Chinese miners’ cabins at Quesnel Forks at 1890. (BC Provincial Archives photo)

Chinese miners’ cabins at Quesnel Forks at 1890. (BC Provincial Archives photo)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The lost Chinese mine near Quesnel Forks

By 1862, the Cariboo gold rush had already passed through the Quesnel Forks area

Barry SALE

Special to the Tribune

By 1862, the Cariboo gold rush had already passed through the Quesnel Forks area.

Most of the white prospectors had moved on, following the gold up the North Fork (Cariboo River) to Keithley Creek, then over Yank’s Peak to the rich, gold-bearing streams of the goldfields.

Following on the heels of the white goldseekers were the Chinese miners. The restrictive laws of the time prevented a Chinese man from staking a claim on land that had not been previously worked. He could only get a mining licence, which cost him $15 a year compared to $5 a year for a white prospector, for areas that had been picked over and abandoned by white miners.

But the Chinese prospectors were disciplined and persistent.

The Government Agent at Quesnel Forks, William Stephenson, wrote of them: “As a class, they are industrious, sober and economical. They are not lazy, drunken, extravagant or turbulent; they do not violate the laws, but they will evade them in every possible way.”

The Chinese worked hard to glean every last bit of gold from their claims, using their knowledge to develop new techniques which proved to be much more efficient than those used by the whites who had gone before them.

The “Celestials” as they were called, invented panning machines to separate gold from mud, hand dredges to scrape the river bottom and rockers to concentrate gold-bearing paydirt in areas where water was unavailable.

One interesting method they perfected was the use of an ordinary potato to produce pellets from very fine gold sediment. A few drops of mercury were added to the pan to bind with the gold. Then, a potato was hollowed out and the mercury-gold mix was poured into the cavity.

The two halves of the potato were then wired together and it was thrown into a fire.

After a few hours, the mercury had burned off, leaving a small pellet of gold which was typically about 95 per cent pure.

Unfortunately, the names of most of these Chinese miners have been lost to history.

They were not allowed to vote, and they were excluded from registering births, deaths and marriages, so records are very sparse.

Their story was never properly recorded, and those who knew about it and could pass it along are now long gone.

For many of the men who toiled daily along the rivers and streams and in the mines hoping for that one big strike, literally nothing is known about them except that they were Chinese.

READ MORE: Quesnel Forks, a true relic of the gold rush

For a couple of years after the whites had moved on, the Chinese did quite well at reworking the abandoned claims.

However, these diggings too began to peter out, and these men started to prospect further and further afield.

As the story goes, two Chinese goldseekers crossed the North Fork and went north into the hills past Kangaroo Gulch near the base of Kangaroo Mountain.

Not much is known about these men — their names have been forgotten.

What is known is that they both came from the Canton area in China, and that one was several years older than the other. They may have been brothers, relatives, or in-laws.

About 10 days after they had left Quesnel Forks, they returned, each laden with leather pokes full of gold.

This gold was in the form of large course flakes, quite unlike the gold found in the area immediately around Quesnel Forks.

According to the Chinese who would later speak about this story, the diggings were approximately 10 miles due north of Quesnel Forks.

They were high in the hills and there was no water available, so the two men used a dry rocker to concentrate the gold.

The area they were working was likely once a high, ancient river channel which contained coarse gold that had not been worn down by water.

The men worked this claim for four seasons, from 1864 through to 1867.

By that time, they were very rich men, and they decided to return to China with their fortune.

They arrived back in Canton carrying several heavy suitcases of gold, and there they lived like royalty.

They lived a life of luxury and spent money freely. The older man died a very happy man sometime around 1869, and the younger man continued on enjoying the fortune.

READ MORE: The Prior House at Little Lake

But the money didn’t last, especially when gambling was involved, and by 1870, it became evident to him that he was running out of funds.

He was not too concerned, since he knew where to find more gold, so in 1871 he made the return trip across the Pacific and back to the Cariboo.

What he hadn’t planned on was that in 1869, a devastating forest fire had swept through the whole countryside around Quesnel Forks, reducing everything to ash.

Eighteen prospectors lost their lives in this wildfire.

All the landmarks the two men had used to guide themselves to the workings, including some marked trees, were gone.

The whole landscape had changed, and the area looked completely different.

The man looked for his mine for the rest of his life, but he never found it again.

The Chinese residents of Quesnel Forks were convinced that the diggings existed.

They had seen the gold, they knew the two men, and the details all added up. So, the legend began growing.

After the owner died in poverty in Quesnel Forks around 1880, men began searching for the site, hoping to strike it rich, themselves.

For more than 70 years, from the mid 1880s until the 1950s when the last permanent residents (all Chinese) of Quesnel Forks died or moved on, people searched every year for that lost Chinese mine.

No one ever found it again. It’s still out there, somewhere.

For this column I obtained the information from the old CBC TV program, “Gold Trails and Ghost Towns,” with Bill Barlee.

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