That Day in September, 1868

History Town (Virtual Reality) by vanstralen

One hundred and forty-five years ago this past week, Barkerville was experiencing a very hot and dry September. Miners were busy pulling the last of the gravel and ore out of claims along Williams Creek, for in a few short weeks the ground would freeze, and picks and shovels would be packed away until next spring. Seasonal residents were winding down their professional and social activities and getting ready to head south for the autumn and winter. Year-round residents were chopping wood, filling their pantries, and mentally preparing for the long cold months to come.

I’ve always imagined the afternoon of September 16th, 1868 was quiet and a little bit lazy – the kind of day where you know you should be getting more work done, but the sun is shining and bones are weary from a long mining season. The last thing on anyone’s mind would be the thought that life is about to change forever.

The story of the Great Fire of 1868 that has been passed down through many generations in Barkerville tells of a man (he is usually said to have been a miner) in the back of Adler and Berry’s New Fashion Saloon. The stove was lit on this dry day to accommodate the flat iron of a Hurdy Gurdy dancing girl, who was pressing her evening attire. There was an incident (it is almost always described as an unwanted advance, a stolen kiss, perhaps an assault) and somehow, the miner and the girl ended up engaged in a kerfuffle. The result was a knocked-over stovepipe. Within minutes the town was ablaze.

The saloon fire quickly spread across the street to the Bank of British North America. The blaze then ripped through the rest of Barkerville so fast there was barely time to think. Many residents tried to save their belongings by carrying arm loads of goods to the creek side and even dropping some of them in the water. The town was all but destroyed in less than two hours. At noon Barkerville was business as usual, by the evening it was gone.
My mind’s eye has traveled to that day many times over the years. What was like to be there? What runs through your head as you watch building after building engulfed in flames and you know there is nothing anyone can do to stop it? Was there time to feel fear, or did gut survival instinct kick in and cause everyone to just instinctively save themselves and their stuff? Was there time to contemplate the rapidly approaching winter, and lament at the timing of it all? Was there hollering, or was there only silent shock inside the roar of the flames?

The Barkerville character I have played for 20 years, Miss Florence Wilson, saw her saloon burn to the ground that day. She is listed as having lost $500 worth of property and goods – an enormous sum for an unmarried 1860s businesswoman. Like so many others, Miss Wilson began rebuilding her business and her life almost before the ground stopped smouldering. Whenever I have imagined myself into that day, it has always been through her eyes. I even wrote a scene about it in my Theatre Royal show, The Bride of Barkerville.

Every season, near the anniversary of the Great Fire of 1868, I make a pilgrimage up the main street of Barkerville to a spot between the Wake Up Jake restaurant and Moses’s Fashionable Haircutting Salon; to the place where the fire likely started. The veil of time separates me from those Barkervillians who were actually there in 1868, but in September I feel the whispers of these friends I’ve never met as they live through a day we will probably still be talking about 145 years from now.

– Danette Boucher

The above one-panel cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen, with accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the eighteenth of twenty weekly entries that will be logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2013 collaboration between Barkerville, British Columbia and the Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing some of the quirkier advantages to living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!