Panama, by railroad to the western coast, then carried north by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.

The Sonora, launched 1 October 1853, was operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company from 1854 to 1868

The Sonora was operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company from 1854 to 1868


As soon as the mail reached the shores of British Columbia, however, there was no postal service or system to ensure letters were delivered. Mail was expected to be delivered without charge to the Government. Billy Ballou of Ballou’s Express carried mail without charge for several years as did captains of the sternwheelers. As a result, gold seekers themselves had to bear the entire cost of the mail.

“During last summer (1861) our mail matter was sometimes thrust on board the river steamers as freight in order to save a few paltry dollars. The mail-bags could be seen kicking about at the various stopping places, no one responsible for them, or caring about their quick dispatch or safe delivery. When once they reached Hope, Yale, and [Port] Douglas, if they were lucky enough ever to do so, they were at their final destination, as there was no pretense to send our mails above these points.”

People living hundreds of miles north in the interior of the Colony were forced to pay exorbitant express charges of $1 and $2.50 per letter, including 2 or 3 weeks’ delay. In 1861, the government called for tenders for a postal service and bids were received, but a year later nothing had been decided upon. In the meantime, a government gold escort was organized with a promise to carry mail, but its service was cut short.

Thousands are cut off from communication with the rest of the world unless they can afford to pay for the luxury of a letter or paper….It is true there is a sort of temporary make-shift arrangement with the river steamers to carry the mails as far as the head of navigation; but there is the extent of it….The importance of this subject increases with the arrival of every ship-load of immigrants; and with the (recent) addition of 12 or 15 thousand to the population of this Colony, the claim will acquire a weight which Governor Douglas will disregard at his peril.

After carrying the mails from New Westminster and Victoria for over three years without charge to the government of the colony, Captain Mouat served notice in the spring of 1862 that he would no longer carry mail on his new sternwheeler, Enterprise, unless he was paid to do so by the Government.

The newspaper argued on his behalf:

“Why should Captain Mouat or any other man be expected to perform this or any other public service without remuneration? The Government pays $25,000 to [Pacific Mail Steamship Company] for carrying the mails between Victoria and San Francisco semi-monthly for six months, making $2,080 for each trip; while they ask a British Company to perform the service from Victoria here, making upwards of 150 trips in the course of the year for nothing – or out of charity, whichever you like.”

Captain Mouat’s abrupt announcement took the Postmaster General by surprise and an arrangement was made to pay him, rather than face public indignation.