Gold Rush Trails and Pack Mules

Before the Cariboo Wagon Road was built, gold miners had to rely on narrow trails to the interior of British Columbia. In 1858, only two trails led from the lower Fraser River. One was the abandoned trail of the Hudson’s Bay Company which went from Fort Yale to Fort Kamloops and the other was an existing trail from Fort Kamloops to Fort Hope.

The old HBC trail went from Fort Yale to Spuzzum where it crossed and followed the left bank of the Fraser River to Chapman’s Bar, before climbing 2000 feet and descending to Anderson River. It followed that river to the source and, continuing at a great height reached the Coldwater River and northeast across the Nicola to Fort Kamloops.

The trail from Fort Hope climbed up the Coquihalla, crossed Manson’s mountain to the “Campement du Chevreuil” on the Similkameen and then went in a northerly direction by the “Campement des Femmes” to Nicola Lake and Kamloops.

From 1821 until 1846 traders for the Hudsons’ Bay Company took their packhorses with supplies and goods for trade along the Okanagan Brigade Trail between Fort Okanagan (near present-day Brewster, Washington) and Kamloops.

pack muleAll of the aforementioned trails were used by gold miners on their journeys to the Fraser River or the Cariboo. Sure-footed mules were chosen to carry provisions. In the early days, a miner could easily pack flour, bacon and whatever tools were necessary. As the gold rush boom progressed, hotels were built and other, more awkward items had to be packed.

Mexican packers working for the Hudson’s Bay Company knew that the best saddle for a pack mule was the aparajo, a Spanish pack saddle with a willow frame covered in canvas and stuffed with moss, dry hay, or grass. It protected the mule’s back from the rubbing of the load and equalized the weight of the pack on the animals. Underneath the aparajo was a sweat blanket that sat directly on the back of the mule. A crupper and breast-strap with a strong girth kept the bundle in position.

The average load for a pack mule was from 275 to 300 pounds but in many cases where the objects could not be divided, a mule carried hundreds of pounds more. Pack mules were well aware of the load they were carrying and if it were loose, it would step out of procession and wait for a carcadore (cargo packer) to come and tighten it.

The mules carried everything from fragile items such as champagne and live chickens, to equipment and supplies of all kinds.

Recalled one gold rush miner:

“It was astonishing what they would put on those mules’
backs. Iron safes, billiard tables in sections, large barrels set on
top of the aparajos. G. B. Wright had the machinery of his steamer
packed in sections from Fort Yale on mules’ backs to Soda Creek
on the Fraser River.”

When it came time to cross a river, pack animals were unloaded, their packs and aparejos were ferried across on a raft and lined up on the opposite shore. The boat or raft then returned for the bell mare and swam her across behind it. The rest of the mules would swim after the mare. Once across, each animal found its own aparejo and stood by it to be reloaded.