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Canada Travel: British Columbia’s Barkerville offers ghostly good times

BARKERVILLE, B.C.—The local barrister—tipsy and wearing a bowler hat – stumbles along the raised wooden boardwalks. A loaded stagecoach rattles along dusty streets, the driver calling out stops along the way. The clang-clang-clang of the blacksmith striking his anvil rings out in the mountain air. Looking down the dirt main street, Barkerville looks much as it must have looked 150 years ago, unmoved by the passage of time.

In 1862, Billy Barker’s discovery of gold triggered a stampede to the goldfields of central British Columbia, an area known as the Cariboo region. Barkerville was ground zero – a lucrative strike along Williams Creek that gave new meaning to rich.

“Per linear foot, this frontage along Williams Creek is the richest single gold-plated creek in the world,” says James Douglas, the manager of visitor experiences with Barkerville Historic Town, now a National Historic Site and the largest living history museum in western North America. “There’s a reason they call it the Cariboo Goldfields. It was literally, fields of gold.”

Between Barker’s legendary 1862 strike and the end of the rush four years later, the local registry office recorded over $ 19 million worth of gold at $ 16 per ounce, all coming out of the one creek and its associated gravels.

These days, although technically a ghost town, Barkerville teems with life during the daytime hours. Over 130 period buildingsfrom the saloon to the Chinese ‘wash-and-dry’ laundry – line the streets. Three-quarters of them are the original Barkerville buildings, standing in their original locations. Interpretive staff members wear the dress of the time, walking the streets, manning the shops and playing their parts to the hilt.

Barkerville is pristine gold rush. It’s living heritage that preserves a time when gold towns and settlements sprung up overnight. And, according to Douglas, the gold in Williams Creek is the reason Canada developed as it did, from sea to sea.

“Had there not been gold here, Canada would not exist as it does today. British Columbia would have become part of the United States. It was of great interest to the U.S. to acquire this territory – it would have connected the lower states to Alaska. At the time, it appeared the British would let it go . . . that is, until news reached them about the gold deposits.”

At night they roll up the sidewalks and things largely close down in the period townsite. But just down the road in Wells – an arts community with 250 residents – the small galleries, fun shops, community theatre and quirky eateries open their doors in the morning and swing them shut late in the evening.

“We’re the host town to the ghost town,” laughs Dave Jorgenson, owner of The Bear’s Paw Café in Wells. Funky and colourful, the café is one of Wells’s must-stops for wild Coho salmon, BBQ ribs and wedges of sweet cranberry carrot cake.

“Wells is on the way to nowhere,” says Jorgenson. “Imagine, in the 1930s it was this large mining town, home to over 4,000 people. Then Wells almost became a ghost town, but no one destroyed these wooden buildings. There’s a uniformity of architecture that makes the town charming – so the legacy continues.”

Running a café is time consuming, leaving Jorgenson and his partner Cheryl Macarthy little time to soak up the local arts vibe. So, they built a stage and brought the arts community to them. The café’s summer months are filled with folk roots concerts and informal jam sessions. Tiny Wells is home to an international harp school and it’s not unusual for instructors to take to the stage.

It was the arts that lured Claire Kujundzic and Bill Horne from Vancouver to Wells. The couple’s Amazing Space Studio & Gallery sits just off main street, in a 1930s era wooden church that’s been renovated from ground level to steeple.

“Wells was affordable,” explains Kujundzic, an artist who is celebrated for her activist and feminist-themed projects. “When we bought the building it came with everything from the pews to the priest’s robes. But there was no heat and no running water.”

It took eight years to completely renovate the church into an airy, beautiful gallery space to display Kujundzic’s paintings and Horne’s silkscreening and printing. Their original artwork features images of Wells and the Cariboo landscape.

“They say that when Fred Wells – the prospector and the miner who is considered the Father of the Cariboo – founded the mine in 1927, he paid special attention to hiring men who played music,” says Horne. “He knew it would help create a sense of community.”

There’s truth in that statement. Almost a century later it’s the music and the arts that tie this community together. And, like the period architecture, it’s a sturdy legacy that continues on.

Josephine Matyas is a Kingston Ont. based freelance writer whose trip was subsidized by the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association. She can be found online at www.writerwithoutborders.com.


SPECIAL DATES In 2012, the Barkerville National Historic Site celebrates the 150th anniversary of Billy Barker’s legendary placer gold strike and the beginning of the Cariboo Gold Rush. The big event is on August 11 and 12, when the townsite hosts the Canadian National Gold Panning Championships. On the August long weekend, the ArtsWells festival features over 100 musical performances and 20 different workshops on everything from beatboxing to Ukrainian dance to lyric writing to laughter yoga. www.artswells.com

ARRIVING Wells is about 2 ½ hours southeast of Prince George and 10 minutes west of Barkerville Historic Town on Hwy 26 in B.C.’s north Cariboo. Nearby Quesnel and Prince George are serviced by Central Mountain Air, Air Canada or WestJet.

SLEEPING Choice is limited. The historic 16 room Wells Hotel sits right on main street – ask for a quiet room at the back. wellshotel.com

CONNECTING WITH THE ARTS The Bear’s Paw website links to special events for all of Wells, www.thebearspaw.ca, including music and theatre, as well as listings for Island Mountain Arts, a vibrant school of the arts. The Amazing Space Studio & Gallery info is at www.claireart.ca.

WEB SURFING landwithoutlimits.com, barkerville.ca.

thestar.com – Travel