The First Whip of the Cariboo Road

One link still remains with the romantic gold-rush days of two-thirds of a century ago—Charles Major, pioneer Cariboo whip, who still lives, hale and hearty, at New Westminster, B.C.

NOEL ROBINSON April 1 1925

The First Whip of the Cariboo Road

One link still remains with the romantic gold-rush days of two-thirds of a century ago—Charles Major, pioneer Cariboo whip, who still lives, hale and hearty, at New Westminster, B.C.

NOEL ROBINSON April 1 1925

The First Whip of the Cariboo Road

One link still remains with the romantic gold-rush days of two-thirds of a century ago—Charles Major, pioneer Cariboo whip, who still lives, hale and hearty, at New Westminster, B.C.


PICTURE a road, clinging precariously to the side of a soaring mountain peak, with the twisting white thread of a foaming river hundreds of feet below; a road that wandered across lush valleys, fragrant with sweet-grass; that dived into the purple shadows of deep defiles and was born again on the crests of distant, sunlit hills; a road touched with the magic finger of romance, so that it became for restless thousands an arch that spanned the river of failure and linked the last outpost of civilization with the rainbow’s end.

Such was the Cariboo Road that unwound its four hundred colorful miles between Yale, B.C., and Cariboo in the shouting days of the gold strike at Williams Creek in ’61—a thin ribbon of adventure for a motley crowd; long lines of pack animals; blanketed and feathered Indians, gaudy with beads; traction engines; camels; rumbling freight wagons; picturesque six-horse stage coaches careening around the bends in a cloud of grey; an army of men with packs—the drunk—the sober; the penniless but light of heart; the red-shirts with their bags of heavy dust—and those who were returning, their hopes left buried at the diggings.

Sometimes it crawled, a mere shelf in the bare face of a colossal rock with a sickening hiatus below such as gave point to a story of Steve Tingley, one of the most famous wits and stage coach whips of the road, upon an occasion when he was driving his coach uncomfortably near the edge.

‘ What would happen, Mr. Tingley,” a nervous passenger enquired, “if our outside wheels should go over the bank?”

“That would depend, my friend,” said Steve drily, “upon the sort of life you had led.”

A human connecting link with those brave old days still lives, in Charlie Major, eighty-four year old veteran of New Westminster, B.C., the first—and only surviving—pioneer whip of the Cariboo Road. Tall, spare, alert, of the whip-cord type, keen of eye and steady of hand, is this fine old pioneer, as he drives, in the annual May-Day procession in New Westminster, the coach he commanded along the famous highway more than sixty years ago.

Building of the Road

THE Cariboo Road was built in answer to the demands of the thousands of miners and prospectors who had flocked to the diggings on Williams Creek. The rush was so great, and the need so urgent for some adequate route whereby food and supplies could be brought up to the claims and the gold dust taken out, that Governor Douglas placed his influence behind the project and the road was laid. Along the full length of the road, immediately after its completion, Mr. Major drove the first stage coach that ever made the grade.

“That was in the spring of ’64,” the veteran whip recently related in talking to me. “I was never one of the regular stage drivers, but I used to bring gold out of Cariboo on pack mules before there was any road at all. Later, I ran an express and carried gold dust out for Barnard of the B.X.

“Just before the first drive, though, I was packing for myself with cayuses and mules. I ran across Bob Poole, the expressman, on the Bonaparte. T b’lieve you can handle horses,’ says Bob. T can drive anything that stands on four legs!’ says I, modestly. ‘Will ye take the first stage to-morrow morning as far as Clinton for a week?’ says Bob, ‘we haven’t got a driver here, and Steve has gone into Oregon to get a hundred and sixty horses, and drop four of ’em at each stoppin’ place along the road.’

“We started first thing in the morning. It was a big coach and carried nine passengers—eight men and a married lady from the States. I remember she looked quite delicate for that wild country. Just as we were ready to start one of the horses lay down. Jack Reece took a trace from Wells’ store and leathered him over the ribs. He up and made a dash to get away and we went at a fine clip all the way to Boston Bar. All went well until we reached Cornwallis, where we were one horse short; but we couldn’t wait so went on with three. At Jackass mountain we were going fine until, at a narrow turn, we met an empty pack train coming down. I couldn’t hold my horses in time, and the first two pack horses of the train backed in between my leaders. Then they commenced bucking— which is very inconvenient on a narrow road with a drop on one side of three thousand feet to the Fraser river. The brake wouldn’t hold ’em on the down grade and my brutes went ahead full tilt with the two horses of the pack train stuck between ’em. An’ they traveled!” The veteran whip jumped to his feet in his excitement

and drove his fist into his palm, to emphasize the situation.

“We made that grade with the two cayuses buckin’ an’ kickin’ all the time, but we made it, tangled up as up we were. Fortunately, at the bottom we ran into soft ground and I managed to get ’em checked. Then I looked over my shoulder. I’d been kind of occupied up to

then. There wasn’t a soul in that coach but Bob Poole, and he was as pale as a ghost. We’d shed the rest in the rush. ‘Whar are they?’ I asked. Bob found his voice. ‘Steele’s up thar on the hillside,’ he said, ‘chasin’ th’ owner o’ this dam pack train, an’ he’s mad as hell!’

“At Ashcroft I was given a wild cayuse as a fourth, an’ some half-breeds and some of the passengers undertook to get him into the traces. I didn’t help ’em. I didn’t want my brains kicked out; I needed ’em for drivin’. Well, sir, they got him in at last, but the harness was so big he could almost jump through the collar. Finally we had to put him alongside a pole next a big steady fellow that could hold him in. I climbed on the box. It took six or seven men to get him to that pole, but they did it, and then had some fun hitching the traces. How he did kick! They shouted ‘Are you ready?’ I yelled ‘Let ’em go!’—and they did. That cayuse went as far as from here to across the street— an’ then lay down. It was a beautiful down grade with fine gravel. I cracked the whip at the other fellows and away they went and dragged him on his side for four hundred yards. By that time he’d had enough, and got up, but there wasn’t a hair left on one side of him! By golly, he was a sight! But we had a good trip the rest of the way.”

The old pioneer has vivid recollections of the old days of the Cariboo gold rush, when pack trains were run up from California, Mexico and other parts, of expert packers, and of big sums that were wagered in packing contests between different camps on the road. The first method of transportation adopted was over Indian trails. Then came pack trails, constructed partly by the government and partly by the packers, who cut their own road, making it passable just suffici-

ently to deliver supplies over the out of the way creeks. Sometimes the pack trains were worth considerable sums and one man, a Major Hutchinson, had a pack train of eighty mules. The outfit cost him about forty thousand dollars.

Good money was to be made, packing, and Charlie Major and his partner earned more than twenty thousand dollars between April and June of one year, packing into A.ntler, where gold was discovered before the Williams Creek strike.

Asked how the gold was packed out before the day of the stage coaches, he replied: “Sometimes messengers were sent out on foot with the gold, but this ceased after the express was started. We thought no more about bringing out gold than if it had been kegs of nails; but the horses could carry two hundred and fifty pounds of flour more easily than fifty pounds of gold, because the latter was solid and pounded them as they walked. The amounts taken out at a time varied from ten thousand to thirty thousand dollars’ worth. We brought it to Quesnel— to the express office there—and it was taken on down the line.

“I was in charge of all the express business at that time and cleared the dust from three banks. At first I was provided with eight or ten men to guard the gold and was fool enough to take them. The bankers would say: ‘Use as many men as you want. We look

to you to get it through safely.’ The guards’ wages were sixteen dollars a day each and board. After a couple of trips I said that all I wanted was a pair of men to look after the animals and I’d look after the dust. ‘If I can’t get it through with two men,’ I told them, ‘I’ll give up the job.’ We never employed more than two again. It would have been easy for bandits to hold us up and take the gold, but there was no place for them to hide with safety. The. country was uninhabited for hundreds of miles and they’d have perished. The dust was carried out in buckskin bags and we never lost five cents’ worth.

“In the bush at Cottonwood there was a big log house with one huge room, in which, as many as fifty men would sleep on the floor. There were Canadians, Yankees, Mexicans, Greeks, Indians, Italians—almost every race you could name, and all strangers to each other. And all knew what we were carrying in our buckskin bags when we pulled in there for the night.

I would toss them in a heap—they were in sacks— and throw blankets over the heap. You couldn’t treat gold dust like that in this age—but those men knew they couldn’t get away with it—and they knew we knew. So they didn’t try.”

The old whip mused on.

“ ‘Heavy to get and light to hold.’ How well that poet’s line applied to that rough and ready, careless crowd of gold seekers, and yet men seldom were attacked. One case did occur though which attracted quite a bit of notice. Three men attacked and murdered two who were coming out with gold dust. The killing took place seven miles from the forks of Quesnel. One of the murderers was drowned afterward, trying to swim the Thompson. Another was captured and Judge Begbie had him hanged. The third got over the line and was lynched for horse stealing.”

A Mystifying Murder

MR. MAJOR retains clear impressions of the solving of a mystifying murder that had agitated the gold camps. It concerned two men named Barry and Blessing who fell in with each other traveling up the Cariboo Road. In those days a man’s entire possessions were packed on his back. Toward the end of their journey they got near Big Lake, close to which Blessing last was seen alive. His body was found, but nothing discovered about the circumstances of his death, and no one knew that he had been traveling in company. His very identification rested on the finding of a tin cup with his name on the handle, and the recollection of some one in the camp that a man of that name had started for the diggings but never had arrived.

Every spring the “hurdy-gurdy” or dance hall girls came into Cariboo. The miners worked all day and gambled, drank and danced for much of the night with these girls. Two years after the finding of Blessing’s body a man came into the diggings who had known him south of the line. One night, while dancing with one of the hurdy-gurdy girls he noticed that she was wearing a curious nugget tie pin which he recognized as having belonged to Blessing. Continued on page 41

The First Whip of the Cariboo Road

Continued from page 14

_ “That’s a nice pin you have there, girlie,” he said. “Where did you get it?” “Jim Barry gave it to me,” she replied. Then it was recollected that the two men had started for Cariboo together. Barry was still at the diggings. He was seized, convicted on the evidence of the pin, and hanged in New Westminster.

All kinds of things were packed in to Williams Creek, according to Major, even to billiard tables and pianos. It required considerable persuasion before the packers would consent to tackle the latter, but two men eventually agreed to pack it in over the trails. They made long shafts of a pair of poles, harnessed mules fore and aft, and got the instrument in.

Camels in B.C.

THE appearance of camels on the road created quite a sensation. Americans had used them packing in Texas with considerable success and a man named Lowmaster, arguing that they could eat sage brush and go for days without water, decided they would do in British Columbia. But the camels’ feet would not stand the rough roads, and as soon as the

mules on the road scented them they bolted. Finally the beasts were turned out on Grand . Prairie and the last one died about twenty-five years ago.

Traction engines, too, proved failures on the road. They were not much faster than the mules and were too heavily constructed.

Houses on the famous old road varied from one room log shanties built for the express purpose of selling rotgut whiskey and fleecing travelers, to substantial farm houses which accommodated wayfarers more for the pleasure of entertaining company than for profit. The stages had regular stopping places where the passengers were found accommodation. For a long time after the introduction of freight wagons on the road the mule pack trains fought them until freight rates were reduced to a dollar a pound, then twentyfive cents, and finally fifteen cents a pound. But the pack trains had to go, and with them went one of the most picturesque features of the early days.

In his journey to British Columbia and in his earlier days this fine old Cariboo whip had experiences and adventures which it hardly seems possible could have happened to a man who is still alive in this prosaic day. He journeyed out by

way of Acapulco and Aspinwall, and across the Isthmus of Panama; he mined at Hill’s Bar in ’59, in the days when it was dangerous to go above Yale because of hostile Indians; he knew well the canyons in which men lost their lives while trying to shoot the rapids in flatbottomed boats and was a telegraph

operator at Hope, when it was full of the mining crowd.

Always a lover of horse-flesh, Charlie Major, pioneer and veteran whip, has owned some of the best in the country since that exciting day on which he drove that lively bunch of mavericks on their first wild run up the Cariboo Road.