As I write these columns, I am continually reminded of the incredible physical efforts and hardships endured by the men who came to the Cariboo in search for gold.
A good example of this is the story of Andrew Olson. He was about 14-years-old when, in 1851, he sailed from his home in Sweden to seek his fortune in the goldfields of Australia. There he toiled for a decade, never really striking it rich, but finding just enough gold to pay his expenses and put a little money in his pocket.
When news of the huge gold strikes in British Columbia filtered down to Australia, Olson and his partner, George Oscar, decided to take their chances in the Cariboo.
They booked passage on a steamer, and late in 1861, they arrived in Victoria. Not wanting to wait there, they immediately set out for the interior of the province. The early part of 1862 found them mining on Antler Creek, having made the long and arduous trek from the coast on foot. There they had very little success. The sky high prices and lack of funds forced them to return to Victoria, where they spent the winter in 1862.
Victoria was booming, so Andrew found work in construction, but George had had enough, and he decided to keep on heading south to San Francisco, where he felt that his prospects were better.
By this time, because of his years and experience in Australia, people had begun referring to Andrew as “the Australian,” a nickname which remained with him for the rest of his life.
That winter, he worked on the construction of Cary Castle, the official residence of the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island. This structure would later become Government House, the residence of the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of B.C. While working there, Andrew met George Cook, who had also tried his hand at gold mining in Australia, and two brothers from England, William and Stephen Downes.
While they worked on the castle, these four men hatched a plan to return to the Cariboo, but not to the goldfields. They reasoned that people were still flooding into the area, that good overnight accommodations were few and far between, and that supplies, especially fresh vegetables and meat were scarce at the diggings, so it would be profitable for them to start up a farm and to build and operate a roadhouse.
Since Andrew Olson was the only one who had actually been to the Cariboo, it was left to him to guide them to some appropriate pieces of land which would be suitable for this grand scheme.
The four men began purchasing equipment and supplies for the coming spring. They even designed and built their own method of transporting these goods – two wheelbarrows, each with a single four-foot wheel. On each side of the wheel was a two-foot wide, five-foot long shelf to which the supplies would be lashed. One man would pull the contraption from the front while another pushed from the back. Each barrow could carry up to 400 pounds.
Early in 1863, the four partners quit their jobs in Victoria, booked passage by steamboat to Port Douglas, and began the long trek by foot to the Cariboo. The Harrison to Lillooet route and the new Cariboo Wagon Road up to 150 Mile House were comparatively well-trodden and made for relatively easy travelling, but after that, the route to Quesnel was a miserable journey.
The barrows had to be manhandled up and down steep hills, through creeks and bogs, and over deadfalls and willow thickets. The route was little more than a narrow, muddy trail through the deep woods, and the men struggled with their heavy loads. Passing pack trains would run them off the trail, they were continually spattered with mud and slime, and most of the other travellers they met ridiculed them for their unconventional method of transport.
By June 17, 1863, the four partners came to an area beside the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Fur Brigade Trail about 12 miles north of Fort Alexandria, which looked very promising. They made camp there and began looking for parcels of land which would be suitable both for farming and for a roadhouse.
The location of the roadhouse would be based purely on speculations, hoping that the northern section of the Cariboo Road, which had not yet been built, would pass close to the area selected. They finally pre-empted four likely looking pieces of land, which eventually became Cariboo District Lots 2,3,4, and 5. (Lot 1 was pre-empted by the HBC, a tract of land just south of Fort Alexandria used for growing grain).
Because of the availability of water from a good sized creek running through the property, the men chose to develop Lot 3 first. This piece of land, was close to the HBC Bridgade Trail, and looked as if it had some good growing areas. (The site is approximately 16.5 km north of the Fort Alexandria cairn on the right hand side of Highway 97, across from what is now the Australian rest stop area.)
That summer the partners built a small, single storey log cabin, which the optimistically named the Palace Hotel. This small sod roofed structure served as their residence and as a roadhouse. Business did not do very well, since the wagon road ended at Fort Alexandria, and most travellers chose to take the river boats up the Fraser River to Quesnel from the terminus at Soda Creek. It would not be until 1865, when the road was completed all the way to Quesnel, that the roadhouse occupancy would pick up.
It is noteworthy, however, that one of the very few guests at the Palace Hotel in 1863 was Judge Matthew Begbie. He preferred to travel by horseback on his visitations to the communities throughout the Cariboo, and he continued to patronize the Palace until it closed down in 1866.
The four men worked hard upon their arrival to clear land, to till a small garden and to plant the seeds they had brought with them. However, the soil was poor and that, along with a series of unexpected summer frosts, resulted in a very disappointed harvest. The partners had to purchase food and necessities from passing packers to keep their dream alive.
As winter set in, the pack trains stopped coming as did the occasional traveller. The men had virtually no contact with the outside world. That first winter was brutal for the men. Deep snow and bitter cold made any excursion outside a dangerous proposition. They were virtually starving, living on woody turnips, boiled beans, and the occasional rabbit.
On Christmas Eve, Andrew Olson put on his snowshoes and set out south for Fort Alexandria. The following day, Christmas of 1863, he arrived back from his 25-mile round trip, frostbitten and half frozen, with a 10-pound sack of flour which he had purchased with the last of their money. The four friends dined on pancakes for Christmas dinner that year, and declared them to be the best Yuletide feast they had ever eaten.
In the next column, I will continue this remarkable saga of the Swede who came to be known as “the Australian,” and tell about the beginnings of the iconic ranch he founded.
The information for this column came mainly from the writings of Branwen Patenaude.