Haphazard History: Stagecoach robberies on wagon road

For more than 50 years, from 1863 until 1917, the B.C. Express Company’s stagecoaches transported mail, express, and passengers.

For more than 50 years, from 1863 until 1917, the red and yellow B.C. Express Company’s stagecoaches transported mail, express, and passengers from Yale to Barkerville, an 800 mile return trip.

The company was founded by Francis Jones Barnard, and at first was called the Barnard Express, or BX as it was known to three generations of Cariboo residents. In the early 1860s Barnard began carrying letters on foot from New Westminster to the Cariboo goldfields.

Gradually, he earned enough money to purchase some horses and start a pony express.

By late 1863, he had established a regular stagecoach service, from Yale up to Soda Creek.

With the completion of the CPR Railway in 1886, however, the new community of Ashcroft became the major southern terminus of the stagecoach route. To those of us who grew up on a diet of western movies, the term “stagecoach” brings to mind images of masked men on horses waiting in Ambush, holding up terrified passengers and galloping off with sacks of gold.

However, during its decades of service, the BX, which was considered one of the most prominent stagecoach lines in North America, built up an outstanding reputation for reliability and service.

It saw remarkably few holdups, even though it carried literally tons of gold. in 1866 for example, the New Westminster newspaper reported that the BX made 80 return trips to Barkerville from Yale and carried a total of $4,619,000. worth of treasure and valuables.

At first, a mounted provincial policeman rode with each stage as an escort during the months when the heaviest gold shipments were made.

This did not prove to be an effective use of the police officer’s time, so the company took on the responsibility and hired armed men to “ride shotgun and guard the valuables. However, after a few years, even this practice was discontinued because it was considered to be an unnecessary expense. After that, the drivers were on their own, although most of them were always heavily armed.

In researching this article, I could find information on only five robberies over the life of the B.C. EXpress Co’s stagecoach era.

The first holdup occurred in 1885 near 85 Mile, where two highway men made off with $4,000 in gold.

A few years later, another robbery took place between Soda Creek and Quesnel.

Those thieves got away with approximately $2,000. In both of these instances the criminals were never apprehended, and the gold was never found. These were the only two successful holdups in the company’s history. A much larger robbery occurred in July of 1890 at the bottom of the Bridge Creek Hill near 100 Mile House.

The robber got away with more than $15,000 in gold. A few weeks later a man named Martin van Buren Rowlands arrived in Ashcroft, saying that he had struck it rich at Scotty’s Creek, some 19 miles to the north.

This news started a mini gold stampede to the area, but strangely, nobody else found any gold there.

Lowlands continued to bring gold from his find into Ashcroft, spending it very freely, mainly in saloons and on gambling. The authorities became suspicious.

They obtained some of the gold and had it examined. It was found to be an exact match to the type of gold stolen from the stage Bridge Creek. What Rowlands did not realize was that gold from each individual creek is different, with its own unique properties, and that people with experience could identify the creek and the area it came from just by examining the gold.

Rowlands was arrested. He confessed to the robbery and was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary at New Westminster.

Somehow, he managed to escape after being there for two years, and he was never seen again.

In June of 1894, a rough character named Red Bluff Charlie held up the stagecoach at 150 Mile House and escaped with the meagre total of $45 in gold dust. He was captured the next day on the road to Dog Creek. Two weeks later he appeared before Judge Clement Cornwall and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He did not escape.

Don’t you wish that our present day justice system worked as well ad as quickly as this?

The last holdup, which happened in November, 1909, is also reputed to be the last holdup of an overland stagecoach on the North American continent. This one took place between 141 Mile and 144 Mile on the Cariboo Road. A man and woman stopped the stage at rifle point and demanded all the registered mail sacks from 150 Mile and points north. The driver, Charles Westoby, who was quite deaf, pretended that he couldn’t understand their instructions. In the confusion, he managed to keep bak some of the full sacks and substitute them for empty ones, so that the thieves got away with only about $2,000.

(One of the sacks that Westoby hid contained more than $5,000 in currency from the bank in Quesnel).

The stage was then ordered to drive on, and it made good time to 134 Mile House, where word was telegraphed up and down the line and the police were notified. A posse of BX employees, ranchers and police proceeded to the scene of the crime.

There they found the mail sacks in the bush, all cut open and all currency removed.

The couple’s horses were tracked for several miles, until they mingled with the tracks of some wild horses and the trail was lost.

However, the “moccasin telegraph” was very active, and after a process of careful elimination and checking, the authorities finally decided that the culprits were a woman and a man whom she claimed was her brother-in-law.

They had been living in the 150 Mile area for only a few weeks. The pair were quickly arrested, but no money was found.

However, the prisoners were taken to Ashcroft., put on a train, and told to get out and stay out of Canada.

The Ashcroft newspaper noted that “They were undoubtedly guilty and were obviously relieved to get off so lightly.”

In all, the B.C. Express stagecoaches carried tens of millions of dollars in gold from the creeks of the Cariboo to Yale and Ashcroft.

They were a familiar sight on the Wagon Road, but by the end of the First World War they had been relegated to history, replaced by big Winton touring cars. Only two original BX stagecoaches remain, one at the Hat Creek Ranch and the other on display at the Red Coach Inn at 100 Mile House.