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A second gold rush followed patient Billy Barker’s find

Posted in Famous news stories, Geology, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 13 June 2013

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This edited article about Billy Barker and the Cariboo gold rush originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 293 published on 26 August 1967.

Cariboo Mines, picture, image, illustration

On the Road to the Cariboo Mines, British Columbia

On 21st August, 1862, a woolly bearded Cornishman named Billy Barker was busy digging forty feet down a mine shaft in the rocky bed of Williams Creek in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia.

He was searching for gold and almost on the point of giving up. Other prospectors poked fun at him for everyone believed gold was to be found above the river. Over 4,000 men were feverishly digging in the hills searching for the precious metal.

Billy Barker, however, decided on just one more effort. Then, two feet further down, he suddenly came across a rich vein of gold that brought him and his team untold riches and fame.

When the other prospectors heard of his success they left the hills and swarmed down to stake claims all round Billy’s shaft.

Almost overnight a shanty town of log cabins and saloons sprang up along a narrow muddy strip of land. Within a few years it had grown to be the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. It was called Barkerville in honour of the man who virtually founded it.

The Cariboo Gold Rush had really started four years earlier when news leaked out that gold had been found in the sand bars of the Fraser and Thompson rivers. Until then, the rugged interior of British Columbia had been known only to Indians, and fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Within a year of gold being discovered, over 30,000 men jostled their way up the Fraser river. River bars were washed clean. Fighting broke out between the prospectors and the Indians and by the end of 1860 many disappointed and disillusioned men returned to their homes and families.

When Billy struck it rich, however, the rush was on again with men coming from all over North America, Europe and even China to try and pan their fortunes. At the end of their journey they found a noisy frontier town that echoed to the sounds of picks and shovels, the creek of water mills and the grunting of sweating bull teams. Although a wild town, the presence of the ‘Hanging Judge’, Mathew Baille Begbie, did much to keep it law abiding.

Although the town was rebuilt in 1868 following a disastrous fire, people began to leave when the gold started to peter out, and by 1900 Barkerville was a decaying shanty town occupied by only a handful of diehard pioneers who refused to give up.

The town had, however, fulfilled the purpose of opening men’s eyes to the natural wealth of the region and when, in 1958, British Columbia celebrated its 100th birthday, the Provincial Government decided to restore Barkerville as an historic park. Now visitors can see it just as it was in its heyday and recapture the atmosphere of a frenzied era of Canadian history.

And what happened to Billy Barker? He married a merry widow with expensive tastes and ended his days, penniless, in an Old Men’s Home!

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