Cariboo criminals in the age of innocence

Stagecoach robbing in simpler times when people still trusted each other.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

Looking at old photographs of Ashcroft when the horse was king and the chariot was a red painted stage coach, or a covered wagon such as seen in western movies crossing the great plains of the American midwest, you have to marvel at the streets of tent roofed cottages, the main street of false front stores, livery stables and blacksmith barns, circa early 20th century. Why? Because the color and character was there, even in the fuzzy sepia-toned pictures of that world gone by without scarcely a whimper.

And, there were a few more criminals walking the streets and drinking at the many saloons in the village of Ashcroft than can be imagined, looking today on our empty streets come a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning.

Where did the stage coach robbers, train robbers, card sharks and carpet baggers of yesteryear go? Well, some of them of course, went to jail. And some, like train robber Bill Miner, died there. Others, undoubtedly died in their beds, their tawdry lives of living as “catch-can” long forgotten along with their illusions of unearned “easy money”.

B.C. Provincial Police Stories by Cecil Clark read like so many scripts from all the western movies you’ve ever seen, and will likely see again. Choosing the stories that occur in and around Ashcroft, I found each of them of equally incredulous naivete, the crimes reading like vaudeville melodrama.

“Git yur hands up! This is a robbery!”

Yes, it really happened. And on more than one occasion. And it happened on the plateaus, bluffs, and mesas where we live today.

Stage coach horses shying, bolting, frightened by the sudden glint of shining steel from a rifle in a bush alongside the road. Drivers desperately reining them in. The stage driver forced to throw down the metal box containing gold nuggets, gold dust, cash and mail. The train robber, Bill Miner, brazenly walking the streets of Ashcroft, inquiring about train schedules at the BX office on Railway. The building is still there, beautifully restored and preserved and worthy of a movie production.

One photograph showing a row of men in bowler hats and work mens’ caps standing at the brass rail of a saloon, spittoon near their boots, the bar counter of walnut, beveled and paneled, – the kind you might see in a painting by the French Impressionist, Manet, the mustached bartenders unsmiling, white aprons, and all too ready to pull off a pint to whomever. Even a suspicious looking swarthy stocky character who’d just muscled in, named Martin Van Buren Rowland. (Bet his mother had better hopes for him).

Rowland had just weeks earlier, robbed a stage near the 150 Mile, took the box with the sack of gold, and rode off through the bush with it. He appears in Ashcroft, starts spending money like some railroad tycoon of a decade earlier.  Ashcroft police man, Joe Burr, giving the shady looking Rowland the once-over, and thinking he resembled the Wanted picture.

Joe had earlier, with a posse, scoured the hills and dales for the strong box from the stage. He found it, eventually. He quickly contacted Chief Constable Hussey of the Provincial Police, and a warrant for Rowland’s arrest was forthcoming.

“But we don’t have any evidence,” says Burr.

“We’ll find some,” replies Hussey.

And they do. Searching Rowland’s room in the Ashcroft Hotel, they find a .45 revolver under a pillow. The gold from Rowland’s cache is under the bed. Hussey looks the gold over very carefully, determines it came from many creeks in the Cariboo, not from Scotty Creek, which Rowland’s had claimed.

“That creek’s been sifted, scoured and depleted every snitch of gold dust by the Chinese.”

At the assizes in Clinton court house, Rowland is sentenced to five years.  And in those days, five years was five years. Not like today, when a lawyer can get your sentence reduced to two-thirds, or less.

And can you imagine a robber named Red Bluff Charlie? Yep. You can’t. Not in little ‘ol Ashcroft. Well, Charlie robbed a stage at the 150 Mile too. (Apparently it was a handy place to rob a stage in those days.) But Charlie only got $45 from that robbery. And, the poor devil got caught the next day! Our own Clement F. Cornwall of Ashcroft Manor sentenced Charlie to 10 years.  Seems a much rougher sentence than Rowland got for a robbery that was worth a whole lot more.

When I use the word “naivete” about robberies of yesteryear, it is because of what seems in this day and age, the  sheer stupidity of the criminals of that era. The reader will probably agree that, despite the use of firearms then, as now, there was a certain simplistic innocence about them all.

For example, Rowland took his stolen booty to the F.W. Foster General Store on Railway, and asked the clerk to “keep it” for him, and he would pick the stuff up later. The clerk, little realizing that he was aiding and abetting, must have been sheer bone innocence. Not even a peek into the box? I don’t think so in this day and age!

Still, the B.C. Express Company, known simply as  BX, carried valuables worth $4,619,000 over the course of its half-century dominion. Author Clark notes, those stage coaches of the Cariboo transported “tens of millions” of dollars worth of gold taken from the creeks of the Cariboo from Yale to Ashcroft.

When you consider that so much was transported for such a long period of time, and carried by horse drawn stage coaches, most of them without an accompanying security officer alongside the driver, you’ve got to conclude that, on the whole, we had a much safer society than those western Hollywood movie classics would have us believe.