HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Quesnel Forks, a true relic of the gold rush

The townsite of Quesnel Forks, circa 1885. (Photo submitted)The townsite of Quesnel Forks, circa 1885. (Photo submitted)
A map shows many of the locations at the Quesnel Forks townsite. (Photo submitted)A map shows many of the locations at the Quesnel Forks townsite. (Photo submitted)
Quesnel Forks present day. (Angie Mindus photo)Quesnel Forks present day. (Angie Mindus photo)

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune

About 13 kilometres northwest of Likely lies the old ghost town of Quesnel Forks.

Many old buildings are still standing on the grassy area which was once the town site nestled above the confluence of the Quesnel and Cariboo Rivers.

The peaceful setting today belies the hectic pace which took place in this instant boom town early on in the great Cariboo Gold Rush.

By the spring of 1859, a virtual army of prospectors was working its way northwards up the Fraser River. These men moved from bar to bar, looking for the coarse gold that would indicate they were getting closer to the source.

By early summer, the vanguard of these goldseekers was working the bars north of Fort Alexandria, all the way up to the mouth of the Quesnel River.

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They found good gold, often in pellet form, on several bars in the area. Some of them chose to continue north on the Fraser, while others moved eastward, travelling up the Quesnel.

At the same time, groups of prospectors were moving into the area overland.

The Horsefly River, about 15 kilometres upstream from Quesnel Lake, was the site of a large gold strike, triggering what we now call the Cariboo Gold Rush.

From the Horsefly area, the prospectors worked their way northwest to the shores of Quesnel Lake, and over to the river flowing out of it.

By the fall of 1859, trails had been cut from 150 Mile House through 20 miles of deadfall, mudholes and swamps to Beaver Valley, then on to the banks of the Quesnel River.

So, by late 1859, the miners had arrived, coming from two directions, at the confluence of the Quesnel and Cariboo Rivers. They did not realize at first that the two rivers were different systems, believing that the Cariboo River (the North Fork) and the Quesnel River (the South Fork) were branches of the same river.

The delta at the junction of these two fast-moving waterways consisted of large deposits of sand and gravel, with a large flat forested area about 20 feet above the water. In the gravel, and in the banks upriver, good gold was found. It was not long before a mining camp was established on the flat between the two forks.

This place became known variously as Quesnelle City, Quesnelle Forks, Quesnelle, Forks City, Canal Forks, The Forks of Quesnelle or, simply, The Forks.

The camp grew quickly, and it has the distinction of being the first permanent European settlement in the Interior of B.C. that was not on the Fraser River.

By 1860, more than 20 residences, about 15 stores, a boarding house, saloons/whiskey shops and tents were packed together on the 10-acre site.

The newly-appointed Gold Commissioner for the Cariboo, Philip Henry Nind, requested that the townsite be properly surveyed by the Royal Engineers.

At first, Col. R.C. Moody, the Commander of the R.E. and the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works for the Colony of B.C., refused, since he viewed the town as simply a motley collection of miners’ cabins and not a permanent settlement.

During the low water season that winter of 1860-61, extensive mining was carried out on the bed of the Quesnel River right next to the townsite. Several water wheels and wing dams were built, each of which extracted significant quantities of gold.

The flats and benches above both rivers were also prospected, resulting in further gold strikes.

It appeared that the area was blessed with an incredible wealth.

Meanwhile, goldseekers were working their way up the North Fork.

Gold deposits were discovered on the tributary creeks and streams.

Keithley, Lowhee and Antler Creeks became the focus of mining activity.

By 1862, the goldfields of Lightning and Williams Creek had been found and were swarming with activity as the gold rush reached a frenzy.

Quesnel Forks took on the role as the supply, policing, and administrative centre of the area.

In 1861, a 200-foot wooden bridge was constructed across the South Fork by saloon owners William Prosper Barry and Sam Adler. They charged a toll of 25 cents for foot traffic and $1 for a packed horse or mule.

First Nations people could cross for free. In that year also, a small log jailhouse with two cells was built, and a police constable was hired with Quesnel Forks as his home base (that same jailhouse was dismantled and removed to Barkerville during its restoration, but it was never utilized, and eventually it was cut up for firewood).

During 1861, the townsite was finally surveyed by Col. Moody and his Royal Engineers. Except for the street closest to the North Fork (River Street), all the streets running north/south were named after prominent citizens of the colony. The east/west streets were numbered first through sixth.

In all, there were 19 blocks and more than 200 lots, with two blocks reserved for government services.

A large plot for a cemetery was also designated. All the available lots quickly sold out.

When we talk about the Gold Rush, we tend to think of hard working white miners in cotton shirts, working with picks and shovels in mud, water and gravel.

Quesnel Forks, in reality, was a multi-cultural town before that term came into existence, with whites, Aboriginal people, migrant Hawaiians, Jewish people, emancipated black slaves, Europeans and Chinese miners.

The Chinese followed on the heels of the first goldseekers.

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They tended to keep to themselves, with their own language, traditions, and culture, but there was seldom any animosity with other groups.

They often worked 12 to 14 hours a day on claims that had been abandoned by whites, or as day labourers.

They spent their leisure time gambling at dice, fan tan, or dominoes, and they drank a rice whiskey which was said to contain more than 75 per cent alcohol.

By 1875, when the Cariboo Wagon Road was completed from Quesnel through to Barkerville, Quesnel Forks began a long, slow decline as Barkerville became the major centre of the Cariboo goldfields.

Ten years later, The Forks had a population of only about 200 people, almost all Chinese.

What had been a rough, bustling, crowded frontier town was now quiet and subdued. The Government Agent, Oliver Hare, in a report to Victoria, wrote: “The whole of the trading at The Forks is done by the Chinese. There are still several good stores there, also two butchers, a blacksmith, and a watchmaker; three of the storekeepers have liquor licences and two of them sell opium.”

Following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway through to Ashcroft in 1885, the Chinese population at Quesnel Forks increased when discharged railway workers headed north to try their hand at gold mining.

They were supported by a branch of the Chee Kung Tong Association, which built a large, two-storey building in the village.

This tong controlled virtually all Chinese-related activities in the area for the next 60 years or more. At this time, the Cariboo region contained the third largest groups of Chinese residents in the province after Victoria and Nanaimo.

In 1895, the horse and packing trail from Quesnel Forks to the Cariboo Wagon Road at 150 Mile House was upgraded and widened into a wagon road to accommodate the expected heavy equipment for the soon to open Bullion Pit Mine nearby.

At this time, as well, the Quesnel Forks bridge was strengthened and re-timbered.

It remained in use for the next 53 years until 1948 when it was swept away by flood waters. At low water, the original bridge pilings can still be seen in the river.

By the 1930s, Quesnel Forks was nearing its end. There were only about 30 people remaining at the townsite, still eking out an existence.

Some established miners remained in the area until 1942, when the federal government passed a law prohibiting gold mining companies to hire men who were fit to serve in the military.

As a result, the number of miners in the Quesnel Forks/Keithley/Likely area was considerably reduced.

Only a few old timers stayed on, continuing to trap and mine for gold.

After the Second World War was over, very few people returned to The Forks.

There was only one remaining store and restaurant, owned and operated by an elderly Chinese man, Lim Sing.

The last two full-time residents of Quesnel Forks were two old friends: Leo ‘Shorty’ Lahaie and Wong Kuey Kim. Kim’s mother had been purchased in China at the age of 15 to be the bride of the town’s chemist and tong leader.

Wong Kuey was born to her at The Forks in 1896, and he remained there for his entire life, seldom travelling further than Likely.

On a bitterly cold day in February, 1854, he was walking back home from a trip to Likely for supplies when he apparently sat down for a rest about two kilometres from his cabin.

His frozen body was found there by Shorty who came looking for him when he noticed that his friend was not in his cabin.

Shorty retired to Likely, and passed away in 1979. He is buried in the cemetery at The Forks.

The townsite was left as it was. Unfortunately, it became a popular place for souvenir hunters and for bush parties.

Over the years, buildings were ransacked, contents removed, artifacts dug up, siding removed, and windows broken out.

Even graves in the cemetery were dug up by people looking for items that may have been buried with the bodies.

As well, over the years, the Quesnel River has changed course, and much of what was First Street has been eroded away.

Several buildings have been lost.

Today, thanks to the efforts of the Likely Cemetery Society, community volunteers and government heritage project grants, a good deal of restoration has taken place. Several buildings have been rebuilt, stabilized, or moved away from the eroding river bank.

Vandalism still occurs, but the townsite still stands, a mute and aging testament to the brief time when, as a B.C. Ministry of Forests sign at the site asserts, it was “the largest city in British Columbia with more than 5,000 goldseekers using its hotels, stores, whiskey shops and boarding houses.”

Information for this article was found in the writings of Marie Elliott, Irene Stangoe, an article by C.E. Bennett in the Canadian West Magazine and information from the Internet.


Editor’s note: At the end of last month’s column, the name of the Witte sisters was spelled incorrectly. Our apologies for this error. The statement should have read: “relied heavily on the Witte sisters’ book: ‘Chilcotin: Preserving Pioneer Memories.’”



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