It was 1862.
The United States was embroiled in a bitter civil war, pitting north against south. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery, and Canada was not yet a country, but a British colony essentially run the Hudson's Bay Company.
The rich California gold fields had dried up and gold was getting scarce on the sand bars of the Fraser when William "Dutch Bill" Dietz found gold in 1861 in the Cariboo region in the interior of B.C. News of Dietz's find made its way to the ears of Billy Barker, a no-luck prospector who'd arrived from England with big dreams that had so far failed him.
Undaunted his bad luck, Barker formed his own company and started looking for gold in Williams Creek in 1962 and struck it rich in August. Within a couple of years, Barkerville in the B.C. Interior was the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco.
"It created British Columbia," says James Douglas, spokesman for the historic town of Barkerville, which thrives today as a tourist stop that sees 65,000 visitors a year.
This August will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Cariboo Gold Rush, and Barkerville is celebrating in style, culminating with the Canadian Goldpanning Championships and a two-day celebration Aug. 11 and 12.
While most of the gold towns of the 1860s have long since faded from the map, the namesake of Billy Barker continues to thrive today as a tourist attraction that offers visitors a taste of the Wild West that the B.C. Interior was once.
At the beginning of 1858, when gold was found further downstream in the Fraser River, there were 400 people living in Victoria. the end of the year, there were thousands, says Douglas. Likewise, there were fewer than a thousand non-aboriginal people living in B.C. at the beginning of that year, and more than 30,000 the end.
And that was nothing compared to the influx after Barker struck it rich in 1862.
"It was what prompted the creation of a colonial government because up until that point it was just Hudson's Bay Company territory," Douglas says.
"It was the amount of gold that was coming out of this area that really made Britain decide that B.C. was something they wanted to keep. Up until that point, because the fur trade was in decline, there was really no reason for them to keep this piece of ground and the U.S. was very interested in purchasing it because they had Alaska… If they had that piece of the puzzle — British Columbia — they would have access to the entire Pacific coastline both for trading and armada purposes."
But the state of British Columbia was not to be.
At its peak, Barkerville boasted 8,000 residents and a fair number of saloons, dance halls and businesses of ill repute. the thousands gold seekers made their way to the Cariboo gold fields west of Quesnel. The government required each to obtain a miner's licence and take with them one bowl and can, a knife, fork, plate and drinking mug, as well as needles and thread, two pounds of marine soap, a comb, three sheets and two cooking pots. What they could not require was common sense.
Dreams were dashed and bodies broken along the rugged trail leading inland in 1860s British Columbia. The wild west was just that — an untamed and unforgiving wilderness that rebuffed many prospective prospectors.
The well-groomed modern highway north now bears no resemblance to the road of old, but the heart-stopping S-curves and the towering cliffs of the Fraser Canyon even today offer a glimpse of the rugged journey faced pioneers. It took an army of engineers three years to blast, plow and pick-axe the route north to Barkerville.
On a sunny June afternoon Linda Paquette finally got an answer to a question most travellers have along the Gold Rush Trail.
"I found out Lillooet is 0 Mile," she says during a visit to the 108 Heritage Site, a museum in one of the original road houses that serviced gold miners, ranchers and pioneers on the original Cariboo Wagon Road. "They better be right."
This charming little museum just north of 100 Mile House has a chilling tale that offers a glimpse of the region's wild past.
The original 108 Hotel was a rather disreputable place, known for cheap liquor and "entertainment" for a rough crowd of men who drove the mule trains to the gold fields. It was here that court records say Agnus MacVee, a murderess who escaped justice in her native Scotland, preyed upon lonely miners with pockets full of gold. In all, 49 bodies were found buried after her husband admitted his role in the crimes.
The 108 Heritage Site is just one of the must-see stops along the trail today that give travellers an idea of the gold rush days.
There are historic sites at the Hat Creek Ranch, north of Cache Creek, and at Fort Alexandria, the road house between McLeese Lake and Quesnel where the first four prospectors to try their luck in the Cariboo stopped in 1859.
The more intrepid travellers can take the original Cariboo Wagon Road through Likely and Horsefly, east of Williams Lake, and see the beautifully rugged territory that greeted pioneers — and likely convinced many to try their luck elsewhere.
And on the highway west to Barkerville, the local school district operates Cottonwood House, the original stopping house for the Barnard Express.
But the highlight of a trip along the Gold Rush Trail is Barkerville, a bustling ghost town and historic site that brings the 1860s to life with period actors that wander the town day. There are trials the notorious Hanging Judge Begbie, a lesson in 1860s schooling and a hurdy gurdy theatre production. The town boasts one of the largest collections of Chinese migrant archives and historica in Canada, and recreates the bustling Chinatown of 1860s Barkerville, where more than 50 per cent of the population at times was of Chinese heritage.
Visitors can even pan for gold, although the flakes coming out of Barkerville today pale in comparison to the days of yore.
In its heyday, Williams Creek produced more than $19 million worth of gold over 34 years.
"That was when gold was worth $16 an ounce, so if you look at it in today's money, you're looking at close to $3 billion in gold coming out of one creek," says Douglas. "Now it happens to be the wealthiest creek, but there are hundreds of them in the area, so we're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars equivalent over the course of a generation."
If you go:
— Read a good primer on the Cariboo Gold Rush: http://bcheritage.ca/cariboo/
— Find the route of the Cariboo Wagon Road: http://www.heritagebcstops.com/gold-rush-tour/cariboo-wagon-road
— Find out what's happening in Barkerville: http://www.barkerville.ca/
Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous version reported the original Cariboo Wagon Road was west of Williams Lake.