There is plenty of history in British Columbia’s mining town Barkerville, so much so that it’s overwhelming.
It’s palpable when paranormal investigator Jason Hewlett talks about it. Peter Renn, himself and the Canadian Paranormal Society ventured out to the historic town in 2021 to see what they could discover.
And they hit paydirt.
“There’s so much,” Hewlett said, during a September 2022 Zoom conversation. “We could’ve done an hour just on the tour of the site and the history of it.”
There are more than 125 buildings, and each one has its own unique story.
Frontier history, the hunger for gold and plenty of tragedy are what’s left when panning for paranormal goods in B.C.’s interior.
Exploring a Golden Age
It had been a very cold week in B.C.’s interior when Stewart Cawood, Barkerville’s manager of public programming and media, opened up about the mining town’s history, both as a settlement and as a park.
It was founded as the main town of the Cariboo Gold Rush in 1862, and in 1958 it was designated a park and historic site. By 1962 it opened as a tourist attraction. It was functioning as a home for some up until 1977.
“The first iteration of the town built in 1862 would be considered more a gold mining camp,” he said, during a January 2023 phone conversation. “Except that there’s so much activity going on here that big businesses were finding their way to Barkerville.”
The town wasn’t built with a plan, and there were no fire regulations. So, it’s no surprise that the town burned down to the ground in 1868.
But from those ashes, 20 buildings were rebuilt within a month, and the entire town was reconstructed by the next spring.
“Many people think that that fire was the thing that contributed to the eventual decline of Barkerville, but the truth is the big companies move in, they take everything and there’s nothing left for the small mining operations,” Cawood admitted. “So, people move on. They go onto other gold rushes.
But settling was not top-of-mind for those living in the community. There was enough mining going on to sustain the community until the 1930s. But once the gold veins began to dry up, people naturally moved on to other gold rushes.
One of those of which was a payload found on Cow Mountain. That led to the development of Wells, B.C.
“There’s probably a dozen or a couple of people still living here, holding onto this place and still mining,” Cawood added.
Barkerville is in Cawood’s blood. He was raised in the closest major centre, Quesnel, which is 85 km west of the mining town. He left to pick up a teaching degree in Kamloops and returned to take a historical interpreter gig at Barkerville in 2006.
One of the unique aspects of Barkerville is the substantial Chinese population in Barkerville. One-third to one-half of the population was Chinese. Estimates of the population are hard to guess, but around 2,000 people lived in Barkerville during its peak.
Some of the buildings that pay homage to Chinese-Canadian history include the Tsang Quon Residence, Lung Duck Tong Restaurant, Tai Ping Fong (Peace Room), Chee Kung Tong, Wu Lee Store and Yan War Store.
“Chinese people lived all throughout Barkerville, just the same as how there would’ve been European people who were bunking in Chinatown,” Cawood said. “We’ve kind of created this notion that this was Chinatown and this was not Chinatown. Whereas during the time of the Gold Rush, that wasn’t exactly true.”
Life was not easy in Barkerville. Being a gold rush town, racism was pervasive and the laws were in favour of those of European descent. There was one instance when a Chinese resident was murdered and the suspect was let off because of a “lack of evidence”.
“That being said, there was certainly a lot of people who were working together in this place because they just had to in order to get by,” Cawood said.
Even though there were negative aspects of gold mining in British Columbia, it was not as lawless as the gold rush in California, he assured, where the government had not enacted any laws. There was a sense of British justice that established a sense of law and order.
“The Gold Rush here is known as a relatively peaceful gold,” he said. “That’s not to say that bad stuff didn’t happen because it certainly did. You can’t mix gold with frontier and get away without some bad things happening.”
Exploring the Gold Rush Tales
Bad stuff happens everywhere in the world. But sometimes, the revenants of those events remain behind.
Cawood admitted he hasn’t had any spectral encounters during his 17 years at Barkerville, and he casually shrugs it off as being someone who is not “necessarily sensitive to that sort of thing”. But he does know people are.
Mediums have visited the location, as have a bevy of investigators with their equipment. They first started coming to the location in 2015.
The allure of Barkerville’s stories has drawn in investigators like the Beyond the Haunting team of Corine Carey, Kelly Ireland and Leanne Sallenback, as well as the aforementioned Canadian Paranormal Society with Hewlett and Renn.
With more than 125 buildings on site, steeped in history, there are bound to be a few that have some unwilling-to-move hangers-on.
One such active spot is the Theatre Royal. As soon as people descend the stairs into the basement, it is alleged they feel they’ve hit a brick wall of energy, and they have to leave the building quickly.
Two ghosts are said to reside in the building. One is Miss Florence Wilson, the saloon keeper. She came from an upper-middle-class background in England. She was the first librarian for the community and was the driving force behind the creation of the theatre.
“She was only here for 10 years or so, but we think this place left a very strong mark on her life,” Cawood said. “People have said they have experienced the ghost of Miss Wilson.”
Another entity, an unknown male, has also been spotted. The original foundation for a residence on the land had been buried due to silt from Richfield Mountain. Its replacement burned down, leaving the original foundation. It was replaced by a community hall in the 1930s, which evolved into the Theatre Royal.
“There’ve been a lot of people who have been in that space with a lot of memories and a lot of experiences,” Cawood said. “We’re all human beings, so there’s probably a lot of pain and trauma that they’ve carried with them.
“Those energies have been going through that building and that space for over 150 years. So, it’s a nexus point of human activity.”
One story he shared was of an experience of his neighbour, who works for a mining company in town. She was working as a stage manager at the theatre and witnessed an oblong light form in front of her on the balcony where the booth window was. It moved toward her, passed through the wall, as well as right through her and vanished.
She allegedly felt a sense of cold dread that comes with such a sighting.
Another location is the courthouse. It’s an original building from 1882. Before the construction of that facility, it was just a single-room log cabin with a small office in the back. Two people were tried and convicted of murder. They would later be hanged in front of the original log cabin and buried in unmarked graves in the Richfield Cemetery.
The spot where the gallows were built is roughly where the foyer of the current courthouse stands.
It’s not sure if the ghosts of the men hanged are still there, or if it’s Judge Matthew Begbie who continues to oversee the court.
“I used to work up in that courthouse and at the end of the day we’d always say ‘Goodnight, my Lord’ when we’d leave, just in case someone was hanging around,” Cawood recalled.
Hewlett and his team investigated the courthouse while on location — in very rainy October weather mind you — and used their recorders to record electronic voice phenomenon (EVPs).
They asked plenty of questions and when Renn went back to analyze their evidence, they captured a voice. But allegedly it wasn’t Justice Begbie, but someone who had performed as him.
One of the staff members, Michelle Lieffertz, said it was the voice of a gentleman who passed away named Tim Sutherland.
“She listened to the EVP and said that sounds like a voice saying, ‘Go away’,” Hewlett said. “We just got the language. So, it may be a residual haunting. But that was pretty cool.”
Other locations associated with ghostly presences are the post office, the Barkerville Hotel and the St. George Hotel.
Hewlett and his team set up motion-activated cameras on the second floor of the Barkerville Hotel. They left them for the evening.
“Security roams the place at night, so if anyone came up the stairs we would’ve seen them,” Hewlett recalled.
But the team got a couple of pieces of evidence to support the haunting. One of the cameras moved and set off the motion activation. In another shot they got, a movement set off the camera and they captured an arm, with a white cuff and black jacket, sticking out of the door.
“It was fascinating,” Hewlett said.
A camera was also set up inside the post office. They caught an image of the security guard coming in the door, but they also got the outline of a man in a separate shot.
“You can see the head, shoulders, arms. It looks like he’s wearing a bit of a waistcoat,” Hewlett said. “Almost like something was walking through the door towards the camera, but the door’s closed.”
A Doorway to the Past
The amount of history in one small portion of B.C.’s interior is a lot to take in.
Hewlett and Renn, along with their team, spent half the day listening to their historical interpreter Michelle Lieffertz’s playback of a time since past.
“Once we had finished the tour, which was almost half the day getting the history lesson in, and I just remember saying to Peter, ‘Okay, so what do we do first?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know’,” Hewlett recalled. “As paranormal investigators, you want to go to the places where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.”
As for those who work on the grounds of Barkerville, it’s definitely an active spot, even if some haven’t had run-ins with full-bodied apparitions.
For Cawood, all it takes is the right person to set the property buzzing.
“If somebody who was more in tune with the spiritual realm would be to come through town, they’d probably find something, I would imagine, in every single building,” Cawood said. “There’s quite a lot going on, and there’s just a lot of history. When people are fighting for their lives in a gold rush town, either trying to make it rich or just fighting for daily survival, that’s a lot of emotion to pour into a place.”
For those wanting to dive deeper into the history of Barkerville, the heritage site has its own YouTube channel, and Beyond the Haunting’s investigation of the grounds in 2022 is available through T+E.
T+E’s two-part documentary, Haunted Gold Rush, airs October 31 at 5 p.m. ET, followed by a series marathon of History’s Most Haunted, beginning at 7 p.m. ET. T+E is currently in free preview nationwide.
Hewlett and Renn’s investigation of the buildings in Barkerville was originally available on YouTube. However, it’s now through their series “We Want to Believe”, which airs on Paraflixx, on October 17.