This Stanley was a ghost town

It never really amounted to all that much beyond two hotels, a general store and a cluster of miners’ cabins and shanties.

This has been my week for ghost towns. First, on Thursday evening, Gord Hutchings’ great presentation on Anyox to the Cowichan Historical Society. On Friday, in my mailbox, the current issue of British Columbia History Magazine and an article on Stanley, in Barkerville country.

Much as I’d love to, I’ve not been to Anyox on the B.C.-Alaska border, but I have been to Stanley in the Cariboo. That was in 1977 when I did a road tour while researching the series of books I was writing on communities that, for various reasons but mostly because of their onehorse economies, have withered away, often to the point of invisibility.

We humans tend to think that, once we plant our footprint, it’s there to stay. The reality can be anything but. Gold miners, ever fickle, ever seeking that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, often abandoned even paying claims and the efforts of their hard work upon the merest rumour of another, richer strike, in the hope of something bigger and better. Or the ore really did run out.

Towns by the score – some of them, such as Phoenix, qualifying as cities – have come and gone throughout B.C. When driving through the Westholme Valley at night I never fail to marvel that there’s not a light to be seen on Mount Sicker where, just over a century ago, two copper mines supported a rumoured population of 2,000 souls. Now, even in its heyday, there wouldn’t have been lights on the eastern slope, because they’d have been just over the brow of the mountain. But the absolute darkness reminds me just how fleeting Humankind’s efforts can be, no matter how ambitious they are.

Stanley on Lightning Creek, near Wells and just off the Quesnel Barkerville road, was the scene of a frenzied but brief gold rush in the 1860s, and again, to a lesser extent, in the 1930s. Retired teacher James W. Caughlan’s article brought back memories of my visit with Tom Crawford. I don’t recall meeting his wife Lil, perhaps because, as Caughlan explains, she didn’t

really appreciate visitors and preferred to avoid them (including, probably, me).

The original miners may have moved on quickly but some of those who followed stayed to work this rocky ground with gold pans and rockers then with hydraulic monitors; hence Stanley’s birth at the confluence of Chisholm and Lightning Creeks. The town never

really amounted to much beyond a general store or two, two hotels and miners’ cabins and shanties. It was in one of these old cabins that, for 40 years, from the ’50s on, the Crawfords made their home in the summers while he patiently reworked the tailings of those who’d tried before him. He’d separate the boulders (reassembling them in neat piles) with a jet of water from his monitor (think of a powerful fire hose) then wash the remaining gravel, sand and mud through a sluicebox for whatever traces of gold had been missed by his predecessors.

I’m sure the Crawords didn’t get rich doing this, summer after summer, but it supplemented their pensions, satisfied them, and allowed them to comfortably winter "outside" for years until their health began to fail. Tom died in 1990, aged 83, wife Lil three years later. I doubt that Stanley has known their like since and the buildings that were there in their time have since tumbled down.

I recall him as being friendly and willingly answering my questions about his own mining efforts and those of the argonauts before him. I remember him showing me Stanley’s small Chinese cemetery, marked by about seven shallow and overgrown trenches. These were the graves of miners whose bones had been returned to China as was long the custom. I’d not heard of that until Tom Crawford told me.

I now know that the Crawfords are back in Stanley, there to stay in its little cemetery. James Caughlan urges those who visit their final resting place to "please continue the custom of placing a stone, like the many that Tom gleaned for gold, on their grave. But, before doing so, check it carefully, just in case. Tom would enjoy that."