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The pursuit of happiness takes on many forms, and most things come a lot faster to those who won’t wait. In 1858, upon rumours of a big gold strike in a far off British colony, ten per cent of California’s population dispatches north.
One of the world’s greatest gold rushes unfolds in a remote valley of central British Columba, a colony whose recently-chosen name pleases Queen Victoria. By 1862, a town replaces the forests as Barkerville’s log cabins nestle amongst the scaffoldings of flumes beside denuded hillsides.
The wild town is named after 45 yer-old successful goldminer, Billy Barker. Billy hires a body guard so that he can sleep and still keep his gold. However, Barker dies a pauper at age 77, in Victoria.
All told, about 30,000 passionate pioneers foresake comfort and discover a wild, unforgiving and decidedly death-defying wilderness. Many return home after confronting “natural difficulties”. Meanwhile, for the more fortunate and energetic, treasure awaits.
Before publication of Barkerville’s first newspaper, in 1865, gold production in the region is feverish. In 1863, flawed estimates are at $3 million. That’s about $60 million in today’s figures. A blossoming bullion-based mini-metropolis of gold diggers emerges.
Diggers’ new-found wealth is distributed unevenly to merchants, hair restorers, druggists, sluice robbers and .... entertainers. Among their strange goings-on is a contest-type spectator dance. A gentleman lifts his partner upside down as high and as long as strength endures. There appears no record of whether this aerial display is applied to a waltz or a fox trot beat. And there are tales of pianos being carried many miles by pioneers. Violins are also popular, but not violinists. “This class of musicians (pardon the misnomer) have a school of their own, in which melody and euphony have no part. Noise is the grand oobject.” - Cariboo Sentinel, 1867.
When Shakspeare says, “frailty, thy name is woman,” he’s not referring to all women. The entrance into Barkerville of the dancing Hurdy Gurdy Girls is, doubtless, a pivotal day in the evolution of social life. The “stalwart” Hurdies get their name from a musical instrument; a Hurdy Gurdy. (hurdygurdy.com) The sound emanating from this stringed instrument is similar to both bagpipes and violin.
For the privilege of dancing with a hoopskirted femme fatale, gentlemen pay $1. To put this in perspective, both a pound of butter and a game of billiards also cost $1. Some tip toe around the idea that the entrepreneurial dancers may be actually involved in other professions. The ladies, of European descent, apparently don’t speak English. (This would probably explain why I can’t find any daily journals.)
Anyway, what do others think of the Hurdies? The ever-lovin’ Sentinel is a great help. The erudite editor does his duty. .In 1866, this appears in the Cariboo Sentinel: The Hurdies “are unsophisticated maidens of Dutch extraction from poor but honest parents ... morally speaking they are not .......”
“Mrs. Partington says that because Hurdies are regarded as stars, is no reason they should be regarded as heavenly bodies.” - Sentinel, July 1867
Apparently, because the Hurdies are women, they can’t possibly be responsible for their own existence in the rough and ready goldfields. Credit, therefore, is given to a man; a “Boss Hurdy.” “They (the Hurdies) are generally brought to America by some speculating, conscienceless scoundrel of a being called a Boss Hurdy. This man binds them in his service until he has received about a thousand per cent for his outlay.’ - Cariboo Sentinell, 1866. The (male) editor is not male bashing, though he may assume this poor sod “of a being”is having more fun.
(While spectacular fortunes are made, not all businesses are thriving. The newspaper business is one that is not successful in the 1860’s. Doubtless a fad.)
Personally, I think the Hurdies are self-starters. In the enchanting hills are thousands of rugged types exploring for gold nuggets It may be these twin pillars of motivation, men and gold, that inspire women to start up businesses in the wilds, from which there is no speedy retreat.
The popular Hurdies, though, are the centre of distraction. Soon after a Kiss in the Dark plays at the Theatre Royal, a miner gets fresh with one of the dancers in the back of a saloon. This somehow causes a fire to break out. The Great fire in the summer of 1868 almost destroys the town. Within one week, rebuilding is begun and completed by Spring 1869.
There are marriages; some miners find their treasures in the glamorous grand saloons of Barkerville. Preachers arrive on the scene as early as 1861; however, after hearing sermons about the gold diggers’ Sabbath day habits, the hard-working miners vacate the church services. Sundays are reserved for dancing, relaxation, sparring, gambling, drinking, opium smoking - legal until 1908 - and visiting Fanny Bendixon’s private saloon.
In some circles of Barkerville, women are thought to be bad luck. It is even preferred that the fair sex not visit mine sites. Women’s mining transacions are, therefore, arranged and even disguised through male agents.
Nothing recedes like success. After the 60’s, mining production declines. With the introduction of hydraulicking, the labour force diminishes. And by then easy diggings are depleted. However, the end of the story is not yet written: I am on the ’phone checking out the latest on the new Rush.
Romantic Barkerville is still here; a lively miracle in the enchanting wilderness.
So are the entertainers.
My 89-year-old Mother probably says it best: Success is getting up just once more than you fall.”
Hurdy Gurdy Girls.
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Historic 1930's Wells Gold Boom Town.
One of the few towns in
B.C. where employment was available during the Great Depression.
The wild west and critics didn't deter successful Fred Wells.
Learn about our colorful local history with Joy
1860's Barkerville Gold Rush Town.
Now a world famous tourist attraction,
Barkerville's characters built the boom town
over Billy Barker's Gold - rich Claim.
Click here to view Joy's article, 'Striking it Rich'.
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