Heritage classic gets update
August 13th, 2021
Art Downs (1924 – 1996) may be known as one of the forefathers of the B.C. publishing industry for founding Heritage House Publishing in 1979, now owned by Victoria-based Rodger Touchie, but he is revered by B.C. history buffs as the author of Wagon Road North: The Saga of the Cariboo Gold Rush first published by Northwest Digest in 1960. It has now been revised, expanded and reprinted a sixth time with input from Ken Mather who is himself no slouch in the B.C. history department (see bio below).
The book’s focus is the Cariboo Wagon Road that stretched from Fort Yale to Barkerville, the route that tens of thousands of prospectors took to get to the Cariboo goldfields in the 1860s. Mather has added chapters telling the stories of Indigenous, Chinese, and Women of Barkerville.
“There’s voices we didn’t hear from… that are now here at the table,” Mather told the The Williams Lake Tribune. “Their story becomes important to us. The original version of Wagon Road North, no matter how good it was, was really about old white guys.”
The book still contains plenty of images with more than a hundred archival photos, maps and contemporary pictures of historical sites. The new edition also features a photo of Billy Barker (Barkerville’s namesake) from his younger days mining in California.
Heritage Speaker Series with Ken Mather
September 28, 2021, at 7:00 pm
Hosted by the Quesnel & District Archives and Museum
Art Downs became one of the forefathers of the B.C. publishing industry, although his pioneering role as a publisher is seldom heralded.
Downs was born in 1924 in England and emigrated with his parents at age five. They settled in northeastern Saskatchewan where he grew up during the Depression. “I attended a typical one-room rural school,” he recalled, “with a frustrated teacher attempting to teach grades 1-8 to some 50 impoverished farm boys and girls.” His father joined the Canadian Navy during World War II and the family came to the West Coast. In 1943, Downs joined the merchant navy and worked for seven years mainly as a radio officer. Unable to pursue his hopes of becoming a reporter due to his lack of experience, he returned to help operate his father’s ranch in the Quesnel River Valley in the Cariboo. “Our ranch was the same as about 90 percent of Cariboo ranches,” he said. “The owner needed an outside job to support the operation. I reluctantly abandoned ranching but left with a double legacy – the knack of stilling a potent beverage christened ‘Quesnel River Screech’ and an incurable malady known as Caribooitis. The most noticeable symptom of the latter affliction is an unsettled feeling when the victim is anywhere else except the Cariboo.”
His first published story ‘The Saga of the Upper Fraser Sternwheelers’ appeared in 1950 in the Cariboo Digest, a regional magazine published in Quesnel since 1945. With Wes Logan, he bought the Cariboo Digest from Alex Sahonovich in 1955 and became its editor. It evolved into BC Outdoors, a successful blend of history, wildlife and conservation that served a broad readership. He didn’t believe in fishing derbies or trophies but he recognized the importance of tourism. He deplored clear cut logging and was a tireless conservationist and grassroots organizer. Selling BC Outdoors in 1979, he and his wife Doris turned to publishing books “by B.C. writers for B.C. readers” under their Heritage House imprint in Surrey. Downs eschewed the city and affected a down-to-earth bluntness that disguised his sophistication. Along the way he served as president of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, director of the Canadian Wildlife Federation and a member of the Pacific Salmon Commission. He died at his home in Surrey on August 13, 1996.
Art Downs was an avid historian whose “Tragedies of Crowsnest Pass” recalls the Hillcrest and Fernie mining explosions that killed 189 and 128 miners respectively. “Paddlewheels on the Frontier” chronicles the 100-year-era when more than 300 blugged-bowed, flat-bottomed sternwheel steamers operated on major lakes and rivers of British Columbia and the Yukon, as well as along the West Coast as far north as the Bering Sea.
Ken Mather has been researching western Canadian heritage for over four decades, working in curatorial, management and research roles at Fort Edmonton Park, Barkerville and the O’Keefe Ranch since the early 1970s. He is the author of several books on pioneer and ranching history, including Stagecoach North, Trail North, Ranch Tales and Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide.