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HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Old Men’s Home in Kamloops had Cariboo connection

Aging pioneers of B.C.’s gold rush era spent thei final days in Kamloops
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Old Men’s Home in Kamloops, B.C. circa 1925. (Photo courtesy of the Vancouver City Archives)

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune

Recently, I had to drive down to the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops for a medical appointment. When I arrived, and while participating in the inevitable frustrating quest to find a suitable parking spot, I noticed the substantial seniors’ village, the Ponderosa Lodge, just to the east of the hospital on Columbia Street. Later inside the hospital, I asked about the complex, and I was interested to hear that there was a fascinating history to this property.

We all know about the Cariboo Gold Rush, where thousands of prospectors flooded into the goldfields north of Quesnel Forks and east of Quesnel in quest of the elusive big strike. A few of these men became very rich, but most of them made their way back home, disillusioned and empty handed. Some of the gold seekers stayed on, continuing their search for many years, eking out a subsistence level living, always believing that the big strike was just around the corner.

As these men aged, most of them single and fiercely independent, the time gradually came when they could no longer do the backbreaking work at their diggings. They gradually migrated back to larger centres, finding whatever work they could, living in the rough shacks or tents, and waiting out their days until poverty, ill health, and old age claimed them. There were no retirement benefits, government pensions were non existent, and very few of these elderly men had any savings. They had opened up the interior of the province half a century earlier, and now they had nothing. The press of the day dubbed them “the lonesome prospectors.”

The developing social problem of how to deal with and address the care of these old former miners was largely ignored for many years. However, it came to a head in 1879, when some prominent citizens of Victoria came across a sick, feeble old man collapsed on a downtown sidewalk. He was taken to the city jail by the police, where he died in custody. His name was William Williams, and he had come to B.C. from Baltimore in 1858, working first on the Fraser River gold rush, and later as a gold miner in the Cariboo. In his declining years, with no means of support, he depended on charity in order to survive. At the inquest pertaining to Williams’ death, the coroner went on record deploring “the fact that there was no public facility to take care of the indigent sick.”

This case and others like it led to a public demand for action, and in 1893, the provincial government passed an act to establish a provincial home for single aged and infirm men. It was only two years later, in September of 1895, that the Provincial Old Men’s Home opened on Columbia Street in Kamloops. It soon became known simply as “the Old Man’s Home.”

The place consisted of a large, beautifully designed building, dominating a large grassy piece of land with its three wings and impressive Victorian architecture. On its opening day, it had 65 available beds, and although the full cost of its construction is hard to determine, the furnishings alone are reported to have cost $3,422 - over $105,000 in today’s dollars.

In some ways, the Old Men’s Home was ahead of its time. The independent old miners who came to live there were given several concessions. They were free to come and go as they pleased and they were allowed to work in orchards in the area or to head off into the bush to continue their passion for prospecting. In the home, they had to follow fairly strict rules in order to “keep up the respectability and tone of establishment.” The place provided both dignity and independence for those pioneers.

There is a significant Cariboo connection to this story as well. Maclean’s magazine of Nov. 1, 1922, tells the story of John “Plato” Likely, the man for whom the town of Likely is named. He prospected and worked the streams and creeks in the Likely area, sometimes with modest results, but not earning enough money to put any aside for the future. When his health had declined to a point where he could not continue prospecting, his friends convinced him to end his years in the bush, and in 1919, John Likely left the area on horseback, headed for Kamloops to take up residence in the Old Men’s Home there.

As the story goes, while on his way, his horse lost a shoe, so he stopped in at the blacksmith’s shop in 150 Mile House to have it replaced. While waiting for the re-shoeing, he began talking about his explorations and about potential gold deposits which he was certain were present at Cedar Creek. The blacksmith, Johnny Lyne, listened carefully to the old timer, and two years later, with partner Albert E. (Bert) Pratt, he went to the area to check out Likely’s information.

They found the area he had described, and on the first day of digging, they found an average of $2 worth of gold in very pan they worked. As a result of this discovery, the second Cariboo Gold Rush began. During its peak in 1922, it was estimated that over 7,000 men made their way to Cedar Creek, and Williams Lake became the supply centre, creating an unexpected boom for the little town. By 1945, Cedar Creek had produced more than 150,000 ounces of gold. John Likely knew the gold was there - he had just run out of time in his life to get it out.

By 1922, when Likely was a resident there, the Old Men’s Home had been in operation for more than a quarter century. That year, a dedicated cemetery, still known as the Old Men’s Cemetery, was opened on Sixth Avenue, some three blocks to the southeast, next to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. That cemetery is the final resting place for 1,084 men who passed away at the home, having come to B.C. from the 32 countries and 10 provinces. 2022 was the centennial year of this beautiful old burial ground, and to its credit, the local neighbourhood association undertook a project to restore the cemetery and create a memorial arboretum.

In 1974, the Old Men’s Home was deemed to be too costly to renovate and it did not fit into the updated vision of what care homes ought to be. It was torn down to make way for the new Ponderosa Lodge care facility. Thus ended the tenure of the aging pioneers of B.C.’s gold rush era.

Information for this article was found in an August 2020 article in Kamloops This Week by Frank Dwyer.

READ MORE: HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The story of Alex Meiss in the Cariboo

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