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MURDER, MAYHEM AND MYSTERY
ON THE CARIBOO GOLD RUSH TRAIL
Story and Photos by Margaret Deefholts
...continued from Part I
We are now on our final stretch to Barkerville. It is late afternoon and the sky has turned sullen. By the time we dismount in the parking lot, a cold malicious drizzle whips against our faces. Most visitors have gone home, and we make our way to the Lung Duck Tong restaurant in the Chinatown sector. The building dates back to the early 1900s and the hospitality, like the food, is generous. And piping hot!
Barkerville is where illusion and reality merge. The rain has disappeared by morning, and the main street buzzes with activity. At the door of the school house, Miss Mary Hastie stands primly awaiting the arrival of her pupils, and further up the road, a whiskered gentleman in a top hat and cape bows a polite, "Good morning Ma'am" to a pretty young woman dressed in a crinoline. A couple of kids emerge from the costume shop: the little girl wears a bonnet and pinafore; her older brother is in a waistcoat, necktie and burglar cap. Mum and Dad are also in period costumes, and the family beam as an obliging miner puts down his shovel and clicks a shot before handing the camera back to Dad. Visitors peer into the windows of miners' log cabins; some stop to watch Mr. Cameron at work in the blacksmith's shop, while others buy candy and postcards at the Mason & Daly General Store. A group of school kids, also wearing Victorian costumes, whoop and wave as their stage-coach rumbles past me.
I'm just in time at the Visitors Reception Centre to join Mr. Joshua Thompson and the saucy Miss Rebecca Gibbs as they conduct a group through historic Barkerville. The lady informs us that not only is she the town's best laundress but she is also a poet of considerable talent, who Mr. Thompson, as the owner of the Cariboo Sentinel, is privileged to have as a frequent contributor to his newspaper. Mr. Thompson raises his eyebrows at this, but knows better than to comment.
Mr. Thompson leads us along the main street and points out the Tregillus home. Fred Tregillus, who owned the longest mining licence in British Columbia, lived here from1886 till his death just a few months shy of his 100th birthday in 1962. A little further along the boardwalk a spanking white house, with curlicued gables, was the home of John Bowron, Barkerville's Gold Commissioner, Town Librarian, and Postmaster.
Across the street is an original pre-1900s house, occupied by John's son William Bowron. His business partner, Joe Wendle, lives next door, and I peek into the kitchen where Joe's sister and housekeeper, Julia Wendle, is preparing a special pudding as a celebratory treat. "Joe came home with wonderful news last evening," Julia tells us, her eyes dancing. "They've hit a lode at the Hard Up claim, and it looks like a bonanza! About time too-its been two years of bitter disappointment up to now." She urges us to come back and sample her dessert later that afternoon.
It is here in Barkerville that I finally meet the formidable Judge Begbie. He is striding down the street on his way to hold Assizes court at the Wesleyan church hall. "Will James Barry be in the prisoner's dock?" I ask. He shakes his head. "No, Ma'am, not today. But if you wish you may attend the Richfield courthouse in July," he says. "That's where I will be passing sentence on Mr. Barry."
The story leading up to the sensational trial, was an unusual one. In May of 1866, Charles Morgan Blessing and a companion, Wellington Delaney Moses, were on their way to Barkerville when they met up with James Barry at Quesnellemouth. Barry persuaded Blessing to join him on a side trip, while Moses continued on to Barkerville where he opened a barbershop. Several weeks later Barry showed up in Barkerville alone, claiming to have no knowledge of what had happened to Blessing.
Moses distrusted Barry's evasive manner from the outset, and his misgivings grew stronger when-as the tale goes-shortly after Barry's arrival, Charles Blessing walked into the barbershop one morning indicating that he needed a shave. Moses was relieved to see him, but was nonetheless, shocked at Blessing's appearance-his clothes were torn and filthy and his eyes were hollow. The barber sharpened his razorblade, but when he turned around, he was aghast to find that the moist towel he'd used to covered his friend's face was soaked in blood. He'd no sooner let out a cry of alarm, when the apparition vanished. This all but convinced Moses that Blessing had been murdered, and his suspicions were confirmed when a Hurdy-Gurdy dancer showed him a distinctive gold tie-pin in the shape of a skull given to her by Barry. Moses recognized it instantly. Meanwhile Blessing's corpse, with a bullet hole through its skull, had been discovered in the bush. Witnesses testified to the fact that Barry was armed with a pistol, but the definitive piece of evidence was Blessing's gold tie-pin.
With the hindsight of time, I know the outcome of the James Barry case. To quote Judge Begbie as he pronounced sentence on Barry: "You have dyed your hands in blood, and must suffer the same fate. My painful duty now is to pass the last sentence of the law on you, which is that you be taken to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may the Lord have mercy on your soul."
I am not sure whether Blessing's ghost still stalks the streets of Barkerville, but the town plays host to several other spectral inhabitants. Certainly everyone I chat to on the subject seems to have a favourite yarn to spin. Although no one has been able to identify him, a man in top hat and tails has been known to materialize briefly, on stage left at the Theatre Royal. A shadowy woman at an upstairs window of the old Barkerville Hotel (now converted to a heritage museum and gift shop), has been sighted on several occasions, even though the building is empty and locked up at the time. The St. George Hotel, too, has a mysterious phantom, a young blonde woman dressed in white, who appears around midnight by the bedside of lone male visitors. Women guests, it would seem, aren't worth her wile!
Some of Barkerville's ghosts are prankish poltergeists, others are solitary and wistful. None of them appear to be evil or violent. Perhaps this because Barkerville's past contains few heinous criminals. Other than Barry's hanging, the only other execution that took place here, was that of a native Indian found guilty of murdering a man at Soda Creek. The town, then known as Williams Creek, had none of the rambunctious lawlessness of other American gold rush frontier towns, and while it had its share of gambling dens and sporting houses in the Chinese quarter, its saloons, dance halls, and rooming houses operated discreetly and-as in the case of a bordello run by the colourful Madam Fanny Bendixon-even with some measure of style. A few saloons offered entertainment by German or Dutch Hurdy-Gurdy dancers, and although some of them were women of easy virtue, others were from respectable, if impoverished backgrounds. Many of them married into Barkerville families and settled down in the Cariboo. Today, at the Theatre Royal, where I peer nervously at the shadows lurking in the stage wings, an amply endowed Hurdy-Gurdy dancer dressed in a traditional red dress, recounts her life in Williams Creek. The audience chuckles loudly at her double-entendres, and applauds enthusiastically at the end of her show. The racket is enough to discourage any self-respecting spook.
Barkerville's most famous character is its namesake, Billy Barker. Yet Barker would never have come anywhere near the area, if it wasn't for Dutch "Bill" Dietz, one of the first prospectors to discover flecks of gold dust in the waters of Williams Creek (named after him) which resulted in a frenzied of rush of prospectors in 1861-among them the choleric 44 year-old Billy Barker. Apocryphal tales about Mr. Barker abound, but a favourite among them is that he was haunted by a recurring dream in which the number 52 seemed to carry a mysterious significance. Bearing out the tale is a laconic marker along Barkerville's main street recording the spot where according to legend, Billy Barker on August 17th 1862 hit pay dirt at a depth of 52 feet! Billy Barker realized half a million dollars in today's currency, but squandered it all in abortive mining ventures, to die penniless at the age of 77. He is reputedly buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in Victoria's Ross Cemetery.
* * * * *
As if to make up for our soggy welcome two days earlier, Barkerville bids us farewell in brilliant sunshine. Beyond Wells, the gold rush trail leads to Cottonwood House estate, which literally straddles the historic Old Cariboo Road. Like Hat Creek House, this too was a hostelry and stagecoach stop for drivers, prospectors, and merchants who needed to stock up on provisions and rest overnight while saddlery and wheels were repaired. Owned by the Boyd family from 1874 to 1951, Cottonwood House is a jewel in the treasury of the Cariboo region's heritage homes. Meticulously restored rooms are set with antique furniture, ornaments, photographs, silverware, and crockery, and it is easy to 'hear' again the clink of glasses and hum of conversation in the large dining room as guests gather for a meal.
I am regretful that time doesn't permit a visit to the rustic log guest cabins dotted around the estate, or the opportunity of looking in on the farmyard poultry and animals-or even to browse through the collection of heritage wood products offered for sale. But that said, what better reason is there than these missed opportunities, to return another day!
I probably wouldn't remember much about our next stop at Quesnel, if it wasn't for Mandy. She lives in the Museum, and is far from being pretty-in fact her face looks like that of an abused child. And perhaps, like a child who has suffered cruelty, she is vindictive. For one thing, sitting in her glass case with her frilly doll's bonnet framing her cracked face, she has been known to turn her head away from a camera's intrusive eye. For another, she has caused immeasurable grief to photographers who have tried to capture her image: they've had to deal with messed up development equipment, and in one instance, the destruction of a video camera hopelessly jammed with snarled video tape. Time and again negative film has turned out to be blank. Her previous owner was relieved to get rid of the eighty-year old doll, after hearing intermittent wailing sounds and cold winds (at the height of summer) whirling through the house. I peer at Mandy, who looks stony-eyed past me, but my digital camera remains out of sight. No sense in risking a hard-drive crash when I start downloading my travel shots onto my desktop.
As Brent hits the back-roads beyond Quesnel, we are once again on a twisting trail, following the Fraser River, far, far below us, with walls of evergreen forests rising from the river's edge, and reaching up into a cobalt blue sky. There is little traffic, other than the occasional logging truck, and the air smells of earth and grass. A lone eagle circles a distant peak. Conversation dies away, and the only sound is the thrust of the diesel engine as we climb and dip around corners.
One of the highlights of a trip such as this, is staying overnight at a typical Cariboo ranch. Big Bar Guest Ranch sprawls across undulating country, against a backdrop of mountain ranges smudging the horizon. I stand out on the patio in the crisp morning air, a mug of freshly brewed coffee in hand, and listen to the whinny of horses in the surrounding paddocks. Drawn back into the dining hall by the smell of sausages, bacon, and fried eggs, it is hard to believe that just the night before, after a country-style dinner of immense proportions, I thought I'd never be hungry again!
The back road from Big Bar Ranch meanders past fields of riotous wild flowers, and then, heading towards Lillooet, we once again we emerge onto the highway edging the Fraser River. The town lies along an earlier route to Barkerville, (before the construction of the Old Cariboo Road) which snaked up from the north end of Harrison Lake via Port Douglas. All the way along our route through the Fraser Canyon I've noted the mile markers (used as an aid to stagecoach drivers who had to stop along the way to change horse teams) but now, at Lillooet we are at Mile 0. This was the starting point in terms of distance measurements and roads radiated outwards towards the Cariboo (and Barkerville), or in the reverse direction towards Pemberton.
The "Bridge of 23 Camels" across the Fraser River into Lillooet commemorates a quirky little anecdote of gold rush history. Frank Laumeister, a prominent Victoria merchant and packer, came up with the idea of introducing camels as pack animals to transport goods along the trail. A camel could carry twice as much and travel twice as far as a mule, and if these animals worked well in desert territory, well why not along the gold rush trail too? Fine in theory; a disaster in practice. The 300 camels purchased from the USA were healthy animals, but their hooves couldn't deal with the rocky terrain, plus they spat, bit and kicked everything within sight. Worse still, when they were in heat, the overpowering smell drove all the other pack animals into a mad stampede. Eventually the camels were either auctioned off or turned loose into the wild.
Beyond Lillooet, lake vistas open up-irresistible to photography buffs-and we are on the home stretch via Pemberton and Whistler to Vancouver. The ghosts of history have ridden alongside me through the trip, and now in New Westminster, only one more remains to bid me farewell. In some ways, he is the most important of all. I stand near his bronze statute at the New Westminster quay, watching the swirl of the river which bears his name, thinking about the story which began at this spot almost two centuries ago when he arrived here to open up a fur trading route to the Pacific. He is Simon Fraser, intrepid explorer, adventurer, and founding father of the Province of British Columbia. The year was 1808. By 1827 the Hudson's Bay Company had set up a lucrative trading post at Fort Langley, several miles up-river. The stage is set for Don McLean, and the Indian who handed him a bag of gold dust. My journey has come full circle.
©Margaret Deefholts - Visit Margaret's website www.margaretdeefholts.com
IF YOU GO:
By car: Barkerville is 80 km east of Quesnel on Highway 26.
Where to Stay:
Barkerville offers a choice of three refurbished heritage houses:
St. George's Hotel B&B:
Bettina & Thomas Schoen, Proprietors
Box 4, Barkerville, BC, V0K 1P0
King House & Kelly House B&Bs
P.O. Box 15, Barkerville, BC V0K 1B0
Phone/Fax: (250) 994 3328
Visit http://www.barkerville.ca/ for information on upcoming programs
Links worth checking out:
http://www.hatcreekranch.com/ (be sure to set aside time for the Shuswap Native Village site. You'll be glad you did.)
http://www.bcadventure.com/morehead(cabins near Likely for fly fishing enthusiasts.)
http://www.108resort.com/ (golfers' El-Dorado!)