Cache Creek c. 1920, looking north, with the large boarding school building at right at approximately where the Kal Tire building is today. The Cariboo Wagon Road ran along the base of the hills (far left, beyond the Bonaparte River). Photo from Ashcroft Museum and Archives, courtesy of Heather McCormack.

Golden Country: The Central Boarding School in Cache Creek

From 1874 to 1890, Cache Creek played host to a boarding school; not without some controversy.

August might seem an odd time to be talking about school; but the back-to-school sales are already on, as a reminder that students will be returning to area schools soon.

We take education almost for granted today; but in the early pioneer days of British Columbia, education was a very serious matter for settlers in the Interior. As more and more settlers arrived in the area and began having families, it was often difficult—if not impossible—for them to have their children educated. Many parents became pioneers of another sort—in home-schooling—because that was the only option if they wanted their children to read, write, and learn mathematics.

By 1866, four schools had been constructed in mainland British Columbia, with the closest one to this area located in Yale. By the time British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, there were schools in Lytton, Lillooet, Clinton, and Barkerville; but it was obvious that there was a need for more schools throughout the new province.

In 1872 the British Columbia Public School Act was adopted, which created a provincial board of education. John Jessop—an English-born teacher who has been described as a “typical Victorian schoolmaster”—was named the province’s first superintendent of schools, a position he filled for six years. He had a fundamental belief that schools were essential to the peace and good order of society. “Children,” he wrote in 1872, “will be just what education or the want of it may make them. With it a majority may grow up respectable members of society, without it many will become inmates of our jails and penitentiaries.”

Upon being appointed, Jessop began travelling throughout the province to assess what was needed in terms of more schools; and under his watch the number of common schools in the province increased from 14 to 45, while the number of teachers more than tripled. Starting in 1874 annual teachers’ institutes, or conventions, to promote professional development were held, and in 1876 the province’s first high school was opened in Victoria. Jessop was largely responsible for both innovations.

He was also an advocate for “schools for a scattered people”, or boarding schools, in sparsely settled areas, so that children there could receive an education. He visited Kamloops in September 1872 and met with the local settlers, who were anxious to have a school in the region. Kamloops—as the largest settlement in the area—would have seemed a logical site for a school; but political intriguing got in the way, and led to the first school in the area being established in Cache Creek, some 85 miles west of Kamloops.

This was due to Charles Augustus Semlin, who had settled in Cache Creek in 1865 and spent the rest of his life there. He started off by working for Clement and Henry Cornwall at Ashcroft (Manor); then—along with Philip Parke—he purchased a roadhouse known as Bonaparte House. In 1868 Parke sold his share of the business to William “Boston” Sanford, and in 1870 Semlin bought out Sanford, then entered into a deal with James Campbell that saw the business traded for land that Campbell owned east of Cache Creek. Semlin had been accumulating land in the area since 1867, and eventually opened the Dominion Ranch, one of the largest and most successful ranches in the region.

In 1871 Semlin was elected as the member for Yale in the inaugural session of the legislature of the province of British Columbia. When he learned of Jessop’s quest to find suitable locations for schools, Semlin presumably saw an opportunity to advance the cause of Cache Creek as a site instead of Kamloops.

In 1873 Semlin lobbied for a public boarding school in the Interior, arguing that the region’s scattered population of school-age children needed a place where they could receive a formal education. As an MLA, in 1874 he introduced legislation that led to the establishment of a boarding school in his home town of Cache Creek, and in June 1874 was there to see its official opening.

That Cache Creek was chosen as the school site, rather than Kamloops, generated controversy at the time. The Central Boarding School (as it was known) was the only “school for scattered people” established under Jessop’s reign as superintendent. It operated from 1874 to 1890 and is long since gone, with its location disputed, although it seems most likely that it was built on what is now the Kal Tire site on the west side of Highway 97 (accounts have said it was on the current Cache Creek Elementary site; on the former game check site; and “slightly beyond where the Tumbleweed Motel sits today”, so the Kal Tire location seems a reasonable compromise).

The grand two-storey building opened in 1874 with 18 students from Kamloops, the Nicola Valley, and the Cariboo, and by 1875 had 45 students. A pupil named Ellen Crossley, who lived at the Butte Ranch in Ashcroft (where the Inland Port is now located), attended the school; she was ferried across the Thompson River from the ranch and then travelled by horse to Cache Creek, and would return by the same route each weekend.

Unfortunately, the school was plagued with problems. It was alleged that equipment and funds were misappropriated by the resident managers, and there were scandals about immorality among pupils. While the problems were eventually resolved, Jessop was blamed for having promoted the experimental school and for failing to supervise it adequately. The actions of the appointed school board (comprised of Semlin, Parke, Campbell, and Clement Cornwall) were also criticized.

Within a few years, neighbouring towns such as Kamloops and Ashcroft established their own schools (the first public school in Ashcroft was built in 1886). The need for the Central Boarding School in Cache Creek decreased, and in 1890 it closed permanently; a brave, but ultimately doomed, experiment in bringing education to the Interior of British Columbia.