Ox team and freight wagons near Lac La Hache circa 1885. (Photo courtesy of the BC Provincial Archives)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The characters among the bull whackers

The men who drove the ox trains were characters

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune

In last month’s article, I wrote about the ox teams which hauled freight up the Cariboo Wagon Road between Yale/Ashcroft and Barkerville. For about 40 years, tons of freight was hauled to the goldfields by these huge, slow moving wagon outfits. The ox trainers were each about 200 yards long, and the shuffling feet of the animals raised a great dust cloud in the dry season, one that could be seen for miles. The driver, known as a ‘bull whacker’ or ‘bull skinner’ walked along in this haze most of the way. It was a dirty, difficult job which required a special sort of a man, one who related well to his animals, who camped and slept alongside them in the open, and who had no aversion to dirt.

There were a number of bull whackers who were real characters and who became legends over the years on the wagon road. In this installment, I’ll tell you about three of them.

Most of the skinners were rather uneducated men, often from a poor background. Harry Stroud was not one of these. He was born into an upper class family and had gone into training for the priesthood. However, he found that he couldn’t take the rigid lifestyle and that he didn’t have the temperament for ordination, so he walked away from the church, and thereafter, he had little respect or tolerance for authority.

After he arrived in the West, Harry found that he was well suited to being an ox train freighter. He became slovenly in his habits, neglecting any sort of personal hygiene. He hung out with men of questionable morals and character, and he liberally used foul language. Deservedly, he became known as ‘Dirty Harry’ by all who knew or knew of him.

Harry was never known to wash his hands or face, and he never combed his hair. He slept in his clothes. No one ever saw him undress, and the common belief was that he bought a new pair of overalls at the start of a freight trip, he put them on over the old ones, which would gradually disintegrate on their own. He claimed that the sweat and dirt on these rags worked to insulate his body, keeping the heat out in the summer and insulating him in the winter.

Despite his lack of personal cleanliness, Harry Stroud was one of the best bull skinners on the Cariboo Road. He was small in stature, but he had an incredible touch with a bull whip. Sometimes he would take bets that he could flick the hair on the back of an ox 30 feet away and not touch the hide. He never lost the bet.

Harry’s ox train start for Barkerville was always the same, something of a ritual. He’d have his outfit lined up on Ashcroft’s main street.

He’d then check the animals and the tack carefully, making sure the heavy neck yokes were not chafing the animals.

Then he’d check all the wheels to ensure they were well greased and had no cracked spokes. He’d make sure the loads were properly packed and well tied down. Then he’d go into the Central Hotel, have one final drink, come out and stand in the middle of the street. He’d uncoil the long bull whip that he always carried around his neck and shout out the names of his oxen one by one. Once he had their attention, he’d swing the whip high over his head and crack it. The sound was like a rifle shot, and all the oxen would start pulling in unison. Dirty Harry went through this performance every time he set out for the goldfields. He was the last driver to operate an ox train out of Ashcroft.

Another outstanding bull slinger was Bill Bose. He began driving outfits from Yale in 1876 at the age of 21, and he walked up and down the Cariboo Wagon Road for more than 25 years. Throughout his career, he was well known for his masterful command of profanity. It was said his salty language could make grown men blush and their wives swoon. In Ashcroft, children were regularly warned not to go near him for fear of them picking up inappropriate expressions. Bill himself once boasted that he could outcuss any three men in British Columbia. He was a firm believer that the best days were gone, and his personal motto was, “To Hell with today. Yesterday was a damn sight better.”

Bill had a famous freight ox named Brigham, after Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who had many wives. This bull, although he was a good puller, also had an amorous nature. At night, he would often wander off looking for a receptive cow. Sometimes it would take Bill an hour or so in the morning to locate him, and sometimes it took half a day, the whole time punctuated with blue language. In 1900, after his final trip up the Cariboo Road, Bill got his revenge. Brigham was sold to Charlie Gibson, Ashcroft’s butcher.

One of the last of the ox team drivers was Chai Con Bee, known to everyone as ‘Chinese Charlie,’ the only Oriental person known to have take up the profession. He was a good bull whacker, but he was also an excellent card player. Charlie not only made money from the freight business, he also took in a nice income from pick up games in the road houses along the way. Charlie’s final trip was made in 1895. He left Ashcroft for Barkerville on May 30 with three wagons loaded with 20,000 pounds of freight. He arrived at his destination, after an uneventful journey, driving the second week of August.

The bull skinners are a tough, independent breed of men. They had a job that few wanted, they were on the whole, very dependable and trustworthy. Over the years, countless tons of freights, supplies and equipment made their way up the road to the goldfields. Without these remarkable men, the Central Interior of our province would not have grown and developed as it did.

Read more: HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Family connection to history of Springhouse school

Barry Sale is a retired teacher and historian from the Cariboo.

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