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Concise History of Barkerville
Click on any of the images to see a larger version. Colour photographs
by Thomas Drasdauskis.
The Cariboo region of British Columbia - which Barkerville is a part of - has a history that was profoundly shaped by gold. Today, the town of Barkerville stands a testament to this golden history, but there were also many other gold mining ‘boom towns’ that sprung up around the same time. In the hills and forests of the region one can find remnants of the towns of Stanley, Camerontown, Antler City, Richfield, Keithly Creek, and more. Why, then, is Barkerville still standing, while these other towns have disappeared into history? To answer this question, it is necessary to look into Barkerville’s past.
In the mid-1800s, gold finds in the Western United States caused many young men from around the world to seek their riches in a number of American goldfields. Early gold rushes brought miners to California, but by the mid-1850s, the goldfields there were largely ‘played out.’ In 1858, stories began to surface of ‘easy gold’ on Fraser’s River north of the border. Thousands of men, many without even knowing what they were looking for or where they were going, headed north to seek their fortunes in the British territory that is now British Columbia. It was welcome news for the many miners who had arrived in California only to find there was little left for them there. There are stories of entire towns in California emptying in a single day as news of the ‘New North-West’ gold rush reached the American goldfields.
Eventually, prospectors made their way to the hills that surround Barkerville. One of the first finds was by William “Dutch Bill” Dietz, for whom William’s Creek (which flows through Barkerville) is named. A small town began to spring up around the area, optimistically named Richfield.
One of the miners who was trying their luck in Richfield was a working class Brit named Billy Barker. He had worked in California without much success, and followed the crowds north to the Fraser River. He eventually moved to mining in the area near Richfield, trying his hand at a few spots around William’s Creek. In time, Barker decided to mine further down the creek, in the area below Richfield. Many people questioned Barker’s decision, saying he would find no gold there. But Barker was proven right on August 17, 1862, when he and his crew ‘struck the lead,’ pulling large amounts of gold out of their mine shaft in the first day alone.
Almost overnight, a town began to spring up to service the miners flocking to the area. The town was named Barkerville, after the region’s first, and most successful miner. Originally, the town served mostly as a supply and entertainment centre for miners, who were dispersed throughout the area, largely living in tents and cabins. The population peaked during these early mining years, reaching about 4600 people in the time between 1864 and 1866. 1866 also marked the completion of the Cariboo Wagon Road, extending from Yale to Barkerville. The wagon road was remarkable feat of engineering that greatly shortened the time and effort required to travel to and from Barkerville, which was previously reached mainly by pack trails.
On September 16, 1868, a fire engulfed much of Barkerville, reducing much of the town to cinders. Amazingly, no one was killed in the inferno. While the fire was indeed devastating, the rebuilding process gave Barkerville the opportunity to reorganize the town. Within weeks, new structures were cropping up in a planned fashion. Barkerville’s main street was widened, buildings were arranged in a more organized manner, and a town-wide boardwalk was built to help residents get around during spring floods. In many ways, the shape of the town as you see today owes its existence to the destructive fire.
By the time of the fire and reconstruction, however, the original ‘boom’ period of growth in Barkerville was already waning. Much of the ‘easy gold’ was gone. But with Barkerville’s more organized structure and the existence of the Cariboo Wagon Road, the town became a place that was better suited for families. By 1880, a schoolhouse had been built to accommodate the growing population of young people in Barkerville and Richfield.
During this time, mining activity was in steady decline, as was the population. Mining in these ‘middle years’ was confined mostly to the Chinese community, which made up around 50% of the population by 1885. This pattern continued until about 1895, when hydraulic mining became a widely used technique. Hydraulic mining uses elaborate ditch systems to collect water from the mountains, which is then used to ‘blast away the hillside,’ washing large quantities of gravel through gold-collection devices. These human-made ditch lines, largely constructed by Chinese labourers, are still visible in the hills surrounding Barkerville. The popularization of hydraulic mining created another spike in the population of the town, and many of the buildings you see today were built during this period.
After another period of decline, Barkerville experienced yet another minor boom in the 1930s, when a mine developer named Fred Wells began successfully hard-rock mining in the nearby town (that he named Wells). The area stayed booming again until the Second World War, when the nation’s productive capacities were focused elsewhere.
In the early 1950s, with mining activity again on decline in the area, concern about the future of Barkerville began to surface. In 1958 (British Columbia’s centennial year), an organized campaign supported by the Wells Historical Society, concerned local residents, and local politicians resulted in Barkerville’s designation as a heritage site. Today, Barkerville is run by the
Barkerville Heritage Trust
, and greatly assisted by the
Friends of Barkerville
For a more in depth history of Barkerville, be sure to purchase the brand new
Barkerville Traveller’s Guide
, which includes the most up-to-date research about Barkerville, its buildings, and the town’s namesake, Billy Barker. The guide is available at the gate upon arrival. Online ordering will be available soon.
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