ROCK CREEK, CARIBOO, AND TRAILS TO THE INTERIOR
British Columbia has from the beginning understood itself in quasi-Colonial terms. It built a commercial and political centre located in its lower left hand corner, the Island and the flood plain of the Fraser River. Behind this was a huge, largely empty hinterland behind the formidable barrier of the Cascade Mountains, still today called, in Colonial usage, “The Interior.” Only the Fraser penetrates that mountain barrier, through an unnavigable canyon so precipitous that the original Indian foot trail required the traveler to find hand holds on rocks and shrubs to keep him from slipping down the cliffs to the tumbling waters below. Horse passage was impossible, a canoe was almost certain death unless lined through with ropes.
But beyond the great, green wall of the Cascades lay a vast land of wet and dry valleys, of rolling grasslands and of the boreal forests of the North. This land, nine parts of the Province, lay open to entry and exploitation from the South, from the Washington Territory, up the easy river valleys of the Columbia and its tributaries, the Okanagan, the Kettle and the Kootenay. The Hudson’s Bay Company, until cut off by the treaty of 1846 and the loss of the lands south of “49,” transported its furs and provisions, by pack train and freight canoe down these river valleys to the Pacific.
After the boundary was drawn, the HBC sent A.C. Anderson in 1846 to find a wholly British pack route from Fort Kamloops to the new depot at Fort Langley on the lower Fraser. Anderson explored a number of possible routes for a Brigade Trail. He went up Harrison Lake and through the Seton Lakes to Lillouette on the Fraser. On his return to Kamloops he went up the Coquilhalla River and explored the possibilities of a Nicolum Creek, Sumallow Creek, and Skagit River route for a crossing to the Tulameen River. However that route crossed Punchbowl Pass at 5300 feet and would be closed by snow most of the year.
Anderson settled on a year round route from Kamloops to Nicola Lake, and down the Coldwater River to Spences Bridge; this bypassed Kamloops Lake where perpendicular granite bluffs precluded a lakeside trail. From Spences Bridge his trail ran down the Thompson to the Fraser, and down its left bank as far as Boston Bar. As the canyon below that point was impassible, he ran his trail up the Anderson River on the east to a point where he could cross the ridge between the Anderson and Fraser and regain the big river opposite Spuzzum. From there a horse trail could be built along the river bank to Ft. Langley. This Anderson River Trail was used by three brigades in June, 1848, one from New Caledonia, one from Kamloops, and one from Fort Colvile, when the outbreak of the Cayuse war made the old trail down the Columbia unsafe. However, their passage was a difficult one and the brigades lost 70 horses and 25 packs of merchandise on the precipitous slopes.
In 1848, Henry N. Peers built Fort Hope for the HBC, and explored up the Coquihalla for a shorter route to Kamloops which been suggested to him by an Indian, “Old Blackeye”. Blackeye’s trail went up the river past Nicolum Creek and turned up Peers creek about 4 miles further up the Coquihalla. From the headwaters of Peers Creek it crossed Manson Mountain at 5600 ft., a steep scramble. The trail ran along Manson Ridge, then dropped into Soaqua Creek and through the alpine meadows Peers called “The Garden of Eden” to a low pass into Vuich Creek, and down it to the Tulameen River. Blackeye’s trail cut across the bend of the Tulameen via Lodestone peak and came out at Otter Creek, and up that creek, which at its upper end opened out into the rolling country of the Fairweather Hills. An easy grade led down to Nicola Lake and Anderson’s trail to Kamloops.
Although this trail was a summer only trail with its high passes, it avoided the tricky ledges of treacherous shale rock above the Thompson River where so many horses had plunged to their death. Peers had not finished brushing out Old Blackeye’s trail in 1849, so the Fur Brigades from the Interior used the Anderson River trail on the way down and returned by way of Peer’s and Old Blackeye’s trail, completing the work on it as they passed through. There was now a practical all-British summer route, but a winter and spring communication between the Coastal communities and the Interior could only be had via the treacherous Anderson River trail or by going through the U.S.
In 1859 a gold discovery was reported on the Similkameen River, and another by Canadian, Adam Beam, at Rock Creek. To the fury of Colonel Moody of the Royal Engineers, Governor Douglas directed that the Indian, “Skyyou,” a famous bear hunter, should explore the mountains back of Hope for a reputed new pass direct to the Similkameen. On the fifth of June Douglas went himself to Hope to question the bear hunter who impressed Douglas by drawing a very creditable map of the region showing rivers, mountains, passes, and the buildings of the whites. There was already an HBC Brigade trail from Hope to the Similkameen which crossed Hope Pass, but this route included the westbound scramble down Manson Mountain with loaded pack horses, and according to Susan Allison who met one of these Brigades on the trail, was a most hazardous crossing. It was the practice of the HBC to bring twice as many horses as needed, in the expectation that many would be lost on the way. Lieutenant Palmer in 1860 reported the slope of Manson Mountain was still littered with horse bones.
The Governor was criticized in the press for entrusting the exploration to an Indian,
“It is a notorious fact that when a road is to be located or a district explored, a magistrate, a constable, a Hudson’s Bay servant, or peradventure, an Indian, is sent out to explore and report on the same, and after the location is decided upon, the Chief Commissioner with his staff or Royal Engineers is instructed to make the road.”
Governor Douglas’ opinion on the Royal Engineers was given by his friend, Donald Fraser in the London Times,
“…At the rate they have hitherto progressed it would take 50 years to complete the road they have begun… The fact is that soldiers cannot be expected to do this sort of work. The impedimentia they carry with them, the costliness of their provisions and of their transport, the loss of time in drilling and squaring them, make them the most expensive of labourers. They do their work well, it is true, better than civilians; but for all that it is a mistake to set them at it Soldiers we want and must have, but a cheaper
soldier than a Sapper or a Miner or Engineer would answer our purposes better.”
After reviewing all that Skiyou could tell him of the mountains between Hope and the Similkameen, Governor Douglas offered to grubstake a mining party to prospect the Canadian Similkameen. John F. Allison, a California miner led the expedition which departed from Hope on June 26, 1860 on Skiyou’s trail which crossed Hope Pass and descended Whipsaw Creek to the Rouge (Upper Similkameen) River. Allison reported to Douglas a month later that they explored 12 miles up the Tulameen River and found diggings yielding $6 per day to the hand. When this news was received at Hope three new parties of would-be miners were formed and left for the Similkameen on August 6.
THE ROCK CREEK RUSH
In 1859 gold was discovered, both on the Similkameen, south of 49 by a member of the U.S. Boundary Commission and at Rock Creek, just two miles north of the border, by Adam Beam, a Canadian in October. A small rush of Americans from Walla Walla and The Dalles came up the Columbia and Okanagan Valleys to these camps. Since the end of the Fraser rush Victoria business had been stagnant. Their newspapers hopefully seized on this new discovery as another Fraser River boom.
THE BEST NEWS YET
ROCK CREEK A SUCCESS
From $20 to $ 200 per day to the hand
At once Governor Douglas got complaints from the Victoria merchants that the Yankee traders were provisioning these men, and a direct supply route was needed. Rock Creek was but two miles from the boundary which was totally ignored by the American miners and merchants who paid no customs duty. Indeed, there was no official nearer than Kamloops to collect the sums due.
Governor Douglas appointed Peter O’Reilly Gold Commissioner and sent him to Rock Creek to enforce the Colonial law. The Rock Creek miners, however, knowing that they were just a short hike from American soil, ignored O’Reilly. When he demanded that they take out miners’ licences and file their claims with him, they showered him with verbal abuse and pelted him with stones. At this, O’Reilly prudently retreated to Victoria via Kamloops, Lillooet and Harrison Lake and reported a “Rock Creek War.” Governor Douglas, who was learning how to deal with the turbulent Americans, put Rock Creek on his itinerary for his Fall tour of the Interior.
He left on August 28 and travelled by way of the Harrison Lake – Lillooet trail to Lytton, the Nicola River, to Vermillion Forks which he renamed “Princetown,” and then on to the trouble spot, Rock Creek. What he saw alarmed him; the whole of the Southern Interior was wide open to American exploitation, and U.S. ranchers were moving across the border to graze their cattle on British grass. He appointed John Carmichael Haynes from Yale as Magistrate for the area and ordered that a customs post be set up at the north end of Osoyoos Lake. Then he crossed Anarchist Mountain to the trouble spot of Rock Creek.
The Governor came into camp in full uniform accompanied by a new Gold Commissioner, William George Cox, and clerk, Arthur Busby. He found a full mining camp with stores, saloons and a hotel in operation, all supplied by pack trains from The Dalles. Three hundred American miners assembled in a saloon to hear what he would say. Governor Douglas began with good news. He promised a wagon road would be built to the camp from Hope and that the Kettle river would be bridged. After the cheers subsided, he delivered a warning: they must now comply with British law, take out miners’ licences from Commissioner Cox, and pay duty on all provisions brought in from the U.S. If they failed to do this he would return with 500 British Navy marines and compel their submission. Then he asked them to make way for him to the door where he wished to shake each of them by the hand as they filed out of the saloon . This gesture met the instant approval of the miners and the Governor was applauded to the door. As the Governor returned via the HBC Trail from Similkameen to Hope he met Edgar Dewdney working on the new Hope – Princetown trail, and asked what it would cost to convert it to a wagon road. To connect the mines with the Coast, Douglas proposed a “Queen’s Trail”, 70 miles long, be blazed and brushed out from Hope to Vermillion Forks (Princeton.)
The contract for this trail, which would follow Skiyou’s route, was given to Edgar
Dewdney and Walter Moberly, both trained surveyors. Again, Col. Moody was furious that the contract had not been given to his Royal Engineers, and the hostility between himself and Governor Douglas increased. To mollify Moody, and yet not reduce the speed of trail building to the methodical, if thoroughgoing pace of the Engineers, Sgt. Mc Coll was assigned to supervise the actual construction of the trail. His work was superb; at no point did the grade exceed 8 per cent (eight feet of rise per 100 feet of distance) a slope exceeded today by many Provincial Highway mountain crossings. However, whether owing to Sgt. Mc Coll’s diligence or Dewdney and Moberly’s inexperience in the west, the money ran out while they were still only part way down Whipsaw Creek. Moody assuaged his anger at Governor Douglas by hurrying over the trail to preempt 200 acres west of Vermillion Forks. Four other Royal Engineers also filed land preemptions in the expectation that Vermillion Forks would become the centre of a prosperous mining district.
John Allison, who had begun ranching in the Similkameen, was disgusted with the slow progress of Dewdney, Moberly and Sgt. Mc Coll. He informed Governor Douglas that he had found a new and lower pass over the Cascades. Douglas authorized him to blaze a trail over this pass. Allison reported he cleared 36 miles of trail in 4 days, nearly half the distance. This was the Allison Pass trail, (called “Skatchet [Skagit] Pass” by Gustavus Epner in his 1862 map).
Another Cascade crossing had been established in 1859 by the American merchants in Bellingham. To eliminate the dangers the California miners were running in crossing the Strait of Georgia from Victoria to the Fraser River in Indian canoes and homemade boats, they hired Captain W.W. De Lacey to construct a trail on American soil (so far as possible) to the Fraser and Thompson River diggings. This Whatcom Trail, ran from Bellingham through Lynden, then up the Vedder and Chilliwack Rivers to Chilliwack Lake. At the time this was supposed to be in American Territory; the boundary was not yet surveyed. But even after the boundary was monumented, the customs officers were stationed at Langley, some miles distant, and miners using the Whatcom Trail would not encounter them. Liquor and provisions could thus be sent to the mines free of the 10% duty Governor Douglas had imposed. However, Captain De Lacy, in continuing the trail up the Chilliwack River was obliged to ascend Brush Creek to cross Whatcom Pass at 5000 feet to reach the Skagit River. His trail then ran up the Skagit ( back into British Columbia as it turned out). He ran out of money somewhere near Nepopkum Creek, and turned back to Bellingham in failure. There he found offered for sale to the miners, the map that A.C. Anderson had published in 1858 showing miner’s routes to the Fraser Diggings. On that map De Lacy discovered that just a few miles from the end of his work, he would encounter Anderson’s 1849 Brigade trail running to the Thompson River. He rushed back with fresh supplies and tied in his trail with Anderson’s The Bellingham Bay merchants then advertised their Whatcom Trail to the Thompson and Fraser Rivers via the Skagit and circumventing British Customs. But in spite of their efforts, it was Hope, not Bellingham, that became the gateway to the mines and the Whatcom trail received little use. No doubt a good many miners heading back to San Francisco with their gold took the route from Hope up the Similkameen trail to its intersection with the Whatcom Trail, and that route to Bellingham to avoid the export tax on gold.
In 1863, De Lacy turned up in Wyoming exploring the South Snake River.
Captain W. P. Grey leaves us an account of crossing the Cascades, probably on the HBC trail.
“When I was 13 years old we moved to British Columbia. This was in 1858.
“In the summer of 1860 we crossed the Mountains to the Similkameen River to prospect for gold.
We found gold on the south fork (the Tulameen). Father built two rockers, and for the next two months we kept busy. At the end of that time our supplies were running very short. I was (15) years old, and father decided I was old enough to assume responsibility, so he sent me to Fort Hope to secure supplies. “There was only an Indian trail, but I knew the general direction. I had to ford streams and cross rivers, but I had learned to swim when I was 8 years old, so that didn’t bother me. As we were short of provisions, I took only two sandwiches, thinking I could make the 140 miles in two days. I had a good riding horse, and I was going to ride from daylight to dark. I had not gone over 20 miles when a rather hard character in that country called “Big Jim” met me in the trail. He stopped me and said, “Have you got anything to eat?’ I told him I had only two sandwiches. He said, ‘I haven’t had anything to eat in two days. Hand me those sandwiches.’ I looked at him and concluded it was safest to give him the sandwiches. He bolted them down, and grumbled because I had no more. He was on his way out to Fort Hope but his horse was almost worn out. I wanted to go by, but he wouldn’t let me. He said, ‘Oh, no you don’t – we will stay together for company. Your horse is a good deal fresher than mine and I may need him.’
“As we made our way across a high cliff his horse lost its balance and fell, striking the rocks more than 200 feet below. He made me get off my horse and mounted mine. We rode and tied from there on in to Fort Hope. It took us four and half days, and all we had to eat during that time was a fool hen he knocked down. My clothes were almost torn to shreds.
“When I got home, I went in the back door. My mother saw me. She raised her hands above her head and said, ‘Oh Willie, what has happened to your father?’ I told her my father was all right, but I was nearly starved. I secured two horses and loaded them with bacon and beans, rice and other supplies, and started back for our camp. When some prospectors in town learned that we were making $10 a day to the man, they followed me to our camp.
As the rich bars of the Fraser and Thompson became exhausted, the miners who had done well headed back to California, while others who had not found success worked their way slowly upriver, testing the creeks and bars. They found small returns, but not enough to keep them from continuing up river. By 1860 they were 400 miles north of Yale at the mouth of the Quesnel, and still finding workable bars. But following the Quesnel upstream and over a low divide, they came on Williams, Lightning, and Antler creeks, and all turned out to be spectacularly rich in placer gold. Takings of $20 per day were reported; the news went out, and a new rush was on.
When the bulk of the American miners on the lower Fraser had left the two colonies for San Francisco in 1859, the boom deflated and business stagnated. The merchants had full warehouses in Victoria and New Westminster but no buyers. When the news of the Cariboo strike came, there was an instant determination to profit from it and revive the economy. Governor Douglas directed that a wagon road be constructed to the new diggings and gave it the highest priority. The detachment of Royal Engineers under Col. Moody were then at work out of Hope converting the Similkameen trail to a wagon road as the Governor had promised the miners to Rock Creek. Now they were pulled off and sent to Yale to construct the formidably difficult sections of the new Cariboo Road from Yale to Boston Bar, and along the Fraser past Spence’s Bridge. This was some of the most difficult road construction ever undertaken in North America. A 18 foot right of way had to be blasted out if sheer bluffs and supported on log cribbing and trestle work over ravines and steep bedrock declivities.
An early traveler remarked of this section, ”No mud between Yale and Spence’s Bridge. Nothing to make mud..” Civilian contractors took contracts for the remainder of the work which could be done by ordinary hand labor. Construction began in 1860 and was complete to Barkerville, the mining center of the Cariboo by 1866. At Spuzzum, Joseph Truch called on Andrew Hallidie who built the San Francisco cable car system, to come to B.C. and build the Alexandra suspension bridge across the Fraser for him. Truch collected tolls on this and the Spence’s Bridge, becoming both a rich man and Commissioner of Lands and Works of British Columbia.
From Spences Bridge Gustvus Blin Wright built the next 280 miles to Soda Creek where a steamer connection was made. From Quesnelmouth another section of road was run into the mining district, again built by G.B. Wright. The tolls on the Cariboo Road were $3.00 per ton on leaving New Westminster, plus $7.40 per ton to cross the Alexandra Bridge, $44.80 per ton collected at Lytton and another $7.40 to cross Spence’s bridge across the Thompson, a total of $62.60 per ton. On small shipments the charge was 30¢ per pound, which was dropped in 1864 to 15¢.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 American miners enlisted or were drafted; few came north. This made the Cariboo Rush the first truly Canadian gold rush. For the first time large numbers of Canadians came west to take the road up to Cariboo and learn the techniques of placer mining.
The California and Oregon miners swept up in the draft for the Union forces were usually sent to the western frontier posts as “Volunteers,”to replace the trained regular troops who were wanted on the battlefields of the east. In succeeding years, these drafted American miners, bored with the monotony of frontier duty, were prone to desert and head north into British Columbia whenever a new strike was announced. These deserters made up the largest part of the American contingent in Cariboo.
The Cariboo road, though virtually bankrupting the cash starved colony, was an immediate success. A fast stagecoach service was provided by Barnard’s Express, and a government run Gold Escort with armed men was instituted to bring out the miner’s gold safely and deposit it in a colonial bank. Most miners saw this, however, as an HBC sponsored scheme and preferred to send their gold out by Barnard who was able to transfer it directly to San Francisco banks. Ox drawn wagons carried the freight at a slow walking pace. On the steep and narrow section blasted out of rock, with a three ton limit on Joseph Truch’s Alexandra Bridge, wagons were hitched singly. When they reached Boston Bar they were doubled up on the 22 foot road surface and pulled in tandem the rest of the way.
The richness of the Cariboo, far surpassing the Fraser-Thompson diggings, attracted American capitalists as well. The Portland, Oregon triumvirate of Captain John C. Ainsworth, Simeon Reed, and Robert Thompson, who dominated the lower Columbia with their Oregon Steam Navigation Company, determined to get in on the Cariboo as well. Captain Ainsworth had already taken over Fraser River transportation in 1859 with his fast and powerful boats. Now the OSN Company put their sternwheeler, Colonel Wright, on the run from Celillo, at the head of the Dalles rapids on the Columbia, to White Bluffs, where the old HBC trail, now used to supply the Army post at Fort Colville, terminated. But was it possible to get across the line into British Columbia with boat transportation? Captain Ainsworth proposed to follow the gold seekers north, and establish an all-water route from Portland, Oregon to Kamloops, B.C. From Kamloops a steamer could connect on Kamloops Lake to Savona’s Landing and a good wagon road led from there to the Great Cariboo Road. If he could get boats to Kamloops, Captain Ainsworth proposed, he could seize the Cariboo trade for Portland.
The gold discoveries on the Similkameen and at Rock Creek were encouraging to the Ainsworth Syndicate. As well, small diggings were opened on Mission, Cherry, White Man and Harris Creeks in the Okanagan. In the winter of 1860 the Ainsworth Syndicate had Captain W. H. Gray began construction of a boat on Osoyoos Lake, just south of the boundary line. Trees were felled and pit sawed by hand into lumber which was hauled to the lake. The vessel was 91 feet long with a 12 foot beam and built wholly with hand tools: saws, hatchets and chisels. The hull was caulked with wild flax (Linum lewisi) mixed with yellow pine pitch. She was launched on May 10, 1861, and used on the Okanagan river to supply the Rock Creek and Similkameen miners. The Ainsworths planned to install locks at Okanagan Falls to pass the boat through into Dog (Skaha) Lake and on into Okanagan Lake. From the head of Okanagan Lake a canal and locks were to lift the boat over the low height of land into the Shuswap River at Enderby. A run down the Shuswap and Thompson Rivers would bring it to Kamloops.
With the nearest railroad a thousand miles away at St. Joseph, Missouri, the thinking in the Northwest was still fixed on water transport. No one was sure a rail line could be financed and built to the Pacific Coast. The U.S. Congress was being lobbied by the Portlanders for canals and locks around the obstructions in the Middle Columbia at Bonneville and Celillo, and the Army Engineers were examining the feasibility of clearing the Upper Columbia for steamboats. In British Columbia the Ainsworths could not expect government assistance to build canals and locks that would siphon off the trade to the U.S. If the Okanagan boom developed into a major rush, the Portlanders intended to construct the works themselves. The Okanagan Rush, however, was over quickly, with no major goldfields found. Except for Rock Creek, the miners moved on, and the small steamer was brought down the Okanagan and Columbia Rivers, passing all the rapids successfully, to Cellilo. Her machinery was removed there and she served as a sailing craft for many years after on the run between Walulla and Celillo. The name of this vessel has unfortunately been lost.
The Cariboo was the richest of the gold fields with perhaps 22 millions taken out in comparison to the million and a half taken out of the Fraser-Thompson. Again a sawmill, Baylor’s, was packed into the gold fields in pieces and set in up at Antler to supply flume boards. With only wagon transport to the Coast, sawmilling in the interior depended on the local miners’ market. As at Yale when the mines closed, the sawmill shut down. The immense timber resource of B.C. save that on tidewater, awaited cheap rail transportation to foreign markets. To the coastal merchants Cariboo, and the road that had plunged the Colonies so deeply into debt, symbolized the Interior for years, as the source of wealth and speculation for Victoria and New Westminster.
The small strikes on Similkameen and at Rock Creek, Mission and Cherry Creek in the Okanagan were ignored as trivial, and while a branch was built off the Cariboo Road to serve Kamloops, the Cascade trails remained unimproved and the wagon road never reached more then fifteen miles out of Hope. The promising townsite of Princetown was abandoned and filed on as a cattle ranch. American ranchers drove herds of cattle and horse up the Okanagan to sell in Cariboo. Judge Haynes collected duties at the border and kept the peace with a constable at Osoyoos, and Gold Commissioner Cox issued miner’s licences at Rock Creek, but that was all. Southeast B.C. was wide open for exploitation by the Americans whenever they should return from their war.
When the veterans did return from the war in 1865 there was great agitation among the Irish ex-soldiers to join the Fenian Brotherhood and invade British North America as a blow against the British and a means of calling attention to the Irish grievances. In 1866 a report reached Victoria that 40,000 Fenians in San Francisco were preparing to invade British Columbia.
In response the Colony of Vancouver Island raised a militia of 180 men. Fortunately the San Francisco Irish, though they paraded and cheered bellicose speeches by William D’ Arcy, let it go at that and the Vancouver Island militia was never tested. In 1868 the Fenians were marching again and the British Admiralty notified Rear Admiral Hastings at Esquimalt of a suspected Fenian attack on Vancouver Island with the object of abducting Governor Seymour and holding him for hostage in exchange for Fenian prisoners in Irish jails. Another group in Butte Montana was to invade the Kootenays and seize the gold of the Big Bend. Neither of these threats materialized, and the Big Bend gold was long gone, most of it already in the United States.
The Fenian threat and the extremely modest forces available to counter it: the British naval vessels, a tiny Island militia and, east of the Cascades, only a few hundred scattered miners and ranchers, once again made clear how vulnerable to invasion from the south the Colony
was. In the following twenty years the American expansionists would take Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, Cuba (for a time), and the Philippines into their empire. The distraction of the Civil war and the lack of a U.S. naval base on the Pacific, probably saved British Columbia from annexation.
3 thoughts on “THE MINING ERA OF THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA by Bill Laux – Chapter 8”
Bill Laux’ viewpoint on the Americans is interesting. The miners were certainly independent, lawless and stubborn. They wanted the gold but not the Crown’s government. The first adventurers of European extraction were not one’s to follow the rules. Thanks, Peter, for sharing this.
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You are very welcome, Hazel.
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Very interesting, Peter.
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