Of all four-letter words in the English language, one causes otherwise rational individuals to risk everything in its pursuit:
When word escaped in the late 1850s about precious metal practically jumping into prospectors' pans in British Columbia's interior, those with a head start were experienced "panhandlers" from the 1849 California gold rush who hopped aboard ships heading north along the Pacific Coast. Many stayed to settle Canada's westernmost province.
Gold-seekers often built roads, railways and bridges to combat raging rivers and impenetrable canyons. Some retailers supplied fellow prospectors with mining equipment, food, booze, clothing and entertainment while others, awed by grassland and forest, became cattle and timber barons, supplying beef and lumber to the fortune hunters.
Today, the trek from Vancouver to B.C.'s once-teeming gold fields is much more comfortable. Commercial aircraft arrive in about an hour at Prince George and Quesnel. Visitors drive cars or recreational vehicles up Highway 1, stopping at former settlements.
The journey along the
Gold Rush Trail begins in the former B.C. capital of New Westminster, east of Vancouver. Tourists can take an old-fashioned paddle wheeler ride or visit period museums and heritage sites such as the Irving House - the well-preserved colonial home of Captain William Irving, "King of the Fraser River."
Down the road,
Fort Langley, a small historic village on the south bank of the Fraser River, is the birthplace of British Columbia, established in 1827. During the gold rush, the village generated $1500 a day - a considerable sum then - selling tools and provisions to the huge influx of prospectors.
An hour's drive east of Fort Langley,
Hope is where the Gold Rush Trail turns north. Visited by explorer
Simon Fraser in 1808, it was a
Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) fur-trading fort in 1848. Ten years later, during the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes, it became known as the gateway city to riches.
The Hope Museum and Visitor Centre Complex offers exhibits on the fur trade and gold rush days. In 1981, Hollywood arrived with the movie
Rambo: First Blood and many of the original film locations remain. One, the Othello Tunnels, is cut from solid granite of the Coquihalla Canyon where the now-defunct Kettle Valley Railway operated.
Yale is a short drive from Hope, where Highway 1 moves north. Originally an HBC trading post that by 1858 greeted thousands of miners coming up the Fraser River by steamer, the Creighton House Museum now features First Nations, railway and gold rush artifacts.
Some sought gold on the shores of the Fraser, while the hardier types braved the perilous trek through the Fraser Canyon, a path prospectors negotiated, using pack animals. Many men and beasts of burden plunged to their death on this treacherous trail.
Accordingly, Governor James Douglas detailed the British Army's Royal Engineers to build the
Cariboo Waggon (old English spelling) Road between 1863-1866. This 700 km thoroughfare was considered the eighth wonder of the world then, and it opened up the B.C. interior as far north as Barkerville, providing access for such enterprises as the BX Express Stage Lines.
Hell's Gate is a 15-minute drive north of Yale, the deepest and narrowest part of the Fraser River, where 757 million litres per minute rush through a gorge. The brave and the foolhardy might river raft through what Simon Fraser described in 1808, "...a place where no human being should venture, for surely we have encountered the gates of hell." Now, a more comfortable but equally spectacular alternative is air tram, offering customers a unique and thrilling ride.
The journey continues north through
Boston Bar and
Lytton, offering river rafting, gold panning, fishing and hiking. Thus far, the trip ventured through the Vancouver, Coast and Mountains Region of the province. The next settlement, Spences Bridge, is located in B.C.'s Thompson Okanagan Region where the landscape changes dramatically with sagebrush hills beginning to unfold.
Originally named Cook's Ferry after an entrepreneur who built a rope ferry across the Thompson River, during construction of the Cariboo Waggon Road, a bridge replaced the ferry, deriving its name from the contractor in charge, Thomas Spence.
Highway 1 continues north through
Cache Creek before turning northwest into the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Region at Hat Creek. Ashcroft, about 45 km north of Spences Bridge, was a Canadian Pacific Railway stop in the late 1800s, delivering mining supplies and freight for the Cariboo Waggon Road via stagecoach and freight wagons in warmer weather and by sleigh in winter. The Ashcroft Museum showcases artifacts and photos chronicling the area's history, First Nations lore and the great fire of 1916 that destroyed much of the community's business core.
A few kilometres north, the settlement of Cache Creek served as the halfway point for prospectors heading toward
Barkerville, the village supposedly named after exhausted miners rested near a small stream where they could "cache" their belongings for the night. Geocaching is now popular through the Gold Country Geo Tourism Program. Visitors use GPS devices to find hidden caches while hearing tales of gold rush robberies and long-lost mine shafts.
Highway 1 gives way to Highway 97 at
Hat Creek, site of Historic Hat Creek Ranch built by retired HBC chief trader Donald McLean in 1861 as an oasis for prospectors, pack train operators, stagecoach passengers and wagon trains. The original buildings remain along with a Shuswap First Nations village and interpretation site.
Today's Gold Rush Trail route snakes from Hat Creek north through
100 Mile House,
Lac la Hache and
150 Mile House to
Williams Lake, passing hundreds of waterways offering world-class fishing and horseback trails. Pioneering families are immortalized through a number of murals at 100 Mile House while Williams Lake is world-famous for staging an annual stampede rated second only to Calgary, Alberta's rodeo. Williams Lake features the Museum of Cariboo Chilcotin, B.C.'s only ranching and rodeo museum housing the
B.C. Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Our northern trek ends at
Quesnel, where we turn east on Highway 26 for 75 km to the town of Wells. Many gold-seekers who reached Quesnel had travelled from as far as China. Today, the Quesnel and District Museum houses one of the most important and engaging collections of Chinese artifacts in North America. The town offers historical walking tours, including the Fraser River Foot Bridge, the world's longest wooden-truss pedestrian span.
Wells, named in 1934 in honour of the founder of the Cariboo Gold Quartz Mine, Fred Wells, features one of the few remaining 1930s streetscapes in North America. It is widely known for its museum and art galleries as well as the ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art on the first weekend of August.
The El Dorado of British Columbia's gold mining lore is a few kilometres southeast of Wells. Barkerville Historic Town, at the end of the Gold Rush Trail, is billed as the largest heritage site in western North America, named after English prospector
Billy Barker who in 1862 hit the mother lode in gold, his mine producing 37,500 ounces worth $50 million.
Barkerville, a National Historic Site of Canada, is a living museum, offering time travel back to the early 1860s, over a hundred historic buildings restored, and the site hires interpreters for the May-September season. They role play prospectors, merchants, blacksmiths, school marms, court officials and other pioneers - remaining in character. After all, to them, it's 1862!
Barkerville visitors pan for gold with a seven-time world champion, take in period plays at the Theatre Royal, ride shotgun on a stagecoach, watch an authentic Cornish Waterwheel, tour the colourful Chinatown section or have their pictures taken in period costumes at the local photographer's studio. Most make it a two-day affair, staying on-site at a bed and breakfast and dining at such colourfully named eateries as the Wake Up Jake Restaurant.
If there's a pot of riches at the end of the Gold Rush Trail, the rainbow comes to rest at Barkerville Historic Town.
Tom Douglas is an Oakville-based travel writer with many travel articles published on this website (see: Our Writers) and author of a number of books on Canada's military heritage. Read Tom's bio at:
The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, (also Fraser Gold Rush and Fraser River Gold Rush) began in 1855 after gold was discovered on the Thompson River in British Columbia at its confluence with the Nicoamen River. This was a few miles upstream from the Thompson's confluence with the Fraser River at present-day Lytton. The rush overtook the region around the discovery, and was centered on the Fraser Canyon from around Hope and Yale to Pavilion and Fountain, just north of Lillooet.
Though the rush was largely over by 1860, miners from the rush spread out and found a sequence of other gold rushes throughout the British Columbia Interior and North, most famously that in the Cariboo. The rush is credited with instigating European-Canadian settlement on the mainland of British Columbia. It was the catalyst for the founding of the Colony of British Columbia, the building of early road infrastructure, and the founding of many towns.
Although the area had been mined for a few years, news of the strike spread to San Francisco when the governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, sent a shipment of ore to that city's mint.