It is believed Billy Barker came to Victoria as a seaman on one of the ships in 1858, a short, stocky, cheerful man with twinkling eyes and a bushy beard. Once onshore, he heard many stories of the gold strike on the Fraser River in the saloons. He may have even seen some of the gold in a miner’s poke.
Whatever it was, Billy soon succumbed to the lure and was on his way in the diggings to make his fortune. Whether he took a discharge or just deserted like many others, we don’t know. Not much is known about his next few years as the miners slowly worked their way northward up the river. In 1862 he appeared on William’s Creek, named after “Dutch Bill” Dietz, who found the creek by the simple action of falling into it on his back. Regaining his feet, Dutch Bill promptly grabbed his pan to wash out a sample of the gravel. To his surprise it washed out a dollar to the pan, so he and his friends promptly staked claims.
The creek did not seem overly rich until an enterprising miner dug through the layer of blue clay that was thought to be at bedrock and found a rich layer of gold-bearing gravel that panned out 50 ounces of gold in two days and later proved to be much richer.
By the time Billy Barker arrived on the scene in 1862 all the creek above the canyon was heavily staked, so he laid out a claim below the canyon, much to the merriment of. the other miners who “knowed there warn’t nuthin thar’.”
In spite of this, Billy and six companions registered their claims on Aug. 13, each holding 100 feet of the creek channel. They soon built a shaft house and a windlass and went to work, inching their way down through boulders and other debris of centuries of rain and flood.
It was hard working by the flickering light of candles with water dripping from the sides of the hole. Only one man at a time could work in the shaft and there was always the danger of a cave-in. They reached 20 feet, then 35 feet, which was deeper than any of the claims above the canyon.
Expenses were high. Flour was $250 a barrel and potatoes $90 a sack, while a pair of miner’s boots set a man back $50. Game was scarce, driven away by the unaccustomed presence of man. Not that anyone could spare the time to hunt. The storekeepers were reluctant to give Billy and his partners any credit, but he had this dream in which the number 52 kept on recurring, and so inch by inch they slogged on.
When it seemed they could go on no longer the great Judge Begbie arrived on his official rounds. Billy Barker appealed to him for help. Perhaps the judge knew him or perhaps he recognized a kindred spirit, for he decided to give them $100 each from a fund he had for assisting destitute miners to return to the coast without any gold. They were down to 50 feet and the men wanted to quit.
With renewed hope they went back to work, but yet again the money was exhausted and still no gold. Once again the men wanted to quit. Billy persuaded them to give it another day and went down the shaft himself. For some time he worked, digging and mucking out. Then his pick went through and, in the dim light of the flickering candles, he could see the glitter of gold. His delighted yells soon brought the others running as he loaded the bucket with riches. The depth was 52 feet.
Like wildfire the news spread through the diggings and there was a rush to stake new claims. The celebration lasted for three days and only stopped when the saloons ran out of liquid sustenance. Almost overnight Barkerville was born and, with its collection of cabins, saloons, stores, breweries and other buildings it became the largest community north of San Francisco and west of Chicago, as well as the gold capital of the world.
The Barker claim was not the richest on the creek, although it did produce some $600,000. At least, that was what was declared, for it is estimated that only about half of the gold dug out of the creeks was declared to the authorities.
Even so, it didn’t do Billy Barker very much good. He left the goldfields in 1863 for the bright lights of Victoria, where he met and married a widow from London named Elizabeth Collier. Always a generous and freehanded man, Billy soon spent his share of the fortune, ably assisted by his greedy and extravagant wife, who soon added unfaithfulness to her other pleasant traits.
Within three years all his money was gone. His wife, who didn’t like living in a backwoods town or men without money, was gone too. In fact, Billy Barker was so poor the citizens of his town raised a public subscription to pay his fare to Victoria.
Never again did Billy Barker find his pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, and he wandered from job to job and from fame to obscurity, although he still maintained his cheerful smile until his death on July 11, 1891, at the Old Men’s Home in Victoria in his 74th year. His passing only merited a couple of lines in The Daily Colonist, but with the rebuilding of Barkerville as a living museum, his name will live on.