Special to the Tribune/Advisor
In the late summer of 1869 a placer miner by the name of Thomas Latham arrived in Quesnelle Forks.
He began prospecting for gold, and just before winter set in, he found a promising creek running through a gulch and into the South Fork (Quesnel) River about three miles upriver from town.
It is said that when he struck paydirt, Latham did a unique dance, and thereafter, would often dance a little jig when describing his discovery.
People began calling him “Dancing Bill” and the creek where he found gold became known as Dancing Bill Creek.
Latham worked that claim for about 10 years during the mining seasons, then would travel down to New Westminster where he spent his riches freely. In the late 1870s he moved on to seek his fortune in the northern parts of the province.
After his departure, Chinese miners moved in, reworking Dancing Bill’s diggings and excavating deep into the sides of the gulch, now known, of course, as Dancing Bill Gulch.
They worked their way deep into the creek bed as well, and over the years, they created quite a deep canyon about 1,000 feet in length, but still 150 feet above the Quesnel River. Then they, too, moved on after taking almost $1 million in gold from the claim.
In 1891, a group of speculators from Toronto contacted John Beauregard Hobson, a successful mining engineer from California to help develop large scale mining in the Cariboo.
The following year, with a huge budget, he formed the Cariboo Hydraulic Mining Company, and bought up virtually all the mining leases in the area.
This company gradually morphed into the Consolidated Hydraulic Mining Company, whose directors were mainly the officials of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The property covered by the mining leases consisted of about 10 square miles. It was thought that this property would yield at least $100 million in gold. Expectations were sky high.
Hobson, who had a good knowledge of hydraulic mining, began in 1893 to construct a 21-mile canal, known as the South Fork Ditch, to take water from Polley and Bootjack Lakes to the pipes at the mine, which fed the giant monitors.
This ditch was 10 feet wide and six feet deep, and was dug by hand. Japanese workers were brought in to do the job because it was believed that they were more efficient workers than the Chinese.
Although operations at the mine, now called the Bullion Mine or the Bullion Pit, started in 1893, it was not until 1895 that the network of canals and flumes were complete and large-scale operations could begin in earnest. Twelve-inch monitors blasted the sides of the gulch and down into the creek bed.
The rocks and gravel were washed down over steel riffles that trapped the gold, and the tailings were either left in huge piles or, later on, washed through a tunnel out into the Quesnel River.
Construction continued on the ditch system, and a 410-foot, by 35-foot dam, was built on a creek 11 miles distant.
The resulting lake became known as Morehead Lake (more head meaning more pressure from the increased water flow).
By 1899, the ditching system was complete. The area of the watershed captured by the mine was over 60 square miles and had a capacity of over one billion cubic feet of water.
There were 33 miles of ditches with 12 cabins along the canals for use by the men who operated the gates for the reservoirs and kept the system clean of debris.These cabins were connected by a private telephone system.
For the first six years, the operation did reasonably well, recovering over $60 million worth of gold (in today’s prices).
However, the amount of gold taken out varied widely from year to year.
This was because the mine had to operate within the restrictions of local weather conditions.
Hydraulic operations could only begin after the snow and ice had disappeared, and had to be shut down in the late fall prior to winter.
In addition, the availability of water had to be taken into account.
In dry years, much less hydraulicking could be down as the system dried up (in 1903, for example, the mine operated for only two months before running out of water).
In wet years, the snow melt and the rain filled the reservoir system, but the bad roads made access to the pit almost impossible (in 1900, the yield could have been much higher, but the ‘Cariboo gumbo’ on the roads prevented a shipment of explosives from Ashcroft from getting into the mine for three weeks).
Hobson hatched a scheme to bring in more water from Spanish Lake, some 10 miles distant.
He found financing and purchased two enormous steam shovels from the Vulcan Machine Works in Toledo, Ohio.
The two shovels were delivered in 1907, but the buckets were wrong.
They were useless for digging horizontal ditches, and the machines were never used for their intended purpose.
One still stands at Cedar Creek Park just outside of Likely.
The company accountants began looking at the bottom line, and to their dismay, they discovered that over 11 years, the Cariboo Consolidated Mining Company took in $75 million in gold, but spent $112 million on operations.
In July, 1907, the funding was cut off.
Hobson tried valiantly to find new funding sources, but couldn’t.
The Bullion mine closed, and he moved to Victoria where he continued to try to find backing.
He died there of heart failure in January of 1912.
For the next 25 years or so, the leases changed hands several times, the operation faced several lawsuits and countersuits, and several attempts to resume mining operations failed, so the pit, if it operated at all, did so in fits and starts.
Then, in 1933, gold was revalued from $20 to $34 per ounce. That was enough to make the mine attractive again, and a new company, Bullion Placers Ltd., hired mining supervisor Ray Sharpe to redevelop the pit.
By 1934, he had three shifts of 80 men employed.
The old network of flumes and canals was upgraded, and once the mine was back in full operation, Sharpe boasted that the daily amount of water used exceeded that of the City of Vancouver.
The mine continued operating until 1942, when more litigation and the outbreak of the Second World War ended large-scale operations forever.
During the 1930s and early 1940s it is estimated that approximately two million cubic metres of earth was sluiced each year for almost 10 years, and that there was about 1/4 ounce of gold in every cubic metre moved.
The B.C. Government has estimated that over its lifetime, the Bullion Pit produced some 75,700 ounces of gold, worth approximately $91 million in today’s prices.
It was once the largest hydraulic placer mine in the world.
In all, some 200 million tonnes of dirt and gravel were washed away to create a huge chasm more than 250 metres wide, 120 metres deep, and 1.6 kilometres long.
There was no thought to environmental concerns during the life of this mine. Mercury and arsenic were routinely used to separate the gold, and most of the dirt and gravel tailings were eventually washed into the Quesnel River.
Salmon runs were destroyed, as was much of the natural riverbed habitat.
If you go to Quesnelle Forks today, you can see acres of rocks on the riverbed, all of which were washed down from the Bullion Pit.
In 1935, residents of Quesnel Forks petitioned the provincial government to repair two piers and the southern approach to the South Fork bridge, which were damaged by rocks brought down by a high river run off.
Eventually, part of the bridge was torn away, and a large section of the townsite at the north end of the bridge, including the Government Agent’s house, was eroded away into the river.
Typically, the government didn’t respond until it was too late.
Eventually, a new road was built to access Quesnelle Forks.
Even though it has been almost 80 years since the last large-scale mining was done in the pit site, it still looks raw and fresh, with steep sides and constant erosion.
It is very much a testament to what lengths humans will go to in their relentless search for gold.