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Past, Preset & Beyond - The Ghost of Bonaparte House

Barbara Roden wonders where that darn old Bonaparte House went.

I should tell you at the outset that this is not about an actual ghost, the sort that is said to lurk in old buildings. Rather, this is about the ghost of a building itself, which might yet lurk in an unlikely place. But I am getting ahead of myself. . . .

Before 1862, the road north to the goldfields was little more than a rough track, carved out by the feet of thousands of men who had made the long trek towards the prospect of riches. The Colonial government, however, was anxious to ensure that movement to and from the goldfields was as easy as possible, so in 1862 work began on the Cariboo Wagon Road, which also attracted those who had no interest in gold mining. Their interest was in the men who moiled for gold, and who would need food, drink, and lodging as they pursued their dreams.

Thus it was that roadhouses soon sprang up along the newly established route. They were rough structures, for the most part, promising little more than the most basic comforts; but for men who carried everything they owned upon their backs, they were a welcome sight indeed. One roadhouse near Loon Lake prompted a patron to write, “Whilst staying here we were very crowded, as the small building was filled with miners by day and night, sleeping under the table and benches as well as on top of them, and all over the floor.”

The bar for roadhouses - and their operators - was therefore set rather low; as long as you could offer the bare necessities demanded by weary men, you could operate a viable business. In 1862 James Orr decided to build a roadhouse alongside the new route, about a half-mile south of what is known as Rattlesnake Hill, between Ashcroft Manor and Cache Creek. The exact location of Wayside House, as the enterprise was called, is difficult to ascertain now, as all traces of it have vanished; but a photograph in the B.C. Archives shows it to have been situated in the area to the east of Hwy 1 now occupied by Wastech.

Precisely why Orr chose that site for his roadhouse is unclear, for then as now the location was a rocky and barren stretch of land, far from water or trees. He operated Wayside House for three years, then sold it, in 1865, to Charles Semlin and Philip Parke, who must have thought that the business had potential. We know, from a reference by traveler J.B. Leighton, that Wayside House was still on its original site in June 1865, for he wrote that at that time there was no stopping place, or sign of one, at what was to become the business’s new home. In the baking heat of an Interior summer, however, it must have been an easy matter for Semlin and Parke to decide that their roadhouse might do even better if was situated in a more welcoming spot. It was clear that something needed to be done.

That “something” involved moving Wayside House to a new location. They settled on a spot slightly further north, on a grassy piece of land near the Bonaparte River at the foot of Rattlesnake Hill. The entire building was moved to the new site, and the enterprise was rechristened Bonaparte House. An 1866 photo, taken from Rattlesnake Hill, shows the “new” roadhouse, with two tandem freight wagons making their way down the Cariboo Road towards it. The absence of contemporary landmarks makes it difficult to say exactly where it was, although it appears to be located at or near where the entrance to the Sage and Sands Trailer Park is today.

The enterprising partners soon added stables for the B.X. Express Co., a blacksmith shop, a telegraph office, and a general store to the property, ensuring that Bonaparte House remained a bustling business catering to the throngs still heading north to the goldfields, and the stagecoaches that moved freight and supplies through the area. In 1868 Parke sold his share of the business to William “Boston” Sanford (after whom Boston Flats is named), and in 1869 Semlin sold out to James Campbell. The roadhouse was renamed yet again, becoming “Cache Creek House”, and continued to thrive; when Sir Sandford Fleming made his surveying expedition across Canada in 1872 his group planned to stay in Cache Creek on the night of Sept. 30, but could not, for when they arrived they found that “the hotel was full, as it generally is” (they ended up staying at Ashcroft Manor instead, as guests of Governor Cornwall).

By 1882 the property - owned solely by Campbell at that point - was being described as a landmark on the Cariboo Road. A post office had been added, and at some point it reverted to the name Bonaparte House, for an 1895 ad in the Ashcroft Journal refers to it as such. What happened to it after that remains something of a mystery, however. It appears to have been moved once again, this time to the site now occupied by the Oasis Hotel; a picture taken at the junction of Highways 1 and 2 (the latter now Hwy 97) in the 1950s, looking west, shows what looks like the Bonaparte House building - somewhat modified - on the spot the northern part of modern hotel now occupies. Another archive picture shows that by 1962 its peaked roof was gone, and within a few years more renovations ensured that all traces of Bonaparte House were gone.

But are they? Rumours persisted for many years that parts of the old roadhouse could still be detected deep within the modern building, by those who knew what to look for. A current employee of the Oasis denies this; but perhaps the ghost of Bonaparte House still lingers, unwilling - after so many moves - to entirely leave its final resting place.

Barbara Roden