Monday, May 9, 2016

Opening the West - Quest for GOLD

How important was the Cariboo Road? What would be the state of development for Western Canada today if that road had not been forced through where a road could not go a century and a half ago? Without the force created by the scramble for gold would it have been built at all?
There had been trappers in the British Columbia Mountains for decades. Many indigenous people and a few of European heritage had traded furs with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Fur Company for decades. As a result there was transportation up as far as was navigable by stern-wheeler to Hope and sometimes Yale down stream on the Fraser from Hell’s Gate Canyon.
A view of a small piece of Hell's Gate demonstrating why shipping did not attempt to go further up-river. There are several miles of this and worse.

The HB Company’s steamer SS Beaver was the first having entered Pacific waters in 1835. She supplied trade goods to the various posts – Fort Langley, Hope and Fort Victoria for example – and carried furs away for transport to England. With the news of gold and the edict by Governor Douglas that none but those ships under British flag would be allowed up the Fraser some American ships were newly registered at Victoria and new ships were built in the colony.
Steamer "Onward" near Hope BC

Those who participated in the initial rush of 1858 could travel up the Fraser to Yale or up the “Lakes Route” (Harrison Lake & Port Douglas) to Lillooet. After that, they walked.
There were horses in the Chilcotin Country (west of the Fraser) raised and trained by at least two of the tribes in that district. However, they were prized processions of those peoples and not about to be turned over to strangers for a few shiny yellow stones. Therefore, those miners who made it to the various gold bearing areas – Quesnelle River, Antler Creek, Keithly Creek, etc. – did so on their own two feet.
This is a very large and extremely rugged country. To reach any of those creeks mentioned one must travel over mountains, through desert and back into mountains. By the time prospectors made it and panned some gold they had often exhausted their supplies even though augmented with venison, elk and anything else edible.
It wasn’t until 1862 that any horses or mules appeared along Williams Creek. Not until the Cariboo Road was completed in 1865 did those numbers become significant enough to make a difference in the cost and availability of supplies. Supplies did come up through the Okanagan country to Kamloops but the supply was too small to have an effect on the cost of goods a weeks travel to the north. Besides, the HBC posts along that route already needed the supplies and the available transport.

For instance, along Williams Creek (Barkerville) a pair of rubber boots carried in on someone’s back would sell for about $75.00 in 1863 and in 1866, transported on a pack train or freight wagon for about $25.00. Even the latter figure was a little high since the equivalent in 2015 would be about $500.00. Gold was fairly stable throughout the 1800s at about $21.00 per ounce unless turned in at the HBC store or such commercial venture. Most charged 3% to pay for transport, etc. bringing the value down to around $16.50. To buy the same amount of goods in 2015 as the $16.50 would buy in 1870 one would need about $310.00.
The Cariboo Road was paid for by the miners with licensing fees and royalties demanded on the mineral they took from the colony. In later years there was an import duty on the cattle brought in from Oregon Territory and California.

Here are a couple of pictures of the road where it goes through Hell's Gate. Not only does it show the timbers used to hold a road but also demonstrates why a pleasant 6 week walk to the gold fields did not include strolling along the pine clad river banks of the gurgling mountain stream. 

The road was built in sections by several contractors. Those contractors employed men of varying backgrounds including one crew made up chiefly of Chinese laborers from California. Some of these men stayed and turned to mining, raising livestock or farming the land. Some of those who came for gold opened businesses including the road houses that served travelers on the road. Some of those laborers, teamsters, drovers, engineers, miners, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, wheelwrights, coopers – people from every trade, profession, or aspect of life became the populace of the Colony and later Province of British Columbia.
Without the force exerted by the “need” for gold was there any reason for someone from California to walk for weeks into the cold north over mountains and streams? Without this same force and the resultant funding who would want to take the time to build a wagon road along a sheer cliff face, across a “water-less waste” or through a bottomless bog? With no road to lead them into the lush mountain valleys and plateaus who would consider such beauty could be found or that such fertility could be planted and reaped in the lands beyond those canyons and crags?
Cottonwood House, one of the many road houses serving travelers, freighters and stage coaches. Today it is a historic site and museum for those going into Barkerville from Quesnell.
Wright's Ranch or 127 Mile House another stop for the BX Stage, a stop for travelers, a holding ground for beef cattle and a source for milk and pork.

108 Mile House.

Ninety seven years after the Cariboo Road was completed to Barkerville my father moved his family to BC’s Peace River Country. Without that Cariboo Road much of the resultant development of the province would have been slowed and may not have happened. As a result I might be living in Ontario having just retired from some factory job.

Now that is a downright terrifying thought!

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