Haphazard History: the road houses

When the gold rush trail first began, there was no defined route to the gold bearing streams and rivers.

  • Dec. 4, 2013 10:00 a.m.

When the gold rush trail first began, there was no defined route to the gold bearing streams and rivers.

Although there were some well travelled fur trading routes, known as brigade trails, and other pathways through the wilderness used by the native peoples, most gold seekers just entered the wilderness and walked along, usually on foot, towards their destination.

But, as more and more men headed northward, over time some well-defined trails were formed.

Scattered along these trails, and later, along the Cariboo Wagon Road, there grew up a series of stopping places, often constructed by men who had given up searching for gold and found, instead, a source of income by “mining the miners.”

The early roadhouses were far from comfortable, not at all like the large, multi-room structures which came later.

They often consisted of a single log building which had a stove, a table, some rough built chairs, but no beds.

On bitter nights, the wind would howl through cracks in the logs.

Those on their way to and from the goldfields would stop overnight for a meal, usually consisting of bacon and beans, bread, flapjacks, or bannock, and coffee or tea, for which they paid up to $2.

Included in that charge was a spot to sleep on the floor.

Virtually all of the roadhouses had a bar, where liquor, often homemade and seldom legal, was sold for 25 cents a shot.

At night, after the bar closed down, the wayfarers rolled up in their blankets on the dirt floor, the lucky ones close to the stove.

If there was no living quarters for the owner, he would sleep on top of the liquor supply to prevent any theft.

Not all travellers to the goldfields frequented the road houses in those early days.

Some could not afford the cost, choosing instead to camp out and cook their own meals.

Others slept outside because the roadhouses were infested with lice and bedbugs, carried from one place to the next in the clothing of the unwashed.

And with beans being the staple food, accompanied by a lack of washing and sanitation facilities along the route, one can easily imagine how ripe the air inside must have been.

Just a little side note about the lice and bedbugs.

They were everywhere and impossible to cure.

In fact it was very unusual to find a roadhouse which didn’t have them.

Some places went so far as to set up lice or bedbug races on which the travellers could wager.

At 100 Mile House the original road house had blood spatters on the walls and ceilings where countless bugs had been killed. When it burned to the ground in 1937, the owner, Lord Martin Cecil, remarked about the terrible loss of life, “none of which was human!”

As the Cariboo Wagon Road was built, suitable land was pre-empted, usually where water and grasslands were plentiful.

Often it was the road contractor himself who pre-empted the area, either on his own, or with a partner for the express purpose of establishing a roadhouse.

The completion of the road, and the establishment of freight and stagecoach service to and from the goldfields really caused a mini boom in roadhouse construction.

Eventually, there was a roadhouse every 10 to 14 miles along the length of the Cariboo Wagon Road, as far as a man could comfortably walk in a day.

They took their names from the distance in miles from Lillooet, the start of the Wagon Road.

In some areas, there was a roadhouse every three to four miles. Some roadhouses specialized as way stations for wagon trains of horses or oxen.

Others catered to passengers travelling on the BX stage coaches, while still others were kept as stage rest stops where horses could be changed.

The wagon road brought a new sophistication to the road houses as well. By the late 1860s they had become bigger and more attractive to travellers.

A typical roadhouse of this era contained a dining room, kitchen, ladies sitting room, a saloon (bar) for the men, and private bedrooms which had spring mattresses and fresh linen.

Most of them were still made of log construction, but some were being built of lumber, cut by hand or sawn in local mills.

During the early 1900s one or two roadhouses were assembled from prefabricated kits ordered from the Eatons’ catalouge.

By the late 1870s some of the roadhouses were quite large, up to 20 bedrooms.

Hat Creek House, Clinton and 150 Mile House are examples.

The greatest threat to the roadhouses was fire.

Fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, kerosene lamps and candles were the sources of heat and light.

Although the fear of fire made most people extremely cautious, in the roadhouses, where liquor was served, and where there was little control over the actions of guests, the risk of fire was ever present.

Most fires started by overheated stove pipes igniting the tinder dry shakes on the roof.

The older the building, the drier the logs, and unfortunately, most roadhouses eventually met a fiery end.

The years between 1886 and 1910 can be said to be the heyday of the roadhouse era.

Competing roadhouse operators vied for trade by providing finer furnishings, fancier meals, and better service.

But gradually, cars replaced the horse and buggy and trucks replaced the freight wagons.

Over the years, in some places, towns and villages had grown up around the roadhouse, and many of these are still found today along the route of the old wagon road.

Most of the roadhouses are gone now, the victims of fire, abandonment, or demolition.

Some have survived as private residences or museums, reminders of an interesting chapter in our local history.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

LADDER USED IN FIRE FIGHT: While smoke billows out of the second floor of the Maple Leaf Hotel, members of the Williams Lake Volunteer Fire Department fight to contain the blaze. The department was called out Tuesday morning to battle the blaze that wreaked havoc on the interior of the 57-year-old hotel. One man, Harold Hurst of Riske Creek, died in the fire. (Ernest Engemoen photo - Williams Lake Tribune, April 12, 1977)
FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Ladder used in fire fight

The department was called out Tuesday morning to battle the blaze

Provincial funding in the amount of $300,000 has been announced for the Cariboo Regional District’s plans to improve the Anahim Lake Airport runway. (CRD photo)
$300,000 provincial funding to fuel Anahim Lake Airport runway upgrade

The recovery grant is one of 38 announced to support jobs in rural communities

Lake City Secondary School principal Craig Munroe. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
OUR HOMETOWN: Lifelong learner

Lake City Secondary School principal Craig Munroe got his first teaching job in Williams Lake

Mayor Walt Cobb waves from atop a tractor as he turns onto Oliver Street in the Daybreak Rotary’s annual Stampede Parade. Patrick Davies photo.
Lack of funding, volunteers has Daybreak Rotary bowing out of Williams Lake Stampede parade

Club learned this week it won’t be receiving local government funding, for the second year in a row

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
30 new COVID-19 cases, five more deaths in Interior Health

This brings the total number of cases to 7,271 since testing began

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Nanaimo-raised singer Allison Crowe with director Zack Snyder on the set of ‘Man of Steel’ in 2011. Crowe performs a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in the upcoming director’s cut of ‘Justice League.’ (Photo courtesy Clay Enos)
B.C. musician records song for upcoming ‘Justice League’ film

Allison Crowe’s close connection to director led to rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Migrant farm workers transplant jalapeno sprouts from trucks into the tilted soil at a farm. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)
‘They’re afraid’: Coalition sounds alarm over COVID vaccines for B.C.’s migrant workers

Though health ministry says anyone can get vaccinated, critics say barriers are keeping migrants from their dose

(File photo)
Federal Court exonerates Kamloops Mountie in burger beef dispute

A Federal Court ruling has overturned punishment in case involving a cop, McDonald’s manager

A 50-year-old man was stabbed in an altercation that started with a disagreement about physical distancing. (File photo)
Argument about physical distancing escalates to stabbing in Nanaimo

Victim, struck with coffee cup and then stabbed, suffers minor injuries; suspect arrested

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP will not trigger election as long as pandemic continues: Singh

‘“We will vote to keep the government going’

BC Emergency Health Services Advanced Care Paramedic Practice Educator Trevor Campbell. (Vernon Jubilee Hospital Foundation - Contributed)
ECG machines onboard Okanagan ambulances for quickest response to heart attacks

Donations from Lake Country, Predator Ridge, Vernon and Armstrong behind purchase of 8 live-saving machines

“Support your city” reads a piece of graffiti outside the Ministry of Finance office. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Slew of anti-bylaw graffiti ‘unacceptable’ says Victoria mayor, police

Downtown businesses, bylaw office and Ministry of Finance vandalized Wednesday morning

Most Read