Chapmans Bar House, 14 miles above Yale in 1867, long the Fraser River. (BC Archives Photo by Frederick Dally)

Chapmans Bar House, 14 miles above Yale in 1867, long the Fraser River. (BC Archives Photo by Frederick Dally)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Fraser River bar settlements key to some of B.C.’s gold rush history

Bars along the Fraser include some fascinating stories of towns and settlements long washed away

When I drive down to the Lower Mainland through the Fraser Canyon, I pass through several places which are named for bars on the river below.

Places like Kanada Bar, Boston Bar, China Bar, and Sailor Bar — all had a role to play in the gold rush.

How many of these places were there and how did they get their names? These questions started me off on a bit of a quest which proved to be very interesting.

A river bar is a ridge or a succession of ridges of sand and gravel, often extending across the mouth of a tributary creek or stream. Along the course of the Fraser River, especially in the Fraser Canyon, a 270-kilometre stretch from Yale in the south to the confluence of the Chilcotin River in the north, there are literally hundreds of these natural bar formations.

When the river is low, they are fairly easily accessible, but when the river is high, they are submerged for several weeks. For millennia, gold has been carried downstream by the river currents and deposited on these natural riffles.

In early 1858, gold seekers began swarming over the Fraser River system, following the gold upriver, starting with the bars in the lower reaches of the river between Hope and Yale. Most of them used the simple gold pan to separate the gold from the sand and gravel, picking out the fine flakes by hand or with tweezers.

If they found good gold, they would often settle in for a longer period of time and set up rockers or sluices.

If not, they moved on up to the next bar.

The gold washing process was not very efficient, and a fair amount of the finer gold particles escaped, but that was of little concern to the prospectors, all of whom were looking for the “big strike.”

The names of the bars along the Fraser often reflect the ancestry of the hometown of the men who came to the area.

The American influence can be seen in names like Union Bar, 54/40 Bar, Santa Clara Bar, Yankee Doodle Bar, and Texas, Sacramento, Ohio, New York, Fargo, and Washington Bars.

The British miners contributed names for the bars like Cornish, Victoria, Wellington, and London.

Other bars were named for the nationality of the men working there —Canadian, French, Dutch, Nicaragua, and China for example.

Some bars took their names from the first person to find gold there, and others were named for size or geographic formations, like Big Bar, Little Big Bar, High Bar, and Cantilever Bar.

There were upwards of 80 bars named during the 1858-1860 Fraser Canyon gold rush, with many of the smaller bars left unnamed.

During those three years, more than 20,000 prospectors worked the sand and gravel of the river.

Unfortunately, the histories associated with most of these places have long since been forgotten, but I chose at random a number of the more successful diggings, and here is some information about each.

Proceeding from south to north:

Emory Bar

This bar was named after an American prospector who discovered gold there (about five kilometres south of Yale) in mid-1858.

It turned out to be a fairly rich site, and it is recorded that 500 men spent the winter of 1858-59 there, camped in tents and shingle dwellings.

After the gold petered out, the area declined, but there was a resurgence in the fall of 1879, as the land above the bar was expected to become the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

A new town, optimistically name Emory City, soon grew up with 13 streets, 32 blocks and 400 good-sized lots. Emory City was abandoned in 1881 when Yale became the operational centre for the railway.

By 1900, not a trace of the place could be found.

Hill’s Bar

This place was located a little more than two kilometres south of Yale on the other (east) side of the river.

It proved to be the richest and longest-worked bar on the lower part of the Fraser.

James Moore, one of the first prospectors to come to this bar in the late spring of 1858 wrote: “we camped on a bar about 10 miles from Fort Hope to cook lunch, and while doing so, one of our party noticed particles of gold in the moss that was growing on the rocks. He got a pan and washed this moss and got a good prospect, and after our gastric wants were satisfied, we all prospected the bar and found it rich with gold. With our crude mode of working with rockers, we made on an average of $50 per day to the man. We named this bar Hill’s Bar in honour of the man that washed the first pan of moss.”

By June, trees had been chopped down and about 40 semi-permanent cabins had been built, the first being a roadhouse and saloon.

By September, a townsite had been laid out.

For a while, the town of Hill’s Bar competed with Fort Yale to be the main centre of the area.

Sailor Bar

As the news of the gold rush travelled, many men just abandoned their jobs and headed out for the Fraser River, hoping to strike it rich.

Sailor Bar was first worked by a group of seamen who had jumped ship in Victoria and who found decent gold at this place about 16 km north of Yale.

Governor James Douglas wrote: “The miners whom I questioned about their earning were making from $2.50 to $25 per man for the day. The greatest instance of mining success which I hear of in the course of our journey fell to the lot of three men who collected in seven working days 190 ounces of gold dust on Sailor Bar, 10 miles north of Fort Yale.”

Chapman’s Bar

This bar, about three kilometres north of Spuzzum, was one of the largest and richest on the east side of the river.

In August of 1858, dozens of miners were each washing from one to four ounces of gold per day there.

William L. Alexander opened a restaurant and a store in a small 15 by 25 foot log hut, right next to the river trail above the gold workings.

In 1864, after the Canyon Wagon Road had been completed, land was purchased next to the road up above the river, and a new roadhouse called Chapman’s Bar House was built.

It was also called Alexander’s 14 Mile House and it still stands today.

It’s now called the Alexandra Lodge because of its proximity to the nearby bridge of the same name across the Fraser.

This is one of the oldest gold-rush-era structures still in existence in the province.

China Bar

After the gold rush had moved on, a large contingent of Chinese men followed the white miners working the bars for the gold that had been left behind.

The laws of the day restricted the Chinese miners to working only claims which had been abandoned by white miners.

The Chinese miners washed gold on this bar for quite some time, and through their patience and diligence, they were able to produce good amounts of gold.

Island or Yankee Bar

A group of Americans first worked this bar, on the west side of the river across from Boston Bar.

A small town grew up on the bench above the river.

Known as Yankee Town or Yankee Flats, it was a place that honest miners and law-abiding men chose to avoid.

It soon faded into obscurity, but when the CPR established a small terminal there, halfway between Vancouver and Kamloops, it gained a new life of sorts.

The community was renamed North Bend, because the CPR tracks take a big turn there.

Boston Bar

This place was named for the many Americans who were working in the area. Since American ships which regularly arrived at B.C. ports were often from Boston, the First Nations people took to calling the Americans “Boston Men.”

They called the British “King George Men.”

The Boston Men treated the Indigenous people very poorly and over time some very deep enmity developed, precipitating a series of incidents in the late summer of 1858 when the local natives began attacking and killing groups of Americans washing for gold on the bars.

On August 8 of that year, these raids culminated in the “Battle of Boston Bar,” a vicious fight that left seven locals dead and several others wounded.

About 150 whites were involved, and only one of them was wounded.

The community of Boston Bar was first established on a low, flat area beside the river.

A rope ferry was connected to Yankee Bar on the other side of the river.

In 1860, the town was relocated up above the river, and for years it served as a major supply centre for the area.

Boothroyd’s

This was not a river bar, but a famous roadhouse and ranch some 14 miles (22 km) to the north of Boston Bar.

It was established by two brothers, William and George, in the fall of 1860.

For more than a decade this place flourished, even though the brothers did not get along with each other.

In 1873, they parted company, and the property was put up for sale.

The area around this roadhouse became known as Boothroyd’s, and it is still called that today by the locals.

No trace of the ranch or buildings remains.

The property is now a grassy airfield.

Kanaka Bar

“Kanakas” were native Hawaiian Islanders.

In 1834, the Hudsons Bay Company had established a post at Honolulu, and over the years, its trading ships had brought a number of men to B.C.

A village of Hawaiians, called Kanaka Creek, was established across the river from Fort Langley in the late 1830s.

When the gold rush began, these Hawaiians were not immune, and they too set out to seek their fortune.

A substantial number of them staked claims on the bar which now bears their name and washed for gold here in 1858 and 1859.

Above the town of Lytton, which was named for the Secretary of State for the Colonies of B.C. and Vancouver Island, there were fewer bars, but they were rumoured to have larger deposits of gold.

As the prospectors worked their way northward from Lytton to Lillooet and beyond, all the bars were explored, but not many produced good amounts of gold.

One that did was Cameron’s Bar, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Lytton.

It was discovered and worked by John A. Cameron, who later became known as “Cariboo Cameron” and who struck it rich on Williams Creek.

He worked this bar for the 1859 season and did well before he set out for the Cariboo goldfields.

By 1860, with the word of the huge gold strike in the Cariboo, the attention of the miners was no longer on the river bars.

Almost all of the white prospectors on the Fraser River packed up their gear and headed to the Cariboo, leaving the river bars to the Chinese, who worked them for many more years, well into the 1890s.

All that remains now of these working are the names, and they are quickly fading from memory.

They were an integral part of the early development of our province.

Sources: The writings of Branwyn Patenaude, Mark Forsythe, and Greg Dickson.

Read More: HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The town of Soda Creek

More: LISTEN: A Haphazard History of the Fraser River Bridge


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