Canada's Cariboo Gold Rush is kept alive in a town called Barkerville
Back in the 19th century, people were crazy about hunting for gold. They traveled all over North America - in "gold rushes" toward the latest find. Ordinary people quickly became miners, and their desire for the precious metal was so strong, it had a name: gold rush fever.
The most famous gold rushes were in California (1848) and the Klondike region in northwestern Canada near Alaska (1896). But there was also the Cariboo Gold Rush (1858) along the Fraser River Valley, just north of present-day Vancouver, British Columbia.
An estimated 30,000 Americans left California's Gold Rush to chase their fortune in the area. As miners and settlers made their way up the Fraser River looking for more gold - and stripping the resident native tribes of their land - the government built a rough road to accommodate them. Called the Cariboo Wagon Road, it was built in 1862 at the mountainous hamlet of Lillooet and finished three years and 237 miles later at the Fraser River settlement of Quesnel.
Communities sprang up along the way. There are still towns named for the distance they are from Lillooet: "70 Mile House," "100 Mile House" and "150 Mile House." The "house" was a roadhouse where travelers could get lodging and food. At 150 Mile House, one can stop at a restored 1896 schoolhouse that was cutting edge for its time with a cloak room, a barrel stove and separate outhouses, or outdoor bathrooms, for boys and girls.
The biggest stash of gold was in the wilderness east of Quesnel at a spot called Barkerville (named after British prospector Billy Barker), some 4,300 feet up on the western edge of the Cariboo Mountains. His gold strike near Williams Creek in 1862 revealed the world's largest creek-side gold nugget deposit.
Buildings sprung up there overnight, and for a time Barkerville was the largest North American city west of St. Louis, Missouri, and north of San Francisco, California.
The gold rush ended long ago, but you can visit Barkervile to see what a 19th-century frontier town looked like. Set on 1,130 acres, it's nearly four times the size of Colonial Williamsburg. There are more than 125 historic buildings and costumed reenactors who pretend to be settlers from the 1860s. One plays the part of "Miss Florence Wilson," who came from Britain to Canada in 1864 on a ship of women meant to be future wives for male miners. She waves a parasol as she gives tours of the town. Then there's a "Mrs. Thompson," a grouchy teacher dressed in a long skirt with a bustle and a bonnet who teaches the three Rs the Victorian way in an 1874 schoolhouse.
You will see Chinatown, which is decorated with red banners, red Chinese lanterns and flags. It honors the 5,000 to 8,000 immigrants from China's Pearl River Delta who made their way across the Pacific Ocean, then on foot from the coast to Barkerville (a three-week walk) to labor in the gold fields.
If you visit, take in the local Anglican Church, print shop, blacksmith and cemeteries. And don't miss the opportunity to pan for gold chips and flakes. You won't strike it rich, but you may go home with a tiny golden souvenir.
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Even if you can't travel to British Columbia's Fraser River Valley, you can find out more about the Cariboo Gold Rush at these websites.
The B.C. Gold Rush blog: bcgoldrushpress.com.
Helpful stuff for kids: cariboogoldrush.com.
The Royal British Columbia Museum: royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.
Barkerville's official site: barkerville.ca.