When news of the gold discoveries in the Cariboo began to filter back to the coast in 1860, prospectors began to abandon the Fraser River diggings in droves. The existing mule trail was not adequate, and Governor Douglas realized that a permanent wagon road was urgently needed.
In October, 1861, Douglas ordered the Royal Engineers to make surveys for a road. Tenders were sent out the following March, and by May, 1862, construction of the Cariboo Road had commenced. White labourers were difficult to obtain, and those who did work, generally did so only until thay had enough to stake a claim in the goldfields. By employing Chinese and Indian workers, better progress was made. By the fall of 1862 the Yale-Lytton section had been completed. Most of the Cariboo Road was completed the following year, but the section between Richfield and Barkerville was not completed until 1865.
Williams Creek was discovered in 1861 by William “Dutch Bill” Dietz, and named in his honour, and became the most re-known gold producer in British Columbia. Dietz and two companions came into the area over the divide from Keithley Creek in February, 1861. Dietz however, did not dig deep, and neither did those who immediately followed, and many soon called this creek a “humbug.”
But its reputation soon changed. A 6’6″ Fraser River fisherman, Ivel “Long” Abbott and his partner William Jourdan started out on foot for the Cariboo in the spring of 1861. They staked their claim and immediately set to work, their first pan yielding $23. At that time, miners were only digging down to a layer of blue clay, which most considered to be bedrock. One day, while Jourdan was away for supplies, Abbott cut through the clay and uncovered incredibly rich ground. When his partner returned two days later, Abbott showed him 50 ounces of gold. The Williams Creek secret was out.
There were three major runs of gold on this creek. The first was on shallow ground, above the canyon; the second was below the surface on the hard, blue clay most believed to be bedrock; the third, which made the reputation of the Cariboo. was below the blue clay on the true bedrock.
Over its history Williams Creek has been exposed to practically every known mode of mining. The early rockers, sluices, shafts and drifts later gave way to hydraulicking. It produced a semiofficial yield of $20 million, with other estimates ranging up to $40 million, at a time when gold was only worth $16 an ounce! The actual production probably lies somewhere between these two figures.
The richest pay was concentrated along the ancient creek channel, close to the bedrock, usually at an average of 50 feet below the surface. Glacial debris had covered up the old creek bed, called “the lead,” and miners had to dig deep shafts and drifts in an effort to find it. But when they did, the results were spectacular. In 1862 and ’63 William Cunningham’s Company took out $270,000 from 500 feet of gravel. In 1863 the Adams claim yielded $50,000 from 50 feet, while the Steele yielded $120,000 from 80 feet. Located in 1863, the Diller had actually taken out 102 pounds troy of gold in three days. The Burns recovered $140,000 from 80 feet; the Canadian $180,000 from 120 feet; the Moffat, $90,000 from 50 feet; the Tinker, $120,000 from 140 feet, and the Wattie, $130,000 from 100 feet. In 1864, the Wake-Up-Jake claim yielded $800 in one pan from a bedrock crevice. And there were many more.
The valley of Williams Creek had been entirely reshaped through a century of placer mining activity. The treeless, high eroded slopes and tailings piles have left the land looking much as it might have looked immediately after the Ice Age glaciers passed through here. Once again the vegetation is making a comeback and the valley is once again appearing the same as it once was.
By the end of the summer of 1861, before Barkerville was even begun, a collection of crude miners’ cabins began to appear on what was to become the sight of Richfield. About 80 miners remained in the “town” that first winter, the majority leaving to winter in Yale, New Westminster or Victoria. By March 1862, the miners began to return, and by the end of May more than 20 establishments were completed, and their owners were awaiting supplies to stock their stores, restaurants and saloons.
At first the town was called Elwyntown, in honour of Thomas Elwyn, the gold commissioner. However, the name did not reflect the fantastic richness of the placer deposits, and in September, 1862, it was officially named Richfield by Lieutenant H.S. Palmer of the Royal Engineers, who surveyed it.
During the early days of the gold rush, there were very few women and no children on Williams Creek. But as Richfield and Barkerville became more permanent towns, families began to arrive. By 1871, there were enough children to warrant the establishment of a school. The first schoolhouse was located between Richfield and Barkerville, to be close enough for children of both towns to attend.
Hazardous underground mining conditions, constant dampness and severe winters took their toll among the miners on Williams Creek. The graves of some of the men who died while working the mines are located up the road where the Roman Catholic and Chinese cemeteries are located. The Chinese cemetery is now empty. Following their usual custom, the bones were gathered together at intervals and shipped back to China.