A unique aspect of the history of Canada is the general knowledge that in the past, our mail was sometimes delivered by dogteam. Today, we will often joke about the speed of mail delivery and compare it to the speed of a sled dog team. Romanticized movie images of Canada and Canada’s north will include references to “mushers” and sled dogs and “the mail”. Historic accounts often refer to isolation and loneliness and the arrival of the sled dog “packet” which brought with it cherished news from the “outside”, often news that was 12 or more months old. It is true that with Canada’s unique winter weather, apart from the use of snow shoes, sled dogs were often the only way to travel from one settlement to another and it follows that in the course of their journeys, mushers would carry “the mail” or at least news from one place to the other.
In reality, the establishment of formal mail delivery by dog team, indeed the delivery of mail in remote and isolated spots parts of B.C./Yukon goes back to just before the turn of the 20th century. Canada only became a nation in 1867, and with that development came the need to establish a whole host of public services, including the delivery of mail. Of course, prior to this time, “mail” was being delivered from one spot to another, even in very remote areas and there are certainly references in the literature of the early days of exploration in Canada to letters and other messages being passed on from one person to another.
There are even occasional references to some kind of “organized” system of message exchange as trading companies established supply routes and trading posts. But it was a haphazard arrangement that relied on the creative efforts of individuals or organizations like the Hudsons Bay Company or the organized church. The Hudsons Bay Company and the Northwest Company actually created a unique 22 foot long canoe known as a “batard”, it was narrower than freight-carrying “36 foot canots de maitre” or “26 foot canots de nord” and would be paddled by six skilled voyageurs at an unheard-of speed averaging 8 miles per hour. These lightly-laden canoes were used almost exclusively for delivering mail and important people from one place to the other.
For four decades following the California Gold Rush of the 1840’s, gold seekers worked their way steadily northward in search of more of the precious yellow metal. This relentless search wouldn’t end until the early 1900’s on the beaches of the Bering Sea at Nome Alaska. En route, in the late 1850’s, gold was discovered in central British Columbia sparking the Cariboo Gold Rush. Those of us fortunate enough to be living in this area are very aware of this history and the Gold Rush Trail Sled Dog Mail Run is just one exciting way to commemorate this rich past. It is true, historically the Cariboo Wagon Road was the domain of the draft horse, not of the sled dog. Working dogs were present during the Gold Rush but were used primarily around camps and by trappers and hunters. Sled dogs did carry the mail north of Quesnel, to Fort George, Fort Fraser, Fort St. James and places beyond. But along the Cariboo Wagon Road, the mail was transported by magnificent horses and freight wagons and by gold miners on foot.
The vanguard of the prospectors did travel on foot carrying their belongings on their backs or using pack horses and mules and other ingenious wagons and “barrows”. They followed the gold bearing creeks and rivers travelling into ever more remote areas and sending back exciting news of their discoveries. As word spread, the numbers of fortune-seekers grew, along with the demand for better transportation and more services, especially postal service. The Cariboo Wagon Road running from Yale at the head of the Fraser River Canyon all the way to Barkerville on Williams Creek in the Cariboo was an engineering marvel and in its day considered one of the great man-made wonders of the world. It was one response to the demand for a better transportation route to and from the Cariboo Gold Fields.
Originally prospectors accessed the rich gold-bearing creeks of the Cariboo through the “back door”, travelling east from 150 Mile House through the communities of Quesnel Forks, Keithly Creek, Antler Creek and eventually to Richfield located on the richest gold-bearing creek of all....Williams Creek. It was soon discovered however that an easier route to the Cariboo Gold Fields existed and supplies were transhipped by stern wheeler from Soda Creek up the Fraser River to Quesnellemouth (present day Quesnel) and then reloaded onto freight wagons and carried over the last 70 mile leg of the Cariboo Wagron Road from Quesnel to Williams Creek and the town that was now known as Barkerville. From Quesnel to Barkerville, the route passes through a number of communities, their location being dictated by two factors. Cottonwood House, Coldspring House, Pine Grove House and Beaver Pass House were essentially farms, established as road houses along the wagon road, a place to spend the night and to find a good meal while allowing horses to rest and feed. Other communities like Wingdam, Van Winkle, Stanley, Richfield and Barkerville itself were there simply because that is where the gold was found.
British Columbia had become a British Colony on November 19, 1858,with the British government appointing a colonial administration to assume control and responsibility for the vast area formerly known as New Caledonia, from the Hudson’s Bay Company. With this development, a fledgling bureaucracy was in place under the direction of Governor James Douglas. The colonial government responded to the demand for services by petitioning the British parliament for funds and slowly the much-needed services were put in place. Actually the development of the roads and other support services like the postal system were the result of negotiations and cost sharing between these administrators and the businessmen and other interest groups of the era. As was the case throughout the developing west and north, originally postal services were provided by individuals, fur traders, churches or by the express companies, often on an intermittent basis.
As early as 1858 the first express between Victoria and the Fraser River mines as far as Lytton and Kamloops was established by an individual W.J. (Billy) Ballou. In 1861 F.J. Barnard was the first expressman to deliver mail to the Cariboo, originally on foot and then by packhorse all the way to Barkerville. In 1865 the Cariboo Wagon Road through to Barkerville was completed and the colonial government in co-operation with the express companies established “post offices” throughout the mining communities. These were essentially postal depots where it was possible for miners to travel to pick up their mail. These were initially located at Soda Creek, Van Winkle, Williams Creek and Quesnellemouth. Lists showing names of people for whom mail was waiting were distributed throughout the creeks and miners could then travel to retrieve their mail. The express companies and others had their own stamps and these stamps are rare collector’s items today.
British Columbia entered the Canadian confederation in 1871 and the federal government assumed responsibility for postal service beginning in 1872. They established a number of federal post offices however in some cases it would appear that the government simply assumed responsibility for the services that had been established by the express companies. At this time the post office in Quesnelle (formerly Quesnellemouth and in 1900 to be known as Quesnel) was established. The post office at Cottonwood House, 20 miles to the east was officially established in 1895 although it had been an unofficial postal depot since the early 1860’s. In the boom town of Van Winkle on Lightning Creek, the post office was established in 1875. It actually was closed in 1906 when it was amalgamated with the post office in Stanley which had been established in 1874 and was located just over a mile away down Lightning Creek. Even though located in Stanley, the combined post offices retained the Van Winkle name because there was another “Stanley” somewhere else in the postal system. This post office closed in 1922 but re-opened in 1933 and remained open until 1948. From Stanley, the original Cariboo Wagon Road runs east through the Lightning Creek valley, over a steep plateau, past the headwaters of Jack of Club creek near Summit Rock before turning north eventually dropping down to Williams Creek at Richfield and then running a few more miles to the magical town of Barkerville. As indicated, the Barkerville (Williams Creek) post office was in existence as a postal depot in 1865 but was established as a federal post office in 1872 and still exists today, making it the seventh oldest post office in British Columbia. For a brief time in early 2005 postal authorities closed the Barkerville post office as a cost cutting measure, but public pressure and enlightened decision makers led to the re-opening of this historic post office by mid-summer.
The original Cariboo Wagon Road route was bypassed in the 1890’s when a longer but easier route was established just east of Stanley through the treacherous Devils Canyon, travelling over more forgiving terrain. This new route (which is followed by present-day Highway 26) was to take the Waggon Road from Stanley, around Jack of Clubs Lake through an area that was to explode in the mid 1930’s as the town of Wells, home of the Cariboo Gold Quartz Mining Company. The Wells post office was established at this time and still exists. ********************************************
Fortunately when researching a topic like this one, it is possible to draw on many wonderful resources. Listed below are just a few of the available sources of information. Many of these books have been written by residents of the Cariboo....local people. That makes the task of doing research that much more enjoyable.
For more information on this topic go www.collections.gc.ca/cariboo/
Bowering’s B.C., A Swashbuckling History George Bowering, Penguin Books Ltd., 27 Wright Lane, London, W8 5TZ, England, 1996
Barkerville, Quesnel and the Cariboo Gold Rush, Gordon R. Elliott, First printed 1958, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 1615 Venables Street, Vancouver, British Columbia Barkerville—Williams Creek, Cariboo, A Gold Rush Experience, 1993, Winter Quarters Press, 3487 Auchinachie Rd., Duncan, B.C., V9L 4A2
And So That’s How It Happened—Recollections of Stanley-Barkerville 1900-1975, W.M. Hong, Edited by Gary and Eileen Seale, 1978, Third printing 1982, Published by W.M. Hong, c/o 1274 Yorston Avenue, Quesnel, B.C., V2J 3B5
Barkerville Days, Fred Ludditt, first published 1969, paperback edition 1980, first published by Mitchell Press Ltd., Mr. Paperback revised edition, P.O. Box 3399, Langley, B.C., V3A 4R7
Golden Nuggets, Roadhouse Portraits along the Cariboo’s Gold Rush Trail, Branwen Patenaude, 1998, Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., Unit #8 – 17921 55th Ave., Surrey, B.C., V3S 6C4