When the Cariboo Road was built in the 1860’s to accommodate the thousands of men who streamed into the Cariboo in a mad scramble for gold, express companies sprang up to do a thriving business conveying goods to the miners and carrying their gold back to the coast.
The majority of miners and merchants entrusted their gold to Humphrey, Poole and Johnson’s, Barnard’s or Dietz and Nelson’s Express. Just how much gold was conveyed from the Cariboo to Yale en route to New Westminster by other public carriers is not known, but at one time Barnard’s Express alone carried out an average of $100,000 a week.
The total output from the Fraser and Cariboo mines amounted to more than $40 million. It is not surprising that there were a few stage coach robberies but what is remarkable is that there were not many more. Because of the continual threat of hold-ups and robberies with murder, Governor Douglas formed an armed escort in 1881. Members wore a uniform, were mounted and presented quite an imposing sight with their arms and bandoliers.
Under the command of Thomas Elwyn, the escort, numbering 12 strong, made its first trip from Lillooet to the coast in August, 1861. A mere $18,000 was carried on the first trip, for the miners wanted little to do with the escort since the government refused to guarantee against loss.
After the exercise of some diplomacy, Elwyn managed to get a consignment of gold dust valued at $30,000 for the second trip. The third trip saw another $10,000 taken down from Lillooet. The Government gold escort proved to be a costly experiment and the group was disbanded. The receipts in tolls on gold carried amounted to only $300 while the costs of the escorts amounted to $30,000!
In 1863 the gold escort was revived again with Elwyn again in command, this time with 15 men under him. The first trip was to William’s Creek and $40,000 in dust was taken down. Two more trips saw a total of $281,000 being conveyed at a cost of $60,000 with a revenue of $9,000. The scheme had been a complete fiasco and was never resuscitated.
This left all the business to the express companies who carried the bullion in massive steel boxes, guarded by a man armed with a Winchester rifle. That one man with a loaded rifle could protect a well-filled treasure box against a determined attack by robbers is difficult to believe, but oddly enough the first hold-upon the Cariboo Road did not occur until 1884.
The scene of the crime was near the 82-Milepost, 35 miles above Clinton. Ned Tate was the driver, a Chinese being the only passenger, when two highwaymen jumped Into the roadway and ordered him to hold up. The robbers secured the treasure box containing $4,000, got clear away and all efforts to trace them failed.
A few years later another unsolved stage robbery took place on the road between Soda Creek and Quesnel when two to three thousand dollars in gold was taken.
The biggest robbery in the history of the B.X. (B.C. Express) occurred in the early1890’s at the foot of Bridge Creek hill near the 98-Mile post. The driver, William Parker was carrying one passenger and a treasure chest containing $15,000 in gold dust and bars. The highwayman was an old man, thoroughly cool, who forced Parker to throw down the strong box and drive off without looking back. Immediately after the hold-up a heavy rain fell, obliterating all tracks. A reward was offered for the capture of the robber, but none earned it and it began to look as though the highwayman would get away with it.
Shortly after the theft, an old man named Rowlands appeared in Clinton and let it be known that he was a prospector, finally staking ground on Scotty’s Creek, 19 miles north of Ashcroft. He put in several primitive sluice boxes and employed a few Indians and Chinese. After some days, Rowlands gave out that he was making $100 to $200 a day. This news was soon bruited about and men rushed to the creek to stake claims.
It proved, however, that Rowlands was the only one lucky enough to strike pay-dirt and oddly made his clean-ups only when no one was around. This aroused the suspicions of two old-timers, Doc English and Johnny Wilson, who watched Rowlands and followed him when he set out for Ashchroft some days later. They reported their suspicions in the proper quarter, a warrant was issued by Isaac Lehman, J.P., and Chief Constable J. W. Burr arrested Rowlands as he boarded the train.
Nothing incriminating was found on him but he was tried and found guilty on wholly circumstantial evidence. Mr. Justice Walkem sentenced him to seven years in the penitentiary from which he escaped after serving two years, the reward offered for his capture was paid to English and Wilson.
In June, 1804, two stages were held up in a three week interval, the first of these robberies taking place June 7. Angus MacRae, carrying mail only was stopped between 150-Mile House and Quesnel Forks and ordered by an armed stranger to throw down the mail sacks. MacRae was instructed to drive on, which he did although wasting no time in raising the alarm, and the robber, Harry Brown, was captured on July 5 of that year.
The second outrage occurred on June 25, some 2 1/2 miles below 150-Mile House. As this hold-up followed so closely on the heels of the other, it was at first thought that one man had planned and staged both coups, but it soon developed that this was not the case. Ed Owens, the driver of the south-bound stage stopped for the night at the “150” where a man named Samuel Blankly also stopped. This latter implied that he would be a stage passenger at day break when the journey was resumed, but set out on foot ahead of the stagecoach, “to lighten the load,” as he explained.
He walked off at dawn and craftily selected a place suitable for a hold-up behind a tree on a little knoll at the roadside. As the stage went by Blankly leapt from his hiding place and ordered Owens to throw down the strongbox. The driver tried several ineffectual ploys to deter the bandit who was wearing a gunny sack with two eyeholes cut in it over his head.
The alarm was given at the first house arrived at and the resident constable and others hastened to the site of the robbery where they found the discarded gunny sack which Blankly had stolen from a man named Hamilton. Thus the police knew for whom to look and in due course Blankly was captured at Alkali Lake and taken to Clinton where he gave his name as Sam Slick. At his trial a few days later he was positively identified by Hamilton as the man who had stayed at his house on June 24 and who had stolen the gunny sack. Blankly was tried and sent to the penitentiary.
Robberies on the Cariboo Road were remarkably few considering the $40 million in gold that was brought down to the Coast by various agents. That the west was not lawless in the coaching days is evidence by the fact that few highwaymen got away with robbery.