The amazing sage of Francis J. Barnard

Esther Darlington MacDonald's tale of a trailblazer, who went from hauling the mail to owner of the famed BX Stagecoach.

Esther Darlington MacDonald

If a long life of heroic achievement is the definition of saga, the life of B.C. Express founder, Francis Jones Barnard certainly fills the bill.

Who would have thought that the heaving figure of a man in the wilderness, a heavy pack filled with postal mail and newspapers on his back, hiking the rough trails through the Cariboo in 1860 for a distance of no less than 750 miles, would some day become a Member of Parliament, and that he and would leave a distinguished record of service to the people of British Columbia?

No one indeed, would have imagined that the burly man with features already roughened by ill fortune, one of which might well have killed him while he was Purser on the steamboat Yale when an explosion blew him and others from the boat and into the Fraser, could have foreseen the circumstances that would make Francis Jones Barnard the foremost builder of a horse drawn transportation system comparable to Wells Fargo in the U.S.

Born in Quebec, but of early American stock from Massachusetts dating from 1642, Barnard’s family background was distinguished. He was descended from the Francis Barnard who had settled in Deerfield, Mass. and became one of the city’s select men. The family business then was merchandising hardware. After arriving in Quebec, Barnard’s father engaged in the same kind of commerce. But when Barnard’s father died, 12 year old Francis became the head of the family. He had to go out to work to support his mother and siblings.

At age 24, Barnard married Ellen Stillman and they moved shortly after to Toronto. He started a business there, but met with failure.

At that time, news of finding gold on the Fraser River reached Quebec. Barnard left his wife and two children in Toronto and boarded a sailing ship as a third class passenger in steerage. The gold rush at San Francisco had panned itself out by the time Barnard reached the city. He journeyed on to B.C., arriving in the tent city of Victoria, and finally, heading up the Fraser River to Yale. He arrived in the bustling town of thousands of gold seekers, carpet baggers and the usual human flotsam, with the grand sum of $5 in his pocket.

Barnard chopped cordwood. He carried the loads on his back. He staked a gold claim on the Fraser, then sold the claim a short time later. He was appointed constable in Yale. Drunken rowdies, thieves and murderers kept him busy. Barnard records that he escorted criminals to New Westminster, caught up with one escapee, and grappled with another who had taken Barnard’s pistol. This violent activity did not endear Barnard to remain in a career of policing. He joined forces with Captain Powers at Yale and was engaged as Purser when the explosion occurred, killing over 20 persons. Barnard had been sitting in the dining room when the explosion happened. Catapulted into the river, nearby Indians managed to fish him out, an act that Barnard never forgot.

Shortly afterwards, Barnard saw that the delivery of mail and parcels to gold camps along the Fraser and further, toward the Cariboo, could become a source of income. There was no formal postal service at that time. Others had seen the need for delivery of mail and the competition became quite keen.  Mail came from New Westminster to Yale by steamboat. From Yale, these independent couriers, proceeded north on foot or by horseback. Barnard trekked the miles through a wilderness that had scarcely changed since the Hudson Bay fur brigades had made trails over the hills, dales and through the mountains of the B.C. interior some 20 years before.

After a year of foot delivery, Barnard was able to purchase a packhorse. Mail at that time was $2 per letter and $1 for newspapers. The papers came from the States and Victoria.

On the return trips to the gold camps, the miners entrusted Barnard and others to deliver their gold. It was a remarkable trust, really, when you consider the many miles and the roughest of terrain that might have caused the death or accident of the courier. However, the influence of men like Judge Matthew Begbie and a growing provincial constabulary might have had a lot to do with the lack of criminal activity in that sphere. Barnard’s integrity was thoroughly sound.

And he carried that integrity right through his career as founder of the BX Express and later, as a Member of Parliament.

Barnard was soon able to buy out the express services of Dietz and Nelson and he extended his route to Barkerville, as Nelson had done.

When the Cariboo Road had been partially completed by Col. Moody’s Royal Engineers to the river town of Soda Creek on the Fraser River, just 20 miles north of Williams Lake, Barnard was able to increase transport dramatically.

He had engaged Steve Tingley as “whip”, and sent Tingley down to southern California to bring back 500 head of wild horses. The trip for Tingley was a gargantuan test of physical and mental powers, but Tingley, an intelligent man with the stamina to match. The horses were brought up through Idaho, and thence to the Okanagan.  Barnard’s transportation empire increased to 14 six-horse coaches and a team of “crack whips”.

Tingley now had the income to return to New Brunswick, marry his sweetheart and bring her to B.C. Barnard, meanwhile had brought his wife and two sons from back east and settled them nicely in Victoria. The couple would later have a daughter. But Barnard continued to live a good deal of the time in Yale, where he could administer the growing BX Express service.

Barnard’s main competitor had been a man named Billy Ballou. Described as a “harum scarum” character who had worn many hats in the U.S. before he met up with W.J. Jaffray, a hard drinking, hard driving man in B.C. out of Yale, who had been delivering the mail and parcels. But Jaffray died and his debts, mounting to over $6,000, a goodly sum in those days, had Ballou retreat, as usual, in his colorful way. A way that intrigued his one time buddy, the famed author, Samuel Clemens, aka as Mark Twain.  Ballou returned to the U.S., where he continued to make a name for himself. This time, in politics.

Barnard’s Express operated for well nigh a generation. Barnard became involved in politics. He was a firm believer in Confederation and when campaigning as MP, promoted the plan to join B.C. with the rest of Canada. He was elected to federal office for two terms. But when he was offered a senate post, he declined because of ill health.

A couple of dramatic reversals could well have created the health problems that plagued Barnard as he approached mid life. One was the government contract he was awarded to build an Edmonton-via Cache Creek telegraph route. The plan turned out to be a disaster. The government changed the route twice. And when a new government was formed, the plan was cancelled altogether. Barnard lost thousands of dollars that he had invested in steamboats, packtrains, wire and other supplies. Barnard pursued a claim for financial recovery from the expense, but the government never did provide compensation. Then, Barnard invested in a scheme that in retrospect seems crazy. It was to use several Scottish built steam tractors on the Cariboo Road. The vehicles proved to be completely unsuitable for the terrain.

In 1880, at the age of 51, Barnard had a stroke. It made him an invalid. He sold the BX Express to Steve Tingley six years later. He died in Victoria in 1889.