The History Of Ashcroft

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CraigBaird

Before there was ever a Village of Ashcroft, there was open land and that land was the territory of various Indigenous groups, most predominantly the Nlaka’pamux who occupied the land since time immemorial. In 2021, 3,000 year-old ancestral remains were found at the Ashcroft Terminal site. Local Indigenous leaders would have the remains laid to rest in a wooden box, with dirt covered by hand. Other remains have been found at the site, and were reburied as well.

By the time the mid-19th century came along, the Indigenous people were becoming involved in the fur trade, with several fur traders migrating to the area, typically working for the Hudson’s Bay Company or the North West Company. After the 1821 merger, it was only the Hudson’s Bay Company traders who came to the area.

In 1859, the first Europeans would settle in the area in the form of Clement Francis Cornwall and his brother Henry Pennant Cornwall. They would name the area Ashcroft in honour of Ashcroft Manor on the Ashcroft Ranch in England, their birthplace. The brothers had come to the area in the hopes of striking it rich during the Cariboo Gold Rush, which was thriving at the time, but after hearing the stories of many failed gold prospectors, they wisely chose to change plans. Instead, they decided to found the town and make money off the others who were searching for gold by giving them a place to saddle their horses. At the same time, the brothers sold items such as flour to the miners. Nearby to where they set up their community, the iconic and historic Cariboo Road went by. Things would turn well for Clement as well. In 1864, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly, serving until 1866 and briefly in 1871, the same year he was made a Senator. He served in the Canadian Senate until 1881 when he was named the third Lt. Governor of British Columbia.

By 1884, Ashcroft had grown to the point where it would receive a line from the Canadian Pacific Railway, itself still in the process of being built across the country, and the community soon became a division point for the company.

From this point, the community would continue to grow as settlers arrived, falling in love with the area. By 1890, the provincial government built a bridge across the river to allow travelers to ride the train to Ashcroft, where they would get off and take a stagecoach to the north. This helped Ashcroft’s economy as people would stop, buy supplies, stay in the hotels and eat the food at the local restaurants.

As the CPR was being built through Ashcroft, many Chinese workers came with it as they helped to build the rail line, for little pay and in dangerous conditions. The CPR would develop a Chinese cemetery at Ashcroft, and the first internment at the cemetery would be in the late 1880s. For the next several decades, it would be used by the Chinese to bury their loved ones until the early-1940s when the first Chinese burial at the public cemetery was conducted. In all, there are 49 visible grave sites at the cemetery, with seven that have their original headstones.

In 1898, a telegraph line would be constructed from Ashcroft, heading all the way to Atlin in northwestern British Columbia. Called the Yukon Telegraph Trail, it helped to connect the Yukon to the rest of Canada. Its construction was no easy task though, taking three years until it was completed in 1901. The line would be used for the next 35 years until it was abandoned as the use of radio began to rise. Even today, as you move north of Ashcroft along the former trail, there are still many artifacts that remain, including telegraph cabins, telegraph cable and other items. It was at Ashcroft where this immense telegraph line met the main line so that messages could go east and west through Canada.

Ashcroft would make nationwide news when a group of train robbers shot an Ashcroft constable. On June 28, 1909, two men were seen riding down the Thompson river in a boat and constables were dispatched to intercept them. It was believed these were the men who had held up a train at Ducks the previous week. Constable Decker of Ashcroft was dispatched with a rifle to confront the men and as he hailed them, ordering them to pull ashore. As they landed nearby, one of the robbers said quote:

“Now take me if you can.”

The man pulled his gun and Decker shot as the other man shot. Decker was shot through  the side, while the robber was hit in the chin, killing him instantly. The robber was later identified as Lou Kelly, a noted robber who used to be a policeman. It was later found the robber was in fact William Haney, and his brother was the other man involved in the incident. Haney’s brother then shot Decker with a shot gun in the head, killing him. The robber then got out of the boat, took the revolver from the other man along with papers and money and fled to the hills. A third robber was seen with the boat and ran along the trail according to children who had seen him land. That being said, it was believed by some that there was only one other man, rather than two. In the boat, 30 pounds of dynamite was found and it was believed the robbers were going to hold up another train to get them to the coast. Detective Draper from Spokane was dispatched with bloodhounds to find the two men. A reward of $5,000 was put forward by the Royal Trust Company of Vancouver for the capture of the two men involved in the robbery. The company also provided $2,500 to a trust fund for the education of Decker’s son. The manhunt for the other man, or men, would eventually be abandoned. There would be reports that the man was seen in Los Angeles by August.

On July 6, 1916, Ashcroft would be hit by the worst fire in its history when most of the community succumbed to flames. At 6:45 p.m. on that day, a fire began in one of the bedrooms of the principal hotel. Within minutes, the entire building was up in flames, while everyone was able to get out of the building, nothing was saved from the building. The fire then began to spread through the business section as residents did what they could to fight the flames with limited water supplies. Before long, the fire jumped to the residential section of the community. Realizing that nothing could be done to save the town, residents did what they could to save their possessions.

At 11 p.m., the CPR train came through Ashcroft, travelers found the community burning. A Mrs. Robinson, who came on the train, stated that as far as she could see were few buildings left in the community. The conductor of the train would state the fire quote:

“Stood out like a string of incandescent lamps against the blackness of the hills.”

On the train, people said that they could feet the heat from the fire despite being inside the train cars. The fire would also burn close to the station but thankfully did not burn the building down.

A reason for how quickly the fire spread was how dry it had been for weeks, and the buildings were tinder dry as a result. Among the areas burned was the Chinese area of the community, which burned down within half an hour of the first house being lit on fire. Other buildings burned down were the Ashcroft Hotel and the Grand Union Hotel, the post office, the telegraph office, all of the banks, the lumber yards, meat market, several hardware stores and many homes. It was believed that the fire caused $500,000 in damages, which would amount to about $10.5 million, and only 15 per cent of this was covered by insurance.

On Jan. 15, 1938, there was keen interest in the area when it was announced that a new air service would be launched between Ashcroft and the Yukon, with Pilot R.L. Ginger Coote of Vancouver expected to land in Ashcroft on that day, to arrange to fly into the Yukon. In honour of the event, the Ashcroft Board of Trade arranged to have a ceremony, and pioneers who could recall the days of the Klondike would also be on hand. Among the passengers on the flight would be J.G. Turgeon, the Member of Parliament for the Cariboo. For many in the community, this new historic service catering to the Yukon was seen as a way to help the community grow and prosper for many years to come.

During the Second World War, Ashcroft was noted for its strong support of the Red Cross, but also for the fact that 15 per cent of the male population had enlisted to fight overseas or in the Armed forces. With such a large population of men away from the community, the women of the community took over jobs at the bank, in the orchestra, with the Red Cross, at various shops and more.

On Sept. 6, 1945, one of the most influential painters in Canadian history came to Ashcroft and he would immortalize the community on the canvas. The man was A.Y. Jackson, one of the legendary Group of Seven painters and he would paint the community in two works. One looking south down Railway Avenue, and one looking east over the town from the north end of Brink Lane. Both of these works have been created as part of mosaics in the community.

Two decades later, E.J. Hughes, another celebrated Canadian painter, came to Ashcroft to capture it on the canvas as well. His painting, Ashcroft On The Thompson River In Central BC, is an oil on canvas work that was featured at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for a time. In 2018, it went up for auction and while most estimates had it selling for $125,000 to $175,000, it ended up selling for $205,000.

At Heritage Park in Ashcroft, you can see many artifacts and buildings from the past of the community. This park, located in the heart of Ashcroft, features short walking paths with interpretive signs that mark each exhibit. As you walk through the park, you will learn about the early days of the railway, the Indigenous people who lived in the area for centuries, the early pioneers and the living conditions they endured, as well as the mining industries that helped the community prosper. In the park, there is also a pioneer cabin, a settler building, a log cabin, a railway station and a pit house. There is also the old railway station, rail tracks, a railway mining car, a mining truck and a red railway car. Described as a walk through time, the park also has a Japanese garden and the park was given a special mention at the Communities in Bloom symposium for the community’s work in preserving its green space and history at the park.

If you travel to Ashcroft, one thing that makes the community unique is its mosaics. There are many mosaics you can check out throughout the community but one of the most impactful is the Harmony Bell Tower. Located in South Heritage Place Park, the Harmony Bell features four mosaics from the four predominant cultures in the community that have helped it grow and thrive since its founding and even before. These mosaics honour the Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese and Settlers who came to the community and built it to what it is today. The Mosaic Project was begun by marina and Daniel Collett, who came to the community in 2007. Marina is an international award-winning stained glass artist and her work has been featured throughout North America. You can see all 19 mosaics by going on the Mosaic Walking Tour. A guide is available on Ashcroft’s website.

In a brick building built in 1917 that originally served as the post office for the community, you will find the Ashcroft Museum, the best place to learn about the history of the community. The museum officially moved into the building in 1980 and since then it has brought the history of the area to life. The history of the museum dates back much farther though, all the way to 1936 when it was operated by the village. Considered to be one of the best museums located in a British Columbia village, the building features several exhibits that includes artifacts that date to the early 1900s and the glory days of Ashcroft. There are also displays that honour the Indigenous and Chinese Canadians, as well as the pioneers. On the top floor you will find exhibits that feature the ranching, sports and fossil history of the area, as well as the coal mine display.

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