This is part 4 of th Gold Rush Trail series. To start at the beginning, here is part one. If you turn east at Quesnel and follow the road, you will be following the same basic route as the miners of the Cariboo Gold Rush heading to make their fortunes in Barkerville in the 1860s, prior to the birth of Canada.
Barkerville was the main town of British Columbia's Cariboo Gold Rush and has been preserved as a historic town. The Cariboo Gold Rush was the main impetus behind British Columbia's development and eventual membership in the future country of Canada.... and it's a really cool place to explore.
For many generations, long before the gold rush, seven different First Nations travelled through the area, mainly to gather medicinal plants, following the practice of only taking what was needed. The People knew of the gold but only used it sparingly in natural medicines. Life completely changed for the local First Nations people after Billy Barker found gold in Williams Creek.
The historical town of Barkerville is a living museum with costumed actors performing skits and impromptu interpretations as they wander through the town amongst the tourists. Miners, housewives, trappers, stagecoach drivers, blacksmiths, school teachers and merchants go about their daily activities as tourists visit. Daily admission is $16. A guided walking tour is recommended, especially for first-time visitors. There are many daily activities including stagecoach rides, mining demonstrations, school lessons, bread baking, and court house re-enactments. The visitor center has a board of daily events and provides a brochure with maps and schedules to every visitor.
Be aware that cell service is also authentic to the time period. It does not exist in Barkerville. There is some cell service available between Quesnel and Wells but it completely disappears after Wells. Free WiFi is available throughout the Historic Town and all the shops have the technology to accept card payments but the remote service is not always reliable. Take some cash with you.
In its heyday during the 1860s, the town had everything. Locals had choices of restaurants, saloons, guest houses, bakeries, shops, and services. Today, the same is true in the historic town. Visitors can choose to stay in the town overnight at the St George Hotel or Kelly Guest House right on the main street or in cottages just outside the main entrance.
Campers have a choice of several campsites within Barkerville Park. I stayed at Forest Rose. I was there just before the official summer season and the other two campsites, Lowhee and Government Hill, were not yet open.
I chose to take a trail from my campsite to the town. I walked through the forested area and began to see scattered structures; some fallen to ruin, others still in use. All were very rustic.
When the miners first appeared and staked claims, the First Nations people were displaced and lost access to some traditional gathering areas. In the early days, many of the locals helped the miners with provisions and as guides. As time went on, the relationship became strained as First Nations faced disrespect, discrimination, and violence. As the population of Barkerville exploded, the People were dispossessed of their land as claims were legally registered in systems unknown to the local indigenous communities.
When taking the trail into Barkerville, the first sign of being near the town is the Barkerville Cemetery. For those who drive in, the cemetery can be accessed from the town by following the well-marked 750m path behind the church and visitor center.
The graves reflect the demographics, health knowledge, and policies of the times. Most are North American men, others from Europe. There are no First Nations or Chinese buried here, as was common in that era. Very few lived a long life dying in accidents or from diseases now treated with modern vaccines and medications.
Peter Gibson was the first to be buried here in 1863 in the Cameronton Cemetery. Before he died, he worked for John "Cariboo" Cameron, a miner who struck it rich on Williams Creek (and with whom, I've learned I have a very arms-length, very-extended family connection)
The small town that grew up around Cameron's strike was known as Cameronton. Cameron died in 1888 at the age of 68, making him one of the oldest people buried in this cemetery. The story of John Cameron is a fascinating one that weaves through several gold rushes, booms and busts, and the lengthy and convoluted burial of his wife, Sophie. Poor Sophie had 2 caskets, 3 funerals, and 4 burials!
The type of gold at Williams Creek is mainly placer gold, which is particles of gold that have eroded from the main lode and have been moved along with gravel, mud, and other debris. Placer gold is often near the top of the soil or along rivers and creeks. Since gold is heavier than gravel and water, it sinks and collects. The gold must be separated from the debris.
Panning for gold along the rivers and creeks was the choice of many and was often the only choice of the Indigenous and Chinese miners. Little equipment was needed and panning in unclaimed areas cost nothing. Barkerville offers tourists an opportunity to learn to pan outside the El Dorado Gold Panning and Souvenir Shop for $17. Pre-filled gold pans are sprinkled with real specks of gold and taken to the sluice box outside. I had great fun and was delighted to see the gold I had uncovered! At the same time, I realized how taxing it would be to do this all day long, throughout the year, with most pans coming up empty.
The easy-to-find gold was soon scooped up and miners began to devise ways to get at gold at deeper depths. Shafts were dug to scoop up the gravel, clay, and mud but pumps were needed to keep the shafts clear. Water was diverted to use in sluices to wash away the gravel and trap the gold. Visitors can enjoy an entertaining and informative explanation of the process at the daily Water Wheel show (video of part of the show).
Great holes and quarries were dug deep into the earth, waters diverted from their natural paths through wooden sluice channels, and powerful hoses crumbled cliffs. Trees were cut down to make mine structures, shelters, and for warmth and cooking. The (non-native) peak population of Barkerville was nearly 6,000, with approximately half of those newcomers coming from China. On the hill, a cannon-type hose was used to wash away the surface, with the debris funnelled into a sluice.
When the miners came into town they were often looking to blow off some steam, pick up provisions, and enjoy some luxuries with their gold. Prices were expensive compared to non-gold towns. Merchants accepted gold as payment and often had a scale on the counter.
Restaurants and bars were plentiful and today's Barkerville continues to offer many choices for their modern visitors, from incredible treats and sandwiches at the Goldfield Bakery (I highly recommend the breakfast sandwich), all day coffee from Strouss (with the purchase of a $7 tin cup with free engraving!), Chinese food, or hearty fare from Wake Up Jake's café. I spent a couple of hours in the Hotel Coffee Saloon as the rain was pouring down, sipping coffee and enjoying the warmth of the stove as hot dogs and chili was served all around. Visitors with a sweet-tooth will enjoy the confectionary store and the ice-cream parlour.
Some of the better-situated locals wanted to bring some culture and refinement to the town. The Cariboo Literary Institute was founded in Camerontown in 1863 and soon started a lending library. In 1868, the library had about 500 books but the great fire in September destroyed most of them. The library reopened in 1868 but the Gold Rush was waning and it closed in the early 1870s.
The Theatre Royal hosts shows daily at 2pm ($20 adults). It's a lively variety style show using music from the era to present the stories of some of the townspeople, mainly from the European perspective. This is the first season that the show included a performance by Indigenous cast members.
After the town was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1868, a new building was erected to house the fire brigade on the first floor and the community theatre on the second floor. When the population declined, the building was left to deteriorate. Years of floods and overflows from upstream placer mines, it was decided to remove the lower floor and jack up the upper section. Eventually it was demolished in the 1930s. This building was actually the community hall built in the 30s but was given a new facade in the 1960s to better resemble the original theatre and firehall.
I attended the Grand Re-Opening of the Theatre Royal during the Dominion Day celebrations (July 1st, Canada Day) and official opening of the summer season. It was great fun and every member of the small cast was a fine actor and musician.
At the far end of Barkerville is the Barkerville Chinatown. Almost half the population of Barkerville at its peak were Chinese men, virtually all of whom came from the same province in China. Those who came soon faced discrimination and many roadblocks to their dream of discovering their fortune on Gold Mountain. Despite this, many thrived and Canada's first Chinatown was created.
Chinese immigrants ran restaurants, hotels, guest houses, grocery stores, laundries, and tea rooms.
Some owned farms, ranches, and pack trains. Kwong Lee & Co became a major retailer and distributor with branches in Victoria and other boom towns. Kwong Lee carried everything including tea, clothing, rice, and even prescription drugs (along with traditional Chinese herbs)
The Chinese community created benevolent societies, schools, and hospitals to support each other. The community was overwhelmingly men since Chinese women were severely restricted from entering Canada. There were few children but a school was created to ensure a quality education.
Most of the single men (or married with spouses in China) chose to live in the most thrifty manner possible so they could return home quickly. Most Chinese guest houses provided dormitory-style bunks.
Opium was a part of life for the residents of Barkerville. One out of seven artifacts found on site have some connection to the opium trade. The Chinese community was particularly addicted.
Beyond Chinatown is the trail to Richfield, where the infamous Judge Begbie had his court. The trail is just over 1km and has many signs and markers along the way telling the story of different claims along this section.
Judge Begbie was the Chief Justice of the Crown Colony of British Columbia and travelled around BC dispensing justice. He has a rather checkered history, especially with First Nations peoples. He was the first judge to convict based solely upon the witness testimony of First Nations. He learned several Indigenous dialects and would conduct court proceedings in the local language when possible. On the other hand, he also ordered the hanging of 5 Tsilhqot'in men who participated in the Chilcotin War, who have since been fully exonerated by the BC government.
During the summer season, "Gold Commissioners" tell the stories of Barkerville's criminals and characters every day at noon. Mock trials are run in the Methodist church with Judge Begbie as part of school education programs in May and June but are no longer part of the daily presentations.
Barkerville kept me fully engaged for the three days I spent exploring and I could have taken even more time as I didn't get to try all the restaurants. I arrived a couple of days prior to the official summer season and stayed through the "Dominion Day" celebrations. The Historical Village is very large with dirt streets (and raised wooden sidewalks) and trail walks to the Cemetery and Courthouse (opposite directions from each other). It requires more than a day to cover the village with over 125 buildings and to take in all the demonstrations and daily activities.
The Cariboo region is known for it's unpredicatable and rapidly changing mountain weather patterns. My visit was a perfect example of that. Mornings were damp and grey, the afternoons were glorious, and it rained every night. My final day, Opening Day, there was hail, torrential rain, followed by a beautiful afternoon. The streets were always muddy, so choose footwear carefully.
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