This view of the first Alexandra Bridge (built in 1863, and washed away in 1894) gives an idea of the area’s inhospitable terrain.

Golden Country: A roadhouse at Spuzzum flourishes in the early days of the Gold Rush

California House was not much to look at, and the accommodation was basic, but the business thrived

Spuzzum, some 11 miles upriver from Yale, is one of the many sites along the Fraser and Thompson Rivers that was once of considerable significance during the early days of the settlement of the province. Prior to that, however, the site was of importance to the Nlakapamux (Thompson) First Nations, with the name of the site coming from the Nlakapamux word meaning “little flat”; fitting, as Spuzzum is the last area of relatively level land as one heads north along the Fraser.

In 1808 Simon Fraser — the man who gave his name to the river — was possibly the first white man to arrive at the site, during his epic journey down the river from Fort George (now Prince George). He and his men had set out on May 22, and a month later, with the worst of the journey behind them, they reached the relative calm of Spuzzum, where they found an extensive First Nations burial ground.

Fraser wrote of the site that “These tombs are superior to anything of the kind I saw [prior]; they are about fifteen feet long and of the form of a chest of drawers. Upon the boards and posts are beasts and birds carved in a curious but rude manner, pretty well proportioned. These monuments must have cost the workmen much time and labour, as they must have been destitute of proper tools for their execution; round the tombs was deposited all the property of the deceased.”

After Fraser’s 1808 visit the site was probably not much visited (if at all) by settlers: there were no white people to the north, the Fraser River was considered unnavigable above Yale, and there was no road. All that changed, however, when gold was discovered along the Fraser and Thompson Rivers in 1858. Suddenly thousands of gold seekers were heading north to and through the region: first to the gold along the rivers, and then to the goldfields of the Cariboo.

To say that things moved fast in the area would be an understatement. Roadhouses sprang up along what was then little more than a trail; by May 1858 a Frenchman named Pierre Marquis had built two roadhouses with stores, one at Hill’s Bar south of Yale and one about five miles upriver from Yale, to cater to the men travelling north.

At Spuzzum, however, wayfarers found that the only viable way to proceed was to cross the Fraser River and continue along the eastern side of the canyon. How to get across was the issue, and in September 1858 a contract was awarded to Harrison P. Eayres to construct and operate a rope ferry at the site. Eayres, however, refused to share the profits with Magistrate Richard Hicks, who had awarded him the contract, and shortly thereafter the permit was given to an American named Franklin (Frank) Way.

Way was one of the many people who had been attracted north by gold fever. Gold mining is, by its nature, very physical work, and Way soon found that such a life was not for him. A shrewd businessman, he saw a way to profit from the gold rush without having to moil for gold: in addition to building and operating the ferry at Spuzzum, he established a roadhouse — sometimes known as California House — at the site.

The roadhouse was a large, single-storey log structure built near Spuzzum Creek. In June 1860, Bishop George Hills — the first Anglican Bishop of British Columbia — stayed at the roadhouse during one of his frequent treks through the Interior of the province. A summer storm overtook his group as they approached what Hills described as “the Spuzzum riverside hut”, and they took refuge there for the night.

His description of the roadhouse is somewhat less then complimentary, but he later noted in his diary that “An excellent supper was speedily provided us by the cook.” There were several other travellers at California House that evening, and after the Bishop had conducted a religious service the men all retired to their beds.

“The room in which we slept, on the ground of course, there not being a 2nd. storey, or indeed even a second room, was partitioned off from a small kitchen,” wrote Hills. “There was also an outhouse called the Bakery, where some slept… My bed consisted of blankets laid upon a straw mattress. On one side of me was Mr. Crickmer [one of Hills’ companions], on the other, within arm’s reach, was a box filled with a cat and her kittens, so I was safe from rats getting in my face! William [the Bishop’s other companion] and three other men were lodged in different parts of the same room.

“I confess, tired though I was, I could not sleep much — principally owing to the heat of the room. I would gladly have seen the doorway open to the fresh air. It rained in torrents most of the night, and gave our beds some drops of the cool shower.”

The next day was Hills’ 44th birthday, and he reflected that it was strange to awake and find himself on the floor of a log hut in the “wildest, most inaccessible recess of the Cascade Mountains.” The men had a breakfast of tea, coffee, and ham, and when Hills went to pay for their meals and lodging he found that “Nothing could induce the good people of the House to take a single farthing… They only regretted that accommodations and fare had been so poor.”

Way must have been feeling expansive toward a man of the cloth, for he was described by journalist and author David Higgins, who knew the man, as “bright as a new sovereign, and as keen edged as a fox razor… During the gold rush he made barrels of money ferrying miners and their effects across the Fraser River at 50 cents a head. He told me that one day he filled a tin bucket full of silver and gold.

“On another occasion, following an accident, the ferry capsized in a riffle, drowning all the passengers, and only Frank survived. When interviewed by a reporter from the Colonist on the matter, the reporter asked ‘And was there much loss?’ to which Frank replied ‘Oh no, I always collect the fares in advance.’”

With the construction of the first Alexandra Bridge as part of the Cariboo Wagon Road in 1863, Way’s ferry was made largely redundant. The coming of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1880s meant that the Cariboo Road was largely abandoned, and when the bridge washed away in the flooding of 1894 it was not replaced until 1926. By then California House had long since fallen by the wayside, one of the first — but by no means the last — casualties along the Fraser Canyon highway caused by innovations in transportation.

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