The town of Barkerville consisted of a hodge podge of shacks, shanties, stores, hotels, and various other establishments, most of which had been hastily constructed near the gold diggings of Billy Barker and others. For a period of six years, from 1862 to 1868, this settlement was the centre of one of the greatest gold rushes in history. During its peak, Barkerville had more than 10,000 residents and boasted that is was the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, and the gold capital of the world. Its buildings were clustered in a haphazard manner along its main street, which meandered through the Williams Creek valley.
In Barkerville, as in most frontier towns, every building was constructed of logs, sawed lumber, or a combination of both. There was no town planning, no distancing between structures, and no building code. Because of flooding and mud in the spring, most buildings were set on log posts, usually at a different height from those on either side. Thus, the wooden boardwalks at the front of the buildings were also at differing elevations, making walking up or down the street a real work out. The 18-foot-wide street below, if it was not soupy with mud, was pitted with holes, and strewn with filth, garbage, and manure.
The construction of Barkerville had seen an incredible demand for wood – wood for buildings, for sluice boxes, for cribbing, for water wheels, for boardwalks, for water flumes, and for firewood. Within a year or two, the hillsides above the town were completely stripped of trees, and rather than go long distances to find wood, the residents were increasingly turning to canvas structures and wall coverings. It was into these conditions that Frederick Dally arrived in July of 1868.
Dally, who has been called B.C.’s gold rush photographer, had scouted out business opportunities in the Cariboo the previous year, and had decided to open up a photographic studio in Barkerville. As well as being an excellent photographer, Dally also kept a meticulous diary, and much of what we know about the Barkerville fire comes from his personal observations.
Although Barkerville did have a fire brigade, formed in April of 1867, it was more of a social group and it had no equipment other than buckets. Dally quickly realized that a major fire was a very real possibility. Just a week or so before the great fire broke out, he was sitting on a side hill overlooking the town, observing a colourful display of northern lights. The next day, he wrote (in a single run of sentences):
“Whilst viewing this grand spectacle, my attention was drawn to the town, which lay beneath me, where dancing and revelry was going on, by the number of stove pipes very close together coming through the wooden roofs of the buildings at every height and in every direction, that were sending forth myriads of sparks, numbers of them were constantly alighting on the roofs where they would remain many seconds before going out, and from the dryness of the season, I came to the conclusion that unless we shortly had rain or snow to cover the roofs, for they remained covered with snow all winter, that the town was doomed.”
Dally tried to speak to the town fathers, but they told him that they were convinced that the wood used to build the town was different from other wood, and it would not ignite or burn easily. Otherwise, they said, the place would have burned down already, since numerous small fires had occurred over the years.
Then, on September 16th, 1868, at 2:45p.m., the unthinkable happened. According to Dally, in a small room at the back of Adler and Barry’s saloon, one of the dance hall girls was ironing. A miner sneaked up behind her and grabbed her, looking for a kiss. The girl was startled and knocked the miner back against the stove. The pipe going up through the canvas ceiling was dislodged, and sparks quickly ignited the dry canvas fabric. The fire then spread to the roof, and in less than five minutes, the whole saloon was in flames. The next door building, the Bank of British North America, caught fire as well, and the conflagration had begun. Dally wrote:
“So, the fire travelled up and down both sides of the street, and although my building was nearly fifty yards away from where the fire originated, in less than 20 minutes, it, together with the whole lower part of town, was a sheet of fire, hissing and crackling and roaring furiously. Blankets and bedding were seen to be sent at least 200 feet high when a number of coal oil tins, five gallons, exploded and the top of one of the tins was sent five miles and dropped at the sawmill at Grouse Creek.”
The fire spread so rapidly that there was no time to fight it. Instead, residents focused on saving what belongings they could. People loaded up their clothes, furniture and merchandise, and headed as far away as they could get on Williams Creek. Dally also saw the fire taking hold, and he rushed to collect as much of his clothing, equipment, and other possessions as he could. He made several trips out to Williams Creek, where he and most of the townspeople remained until the danger was past. In the chaos of the evacuation, thieves and looters had a field day stealing goods from the wide open shops.
The fire burned well into the evening. Most residents spent the cold, frosty night huddled next to their belongings on the riverbank. In the morning they saw what was left of the town. A total of 116 buildings had been destroyed. Much of Chinatown at the top end of the village had survived the blaze, as did a few warehouses and one drinking establishment, Scott’s Saloon. Fortunately, there had been no loss of life, but property losses were estimated to be about $700,000, or around $12.7 million in today’s prices.
The people of Barkerville began rebuilding immediately. The day after the fire, one nearby sawmill was providing lumber at $125 per thousand board feet. Within a week, 20 new buildings were standing, and more were under construction. Thomas Elwyn, the Gold Commissioner and local representative of the B.C. government, insisted that roads be wide enough for emergency access, that the boardwalks have a regular and uniform grade, and that buildings be laid out according to a plan and adhere to a standard building code.
The Cariboo Sentinel newspaper, temporarily relocated to Richfield, reported on September 22nd:
“Already there are over 30 houses standing in symmetrical order on the old site, and the foundation of several others laid, and many more would yet have been in the course of erection were it possible to obtain carpenters and tools. The town when rebuilt will present a much more uniform and pleasant improvement over the old.”
A more serious and dedicated fire brigade was reorganized under Isaac Oppenheimer. On May 24, 1869, it had its first fire drill. Equipment was purchased and the first leather hose arrived that July, although the carriage for the hose didn’t show up until October 1871.
Gradually, however, the fire brigade became quite proficient, and subsequent fires which broke out were quickly extinguished.
Although Barkerville would never again reach the prominence it held during the mid 1860’s, by October, just a month after the fire, the Sentinel reported that the town “may now be considered virtually as rebuilt, and all the inhabitants are comfortably situated for the winter.”
The destruction caused by the Barkerville fire was captured in two iconic photographs by Dally, one before and one after.
His pictures and written descriptions provide us with our first hand accounts of one of the most disastrous events of the gold rush era.