HAPHAZARD HISTORY: William Parker and the Big Lake Ranch

William Parker’s home at Big Lake near 150 Mile circa 1900. (Photo courtesy B.C. Provincial Archives)William Parker’s home at Big Lake near 150 Mile circa 1900. (Photo courtesy B.C. Provincial Archives)
William Parker’s grave at Big Lake . (Barry Sale photo)William Parker’s grave at Big Lake . (Barry Sale photo)
William Parker’s gravesite at Big Lake. (Barry Sale photo)William Parker’s gravesite at Big Lake. (Barry Sale photo)

Big Lake, so named because of its substantial size, is located on the Likely Road some 40 km northeast of 150 Mile House. It first came to prominence in the 1860s as a stopping place on the original gold rush trail from 150 Mile to Quesnel Forks. Its natural grassy meadows, flat with gradual slopes, and easy access to water made it a perfect place for packers, freighters, and goldseekers to camp overnight or to rest for a few days.

In June, 1862, three land speculators, A. Anderson, William Nicholl and George Agard, were the first to preempt land there, 480 acres on both sides and covering the north end of the lake. They knew that the Cariboo Wagon Road to the Cariboo Goldfields was being built, and they gambled that it would follow the old trail right through this preemption.

Unfortunately for them, their gamble did not pay off. The wagon road veered off from the old trail at Mountainhouse, proceeding northwest to Soda Creek. The three men never did develop the land, and their preemption reverted to the Crown.

Thirty-four years later, in October of 1896, a quiet, well-mannered young man from Wisconsin applied for 343 acres of land “situated on the north shore of Big Lake near the road to 150 Mile House.” His name was William Parker, a smart and capable businessman and rancher who would prove to be somewhat of a legend in the area.

Parker had previously worked for several years for the B.C. Express Company, driving back and forth on the route from Quesnel to 83 Mile House. He knew that the huge Bullion Pit Mine was coming into production, so he made two major decisions. The first was to establish his own stage line, which left Ashcroft every Monday and made stops at Clinton, 150 Mile, Quesnel Forks, Bullion, Horsefly, and made connections with the BX service to Soda Creek. On Thursdays, the route was reversed.

The second major decision was to apply to the provincial government to be granted the position of “special policeman.” This designation allowed him to take charge of the delivery of gold from the Keithley Creek area and from the Bullion mine to the railhead at Ashcroft. It certainly did not hurt his bottom line financially that he was paid three times over for each gold delivery – first, his government stipend for being the special policeman, secondly by the mines and miners as the courier and guard to whom they entrusted their gold, and thirdly by the passengers and merchants who used his stagecoach service. As an added bonus, he also obtained the mail contract for the communities covered by the stageline service.

Very soon after preempting the land at Big Lake, Parker, along with some associates and employees, got to work building a large stopping house, barns, and cowsheds. He called the place the Big Lake Ranch, and for many years, it was a regular way stop for the Parker Stage Line route. During the early 1900s the roadhouse was a lively place. It had a large front room that served as a saloon/gambling parlour, another sitting room, a post office, a large kitchen/dining area, and eight upstairs bedrooms. The place operated by an efficient, no nonsense housekeeper, Mrs. McNutt.

The ranch did well too. Good crops of hay and grains were produced. Herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were regularly butchered. These commodities were sold to the mines for a tidy profit. In 1902, Parker purchased the 158 Mile Ranch at Mountainhouse as a place to raise and pasture his horses.

He continued to operate his stage line until the outbreak of World War I, by which time, the Bullion mine had closed and the gold deposits from the Keithley Creek and Quesnel Forks area had pretty much petered out. Automobiles were taking over from horse drawn stagecoaches, and it was time for him to retire from the business.

The Big Lake roadhouse continued to operate, but fewer and fewer people stopped there. It was used mainly as Parker’s personal residence. As he grew older, Parker became more and more deaf, often resorting to having people write out messages on scraps of paper that he carried around so that he could understand them.

He was never known to be sick a day in his life until he passed away in his sleep on September 16, 1927. The cause of his death was officially listed as high blood pressure. William Parker was buried on a knoll overlooking his ranch and the land that he loved. His gravesite can still be seen there today with a large headstone that reads, along with the date of his death, “Thy life is ended. Thy rest is won.”

After Parker’s death, Mrs. McNutt inherited property on the west side of the lake, where she remained until the mid 1940s. The rest of the estate was sold to a series of owners, none of whom kept it very long. The ranch was split up into three main chunks which were leased out to a number of tenants over the years. Prior to World War II, the centre section was sold to Al Weber. This became the Circle W Ranch, purchased in 1950 by John and Doris Lee.

In 1939, both the northern and southern parts, respectively called the “upper” and “lower” ranches were purchased by Pack and Paddy Harris. Paddy was the daughter of Charles Wynn Johnson, the owner of the huge Alkali Lake Ranch, the oldest in the Cariboo. Later that year, Pack passed away suddenly, and Paddy found herself running the ranch, working part time at the local stock yards, and raising two young children. In 1941, she married Harold Cripps, a cowboy she knew from Alkali Lake.

The couple worked hard on the Big Lake spread, and they were quite successful at it. Along the way, they had three more children, operated a store and gas station, and acquired more acreage in the area. In 1954, after 15 years on the place, they decided to sell. The upper ranch was bought by the Wannop brothers from the Lower Mainland, while the lower ranch was taken over by Paddy’s daughter Cherie and her husband Frank Overton. Harold and Paddy relocated to the Chilako Ranch at Mud River, just west of Prince George.

For a number of years, the upper ranch was again leased out to a number of tenants, including the Swanson family, the Jacobson family, and Pete Potroff. Over this period of time, most of the original ranch buildings, including the barn, the store, and some sod roofed cabins were lost to the ravages of time and neglect. The historic old roadhouse was dismantled sometime in the mid 1980s by someone who had the good intentions of reconstructing it on a heritage site, but that did not happen and its whereabouts are unknown.

When Jim Wannop passed away in the late 1990s, his brother Bill sold the upper ranch to real estate developers who subdivided it and sold it off in 10 acre lots. Today, the historic old ranch is a scenic residential area which provides a rural lifestyle just 40 minutes from Williams Lake.

The Big Lake community group has developed a small heritage rest stop area at the entrance to the subdivision, preserving a few of the original old buildings and some pieces of equipment, a testament of a bygone era and a fascinating history.

Read More: HAPHAZARD HISTORY PODCAST: The Gold Escort



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