So, is there gold in the Peace Country?
There are many rumours of gold to be found on the banks of the Peace River, stemming not only from the glory days of gold fever in the west, but also from what could be evidence of actual discoveries. Whether or not there is glittery stuff to be found, the quest for gold has brought certain wealth to the region in the form of infrastructure and interest in other resources. In the long run, that sort of “gold” has profoundly enriched our area.
Rumours of gold in the Peace Country date back to the late 1800s, when gold fever was ramping up to a frenzy. The Cariboo Gold Rush was in full swing by 1862, and prospectors were also branching out to explore the northern cordillera region. They made it down the Peace River as far as Fort St. John and did find some precious metal. However, explorers checking the Omineca River struck enough gold to start a rush that distracted prospectors from pursuing gold on the Peace any further.
The late 1890s brought thousands of prospectors on the way to the Klondike to cash in on the greatest gold rush the world had seen. Of course, there was a lot of treasure to be taken without actually going to the Yukon: Edmonton’s savvy Chamber of Commerce hatched a plan to attract men aglow with the prospect of fortune long before they ever got to the far north.
There were several routes by which the 100,000 hopeful prospectors could journey to the gold fields. None were easy, none were good, but only one was “all Canadian.” Every effort was made by the Edmonton Board of Trade, the Chamber of Commerce and Edmonton Merchants to promote this route and encourage true Canadian prospectors to go the All Canada Route, “the inside track,” the “back door to the Klondike.” They would be starting from Edmonton, of course. There, one could buy supplies, purchase horses, and celebrate mightily before heading off into more than 3,000 kilometers of unknown adventure. Only 2,000 Klondikers tried it, but that was enough to make Edmonton a boom town.
Not until all the spending was completed did the travellers discover that the trail to the Klondike through the Peace Country was not quite as advertised. Mud, mosquitoes, muskeg, monotony and misery prevented the vast majority of Klondikers from reaching the Yukon, or even the Peace Country. The trail was barely a path. One prospective prospector carved “Hell can’t be worse than this trail” into the bark of a spruce tree.
Soon there were improvements. “Cayuse” Graham and Harry Garbitt were a pair of Peace Country cowboys who had a little business providing horses and guides to gold seekers. Native hunters were much in demand as guides. Napoleon Thomas was one of the best: he charged Inspector Moodie of the North West Mounted Police an incredible $90 a month for his services when Moodie was given the responsibility of investigating the best route into the northern regions with the idea of building a permanent road for pack horses and wagons.
Wise prospectors looked for more than just gold while they were on the road to the Klondike. With the west enjoying a wave of prosperity, interest in the mining potential of the north was sparked. However, if the Peace region was to be opened up, surveyed and explored, the old fur trade trails and low capacity steam boats would no longer be sufficient. Moodie’s and Thomas’ route was surveyed in 1897 and work was begun on the road the following spring. The Canadian government hired T. W. Chalmers to build the new road from Fort Assiniboine to Lesser Slave Lake, and it was called the Chalmers Trail. It was still a nightmare for travellers but at least it was a real trail. In 1898 the territorial government also paid for improvements to the route from Peace River to Fort St. John through Dunvegan.
Several railway charters were granted so that all that potential mineral wealth (hopefully a veritable bonanza) could be transported from the Yukon down to Edmonton. These plans were never realized to their full extent. It was 1916 before the ED & BC finally punched into the northern wilderness and reached Grande Prairie.
The Klondike gold rush and resulting interest in the north, as unprecedented as they were, brought up other considerations. Up until then, the vast, forested territories were populated only by a few trappers and native tribes that relocated according to the resources they sought. Of course easier access to the alluring north would bring plenty of newcomers, and Ottawa was already receiving reports from Mounties that some Klondikers were reckless in their treatment of native people and the land.
Luckily, the federal government responded quickly and took precautions for the future. In 1899, northern chiefs agreed with the terms of Treaty 8 and most of the land in the north of what would become Alberta was ceded to the Crown. No one could simply come and claim the land; parcels of property could only be sold via legislation.
Shortly afterwards, the race to buy land in the Peace Country and surrounding areas did indeed begin. Ads and pamphlets appeared in eastern America and Europe extolling the virtues of vast farmland and outdoor living in Alberta, where there was space and work for everyone, and best of all simple, unrealized potential for any who would buy land for their very own.
There was hype, of course, just like there was during the Klondike gold rush. Pioneering was hard in so many ways, but especially for those who, site unseen, had been rooked into buying a plot of land in the muskeg, or perhaps on the near vertical bank of the Peace River. And the trails out here, though improved, were still hell.
Yet, in part because of the gold rush, the air remained febrile with the idea of success in the unclaimed north. Farming was just a little more possible than striking it rich with a gold pan, a little safer, more controlled. The Peace Country was geographically more attainable than the Klondike and, thanks to those original prospectors, just that little bit more civilized than ever before.
And who knows? In such a sparsely populated, tentatively explored region, surely the chance of happening upon a nugget or two of gold was fairly good…