Charles Augustus Semlin and a life well lived

Esther Darlington MacDonald's look at the life of Cache Creek politician, post master, rancher and school trustee.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

There are a few mysteries surrounding the notable life of one of B.C.’s premiers, Charles Augustus Semlin (1836-1927) of Cache Creek.

The chief of the mysteries being, that Semlin, a life long bachelor as documented, willed his sizable estate to his grandchildren. When Semlin died in 1927, the value of his holdings, including the ranch that today bears his name, located just east of Cache Creek, had 15,000 head of cattle and was said to be worth $50,000.  The ranch, then known as the Dominion Ranch, cattle and livestock, plus the barns and the homestead, were willed to his grandchildren. But who these grandchildren were is a bit of a mystery.

There was a Charles Augustus Trimble, and an Augustus Trimble. Charles of the same name as the MLA and Premier, was a veteran of the First World War. He died in 1948. Now, it is the name Augustus that holds something of a clue regarding parentage. Augustus is a distinguished enough name. Not one which would be characteristic of those in the Cariboo, particularly at that time. Being named after the Roman emperor who founded that vast empire in 63 BC, is the kind of name that might come from parents who had some knowledge of ancient history. It is a scholarly name.  And to have it appear more than once in the same area, gives pause to wonder.

Be that as it may, when Charles Augustus Semlin came to B.C. at the age of 26 in 1862, he had been teaching in Barrie, Ontario. Lured no doubt by the prospect of easy riches in the gold fields, he ventured to the Barkerville area and spent three summers prospecting,  to no avail. Then, learning about the discovery of gold on the Columbia River, he ventured forth, only to be stopped short when he came to the cultivated fields of Clement and Henry Cornwall and their stopping house called Ashcroft Manor.

He immediately introduced himself to the brothers, sons of an Anglican British clergyman. They promptly hired the well spoken young man to run their stopping house and ranch. But Semlin didn’t remain long there. Why not own his own road house and ranch?

Joining forces, after only a few months, with a middle aged Irish man named Philip Parke, Semlin and Parke bought Bonaparte House at Cache Creek.Parke eventually sold his interest in Bonaparte House to William Henry Sanford in 1868.  Two years later, Semlin bought Sanford’s share, and traded it to James Campbell in 1870, along with some prime ranch land east of Cache Creek. This proved to be a very wise investment.

Semlin had started to acquire land by pre-emption, and coupled with land he acquired from Campbell, embarked on its management, hiring both foreman and farm workers, housekeeper and their families to look after the operation.

Semlin also saw opportunities in the newly formed political landscape of the Province. He embarked in 1871 into the wildly disorganized, fractious assembly of MLA’s in Victoria by running for the seat in Yale and won it easily. He also kept himself busy as postmaster in Cache Creek.

In 1873, he lobbied the Government to establish a boarding school in Cache Creek for the children of ranchers.  Many of the ranches were remote and the roads were little more than rough trails.  The new school was duly built and began to function the following year.  Semlin, Parke, Campbell and Clement Cornwall were trustees.  The history of this two storey rectangular school that stood on a plain above Cache Creek is well documented. It was an uneasy undertaking from the outset. Lots of controversy, much of it contentious involving teaching staff and students themselves, ensued. At one point, Semlin himself stepped in to take a class. The school’s uneasy tenure finally ended in 1890. A new school district was formed. But again, Semlin, Parke, Cornwall and Campbell were trustees.

Not a person to drawn attention to himself particularly, though it was said he was a good speaker,  Semlin’s legislative career seems pretty tepid, in comparison with other personalities of the day. But his easy going temperment made him popular at home, and he remained an MLA for some years, though he did lose a few elections later in Yale.

He became Leader of the Opposition after the 1894 election, but this title was one of name only. Actually, “the opposition” was a loose assemblage of contentious politicians and Semlin’s own cabinet was divisive and disheartening to a soul like Semlin’s. Despite all the fury and self-seeking, Semlin did seek legislation that would put a more humane face on affairs. He sought an eight hour  week for the miners in the Kootenays, much to the fury of the mine owners. He also sought to stop the patronage appointments in the civil service, also causing resentment from those who would lose their jobs.

He inherited the Premiership of B.C, more or less by default. His time in office must have been the shortest on record.  Only 18 months.

Semlin lost heart for the melee of B.C. politics. He did not stand for re-election as MLA in 1900. At the age of 50, he said he thought other younger persons should take up the load. When he did, briefly, try to re-enter the political scene in 1903, he campaigned vigorously enough, but lost.

Not a man to sit back and enjoy his holdings managed by a competent staff that had, it seems, literally become family, he helped to establish the B.C. Cattlemans’ Association, and the Interior Agricultural organization to which he was elected President in 1889. Semlin also joined with other regional notables to form the Lillooet Historical Society.

As to Semlin’s personal life, we can only conjecture. He raised a daughter, Mary. It was assumed that Mary was adopted by Semlin.  But an 1881 census records that Mary’s mother, Caroline Williams, a native woman, was living with Semlin and using his surname, though neither is described as married.

Charles Augustus Semlin died in 1927. Before his death, he was nursed by Alma Loyst, a graduate of the Winnipeg General Hospital. Miss Loyst also nursed pioneer, Catherine Haddock, wife of merchant James Haddock of Ashcroft. I interviewed Alma Loyst at Ponderosa Lodge in Kamloops in 1981 and found her a delightful person still very much mentally alert. She and teamster pioneer, Thelma Haddock lived together at Walhachin for some years and farmed in Venables Valley.

Semlin’s contribution to the area was enormous. The epitaph on his grave monument, Life’s Work Well Done is, if anything, an understatement. In terms of his ranch developments and his attempts to bring much needed education to rural children, as well as his concern for the working conditions of miners, shortening their hours from the usual 10-12 hour a days, predates the goals of unions that came after Semlin’s passing, by decades.

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