Tag Archives: Barkerville

Barkerville – the Cariboo gold rush town

The Tinsmith of Barkerville

Barkerville street scene - September, 1868 (C.W. Graham. Library and Archives Canada, C-061936)

Barkerville street scene – September, 1868 (C.W. Graham. Library and Archives Canada, C-061936)

In this photograph, taken just before the Barkerville Fire, you can see the location of the tin shop, just beyond the bakery.

Originally from Kingston, Ontario, John Bibby was the tinsmith of Barkerville. As a tinsmith, he built stoves and stovepipes. The material for these was brought in as flat sheets which he cut and assembled. He also made gold pans for the miners.

The advent of hydraulic mining transformed his business into a highly profitable one. Bibby was the first tinsmith in Barkerville to make pipes to carry water – necessary for hydraulic mining. These were made from iron sheets and held together by rivets. Bibby made different sizes of pipes from several inches to several feet wide and in long lengths. At first he made them himself, then later he used a machine, crimpers, and a rivet press.

The last tin shop he built still stands in Barkerville just behind its original site.

depiction of hydraulic mining (Creative Commons image by Marcel D. Dekker)

depiction of hydraulic mining (Creative Commons image by Marcel D. Dekker)

Barkerville Chinatown

The majority of Chinese who emigrated to British Columbia during the gold rush came from Guangdong Province where they spoke Cantonese. That region had a long history of emigration and as a result, was used to establishing settlements and societies abroad to help provide support for each other.

Chinatowns, known as ‘tong yahn guy’ or ‘tongyan gai’, were established. ‘Tong yahn’ referred to a Chinese person of the Tang Dynasty and ‘guy’ or ‘gai’ meant the street where they live. The reference to the Tang Dynasty refers to a more prosperous era when Guangdong province became incorporated into the greater Chinese culture.

After the First Opium War (1840-42), China was forced to trade with western countries. In the Pearl River delta in Guangdong Province, many rice fields were changed to plant tea, mulberry, tobacco, sugar cane and fruit. This caused an increase in the price of rice. Many people lost mortgaged lands, houses and livestock. Hong-men societies led several rebellions in the Guangdong region with the goal of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. These revolts seriously impacted the citizens and many were killed by government troops.

The first Chinese Society in Canada was established in Barkerville in 1864 by Hong-men members migrating from the California gold mines. Under the general title of Hong-men, the Barkerville branch called itself Hung Shun Tang. Around 1882, the society changed its name to Chee Kung Tong. In 1945 the society changed its name again to Chee Kung Party. This name was used until 1947 when the branch was dissolved. The last master of the Hong-men society was Dear Song, who died in 1950.

The society occupied a two-story building located in the central area of Barkerville’s Chinatown.

The concept of birthplace weighed heavily on the minds of gold seekers coming from China. The old adage, “Fallen leaves will always go back to the root of the tree” served as a reminder that they must return home at some point, whether in old age or  after death. It was common for the deceased to be interred and then exhumed at a later date and the bones would be transported to Victoria, then to Hong Kong where the remains would be picked up by relatives from Guangdong.

The Barkerville Chee Kung Tong building is unique in North America, as it is the only one to be recognized as a national heritage site. Each year, Chee Kung Tong members gather for a ceremony to celebrate its history. In 2014, the Chee Kung Tong will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in British Columbia.

Gold Rush Gamblers

James Anderson wrote a poem about gold rush gamblers in Barkerville:

There is a set o’ men up here
Wha never work thro’ a’ the year,
A kind o’ serpents, craulin’ snakes,
That fleece the miner o’ his stakes;
They’re Gamblers – honest men some say,
Tho’ its quite fair to cheat in play
If it’s no Kent o’ I ne’er met
An honest man a Gambler yet!
O, were I Judge in Cariboo
I’d see the laws were carr’d thro’,
I’d hae the cairds o’ every pack
Tied up in a gunny sack,
Wi’ a’ the gamblers chained thegither
And banish’d frae the creek forever.
But Sawney, there’s anither clan,
There’s nane o’ them I’d ca’ a man.
They ca’ them “jumpers” – it’s my belief
That jumper is Chinook for thief; –
The jump folks claims and jump their lots,
They jump the very pans pots;
But wait a wee – for a’ this evil –
Their friend’ll jump them.
He’s the deevil.

Gambling went on unimpeded in the ‘gold diggings’ during the Fraser River gold rush and the Cariboo gold rush. Games such as Monte Bank, Keno and Euchre were played at ‘gambling houses’ which were usually tents.

In Fort Victoria, gambling was not tolerated. Many public lectures were given on how gambling houses would lead to the degredation of society. An editorial speaks of this prevailing attitude:

Praise is due to the authorities of Victoria for the prompt suppression of every attempt to introduce public gambling into this colony. Our town has consequently been preserved from all those incidents which ever follow closely in the train of the greatest of social vices…[where] life and property are rendered insecure…[and] the exhibitions of deadly weapons, and often their use, around the gaming tables, are the order of the day.

As a result, gambling was done behind closed doors. Here is an article from the British Times Colonist dated May 22, 1860:

A case was called on in the Police Court yesterday morning, which attracted a great crowd thither. It seems that Sergeant Carey has had the bookstore of W.F. Herre, on Yates Street, under his surveillance for some time, suspecting that gambling was being carried on in the rear apartments.

On Sunday night last, Carey, in company with [four other officers] went to the rear of the house, and having peeped through the blinds, discovered a party of men playing cards. The posse proceeded to the front door and demanded admittance, which being denied, the door was broken open and the parties arrested.

The Judge considered the charge against Herre of keeping a gambling-house fully sustained and fined him twenty pounds. The case was appealed to the higher court…

Music during the BC gold rush

Music was an essential part of daily life during the gold rush years in British Columbia. Musical instruments were much more difficult to acquire unless gold seekers managed to bring a violin or flute with them.

One of the Overlanders of 1862 recalled a typical evening on the prairies during the first part of their journey to the Cariboo:

“An association of musicians was formed on the trail. After supper, many others amused themselves on different kinds of brass instruments, clarinets, flutes, violins and a concerteena…At Edmonton, the musicians gave a concert to a crowded house…”

Some of the Royal Engineers were trained as musicians and provided welcome entertainment to the citizens of Fort Victoria.

The Victoria Philharmonic Society was formed in 1859 with forty members who paid $5 to join. Flutes, violins and other stringed instruments were very popular. Barrel organs and pianofortes as they were known, were coveted items and brought at great expense and effort.

James Loring purchased an upright piano and had it shipped as far as Quesnel and from there four men carried it in its crate for 60 miles to Barkerville. The hurdy gurdy was a popular stringed instrument during the Cariboo gold rush and dancers were known as ‘hurdy gurdies’.

hurdy gurdy player

playing a hurdy gurdy (creative commons image)


John Bowron: Gold Rush Postmaster and Librarian

John Bowron

John Bowron

John Bowron was one of Barkerville’s most well-known citizens and government agents. Over the length of his working life, he held various positions such as postmaster, mining recorder, government agent, and gold commissioner.

Bowron was born and raised in Huntingdon, Quebec (called Lower Canada then) and later studied law in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1862, he joined an group of ‘overlanders‘ and made the difficult hike over the Rockies and descended the treacherous Fraser River by raft.

Bowron arrived at Williams Creek in 1863 and during that first year he formed the Cariboo Literary Society with meetings held in his cabin in Cameronton. The following year, members raised money to build a library with Bowron as librarian.  An advertisement in the Cariboo Sentinel newspaper in 1865 shows members were charged $2 a month and “100 volumes of new works” were added to the circulating library.

In 1866, Bowron was appointed postmaster at Cameronton just as considerable excitement was building at Grouse Creek. He joined four other gold miners to form the Hard-Up Company on Grouse Creek in the spring of 1867, which turned out to be a successful venture.

Around that same time, the government moved the site of the post office to Barkerville. Bowron built an addition at the back of the building and moved the library there. Unfortunately, just over a year later, the Barkerville Fire completely destroyed the post office and library.

In later years, as gold commissioner, Bowron was credited for creating a map which showed the location of the original claims on Williams Creek and their approximate total yield in gold.

His daughter Lottie Bowron was instrumental in making Barkerville a historic site, along with Alfred Ludditt. Bowron Lake Provincial Park is named after him.


The murder of Charles Blessing

In the fall of 1866, the remains of a man were discovered in some bushes near Beaver Pass, between Quesnel and Barkerville, at a point where the Cariboo Wagon road intersected an old trail. Gold Commissioner George Cox, accompanied by Chief Constable Fitzgerald, held an inquest at the spot where the remains were found. Members of a jury witnessed the examination of the body.

The crime had taken place some months before because the body had been reduced to a skeleton but a bullet hole was visible at the back of the skull. An examination of the mouth revealed teeth in good condition with some of the back molars filled with gold. The clothes were still intact and these revealed someone who was quite well-to-do; not your typical gold seeker. The following description was printed in the Cariboo Sentinel in the hopes that someone reading it would recognize the person.

unkown murder

Cariboo Sentinel report October 1, 1866

Gold Commissioner Cox looked through mining licences to find any record of the name C.M. Blessing, but there was nothing.

In the months leading up to the discovery of the body, Barkerville’s barber, Wellington Moses had been doing his own inquiries about a man who had gone missing.

On May 28, 1866, Moses shared a stagecoach with a well-to-do New Englander to Soda Creek. Moses was returning from a winter in Victoria and Charles Blessing said he was looking for an adventure; it was quite obvious he didn’t need the money. Moses remembered the unusual gold lightn1ng pin he was wearing; he’d never seen anything quite like it. They caught the sternwheeler to Quesnel, arriving in the evening. At the Brown and Gillis’ Saloon, they ran into a Texan gambler named James Barry who admitted being down on his luck.

After Blessing paid for their drinks, it was agreed that Blessing and Barry would start the next morning along the trail for Barkerville since Moses had decided to stay in Quesnel another day to collect money he was due.

Weeks passed and Moses resumed cutting hair at his barbershop in Barkerville. It wasn’t until he saw James Barry that he was reminded of Blessing. He asked Barry what became of their travel companion, but Barry was vague, telling him that Blessing complained of sore feet and wanted to turn back. On one occasion, Moses remembered, Barry sat in his barber chair wearing a distinct lightn1ng pin. It looked familiar.

That day, Moses closed up his shop and made a few discreet inquiries and discovered that Barry had arrived in Barkerville on June 2nd and was able to pay for a room at Wilcox’s for $12 a week which he paid with a $20 bank note. Moses was suspicious but he didn’t go to the police.

One day, Bill Fraser, one of his long-time customers from Victoria, showed up at the barbershop. The topic turned to James Barry and Fraser recalled how he had travelled with him just that spring from New Westminster to Quesnel before they parted company. He remembered Barry making remarks that suggested that he had been in and out of jail. He was also wearing a Colt six-gun and cartridge belt and he never let it out of his sight.

As soon as he read the description in the paper, Moses decided it was time to go to the Chief Constable Fitzgerald and tell him what he thought. As soon as news went around Barkerville, Barry was nowhere to be found. Fitzgerald instructed Constable Sullivan to find Barry and bring him in.

Sullivan rode his horse for 120 miles to the steamboat landing at Soda Creek and it was here he learned that Barry had crossed the Fraser River two days before and had taken a stagecoach to Yale.

At this time, the Collins Overland Company had just finished stringing a wire to Quesnel. An operator at Soda Creek tapped out a message to the BC Police at Yale. Twelve hours later when Barnard’s stagecoach pulled into Yale, a police officer was waiting for Barry.

In the summer of 1867, James Barry was led into the Richfield courthouse to face Chief Justice Begbie and a jury of Cariboo miners. At the trial, the prosecutor brought forward the gold lightn1ng pin and asked Barry where he got it from. He said he had bought it from a man in Victoria. The prosecutor then asked Wellington Moses how did he know it belong to the murdered man.

Moses pointed out that when you looked at the gold lightn1ng pin in a certain way, you could see the profile of a man’s face. It was this profile he had seen as he put the barber’s cape under Barry’s chin. Judge Begbie looked at the lightn1ng closely and sketched it in the margin of his notes.

On August 8, 1866, James Barry was hanged outside the Richfield courthouse for the murder of Charles Blessing. Afterward, Moses helped to raise funds to give Blessing a decent burial. They placed a headboard and a fence around Blessing’s grave. It is a provincial historic site.

The Gum Coat Hold Up

Advertisement in the British Times Colonist, April 1863:

A quantity of this material has just been received by the undersigned from Mackintosh of London, and will be sold in lengths to suit purchasers. It is light, pliable, and perfectly waterproof, and can be used either as a covering for luggage, or to supply the place of India Rubber blankets.
N.B. Also a lot of light Waterproof Coats and Inverness Capes.

T. Wilson
Government Street

Cattle drives were a major event during the Cariboo gold rush. Fresh beef was welcome after a monotonous diet that included canned or pickled fish and stored beef. To supply the winter market, there were two cattle drives in the fall, one in September and the last one in October. Buyers bought cattle from ranchers on behalf of merchants and when the cattle arrived, the buyers would get the exact count of cattle.

Independent buyers always carried cash, bank drafts or cheques. One buyer was always known by his waterproof “gum” coat. After a successful sale of cattle in Barkerville, the buyer sold his raincoat.

The man who bought the raincoat left for Quesnel the next morning. On the second day of his trip, he encountered several gunmen who demanded his money they expected from the sale of the cattle. Despite trying to convince the robbers that he was not the buyer, the man handed over his money (75 cents), his white “gum” coat and his horse.

He walked to Cottonwood House where he told his story of the Gum Coat Hold Up.

After the Barkerville Fire

Leather fire bucket at Barkerville

Less than a week after fire destroyed the town of Barkerville on September 16, 1868, more than twenty buildings were erected.

In order to make sure that the Great Fire of Barkerville was never to be repeated, the Williams Creek Fire Brigade was formed.

A firehall was set up in the back of the newly rebuilt Theatre Royal and twenty Williams Creek Fire Brigade members and many volunteers gathered here to meet.

Two bells, one on St. Saviour’s Church and the other on the Theatre Royal, served as the fire alarm.

Water tanks were built on the hillside well above Barkerville and piped down to hydrants which were housed along with hose and equipment in special sheds around town.

The hoses and buckets were both made from leather. Having leather buckets meant that they could be tossed down onto the ground without sustaining damage.

There was also an additional fire brigade set up by the Chinese citizens. They crafted a fire-pump from hollow bamboo. Water was poured into one end while someone operated the pump forcing the water to shoot out quite a distance.

The Barkerville Fire

On September 16, 1868, the Cariboo gold rush town of Barkerville was engulfed in flames.

“Only a few days since we with much pride spoke of the order and neatness of the town of Barkerville, and our ink had scarcely dried ere that town was a mass of smouldering ruins; and charred timbers and heaps of rubbish only marked the spot where stood the metropolis of Cariboo…. In just one hour and twenty minutes from the first cry of fire, the last roof fell, and the destruction of the town of Barkerville was pronounced complete…the merciless element had turned the tenants of 120 houses roofless into the streets, and many with no more property than covered their persons.”

A fire first appeared on the roof of Addler and Barry’s Saloon near the centre of Barkerville at 2:30pm and by 4:00pm, almost the entire town was burnt to the ground. The Cariboo Sentinel newspaper reported the loss at $673,000, including damage to their office at $500.

Barkerville Fire 1868

Barkerville Fire 1868

Those closest to the fire could do little to save any goods, but those on the outer edge of town took whatever they could. Soon after the fire abated, merchants went to gather up items they had rescued from the blaze and found most of them missing. Several thousands of dollars worth were found concealed in cabins, old shafts and hidden on the many trails that led out of town.

While there was some discussion about how the fire started, a public meeting was held to discuss the lack of a fire brigade.

Billy Barker – Founder of Barkerville

Billy Barker

Billy Barker – founder of Barkerville, BC

Billy Barker came to British Columbia during the Fraser River gold rush in 1858 from Cornwall, England. Barker went north to the Cariboo when he heard about “Dutch” Bill Dietz’s discovery in Williams Creek in 1861.

It was relatively expensive to dig a shaft at the time, and Barker got together with six other English miners, each holding a full interest of 100 feet. They erected the first building – a rough, log-walled shafthouse – on Williams Creek below the canyon. Prior to the Barker claim, all of the other gold discoveries were confined to the upper part of Williams creek, north of the canyon which separated the upper portion of the creek Williams Creek and the town of Richfield.

Barker and co. did not strike paydirt immediately and many say that it was because of Judge Begbie’s financial assistance, that Barker was able to pay his creditors and continue sinking the shaft.

On August 22, 1862 came the news that Barker had struck gold at fifty-five feet. They consistently brought up gold valued at five dollars a pan. The good news became even better when they reached bedrock at eighty feet and extracted a thousand dollars worth of gold in less than two days.

Within a year of the gold strike, 10,000 people settled around Barker’s shaft house and the town of Barkerville was established.

While Barker was known to be generous with helping other miners, his company employed a guard to watch over the shaft. Fred Littler was a boxer and later express man whose cabin served as a landmark, southeast of Barkerville.