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.

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