More than 150 years ago, a businessman named Frank Laumeister came up with a crazy idea: import camels to B.C. to move supplies to the Cariboo goldfields. The area had just opened up to thousands of settlers following Billy Barker’s discovery of gold in Williams Creek, and desperate miners were finding it difficult to navigate the tough terrain.
“There were lots of reports about how muddy it was and how many dead horses there were,” historian and theatrical producer Richard Wright tells the Georgia Straight by phone while stopped on a roadside near Clinton. “It didn’t really improve until Cariboo [Wagon Road] went in in 1865.”
Wright and his partner, Amy Newman, are in their 11th year producing historical variety shows in the Theatre Royal in the historic town of Barkerville, which emerged as the centre of commerce during the Cariboo Gold Rush. There are two performances in the theatre each day (except Wednesdays)—from May 15 to the final week in September—capturing the spirit of the era, as well as a 1940s-era radio-show production every Saturday night. “Our mandate is to entertain people who come to Barkerville,” Wright says. “Secondly, we want to teach them something about the gold rush through theatre and music.”
Wright is also the author of Barkerville and the Cariboo Gold Fields (Heritage, 2013). He points out that B.C. joined Confederation in 1871 in part because Canadian politicians didn’t want this lucrative gold-mining area falling into the clutches of the Americans.
“I think the tendency has been to think of Barkerville as a theme town, which it’s not,” Wright says. “It’s a living museum.”
By road, it’s about a nine-hour drive from Vancouver along the Trans-Canada Highway to Hope and along the Fraser Canyon to Cache Creek. From there, motorists take Highway 97 through 100 Mile House and Williams Lake to Quesnel. Then drivers turn east on Highway 26 for 81 kilometres to reach Barkerville, which is a national historic site.
Wright says there are opportunities to enjoy historical sites along the former Gold Rush Trail, including Hat Creek House, which is 11 kilometres north of Cache Creek. Built in 1861, it was a major stopover in the 1860s. Wright adds that there are interesting sites around Williams Lake, where the original trail passed through on the way to Likely, B.C. In addition, he recommends visiting Yale, once one of the largest cities north of San Francisco. The Fraser Canyon community is home to B.C.’s oldest church and a national monument honouring Chinese railway workers.
There’s also a rich Chinese history in Barkerville. According to Wright, up to 1,000 of the 4,000 to 6,000 residents in the 1860s traced their ancestry back to the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Much of Barkerville was destroyed in a fire in 1868, but most of Chinatown was spared. And although there was a great deal of racism, Wright says Chinese businesses existed in the main part of town and Chinese miners staked claims.
Last year, more than 1,600 photographs from Barkerville were displayed in Guangdong in a museum exhibit called Who Am I?. It was created to help people in China identify long-lost relatives. “When I first went to Barkerville, I was particularly interested in the buildings,” Wright comments. “I’ve since become less interested in the buildings, quite frankly, and more interested in the people.”