Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C.
Her One True Love, the third book in my Prospect Series, has encountered many obstacles on the way to publication not the least being the sudden demise of my cover artist. However, the end is in sight, so it’s time to get in the mood.
As the series name says, this is a set of books set in the fictional gold rush town of Prospect, B.C, where fortunes are made and lost and lost and lost. Many more falling into the latter category than the first. As an object lesson in gold fever I bring you the real life story of Billy Barker.
An Englishman who had already tried his luck in the California gold-fields and on the Fraser River, Billy Barker (1817-1894) staked the most famous claim of the Cariboo near William’s Creek in 1861. Many legends have grown up around the man so it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction, but legends usually have a grain of truth in them.
One such is the story of Billy’s recurring dream that included the number 52. Although he had been partners in a company that eventually struck it rich, Billy had sold his shares in it and gone on to stake a claim in an unlikely spot on Williams Creek. He was convinced that an ancient river had run deep underground at that spot. While others scoffed, he kept drilling. They came up dry at 10 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet and even 50 feet. Any reasonable man, so the theory went, would have abandoned the project, but Barker kept drilling and at 52 feet, just like in his dream, he struck pay dirt, taking out $600,000 in gold dust and nuggets. Calculations of current value vary but in today’s terms that would amount to anywhere from $17 million to $2.5 billion. Whichever figure you use, he had acquired an enormous amount of wealth.
By this time Billy Barker was a widower, his first wife died in the poor house in England. He left the gold fields and came to Victoria where he met and married Elizabeth Collyer, a widow who had recently arrived from England on the Rosedale. The following summer they returned to the gold creeks where a free miner’s licence was issued in her name. Come winter, they again returned to Victoria, ready to spend the winter enjoying their wealth. He enjoyed a party and is reputed to have sung this ditty while dancing a jig whenever he entered a saloon.
“I’m English Bill,
Never worked and never will.
Get away girls,
Or I’ll tousle your curls.”
Another legend holds that Elizabeth was extravagant and helped her husband spend or give away his fortune. Whether she did or not, the fact remains that by the time of her death in 1865 Billy Barker was broke, He returned once again to the gold fields to try to recoup his fortune.
This time, luck did not smile. He embarked on several ventures, but barely eked out a living as a prospector, resorting to working as a cook for other miners. By 1894 he was suffering from cancer and living in The Old Men’s home in Victoria. He died in July of that year and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Even though he lost his wealth, Billy Barker left a legacy in British Columbia. The town of Barkerville in the Cariboo is named in his honour. Billy Barker Days in nearby Quesnel is a major tourist attraction. And, it seems, Billy was rich in friends. Although he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Victoria’s historic Ross Bay cemetery, his final resting place is marked by a stone erected by his friends to honour his memory and his place in the history of the province.
This monument reads, in part, “”Like many miners, he was soon broke, but Barker continued to mine and prospect throughout the Cariboo for the rest of his life. The fabulous wealth of the Cariboo mines laid the foundation for British Columbia. With this monument, Billy Barker is honoured as a builder of the province. He died poor in wealth, but forever rich in friends.”