Thrust into my hand was a page long, hour by hour schedule. A timetable for a museum? Well, Barkerville isn’t any old museum. It’s a living and breathing historical gold mining town, lovingly restored and operated as a non-profit. And it’s probably one of the best museums I’ve ever been to.
Welcome to Barkerville
A long and dusty road extending through what feels like hundreds of elevated wooden buildings; visitors today experience a similar first impression of Barkerville as the enterprising gold miners did back in the 1860s.
Beyond first impressions visitors can also do many of the things that Barkerville residents back then did; go to a church service, visit the photography studio, try gold panning, send some mail at the post office, watch a theatre production, pay respects at the cemetery, have a drink at the saloon and more.
That schedule I mentioned? It is a list of all of the tours, interpretive events and experiences going on that particular day. Trust me when I say that there is a lot. From general tours of the town to waterwheel demonstrations to gold mining shareholders meetings and Chinese calligraphy lessons, Barkerville is a history theme park for grown-ups. There’s a lot here for kids too, but I personally loved that there was so much for adults to enjoy.
One of my favourite activities was a reenaction of a based-on-real-events 19th-century murder trial. Just a short hike (or horse and cart ride) uphill from Barkerville’s main street, the Richfield Court House is the oldest courthouse in British Columbia.
Bringing history alive
On our way to the courthouse, we passed two straw-hatted ladies walking up the wooden stairs to the bakery. They had to lift their giant hooped skirts while climbing each step. Crossing the threshold into the bakery, they were discussing the benefits of different types of flour for baking bread. These ladies were just two of Barkerville’s resident actors, who stay in character throughout their day whether they are giving timetabled performance or not.
Interacting with other actors on the street, at the theatre or while doing their daily chores, these costumed interpreters help immerse visitors into the gold rush era. And they do it very, very well.
While I loved watching the blacksmith and meeting the local schoolteacher (as strict as I imagined), it is the detail and originality of the actor interactions that really make the Barkerville experience. Our tour of the town was injected by welcoming shouts of “good morning!” to our guide from passing miners. Later, we see our guide arguing with someone about his overdue library books.
A highlight was the ragtag four piece ‘Cariboo Amateur Dramatic Association’ singing and playing music in the street. No doubt it’s thirsty work as we spotted two of the four in the saloon later.
From dawn to dusk
Breakfast and dinner are both possible in Barkerville, as well as elevenses and lunch too. We ate solid miners portions of toast and eggs in front of a wood-fired stove at Wake Up Jake’s. Later, dinner was in the dark (but certainly not dingy) Lung Duck Tong restaurant in Barkerville’s Chinatown.
I could have been super greedy and enjoyed a miner’s lunch (cheese, bread and pickles) from the Goldfield Bakery too but managed to hold off despite the tempting smell of freshly baked bread every time we passed by.
Aside from making myself hungry, I’m mentioning food because it signifies how long we spent at Barkerville. We were there from 9am to 8pm. If you don’t want to leave, there are even a couple of period B&Bs in the town you can stay in.
The evening was the perfect time to visit the museum exhibits and read more the resilient and pioneering people who lived in Barkerville. One of my favourite stories was that of Betty Wendle, a kickass rifle wielding outdoors woman who had saved herself from a likely fatal grizzly bear attack. There is a creek in nearby Bowron Lakes Provincial Park named after her.
The birth of Barkerville
Let me give you some background to all of this.
By the mid-1850s, the gold rush in California was all but over. Many thousands of miners headed north in pursuit of the next big strike. It was rumoured to be on the Fraser River in what was then the colony of British Columbia. Groups of prospectors followed the river north and ultimately found themselves in the remote Cariboo region.
Small discoveries came and went in the area until English miner William “Billy” Barker hit the payload in 1862. A makeshift town sprung up practically overnight as other miners tried to replicate his fortune.
During the high point of the rush, Barkerville (as named after Billy) was the largest settlement north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. The day to day population was approximately five thousand plus any number of transient miners.
Comprising of a theatre, drugstores, barbershops, several churches, plus dozens of saloons, Barkerville was a full-service town in the middle of BC’s wilderness. A significant number of Chinese miners were part of the community plus black settlers who had fled north to escape slavery in the USA.
Destroyed in a fire in 1868, Barkerville was quickly rebuilt but declined just as quickly only a few decades later after gold discoveries waned and other rushes started elsewhere (most notably in Dawson City). There was however still a settlement here until the 1930s.
If you wondered, Billy Barker’s claim yielded him an incredible 2,350 lb of gold over the next few years but he died penniless in Victoria in 1894. He had suffered greatly with the stress of his fortune and the progression of Parkinson’s disease.
Some say that the gold rushes in the mid 19th century were the propelling force to British Columbia’s creation and success as a province today.
While gold mining does carry a number of questionable issues with it (environmental damage for one), there is no doubt in my mind that it did have a major impact on BC as we know it now. Without gold on their mind, I doubt many settlers would have explored such wild, isolated regions as the eastern Cariboo with the tenacity and perseverance that the miners had.
As for a legacy with a smaller impact (but one I am very certain of), Barkerville is the best man-made attraction I have been to in BC. For a trip back in time like no other, Barkerville is more than worthwhile of the detour off the highway. If you’re not already convinced, it’s also an incredible bargain at $15/adult for a two-day ticket.
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