Before any prospectors or settlers arrived in the Quesnel area during the Cariboo Gold Rush, the Lhtako Dene, or Carrier, people lived off the land around Quesnel, occupying the region from the Bowron Lakes to the Dean River. Known among themselves as the Uda Ekelh, which means People Who Travel by Boat on Water Early In The Morning.
They would see their culture disrupted as fur traders started to arrive in the area in the early-19th century. Explorer Alexander Mackenzie was the first to come through the area and meet the Indigenous. He had learned of the Indigenous of the region from the Sekani, and he would use the term Carrier in his writings about them, which is where the English name comes from.
In 1808, Simon Fraser explored what is now the Fraser River and he would name a tributary of the river after his clerk, James Maurice Quesnel.
In 1950, a young man named Derek Rolph was travelling in Ontario on the train when he began speaking with another young man at the train station. He told the other person he was from Quesnel, British Columbia. He would write to his parents about what happened after, stating quote:
“Imagine my surprise when the other chap produced his identification card bearing the name Kenneth Quesnel and explained that it was his great-great grandfather, James Maurice Quesnel, Simon Fraser’s first lieutenant on the descent of the Fraser River in 1808, after whom the town is named.”
Things would start off slowly but then in 1858, gold was discovered at Hills Bar, followed by more gold strikes in 1859 and 1860. In 1861, the gold rush officially began, bringing in thousands of people who were trying to find their fortune and cared little for the damage they were doing to the area, and the people who had lived there for thousands of years.
A key component of this gold rush was the Cariboo Wagon Road, build by Royal Engineers, bypassing more difficult routes through the Fraser Canyon. This road would cause towns to spring up, built by those who wanted to profit by selling to the people who were looking to find gold in the rivers. A major stop along the way to the gold fields, sitting at the confluence of the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers, was the new community of Quesnel.
Originally called Quesnelle Mouth, in 1870 the name would become Quesnelle, spelled different from how it is now. By 1900, the current spelling would be used.
On June 25, 1861, Philip Nind, gold commissioner, visited the area and wrote quote:
That man, Charlie Danielson, would profit from his turnip crops, which allowed him to invest in a ferry across the Quesnel. Using the profits from that, he would obtain a franchise for a toll bridge. Danielson had arrived in 1860 to plant his turnips, offering them for 25 cents to one dollar. He would eventually sell the entire crop for $3,000, or over $100,000 today. His crop sold so well because turnips were effective in preventing scurvy, which saved many miners lives during those early years.
From 1862 to 1886, the community was an important stopping point for sternwheelers but still growth was quite slow for several decades.
In 1863, the SS Enterprise would launch on the Fraser River, running from Soda Creek to Quesnel. It was the first of 12 sternwheelers to work this section from 1863 to 1921. The lumber to build the ship was all cut by hand locally, and the boiler and engines had been brought by the wagon road from Port Douglas, 482 kilometres away. In October of 1863, two Englishmen, Viscount Milton and Dr. Walter Cheadle would travel on the ship and write quote:
“Given use of captain’s cabin, cigars and books. Fetched out every few minutes to have a drink with someone. Cocktails every five minutes and champagne lunch afterward.”
Unfortunately, on a journey back from Takla during the Omineca Gold Rush in 1871, the ship was wrecked on Trembleur Lake and abandoned. That would not be the end of the story though. The original boiler now sits on display in Quesnel, with an information board next to it, offering a description of the history of the sternwheelers. The boiler sits right near the Quesnel Fraser River Footbridge, right along the Fraser River at the intersection of 97th Avenue and Front Street.
In the 1860s, the Quesnel Pioneer Cemetery would be created, and this cemetery exists to this day, with its oldest recorded headstone dating to May 10, 1878. You can visit Quesnel today and do a walking tour of the cemetery to learn about the lives of the settlers who are buried there, and who helped build Quesnel into what it is today.
Around the same time the cemetery was built, Quesnel Forks would be established as a major supply centre for the Cariboo Gold Rush. It would have its heyday from 1860 to 1862 when it had 2,000 transient miners coming to and from the community, while the resident population was about 100. Unfortunately, the Cariboo Wagon Road would bypass the community in 1865 and it quickly began to lose its prominence. By the mid-1870s, most of the population had left except for a small group of Chinese miners who had come from South China. While the community is long since gone, you can still visit it Quesnel Forks, located only 20 minutes south of Quesnel. There are still many restored pioneer buildings and the historic cemetery. The entire community has been restored and cleared and protected it from the river which has slowly eaten away at the banks of the ghost town.
In 1866, the oldest current building in Quesnel would be built. The Hudson’s Bay Company Building is a one-and-a-half storey log building was constructed in the heart of the business district of the community and operated by the company for the next 54 years. The building would be renovated several times during that era. The company would close the location in 1918, and the building was sold to Charles Allison in 1920, who operated it a drug store and ice cream parlor in the building. For the next several decades the building would house an auto parts store, meat market and more. Today, the building is listed as a municipal heritage resource thanks to its deep history in the community.
On May 31, 1866, Charles Morgan Blessing, who had come from Ohio to find gold, was murdered by James Barry, another prospector, who then stole his gold tiepin and a large amount of cash. Blessing’s friend, Wellington Moses, was instrumental in getting Barry arrested as he fled south in a stagecoach. Barry was found guilty by Judge Matthew Begbie, known as the hanging judge. Barry was then hanged on Aug. 9, 1867. Today, Blessing’s grave, located west of Quesnel, is now British Columbia’s smallest historic site, with a marker and info sign detailing the life of Blessing and his murder. You can find this grave on Highway 26 43 kilometres west of Quesnel.
By the time the 20th century rolled around, and the age of the sternwheelers was dying away, there was the obvious need to get tracks laid to the community. On June 15, 1916, it was announced that tracks for the PGE would be laid to Quesnel by the end of the year, with 185 miles being put down even though the labour market was severely limited due to the First World War.
D’Arcy Tate, vice president of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway Company would state quote:
“Efforts will be made to carry the tracks from Clinton to Quesnel this year. In view of the fact that the first installment of the loan amounting to $2 million was placed yesterday, we are placing orders for our steel for the roadway, and we expect to get to work almost immediately.”
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In 1911, the Fire Bell Tower would be built to help bring some extra fire safety to the community. The first real fire department in Quesnel was built in 1910 with 25 members, and they would use oil can water pails and a brass pump to fight fires. This 400-pound bell would alert the town of a fire, allowing for a fast response from the community. The bell was purchased from the Timothy Eaton Company and was located next to the town hall for a time. The bell would immediately get use when in 1916 a terrible fire broke out at the Empress Theatre inside the Cariboo Hotel. By the time the fire was out, eight buildings were lost including two hotels and a bank. Estimates of damages was pegged at $250,000, or $5.2 million today. Then, on March 23, 1923, a fire erupted at Cowan’s Hardware Store after a bucket of tar exploded while it was being heated on the stove. The fire would destroy the hardware store, the telephone exchange and one other building. A third terrible fire would occur on June 26, 1925, when a fire broke out at the Good Eats Cafe due to an overturned lamp. The blaze spread quickly and within an hour, the entire block was destroyed. Unfortunately, this fire would result in two deaths, John Erickson and Jack Simister. Erickson had only moved to the area the previous day, while Simister had come to Quesnel in 1884. Both men were trapped in the restaurant and by the time they reached an open door to the back lane, their clothes had been burned off and both were badly injured and would die only hours later. Property damage was estimated to be about $100,000, or $1.57 million today.
Thanks to the arrival of the railroad, Quesnel would be incorporated as a village in 1928. From here, growth would continue at a faster pace for the community.
On Aug. 20, 1928, construction began on a small footbridge that would become an iconic part of the community. By Oct. 13, 1928, crews were pouring concrete piers and on Jan. 23, 1929, Stuart Wilson was dynamiting ice as it approached the bridgework when tragedy struck. Wilson was attaching a fuse to a stick of dynamite to throw it on the huge cakes of ice on the river. A defective fuse resulted in the dynamite going off before he had a chance to throw it, which blew off his right hand and wrist, and mangled his left hand. Wilson would suffer severe internal injuries and only hours after the hospital, he would tragically pass away. Only a month later in February, Joe Rousseau was hit by timber falling off the bridge, fracturing his ribs and ankle in the process. Finally, on March 8, 1929, the bridge would open in a special ceremony, providing residents with a quick method for getting over the river. While the bridge is no longer used for traffic, having been replaced in that regard in the 1960s, the bridge still stands to this day and is a centerpiece of Quesnel’s Riverfront Trail system. It is also the longest wood truss walking bridge in the entire world.
In 1930, the Cornish Waterwheel was installed at Heritage Corner, where the SS Enterprise Boiler is located, as a way to honour the original miners who came to the Cariboo Region decades previous. The wheel was the first of its type to be installed in the Cariboo District in the early 1860s and was used to pan for gold on a larger industrial scale. The wheel was dedicated by Lt. Governor Bruce and Premier Tolmie on June 26, 1930. It continues to sit at the site to this day and makes for an excellent photo opportunity.
On July 19, 1958, Princess Margaret would come to Quesnel for a Royal Visit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the community. Her stop in the community was part of a tour of all of British Columbia, so she was only in Quesnel for about 15 to 20 minutes. Boy Scouts performed a parade, while the firemen’s band were in attendance as she arrived at the train station in the evening. Mayor A.V. Fraser met the Princess, and they did a short tour of the town. At the baseball diamonds, she was presented with a bouquet of flowers from the Girl Guides and Brownies. Then, she was back on her way, heading towards Williams Lake.
On June 19, 1987, at 4 p.m., Quesnel gained a new landmark when a giant steel pan was unveiled. Officially unveiled by Tourism Minister Bill Reid, the structure is the largest gold pan in the world, but that is not all that you will find there. There is also the world’s largest mock gold nugget in the pan, along with the world’s largest shovel and pick. The gold pan itself measures at 20 feet in diameter and weighs in at 3,000 pounds. The total cost to construct the pan was $20,000, or about $41,000 today.
If you want to learn more about the history of Quesnel, you can visit the Quesnel Museum. The museum features many different historic antiques from Quesnel’s past. There is the fan of Alice Northcott, who had come to Quesnel in 1884 to work as a school teacher. There is also the pack saddle used by Jean Cataline, who had come to the area in the 1860s and gained a reputation as the most reliable packer in the entire province, always fulfilling his contracts. When the government sent 200 North West Mounted Police to the Yukon in 1898, Cataline went with them to assist the supply train. He would pass away in 1922 and the saddle was donated to the museum in 1960. The bell from the HMCS Quesnel is also on display, which was the first corvette ship launched from the Victoria Machinery Depot shipyards in November 1940. The ship would serve through the entire Second World War and the bell was given to the town. For a time, it was at the high school, where it was stolen during regional championships in 1955 by Prince George players to jinx the Quesnel players. It was then returned and found its way to the museum. If you are interested in the Titanic, there is the Mary Helene Jane Baxter vanity set. In 1912, Baxter was traveling on the Titanic with her mother. Both her mother and Baxter would survive the sinking but her younger brother would die. Today, the vanity set is the centerpiece of a small exhibit dedicated to the Titanic in the museum.
Arguably, the most famous item in the museum is Mandy the Doll, which arrived in the museum in 1991 and is estimated to be 100 years old. The donor had received the doll from her grandmother and kept it in a trunk for many years as it gave her a weird and uneasy feeling. Mandy has since gained a reputation for strange circumstances in the museum. When Mandy was brought to the museum, her photo was taken. The next day, the lab was in disarray as if a child had thrown a tantrum. Another story tells of a stuffed lamb given to Mandy for company, which was found the next day on the floor outside her locked case. In 1999, Mandy would go to New York City to appear on the Montel Williams Show where Silvia Brown stated that the doll belonged to twins who had died of polio and the grief of the mother was implanted in the doll. Other strange experiences of the doll include a visitor from Calgary trying to videotape Mandy only to find his camera didn’t work. One reporter, who had taken photos of Mandy was in the basement lab when he heard footsteps upstairs when there was no one up there. Many also swear that Mandy’s eyes follow them. Today, many people come just to see Mandy at the museum.
Antique Machinery Park located in Quesnel features many unique displays including a fully operational blacksmith shop and sawmill, and other technology used in the area during the mid-1800s. Throughout the year, the shop and sawmill host demonstrations of the equipment on hand.
Lastly, you may notice in Quesnel that the fire hydrants are painted to resemble people. You can take part in a walking tour of these hydrants which are painted to resemble people such as Charlie Chaplin, a Can Can Girl, an Indigenous mother, a rodeo clown, bandit Bill Miner, Alexander Mackenzie, a hockey player, a prospector and a banker.