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MURDER, MAYHEM AND MYSTERY
ON THE CARIBOO GOLD RUSH TRAIL
Story and Photos by Margaret Deefholts
I am travelling with ghosts. Their earthly lives ended perhaps fifty years, or even over a century ago. But their shadows lie across my pathway today. They were ruffians, hustlers, gamblers, and adventurers. Some were unlettered, others were gentlemen investors. But all of them had one thing in common: a lust for gold. Their trail lies through the history of British Columbia; my trail follows the outline of their footprints.
Where does the story begin? Well, perhaps with Donald McLean, a chief trader of the Hudson's Bay Company. He'd been thunderstruck when one of the members of a local Indian band handed him 800 ounces of gold dust which had been dredged out of the upper reaches of the Fraser River. McLean sent this to the Company's trading post in Fort Langley, who then forwarded it on to the mint in San Francisco for conversion into coin.
A miner, James Moore, was at a fireman's meeting in San Francisco in February 1858 when he got wind of the packet en-route to the mint. Galvanized into action, Moore rounded up a foursome of prospectors and lit out for the Fraser River forthwith. A month later, Moore and his group had paused for a meal in the vicinity of Yale. One of his party, T.H. Hill, noticed shiny flecks in the moss covered rocks, and proceeded to pan around a sandbar, (now known as Hill's Bar) discovering in a matter of minutes one of the richest gold bearing sites on the Fraser-a find which would eventually yield two million dollars in placer gold or, in today's money, roughly thirty-five million dollars.
"Gold Discovered on Fraser's River!"screamed the headlines in the San Francisco newspapers, and the frenzy was on. Over 30,000 prospectors, some from of the now defunct California gold fields others from Europe and Australia, jammed the queues clamouring for a miners licences from the Gold Commissioner's Office in Victoria. Hudson's Bay trading post at Fort Langley raked in $1,500 a day as swarms of men stocked up on provisions, clothing, and tools. The prospectors then surged along the Fraser in dugout canoes, rusty tugs, and roughly lashed rafts. Those few who could afford it travelled on paddle-wheelers or hired pack mules, but many trudged on foot from Mission and Hope along rugged trails up into the Fraser Canyon.
Yale mushroomed overnight into a seedy frontier-type town with gambling saloons, bordellos, and cheap boarding houses. Drunken brawls were commonplace-but when serious violence broke out between the Americans and the native Indians, Governor James Douglas rushed to declare British Columbia a Crown colony, subject to British civil and criminal law.
Enter Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie. A imposing 6'5", Begbie was a larger than life character both literally and figuratively. Although history has saddled him with the appellation "Hanging Judge", Begbie, in actual fact handed down the death penalty in relatively few instances. Despite his acerbic tongue and formidable temper, he earned a reputation for meting out swift and fair justice. At Yale, Begbie ruled in favour of the Indian band, tamped down the rambunctious American element and, with the help of the military arm of the Royal Engineers and a constabulary force, he restored civil order to the town.
Apart from the ghosts of history, I am also travelling with a group of flesh and blood companions. Today, as our driver and guide, Brent Rutherford, approaches Yale, the Fraser River is running high and Hill's Bar is submerged. But off the Trans-Canada highway and the roar of logging trucks, and beyond the rumble of goods wagons along the railroad tracks, the town of Yale is tranquil. The lovely heritage church of St. John the Divine is dappled by light and shade; the river where paddle boats and steamers disgorged a ragtag bunch of unshaven men, is now deserted except for a solitary crow which throws an indignant glance our way before taking wing. Here too, is a monument commemorating the start of the Old Cariboo Wagon Road, completed by the Royal Engineers in 1862, which once teemed with pack mules and packers, horses, wagons, and coaches ready to embark on the 400 km, month-long journey to the El Dorado of the Cariboo: Barkerville.
Yale was the cork in the bottle as far as river traffic was concerned. North of the town, the Fraser was un-navigable, churning downstream as it did, in a maelstrom of white water. To proceed further up the canyon, miners and mule trains picked their way along a perilous shelf-like track clinging to the sheer rock facade of the gorge. Today's four lane highway follows the same route, but the canyon walls now resound with the rush of semi-trailers and camper vans, and as I pause to aim my camera at the torrent of water fuming through Hell's Gate, a train shrunk to toy-like dimensions, caterpillars its way along the opposite bank.
We board the Hell's Gate Airtram, swing on cables across the seething river, and on dismounting I discover anotherwisp of the past: a pigtailed Chinese cook named Ah Foo Yu whose claim to immortality is that his culinary expertise was so prized by a company of railroad workers that pandemonium broke out when he was abducted by a rival camp. Worse still, his stove refused to light. Eventually Ah Foo Yu was found and brought back and he happily continued to turn out meals until his death on July 10th 1880. Legend has it that his stove, now displayed on the boardwalk, turns warm on the anniversary of Ah Foo Yu's death although it has never again been fired up. It is a charming little tale, and I like to think that the venerable old Chinese cook's spirit does hover around the area, but since the stove stands bathed in fierce sunlight in July, its heated surface probably owes more to natural causes rather than any supernatural intervention.
Our route winds through Lytton and then up via Spencer's Bridge, Ashcroft, Cache Creek and Clinton. Lytton's main claim to fame is that it is the hottest spot in B.C., and today in early June, at 36 degrees centigrade, it lives up to its reputation. Beyond Lytton the earth turns ochre and the hills are pimpled with cactus. The landscape has a strange, eerie beauty: desolate and wild for a few miles and then, as we swing into the town of Ashcroft, the sagebrush gives way to homes and ranches. At the Ashcroft Museum I find myself in a sepia world surrounded by images of the weather-beaten faces of pioneers, homesteaders, and transient miners; of mule train operators, and stage-coach drivers.
* * * * *
A few hours later at Hat Creek Ranch, I meet up again with Donald McLean, whose packet of gold at the San Francisco mint set off the initial prospecting delirium. McLean, having retired from the Hudson Bay Company, decided to build this roadhouse as a staging halt along the Old Cariboo Road in 1861. Business was brisk through the next couple of decades as coaches and wagons halted to change horses, while miners and pioneers relaxed overnight, enjoying a hot meal and a bottle or two of whisky. Today the old coach road still exists as does McLean's original log building, its walls adorned with photographs of the owner and his native Indian wife, its furnishings reminiscent of a long vanished era.
But not everything at Hat Creek Ranch has dissolved into the past. Some of its previous occupants are still in residence and have been known to make their presence felt from time to time. The most frequent other-world visitor is a woman who knits away while sitting in a rocking chair in one of the bedrooms on the first floor of the house. Horrified onlookers report that she usually melts away within a few seconds, but an icy-cold draft along the passageway sends them rushing down the stairs in panic. Also frequently heard along the path running through the property, is the clatter of phantom hooves making their way to the barn, where the sound of a hammer wielded by an invisible blacksmith rings against an anvil. And most unnerving of all is the spectre of a man who sometimes materializes in the granary swinging from a noose tied to the rafters. To my disappointment none of these apparitions show up during our visit, so instead I content myself by clicking my camera at a very real horse and carriage as it makes its way along the old coach road.
No ghosts frequent the Clinton Museum, although Judge Begbie's chair reposing in one corner is a reminder of the years he spent on judicial circuits in the Cariboo. My attention, however, is caught another curious object-a battered metal safe, with its lid askew. It is only about a cubic foot in size, but it weighs a formidable 100 lbs. It had been found near 100 Mile Hill by the Chief Constable at Clinton in 1914.
There was little doubt as to its history. Back in 1886, a desperado named Jack Rowlands had staged the first coach robbery in Cariboo history near 82 Mile House, holding the BX Express carriage up at gunpoint. How he managed to single-handedly lift the heavy safe containing $15,000 worth of gold dust as well as two gold bricks, and hoist this onto his horse, remains a mystery. Attempts at tracking the bandit down turned out to be futile, but a short while later Rowlands showed up at a bar in Ashcroft bragging that he'd struck it rich at Scotty Creek. Scotty Creek had been cleaned out several years previously, and a local policeman, Constable Burr, grew suspicious. He decided to examine the gold dust Rowlands had stashed in the F.W. Foster store safe and straightened up with an "Aha" of satisfaction: the dust wasn't from Scotty's Creek; it was of a coarse variety, typical to the Barkerville area.
Rowlands was found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to five years in jail, but escaped two years later and vanished across the US border. The gold bars were never found, but according to a letter addressed to F. Tingley (son of the legendary BX stage coach driver Steve Tingley) on November 10th 1914, the safe found by the Chief Constable at Clinton, contained "a bundle of waybills, vouchers and reports along with a small leather treasure bag"(presumably empty). The letter concludes "The safe was apparently opened with an axe, and I do not think it has any value." Perhaps not in terms of utility, but as part of gold rush history the little strongbox holds within its buckled frame the tale of a highwayman brought to justice by a savvy police officer.
* * * * *
Mere robbery pales into insignificance the next morning.
We are standing at the 108 Historical Site, looking at an idyllic scene-an old barn, the schoolhouse and a rustic log cabin set against the backdrop of evergreens, their images mirrored on the still waters of a deep blue lake. Hardly the setting for murder most foul. But if the story is to be believed, this is the neighbourhood where Agnes McVee, her husband Jim McVee, and her son in law, Al Riley, set up McVee's Inn during the 1870s.
Agnes, a Scotswoman of voluptuous proportions, was the leader of the trio. She was also Lucretia Borgia, Lizzie Borden, Countess Elizabeth Bartory, and a female version of Marquis de Sade all rolled into one.
For starters, Agnes enticed young women (many of them looking for a husband along the gold rush trail) into the hotel. Once inside, the girls were imprisoned in the basement, bound, chained, beaten, and starved into terrified submission. In addition to dealing in the sale of these women, Agnes also provided food, liquor, and lodging for miners and merchants travelling solo on their way to or from Barkerville. Many of them never emerged alive. While Agnes plied her victims with booze, and glimpses of her cleavage, Al Riley armed with a shotgun, drew a bead on their backs from a window, killing them instantly. The bodies were then bundled into a covered wagon, and Jim McVea dumped the remains into one of the many wilderness lakes in the area. Agnes meanwhile cleaned out their possessions, and buried gold and coins in the vicinity of the Inn. As a sideline, Jim collected the men's horses and when he had a sufficient number to make up a string, he sold the animals at a profit in Fort Kamloops.
Incredibly-perhaps because of the Inn's remote location-the murderous trio remained on the rampage for ten years, until Agnes made a fatal mistake. A young gambler named McDonald strolled in one night and Agnes, smitten by his debonair good looks, decided she would make a bargain with him: She would sell him a young woman for $4,000 on the condition that he came back to visit her in a couple of months. Perhaps she'd figured on getting rid of her husband in the meantime and installing McDonald in his place, but it didn't pan out that way. McDonald and his newly acquired girl took off on his horse, while Jim McVea, outraged at losing the large bag of money he'd spied in McDonald's possession, sneaked out after him. He returned in the early hours with a sack of $8,000 in gold coins, having shot McDonald and disposed of his body in the usual manner. Agnes was furious, but by the next morning she appeared to have simmered down as she served breakfast to her husband. He'd barely taken a few mouthfuls when he rolled off his chair in violent convulsions, and by the time an appalled Al Riley burst in, Jim was a slab of dead meat on the floor. Agnes coldly set about wrapping her husband's body in a blanket while Al set off hastily to bring the carriage around.
They were just about to drive off with the corpse when the police arrived. With them was McDonald's girl, shivering and frightened. In his haste to get rid of the gambler's body, Jim had forgotten about the young woman who had managed to escape into the night.
And that was that! The remaining six girls in the basement were released, Agnes and Al were convicted of kidnapping and murder, and incarcerated in the New Westminster jail. In 1885 Agnes committed suicide by poisoning herself (possibly with the same powder she'd administered to her husband); Al Riley swung on the gallows shortly afterwards.
Nobody is sure how much gold Agnes collected from the 59 victims whose bodies have come to light from time to time. She is believed to have hidden all of it in the nearby area, and estimates range from $100,000 to $150,000. Of that, an amount of $2,500 in gold nuggets and coins was unearthed by a farmer in the 1920s, and a further $6,000 came to light when Block Brothers developed the area some years later.
Whether apocryphal or not, the tale is a grisly one, and I take a second look at the historical buildings at Mile 108. Some of them are constructed with wood salvaged from the McVee Inn when it was torn down in 1892. Would closer inspection reveal a smear of congealed blood or a strand of human hair lodged in the grain of a beam? Does a human skeleton or two still lie submerged in the placid lake?
* * * * *
We veer off the highway at Lac La Hache, onto a gravel back road snaking through true Cariboo country-rolling meadows fringed by cottonwood trees and ranches bordered with distinctive Russell split-rail fences. Free range cattle saunter across the path, and a moose in the shadow of a clump of evergreens freezes into startled immobility.
We are on the fringe of Horsefly and Likely, both small towns with a big chunk of gold rush folklore tucked into their yesterdays.
As the Fraser River gold rush began to fade, some prospectors headed for home. Others like Peter Dunlevy, Tom Moffitt, Tom Manifee, Jim Sellers, and Ira Crow figured that the gold dust washed down was an indication that a richer mother lode of precious ore lay further into the Cariboo.
According to an article written by Sage Birchwater-a writer living in the West Chilcotin-and published in the Cariboo Sentinel Vol II, at some point along their journey up river, Dunlevy and his group encountered a Shuswap Indian, Tomaah. The Indian looked on curiously while Dunlevy panned gravel in a wooden sluice box. "Why you wash stones?" He asked. When Dunlevy talked about gold, Tomaah shook his head in puzzlement, so from the bottom of his rocker, Dunlevy held out a fleck of gold. It was approaching dinner time, so the group invited Tomaah to join them. At the end of the meal, his face lit by the flicker of a campfire, the Shuswap went back to the subject of gold. He was contemptuous of the dust the men were laboriously sifting from the river bed and offered to show them where to find big shiny stones. How big? Tomaah flicked a bean off his plate: "That big!" He said. His words caused an uproar among the prospectors. A stunned Dunlevy questioned Tomaah further, and the man drew a rough map in the sand. Before parting company, the prospectors agreed to meet the Indian near Lac La Hache.
Fortified with fresh provisions, they headed for the rendezvous, arriving in time for a big tribal celebration of sports and contests. The next evening, true to his word, Tomaah appeared, and with him was his friend, Long Baptiste. But all was not well. The party of white men was not welcomed by all the bands, many of whom were suspicious and hostile What had started out as a sports contest unexpectedly developed into a council of war. Dunlevy and his group hung on the edge of uncertainty. Were they about to be massacred, their bodies flung into the thick woods and forgotten? However, reason prevailed as the Shuswap and Yabatan chiefs pointed out that the fur trade at Hudson's Bay had proved lucrative to them in the past, and it was obvious that the white men had superior fire power. Rather than precipitate a war that would only result in loss of their people, it was best to reap the benefits of co-operation. It was a turning point in the history of the Cariboo gold rush.
Unlike the Agnes McVea tale, this one had a happy ending. Baptiste led them up to the Horsefly River and, although there is no formal record of how much gold Dunlevy's party took out of the area, it is estimated that they cleared over a million dollars in today's currency. Baptiste on Dunlevy's recommendation became Judge Begbie's personal travel guide and companion.
Both Horsefly and Likely doze in the afternoon sun, as we stop briefly to look at the Horsefly River where Dunlevy and his group once made their fortunes. The waters no longer hold any shiny nuggets, but later in the year they will shimmer coppery red as sockeye salmon seethe past fly-fishing enthusiasts drawn here, much like the prospectors over a century ago, but with a different haul to cache!
Continued - Click Here for Barkerville
©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!)