After the Gold Rush: Visiting Historic Barkerville

Mike Lane of Saanichton, B.C., takes us along as he travels back in time to the 1800s during the glory days of the Cariboo Gold Rush in the historic town of Barkerville, B.C.

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Well-preserved buildings line the main street of Barkerville
Photo: Mike Lane

Blast from the Past

Every year for the past few years, my friend Gar and I have taken a road trip. One of our most memorable was a trip to Williams Lake, B.C., to attend the local stampede. After the wrap-up of the stampede, we were free to look around, so we decided to take a day trip to Barkerville, some 200 kilometres away. Gar had never been, so it was a must-see for us.

The town of Barkerville was founded in 1862 around English miner Billy Barker’s strike. After he struck gold, prospectors from around the world rushed to the area to stake claims and the town of Barkerville soon boasted a population of 5,000. When the town burned to the ground in 1868, it was quickly rebuilt in the same place.

Today, Barkerville is valued primarily as the most intact example of the types of communities and buildings that were constructed during the Cariboo Gold Rush.

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Interiors in Barkerville maintained an 1800s style
Photo: Mike Lane

The British Columbia gold rushes, which began in 1858, are important to the history of British Columbia because they brought gold-seekers in increasing numbers and directly led to the creation of the British colony that set the foundation for the future province in 1871.

Barkerville Historic Town and Park is a provincially owned Heritage Property and Park as well as a Government of Canada National Historic Site. On its website, Barkerville is described as “an authentic, unique, world-class heritage experience.”

Back in Williams Lake and ready to start the day, we put gas in the car and drove north up Highway 97 to Quesnel, then turned east on Highway 26; by 9:30 a.m. we were at Cottonwood House.

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Main street of Barkerville in the summer
Photo: Mike Lane

Cottonwood House is one of the last remaining roadhouses in British Columbia. It was built in the 1860s to offer accommodation, meals and provisions to miners and travellers on their journey along the Cariboo Wagon Road to Barkerville or Quesnel. We spent half an hour touring around the old restored buildings, then carried on towards Wells. Along the way, we spotted a moose crossing the highway, so we stopped for photos, as Gar had never seen a moose before. it was an exciting start to the day.

We were in Wells a little after 11 a.m., looking at and photographing the old buildings. Wells is a funky little place where all the old houses are painted vibrant colours. I went into the Wells Hotel looking for a meal and enjoyed a plate of delicious bacon and eggs in the restaurant.

Barkerville is just down the road from Wells and we presented ourselves at the entry gate—and got our senior’s discount. I had been to Barkerville a couple of times before but had forgotten just how interesting it was.

We started by going into the old schoolhouse on the main street. We were met by Mr. Dods, the headmaster. he asked us to remove our hats and showed us around the rooms. He gave us a brief history lesson, all the while staying ver much in character. He was a period costume from the 1860s and spoke in a slightly formal fashion, as if he were talking to his students. He was very convincing.

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Staff in Barkerville dressed in old-fashioned clothing
Photo: Mike Lane

After getting our history lesson, Gar and I separated, as I wanted to take photos while Gar was happy to wander over to the sawmill and mine workings.

It had taken about three hours to get to Barkerville from Williams Lake, so it only left us a couple of hours to explore. I went into all the buildings and took lots of photos. It was a hot day, so I went into the general store to buy an ice cream—Mr. Dods was sitting at a table. He acknowledged me with a nod of his head and said, “Mr. Lane, please remember to take off your hat when you enter any building. Thank you.” i took off my ball cap and smiled at him, and he nodded in reply.

There’s lots to see and do in Barkerville, and you really need a couple of days to truly experience it all. For a start, there’s Judge Begbie’s courthouse, where you can learn about early justice and hear anecdotes about Barkerville’s criminals and infamous characters. Then you could go on a tour of one of Canada‘s oldest Chinatowns or try gold panning at the Eldorado Gold Panning and Gift Shop. We didn’t have time to do all the activities that Barkerville offers, but we came away with a real appreciation for what life was like there in the 1860s.

Gar and I met up later and watched some kids having a great time panning for gold, but by 2 p.m. we had to get in the car and leave in order to get back to Williams Lake by dinnertime. It had been a really good day and I would recommend a trip to Barkerville to anyone. It’s just plain fun!

Originally Published in Our Canada

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