Cariboo Comeback

F. W. LINDSAY May 15 1946

Cariboo Comeback

F. W. LINDSAY May 15 1946

Cariboo Comeback

The Cariboo once boasted the biggest city west of Toronto and north of ’Frisco — Once more it’s a boom land of furs, gold, logs, cattle . . and dreams


I LEANED over the cluttered counter of the "Pole Cat Inn" and asked anxiously for a room. The little Chinese proprietor, who had been running

these ramshackle rooms for many years, smiled blandly.

“Ho,” he chanted, “loom all full up. Evellybody come to Caliboo now. Blig bloom, much money, no loom.”

The “Pole Cat” was my last resort. I had tried three hotels and two auto camps and there wasn’t even a cot to be had.

This was Williams Lake, B.C., in February. I’d seen the town bulging with people during stampede week in July, or when the cattle sale was on in the fall, but never before had I known it to be overcrowded in midwinter.

“A small room,” I suggested to the Chinese, “a very small room will do.”

“No loom,” insisted the little fellow, “blig looms sma’ looms, evellybody fill um up. Much money.”

The little Chinese was right. Big boom hit Cariboo. With the eyes of America turning northward, Cariboo —land of gold, cattle, furs and limitless timber tracts —is experiencing a resurgence of life. The continued world hunger for gold, the opening of the Alcan road and the Prince Rupert road, the construction of the Peace River highways and the possible completion of the Pacific Great Eastern railway are bringing U. S. capital, tourists and homeseekers from crowded cities in search of new horizons.

The Cariboo is a great, lonely plateau in central British Columbia, roughly split in two by the Fraser as it curves like a giant meat hook through the province. It’s cut off from the damp winds of the Pacific by the Coast Range, and on the east it’s flanked by the Monashee Mountains. The plateau is covered with snow for five to seven months of the year, heated by wood that takes a good part of the summer to buck and split, serviced mainly with wells or river water and fitted with outdoor plumbing.

Take a squint at the map and you’ll see that the Cariboo is far removed from any of the large centres of Canada. It’s even quite a way from the coast,

postwar goal of thousands.

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Williams Lake is 372 miles from Vancouver by road, and Prince George is another 154 miles north of “The Lake.” In this great irregularly shaped area, roughly 230 miles from north to south and about 200 miles wide, you could lose any of the Maritime Provinces.

People With a Past

THE population is thinly sprinkled along the Fraser and the remote lakes and creeks that spill into it between Lillooet in the south and Prince George in the north. There is no wrong side of the tracks in Cariboo and little class distinction, except perhaps between the heavy drinkers and those who think one glass is as good as a couple of cases.

But you must never ask a Caribooian where he comes from or when he was married. A woman not familiar with this custom received a distinct shock when she asked one old sourdough why he came to Cariboo in the first place.

“Well, mam,” he answered, “I’d just served five years in the pen and it seemed like a good idea to get a little piece away from the old scenery.”

Mostly you won’t get as honest an answer, for the fact is many come to Cariboo to forget the past, and they won’t thank you for trying to pry open the door.

Of course there are some citizens who are proud of their past, and rightly so. Doc Baker of Quesnel, loved by the whole community from “The Lake” to “Prince” and from Wells to Nazko—all of which he covers personally—will tell you of his past, spent from Arizona to the Yukon, with the last 30 years ministering to the ills of the Cariboo. His record—1,000 appendectomies and more than 1,000 babies brought into the world—speaks for itself. He knows Caribooians inside and out.

Booms are nothing new to the Cariboo—it’s been having them for 90 years. At different times there have been fur booms in the fur country, cattle booms in the range land and gold rushes in the creeks. But this time they’re all happening at once, and some new ones besides.

Take Prince George, for instance. Born “Fort George” in 1807, for over a century it was little more than an Indian village on the Fraser, clustered around the Hudson’s Bay trading post. It grew up into Prince George in 1915, the year after the Grand Trunk (now CNR) whistled past its doors toward Prince Rupert. Then it relaxed again and became a railway town, occasionally rousing itself to wonder when and if B. C.’s own railway, the PGE, would crawl the last 78 miles north from Quesnel.

But now lumbering is writing a new chapter in the story of Prince George. Sixty sawmills have sprung up where less than half a dozen operated before the war, and $6 millions worth of timber was sold from there in 1945.

Around Quesnel Lake (that one on the map that looks like a suit of underwear flapping in the breeze) there are millions of feet of merchantable timber on its shores: spruce and cedar and fir that has never been touched.

Cariboo is sharply divided between range land and bushland. The southern half of the district is the northern extremity of that vast dry belt which stretches from old Mexico to Soda Creek, in British Columbia. At Soda Creek the growth changes almost abruptly from sagebrush and wormwood to scrub pine and juniper, then birch, poplar, cottonwood, spruce, and in the lake regions fir and cedar.

Time was when a Cariboo log was only good enough to build a barn or a house with—or to saw up and burn. Now homesteaders discover that the cottonwood flats they despaired of clearing are worth money to them, and that the firand pine-covered slopes they had never intended to clear will, in many cases, produce saw logs, ties or pit props for mines. Many of the pit props are being shipped to the British Isles, while quantities of ties are exported to China. Two loggers working together figure they can average $10 a day each or maybe better. And larger operators are marketing cottonwoods at the veneer factories down on the coast. Buyers come right up after the timber. You’ll meet them in any of the hotel lobbies, some representing interests as far afield as Czechoslovakia.

The Trap Lines Come Back

THE oldest of the industries in these parts is fur, and it’s going stronger than ever. A century ago the whole Cariboo was nothing but a vast fur preserve of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Fur continued to be important business through the gold rush of the 60’s and the establishment of cattle ranches out on the

and the establishment Chilcotin. But with

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Cariboo Comeback

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wholesale trapping, even this mighty game country began to grow thin in spots. There was danger of some species—beaver and marten particularly—dying out altogether.

Then in 1943 the B. C. Trappers’ Association was formed by Eric Collier to try to educate trappers in fur conservation and to discourage poachers, both human and animal.

Eric Collier is an advocate of “wild fur farming.” He told me how it works.

In 1930, for example, one line I know of in the Chilcotin was stripped of everything but a few muskrats.


“The chap who trapped the line took off exactly $130 worth of skins. He decided that the best thing he could do was try and build up his line—help nature provide food, for one thing. To cut a long story short, he managed this year to clear $2,000 off that same line in mink alone. The muskrats and beaver have developed to such amazingproportions that I hesitate to say what he may clear oji them.”

Businesslike Cattlemen

Another money-maker in this part of the world is cattle. The average Cariboo rancher today has a businesslike appreciation of breeding, feeding and marketing that is a far cry from

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the outlook of the pioneer cattleman,

who often made business pay simply because he swung the longest rope and branded all the mavericks he could find.

Lord Martin Cecil, son of the Marquis of Exeter, heads the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is manager of the Bridge Creek Estate at 3 00 Mile Llouse, north of Clinton. During the cattle sale, which is held annually at Williams Lake, you will find him dressed in the clothes of a hard-riding cowman, and unless you made a lot of enquiries you would never learn about the title, which he himself keeps well hidden.

The Williams Lake cattle sale is something to see — and hear — and smell. The “yip” of cowpunchers, the pungent aroma of sagebrush, the bellowing of cattle and the alkali dust from thousands of hoofs fill the Indian summer air. Cattle buyers, cowboys, Indians, trappers, miners, big-game guides and tourists camp outside the town, jam the hotels and saunter through the streets. It might be a movie set in Hollywood.

Some of the people ride in, some come in streamlined cars, others drive trucks or teams. If a man from the Nazko country has a piece of business to do with a fellow from Horsefly, ICO miles away, across the Fraser, he is almost certain to find him at “The Lake.” Friends and families plan reunions for that time and bring all the kids. Girls and young bucks look forward for months to the big dances. Old-timers come to talk old times with cronies from other parts. Indians stand in rows along the sidewalks, staring at the new'comers, who have come to stare at the Indians. And sociable Caribooians come just to meet other Caribooians, to holler across the street at one another, “Hi, stoopid— what’s the price of hay?” “Never mind, chum-—it’s more ’n you could afford !”

This is one of the Cariboo’s big events and nobody wants to miss it. It starts early in October, and the daily auctions continue until every head of prime steers, range cows and prize bulls has been auctioned.

Buyers and sellers, cowboys, Indians and onlookers perch on the corrals and sit in rows around the straw-filled ring. The auctioneers provide the floor show. Archie Boyce, Olds, Alberta, and Mat Hassen, Armstrong, B.C., are an entertaining team. With Archie officiating on the block and Mat in the ring to catch the bids, the sale is off. As the prize bulls are led in from the stables, Mat pushes the bids up and up by every trick and art of the born showman.

Last fall some $2 millions worth of stock changed hands in four days, and just over 24,000 head were shipped out of the district in 1945.

Some Ranches are Huge

Two million dollars worth of cattle is only a small percentage of the herds which roam the vast ranges bordering on the Chilcotin, Chilko and Fraser Rivers. The territories occupied by some of the ranchers are small countries in themselves. Alkali Lake Ranch, for instance, has 60,000 acres (over 90 square miles) on the home ranch alone and many more under contract for grazing. The Diamond S, out Dog Creek way, covers an area so large that you can ride 50 miles along one fence and 40 miles along another and still be on Diamond S property.

But you can count the big outfits on vour fingers. The smaller ranches number in the hundreds. They range from well-established, well-stocked and

equipped properties that have been developed through several generations to impoverished stump ranches where homesteaders struggle for existence with no capital and little equipment. These families live on potatoes and moose meat and depend on the sale of a few cows from their small herds for such emergencies as a new baby or a trip to the dentist.

The Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association has established its own stockyards in Vancouver, but its biggest problem is getting the cattle there. The Pacific Great Eastern Railway, built in 1919 by the Provincial Government, never has been completed. There is a missing link between its southern terminal, at Squamish, and Vancouver. This 40 miles is at present serviced by steamer, so the cattle cars must be loaded onto scows. If Howe Sound is rough, the scows may be delayed several days. This costs the producer money.

Even if the PGE were completed into Vancouver, it would still give the impression of the old Oriental rope trick, for the upper end stops at Quesnel, 70 miles short of its logical connection with the CNR at Prince George. For 27 years B. C. citizens have been hearing election promises about the completion of their “headless and tailless monster.” For 27 years the “Please Go Easy,” or the “Prince George Eventually,” has been a cartoonist’s manna.

Gold Always Important

Gold is still one of the Cariboo’s most important industries—as it has been for more than 80 years. Back in the days when the 500-mile Cariboo road (foundation of the present Cariboo highway) was built from Yale to Barkerville, a man with a 100-foot claim could make $500 to $1,000 a day. Those old-timers didn’t take out all the gold either. They took only what they could get with that era’s crude equipment—and that wasn’t much, only about $85 millions.

There’s still gold in Lightning Creek and Williams Creek, and back of beyond is Antler Creek and farther east, maybe another 60 miles, lies Yank’s Peak, and in between are 100,000 prospect holes. The country hasn’t been scratched yet.

Heck, take a fellow I know, a D-Day casualty, and a walking out-patient from Shaughnessy Military Hospital. He came back to Cariboo, using two canes, and revisited an old claim of his. In one day he took out $18 in nuggets and coarse gold. Now he’s on the coast, taking a course in geology, and he’s coming back to make mining his career, because he has faith in the Cariboo.

Gold is still its biggeet industry. One mine alone, the Cariboo Gold Quartz at Wells, was producing more than a million dollars a year before t-he war. The Island Mountain Mine, across Jack of Clubs Lake from the Quartz, was pouring only one gold brick, weighing around 400 ounces, every two weeks during the war. (This much gold makes a brick about the size of two large dog biscuits and it’s worth in the neighborhood of $15,000.) This size is now doubled at each pouring, and will keep on increasing as fast as they get more miners and operators.

Quesnel is the main distributing centre for the Cariboo mining territory. This is where the heavy mining machinery and supplies are unloaded from the PGE and loaded onto trucks for the long haul back into the hills.

Every spring you can see men shovelling gravel along the river near Quesnel. They say you could pan gold from the .very streets of the town, but the

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miners stick to the river banks. As

soon as the ice clears and before the river starts to rise with the melting snow, a few “long toms” appear. A “long tom” is a sluice box with riffles in one end to catch the gold. Gravel is shovelled in and water sluiced over it.

If a miner is moderately successful, he will nearly mortgage his soul to purchase a pump and some hose with which to run water up from the river. But mostly it’s a shovel and bucket process. A “long tom” might be cleared of its gold every day or every week or so, depending on how many “colors” the miner is getting. The take is always a matter of conjecture.

One old fellow worked steadily all last spring under the Quesnel bridge.

How much did he make? Listen in on the barber shop:

“He’s cleaning up a small fortune. I heard lie’s making $25-$30 a day.”

“Oh, I don’t know. He might of made that one day. I find y’always hear about the big days a good many times over. When a man’s only getting 50c. a day he fergits to mention it.” “Sure,” chipped in another, “if y’could make $5-$10 a day steady, why every body’d be down there sho veilin’. I’d be down there m’self. But I know lots easier ways a makin’ a livin’.”

In some cases—very rare they are too—an old-timer has managed to earn enough to get a small monitor, or pressure nozzle, build a dam, develop a head of water and actually mine ground in a manner that enables him to spend the winters in Vancouver.

But most of them find the going tough, and they winter in small cabins

outside such towns as Quesnel, Barkerville or Prince George. Some of them could be pensioners, but many are too independent to apply, and besides, they are always sure they’ll strike it rich next year.

Mining in the Cariboo today mainly is a rich man’s business. It is financed for the most part by large companies, who have miles and miles of creeks and whole mountains staked out in their names and who are prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment to turn the rivers topsyturvy and chew away huge gravel banks in their search for gold.

The big mining district is east and slightly north of Quesnel. To reach it you travel by stage or car 58 miles into the mountains. The road follows Cottonwood River for a way, then Lightning Creek, on which are situated the little villages of Wingdam and Stanley.

Deceptive Quesnel

Quesnel looks rather quiet when you see the wide streets and all the parking places. Set as it is on a tableland between the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers, where it can admire the reflections of its neatly painted buildings in the calm waters of the Fraser, it looks much more a beauty spot than a busy centre. But some of the leisurely looking merchants here could buy and sell many a city big shot and still have a grubstake left with which to come back and make more.

The money is well distributed between whites and Chinese, and the latter take their places in community life, church and social affairs. One of

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the old-time citizens is C. D. Hoy, who used to cook on the river boats when they paddled up the Fraser from the narrow Soda Creek canyon to Tete Juan Cache, beyond the bend at Prince George. He now owns, aside from other property, the block on which stands his store, warehouse and home for his large family.

But not all the towns are like that. Before the war Wingdam was a thriving mining centre, with large brick power plant, three-story bunkhouse, stores, cabins and its own school. Now it is completely deserted except for one old-timer and a caretaker.

Wingdam’s mining history is a series of bitter failures to cope with the infamous Cariboo “slum,” a mud which defies all engineering devices to control it. Although the property is fabulously rich, the gold still rests beneath the slum and Lightning Creek. English capital, headed by Col. J. A. Mailer, London, England, mining man, is even now preparing to reopen the old workings.

Stanley has a much more ancient history, dating back to the rush of the 60’s, when it was said to have had 10,000 as its population. Where this many people could have lived or what has become of their cabins is a mystery. Only two old hotels, a few ancient houses and some weathering piles of shakes and logs remain to mark the spot. There is still a post office and beverage room maintained for the few residents.

Down through sinister Devil’s Canyon you go and out onto the lovely vista of Jack of Clubs Lake, fast becoming filled with tailings from the two big mines on its shores.

Wells, newest of Cariboo’s towns, which was built at the end of the lake in 1934, now stands several blocks back from it, with a baseball diamond laid out on the fill below. It grew to a 3,300 population before the war broke in on its prosperity.

It was named for Fred Wells, founder of the Quartz mine, a lean, keen, hard-rock mining man who has taken part in many mining developments throughout the province and been in on the Porcupine and Timmins rushes in Ontario.

Wells is 4,500 feet above sea level. The summers are short and rainy, and in winter the town looks like a Swiss village in its four to eight feet of snow. Youngsters start to ski almost as soon as they can walk, and the annual ski tournament, held on the nearby mountain slopes, was becoming an important event in western sporting circles before the war.

It’s Coming Back

During the war the population trickled away to a scant 600. Stores and houses were boarded up and whole streets deserted. Today there is hardly a shack to be rented anywhere. At least 10 new businesses have opened and the Chronicle, Wells’ local paper, came to life last fall under the ownership of Lew Griffiths.

The famous Williams Creek, richest placer diggings the world has ever known, joins the Willow River just back of Wells. Only four miles up creek lies the ghost town of Barkerville. During the 60’s it was the largest city west of Toronto and north of ’Frisco.

Its one narrow street ambles uphill, and the platform verandas stick out into it, and the old log cabins lean back from it, and it’s all built on tailings from Williams Creek. There’s nothing but gravel and boulders on any of the original claims, with maybe the remains of an old sluice box or some boards from a water wheel or flume. Nothing grows on the tailings except

stunted willow and Indian paintbrush.

But it gives a creepy feeling to look at it all and think of the 4,000 miners who were working on a seven-mile stretch along that creek in ’63, taking out their $500 and $1,000 a day and spending it in the saloons and dance halls, on the hurdy-gurdies and on high-priced grub—flour at a dollar a pound and beans at 60 cents.

Most of the real old-timers lie in the little cemetery near Barkerville, or in other small plots along the way. But as they dropped off others became oldtimers, and you will find some interesting personalities among those at Barkerville.

Fred Tregillis, who looks remarkably like the late King George V, beard and all, lives comfortably with his family and a goodly collection of relics of the early days. He was one of the few mining men who knew when he had made enough.

First Piano in Town

Mrs. Lottie McKinnon, one of the country’s wealthiest women, owns and operates a hotel and store in the town where she was born. Inside the hotel you will find the first piano to arrive in town. It was carried in on men’s backs, the whole 62 miles from Quesnel, sometime during the 60’s. Apparently music meant more to the old miners than a bath, for Barkerville only got its first bathtub in 1933, when one was installed in the local barber shop.

All around Barkerville—in the hills and by the creeks—you will come upon dilapidated cabins where some prospector lived and hoped for the golden day when he’d strike pay dirt. You will also see heavy machinery being hauled over long miles of narrow roads, preparatory to opening up a new mine or reviving an old one. Gold seems about to have another fling at making millionaires out of .paupers and paupers out of millionaires.

Rumor is the very breath of life these days in Cariboo and rumor has it that several huge dredges are being shipped in to waddle up the rivers and probe their depths for new fortunes. If a well-dressed gentleman appears in any of the hotels today, he is eyed with awe. He might be a wife slayer, trying to evade the police, or an embezzler making off with his employer’s money and blond secretary, but he is visualized as a big shot looking for a place in which to invest a large amount of capital.

Most any day in the summer or fall you can count upward of 20 American cars on the streets of Quesnel. They come to hunt moose and grizzly and deer. They come to fish for the fightingest rainbows that ever hit a fly. They come to pan for gold in any of the small creeks from Clinton north. They come to take photographs, and talk with the natives, and be friendly.

Many of the world’s great game hunters have discovered the Cariboo and come yearly in search of prize trophies. Because of the distances, a hunting party needs trucks, pack horses, saddle horses, guide, cook and wranglers. Consequently guides are not only the finest woodsmen in the country, but are also among the keenest businessmen. Their results are almost guaranteed. One day last fall there were 26 American cars parked on the main street of Quesnel, and each one was decorated with a spread of moose horns which would bring joy to the collector’s heart.

But civilization will not be long arriving in this hunters’ paradise. Even before the war stubby little sea planes were finding their noisy ways into many remote lakes. During the

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war landing fields were built throughout the Cariboo at Dog Creek, Williams Lake, Quesnel and Prince George. There is a new air service operating between Vancouver and Cariboo points, and many resorts are arranging to have their own planes bring in visitors.

The Cariboo, once a scattered collection of trappers, homesteaders and miners, is beginning to get organized. Besides the cattle and fur associations, there is the Cariboo Citizen’s League to which anyone interested may belong. Its purpose is to speak for the Cariboo with one voice and get action where needed.

There is also the brand-new Cariboo Art Society, with A. Y. Jackson as its honorary president. Organized by Mrs. V. E. and Miss Sonia Cowan of Onward Ranch, it plans its first exhibition in the coming fall.

And Cariboo now has its own magazine, the Cariboo Digest, a quarterly. A little over a year ago its managing editor, Aleck Sahonavitch, got out the first issue.

When I look it all over, I wonder. Maybe this isn’t a “blig bloom” after all, despite my Chinese friend. Maybe Cariboo has just shaken off its disguise as a tottering old-timer with a past and shown itself for what it really is: a husky young comer with a future.