The BC town that’s a gold rush museum

It is summer, 1862 and, thanks to William “Billy” Barker’s discovery of gold, the town of Barkerville is about to rise from the forest of the remote Cariboo Plateau in central British Columbia.

Before construction of Cariboo Road in 1860, Barkerville was an extremely difficult and expensive place to get to. (Wikimedia: Wyld and Good, 1873, Library & Archives Canada)

With adventure flowing through his English blood, Billy Barker journeyed from England to California in the mid-19th century. In search of riches, he arrived in San Francisco just in time to witness the end of the California gold rush. But he heard rumours of gold discoveries far to the north, deep in the interior of British Columbia. Barker and his buddy, Wilhelm “Dutch Bill” Dietz (among others), made their way to the Fraser River Valley in the Cariboo region (yes, it’s spelled correctly) where Dutch Bill did find gold. Dutch Bill’s strike encouraged Barker to push on downstream from Dietz’s claim. He fruitlessly worked a number of claims in the area, finally striking gold near Stout’s Gulch in August of 1862. He found 60 ounces of gold at a depth of 50 feet. His claim turned out to be the richest in the region and Barker pulled more than 37,000 ounces of gold out of it. Despite his good fortune, he died penniless in Victoria in 1894—a common fate for both successful and unsuccessful gold miners of the era.

A pack train of gold leaving from Barnard’s Express and Stage Office, Barkerville, c.1865. (Wikimedia, Carlo Gentile, Library & Archives Canada)

Billy Barker as he appeared in the 1860s. (Wikimedia)

Barnard’s Express and Stage Office, Barkerville, c. 2016.

At the peak of the Cariboo gold rush, Barkerville was the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. It boasted general stores, blacksmith shops, schools, churches, brothels, barber shops, a dentist and even a literary society. It was the centre of the region. But in 1868, fire destroyed nearly the entire town. It was quickly rebuilt but the gold rush was winding down by then. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Barkerville enjoyed one last short gold rush but that would be the end of its mining-based economy. By then, it had already been designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

Barkerville burned in 1868. Only four buildings and the Bank of British Columbia vault were left standing. (Wikimedia, Frederick Dally)

Today, Barkerville is once again a destination that attracts people from all over the world. But they’re not coming to dig for gold. As a provincially owned Heritage Property, Barkerville welcomes more than 50,000 visitors every year, all eager to relive its glorious past. While walking its streets, you can meet Billy Barker, attend the English or Chinese schools, witness demonstrations of blacksmithing or try your hand at finding gold.

Barkerville’s main street. The town underwent a major redevelopment as a historic park for British Columbia’s centennial in 1958.

There are plenty of “first-person interpreters,” actor-guides who play historical characters. This is Billy Barker himself.

Barkerville’s barbershop, hair salon and, apparently, hat shop.

Barkerville is the largest heritage site in western North America, with 100 historical and 21 replica heritage buildings. Among them are the Cornish water wheel, a water-powered engine used to pump water for washing gold from gravel; the Chinese school where you can learn to use an abacus; the barbershop with its sign promising to regrow lost hair. Some things never change.

A Cornish waterwheel was used to pump water up to a wooden flume. Regular demonstrations show visitors how it works.

The Anglican Church of St. Saviour was built in 1869.

Barkerville has another claim to fame: on July 1, 1868, it was the first town to celebrate Dominion Day. British Columbia would not even join Confederation until 1871, but that small matter was not enough to stop a party. Locals started the day with a 21 anvil salute. In the absence of cannons, the miners detonated charges of black powder (a variant of gunpowder) between two anvils, flinging one high in the air. The day was filled with games, a theatre performance, a grand ball and a fireworks display—all to the amazement of Barkerville’s numerous American citizens who didn’t know much about this new country called Canada.

Should you ever find yourself in British Columbia’s beautiful interior, don’t forget to stop in Barkerville and learn about this fascinating facet in Canadian history. You might even find some gold.