Express ways and means
Francis Barnard pioneered the northern-most stagecoach line in North America over a 50-year span.
June 17th, 2020
To counter the flawed myths about Barnard, Ken Mather offers an accurate telling of the man and his efforts to establish the successful Barnard Stagecoach and Express Company.
Review by Sage Birchwater
It’s fitting that one of the last remaining red and gold-painted B.C. Express stagecoaches in British Columbia is safely ensconced in a display shelter beside the Visitors Centre in 100 Mile House. For decades B.C. Express Coach No. 14 stood sentry outside the Red Coach Inn, a business venture started in the 1930s by landed British gentry, Lord Martin Cecil, 7th Marquess of Exeter.
As Ken Mather points out in his Stagecoach North: A History of Barnard’s Express (Heritage $22.95), English aristocrats played a significant role in ensuring that British Columbia remained part of the British domain. Authorities in London sent upper-class English gentlemen to the colonies throughout the world to add government and legal control to its territories. Once gold was discovered on the gravel bars of the Fraser River in 1857, that’s what happened in British Columbia.
A dozen years earlier, wily Yankee negotiators wrested Oregon Country and the Columbia District away from British colonial control and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 drew a line in the sand establishing the 49th Parallel as the boundary between British and American territories. James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island and overseer of the vast Hudson’s Bay Company fur empire of New Caledonia, didn’t want American acquisitions pushing further north. So, when 30,000 gold seekers from California flooded into the colony in 1858 — bringing with them attitudes of manifest destiny and genocide toward indigenous inhabitants — he urged colonial secretary of state Edward Bulwer-Lytton to send more resources.
A few dozen British aristocrats arrived in Victoria with their libraries, wealth and education to bolster the British presence. They were accompanied by the Royal Engineers and the British Navy to add muscle to the fledgling colony. Bulwer-Lytton appointed Colonel Richard Clement Moody to head the 150-strong battalion of Royal Engineers, as well as Matthew Baillie Begbie as judge, and Chartres Brew as inspector of police.
Mather explains how another class of British loyalists also arrived from eastern Canada. Though considered crass by members of the British upper-crust, these Canadians with their strong work ethic and propensity toward democracy, possessed a strong aversion to becoming American.
These conditions “set the stage” for the arrival of Quebec-born Francis Jones Barnard from Upper Canada in the spring of 1859. Leaving his wife and children behind in Toronto, he came with few resources apart from his indomitable will and a shrewd business sense.
At 30, Barnard first took a steamship from New York to Panama, crossed the isthmus by train, and proceeded up the west coast of North America by steamship to San Francisco, and then on to Victoria. He started working a claim that spring, just upstream from Yale, but quickly realized being a miner wasn’t his calling. He sold his claim in the fall and cut cordwood that winter.
In the spring of 1860, Barnard got a job mapping the trail through the Fraser Canyon, then later he was hired as a constable in Yale. Finally, Barnard secured a job as purser on a steamship between Victoria and Yale, and with the prospect of steady employment, sent for his wife and children. They resided in Yale, the largest town on the Fraser River, for the next eight years.
Mather says many stories have been told about Francis Jones Barnard, raising his exploits to the level of myth. Troubled by errors of fact that rendered this myth “seriously flawed,” Mathers offers an accurate telling of this man and his efforts to establish the successful Barnard Stagecoach and Express Company (the BX) and later the British Columbia Express (BCX), heralded as the northern-most stagecoach line in North America over a 50-year span.
Mather begins by introducing British Columbia’s first expressman, William “Billy” Ballou, a colourful and obstreperous frontiersman from Alabama, drawn to the Pacific by the 1849 California gold rush. There he honed his skills carrying letters, newspapers, and parcels of importance to miners in remote camps and returned with express containing large quantities of gold.
Ballou had the uncanny ability to change his appearance and fade into obscurity as he passed through the landscape undetected carrying treasure. He claimed he never got robbed. (Yes, Lee Marvin won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1965 for his portrayal of a notorious gunman with a similar name in the American western comedy Cat Ballou, likely a coincidental choice of name.)
With the first sniff of gold discoveries on the Fraser River, Ballou got in on the ground floor by starting an express service for miners. Many missives he carried from these men from the bars of the Fraser to the outside world contained gold dust which helped spur on the gold rush.
When Ballou got into a dispute with the colonial government for refusing to carry the mail without an agreement, Mather says Barnard was always quick to spot an opportunity: Barnard bought out Ballou’s chief rival, William Jaffray, and offered to carry the mail free of charge.
Six months later Barnard was awarded the government mail contract. While not lucrative, it gave him the edge during lean times to out-compete Ballou. By the time the Cariboo Road was complete in 1863, Ballou had left the country. That’s when Barnard started the Barnard Express Stagecoach line from Yale to Barkerville.
In reviewing this book, I found myself scrambling over maps trying to chart the gold rush drama. For instance, I’d never heard of the Big Bend gold strike along the Columbia River, north of Revelstoke in 1866, as Barnard established a stagecoach route from Yale to Savona on Kamloops Lake and boat passage from there to Shuswap Lake to serve the miners.
We learn of Steve Tingley, the man Barnard sent south into American territory twice to buy horses and bring them back to pull his stagecoaches. Tingley became a trusted driver of the BX and BCX stagecoaches along the precarious Fraser Canyon route to Barkerville. Eventually he took over the company. (Tingley Road in the Cariboo bears his name.)
Francis Jones Barnard’s son Francis Stillman Barnard also played an important role in the stagecoach enterprise. A man with a strong business sense, the younger Barnard took on more duties of the company as his father got into politics, first as a member of the colonial legislative council, then as a member of parliament in Ottawa.
Barnard Sr. was a strong proponent of Canadian unity. He initially proposed a stagecoach route linking British Columbia to eastern Canada. Instead, a railroad was proposed, but Barnard got behind that initiative even though it didn’t benefit his company.
“When the combined Colony of British Columbia voted in favour of joining Canada, it was the support from the mainland that clinched the union,” Mather says. “For this reason, Barnard can truly be considered a Father of Confederation.”
Just before horse-drawn transportation was replaced by the automobile, it was a B.C. Express stagecoach that brought Lord Martin Cecil’s father, William Cecil, 5th Marquess of Exeter, from Kamloops to 100 Mile House, to purchase the 6,000-hectare Bridge Creek Ranch in 1910.
Sage Birchwater contributes regularly from Williams Lake on subjects pertaining to the B.C. Interior.