Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Gold Rushes of British Columbia, Part 1

(Fraser Canyon, B.C.)

Overshadowed But Not Outdone

Although often overshadowed historically by the extensive and extremely rich finds of the California Gold Rush and the American West in general, the Canadian Province of British Columbia (B.C.) has had its share of gold rushes as well. Although many of these were less "substantial" by comparison, they were just as significant in terms of B.C.'s exploration and settlement, and figured prominently in the development of the Province's early economy.

Although not all-inclusive, here is Part 1 of B.C.'s major gold rushes:

Fraser Canyon

The Fraser Canyon (or Fraser River) Rush began in 1858 when placer gold was discovered on the Thompson River only a few miles from the confluence of the Thompson and the Fraser River near the modern-day community of Lytton. The Fraser strike remained local news for about 2 years or so, with small numbers placer miners working the gold-bearing gravels without outside "interference." But news of the strike eventually traveled south where it reached the receptive ears of miners on the "played out" California placer goldfields, and the rush was on. Soon, thousands of ex-'49ers were streaming north to the Fraser River.

Near Lillooet in the upper reaches of the goldfields the population exploded to nearly 16,000 souls, with many of the incidental shortcomings of most boomtowns like crime, violence, drunkenness, and prostitution. For a short time, Lilooet was known as "the largest town north of San Francisco and west of Chicago." But by 1860 the richest gravels had been depleted and the Fraser Rush started its inevitable decline after a short 2-year run.

However, the rush to the Fraser became one of the key events in B.C.'s history as miners left the area to search for precious metals in other locations in the territory. Soon, other gold strikes followed with subsequent exploration and development, bringing about a formal declaration of the territory as the Colony of British Columbia. The rest was, as they say, history...

Rock Creek

Interestingly enough, the Rock Creek Rush was triggered in 1859 by US citizens who found placer gold at the confluence of the Kettle River and Rock Creek just across the border and only 3 miles into Canadian territory. At the peak of mining activities, more than 5,000 miners (mostly Americans and Chinese) were working the area and a new community, Rock Creek, sprang up to service their needs. As at Fraser, the diggings were quickly exhausted at Rock Creek and most of the argonauts departed for new, and hopefully, richer B.C. gold grounds.

Cariboo

Although initial placer strikes were made in 1859 at Horsefly and Keithley Creeks, and Antler Horns Lake, the Caribbo Rush didn't get ramped up until 1861 when word of the gold discoveries reached "civilization." When another rich strike was discovered in 1862 at Williams Creek, the Cariboo Rush was on full bore. A number of B.C. boomtowns sprang up nearby, the most notable of these being Barkerville, Keithley Creek, Richfield, Quesnel, Horsefly, and Fort Alexandria.

Although most of the miners at Cariboo were British and Canadian, a sizable population of American (and the inevitable Chinese) miners was also in residence. The good gold diggings lasted at Cariboo into the early-to-mid 1860s, then petered out. Once again, erstwhile argonauts left to search for better ground in B.C.

Big Bend

About the time the Cariboo rush was drawing to a close, prospectors discovered substantial deposits of placer gold in B.C.'s Big Bend Country in an area where the Columbia River curves for many miles around the Selkirk Mountains. Both the Columbia and its many tributaries carried good placer gold values in this locale, drawing crowds of miners (many of whom simply abandoned their claims at Cariboo and other diggings).

The inevitable mining boomtowns sprang up with Mica Creek and Big Bend being the most important (or notorious, depending on your point of view). The main part of the Big Bend gold diggings was located near the Arrow Lakes on the various tributary creeks feeding into the Goldstream River and Downie Creek, both of which were near the infamous "Death Rapids" of the Columbia.
The Big Bend strike lasted for a few years only. Once the easy-to-get paystreaks were recovered and the diggings lost their "richness," miners packed up their gear and headed back into B.C.'s wilderness in their endless pursuit of even richer diggings. So it went time and time again....
(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.)  2008

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