The Mule Tax and the Cariboo Wagon Road

The merchants of Yale were eager to have a wagon road built through the Fraser Canyon but Governor Douglas was focussed on building a wagon road along the Douglas-Lillooet route. It seemed that there was no money to embark on another road building project.

In the fall of 1859, the merchants of Yale established an association and raised $60,000. The government was invited to buy some stock in their association or offer to loan them some money so they could start to build the Cariboo Road themselves. Then someone proposed the idea that the road could be built if the government were to levy a small duty on the transport of all goods by land from Yale to Lytton.

Mule train at Quesnel River

Mule train at Quesnel River

On February 6, 1860, Governor Douglas announced a ‘mule tax’ of £1 ($5) for every loaded horse or mule leaving Douglas and Yale for the mining regions. This meant a charge of £8 or $40 a ton. Immediately, there was a backlash from miners and packers.

Petitions were circulated for the removal of the ‘obnoxious mule tax’ and another for the removal of Governor Douglas.

The British Colonist reported on February 14th that “the trade of the country has suffered so severely…” Even the editor of the Port Townsend Register weighed into the mule tax and said that the imposition of the tax “is as clear a case of murdering the goose that laid the golden eggs.”

On February 25, 1860, the British Colonist printed a copy of a petition received from Yale which had been sent to Governor Douglas on February 19th.

“…your petitioners regard with utter dismay the imposition of the $5 mule tax, from the disastrous results it is certain to entail on the progress of the Colony…one inevitable consequence of the tariff will be the paralysis of all trade to the interior, by the avenues of Douglas and Yale…”

In their statement, the petitioners wrote that when they mentioned a small duty they implied something like $3 per ton for road purposes. They also pointed out that the progress of the road building would be gradual and it would be many months before any sections of the proposed road would be completed.

In his speech delivered in May, 1860 Governor Douglas stated that he had to levy the tax because the Colony of British Columbia must be self-supporting, as per the direction from the Colonial Office.

The British Colonist had this to say:

“We are now told that the HBC is no longer responsible for the civil expenses of the colony and we must henceforth be self-supporting. Now that we are to be no longer minors, let us have the balance sheet of our late guardians. Let them give an account of their stewardship, and let it be well and faithfully audited.”