A revised and expanded edition of the Wagon Road North: The Saga of the Cariboo Gold Rush provides a vivid picture – both in stories and photos – of gold-seeking miners and the trials they faced in their quest for gold.
The compelling history book, first published by Art Downs in 1960 and now edited by author and historian Ken Mather, offers a thrilling look back at a simpler, yet also more complex, time. Through the journals and reports of the miners themselves, we are taken along for a ride that is fraught with danger, frustration and loss but also thrumming with elation when claims strike gold.
Through their stories, one can almost smell the stink of the camels – of the failed “Dromedary Express” – and feel the pangs of sorrow as miners fell in their quest. In a particularly chilling tale, W. Carpenter left his notebook and coat on the shore after he and his companions explored the Fraser Canyon before launching in two canoes lashed together. When he drowned, his companions found his notebook, only to read: “Arrived this day at the Canyon at 10 a.m. and drowned running the canoe down. God keep my poor wife.”
The stories are accompanied by more than 100 archival photos, many of them rarely seen before, which bring to life the steep cliffs and harrowing rivers or the various roadhouses stretching from Fort Yale to Barkerville. They also highlight the people, mule packwagons, stagecoaches and lumbering freight wagons used to traverse the mountain passes.
“Some portions of our route lay across mountain ranges from whose summits we enjoyed most magnificent views, and in whose steep, pine-forested sides we had to lead our horses singly, with utmost care,” said miner W. Champness. “In other parts of the journey, especially the river gorges, our track conducted us along the most frightful precipices.”
It wasn’t all despair, though. The book also shares the thrills shared by miners, such as when William “Dutch Bill” Dietz stumbled and fell flat on his back in a small creek. As the story goes, he tested the gravel in his pan and found a $1 worth of gold. That creek was named “Williams” in his honour although the area he staked was among the poorest on the world’s richest.
One can also sense the pride when the Cariboo Wagon Road – dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world – was completed, acting as a catalyst for “opening a frontier and built a province and nation.” On the first Dominion Day celebration on July 1, 1868, miners secretly raised a flag designed by William W. Hill – a beaver surrounded by a wreath of white maple leaves in the middle of the British ensign – in Barkerville.
But it’s not just the miners who have stories to tell on the goldrush.
Mather, who had used Downs’ original book as a reference when working at Barkerville Historic Town and Park in 1979, said it “helped make the gold rush and the town of Barkerville come alive for me.”
He only lightly altered the revised book by changing the language around Indigenous Peoples and including chapters on the Chinese miners. The book also includes a chapter on the women of the goldfields – the “marriageable lasses” brought over from London, the Hurdy Gurdies in Barkerville and respectable women like Mrs. Janet Allen, known to the miners as “Big Jennie,” who ran a boarding house on Mosquito Creek in 1868. “Whenever any accident occurred or any case of serious illness she volunteered her services and became the nurse and friend of the miner,” according to the Cariboo Sentinel.
Mather said the updated book reflects the interests of a changing audience.
“There are voices we didn’t hear from… that are now here at the table,” he told Black Press. “Their story becomes important to us. The original version of Wagon Road North, no matter how good it was, was really about old white guys. As an old white guy, I’ve grown over the years to recognize the people who are sort of marginalized.”
The book is published by Heritage House Publishing, which was started by Downs and his wife Doris. Downs died in 1996. The new edition of Wagon Road North is available now on Heritage House’s website, www.heritagehouse.ca/book/wagon-road-north.
With a file from Cassidy Dankochik