“On subscription fees and a few classified ads, he built a life’s work that allowed him to walk the boardwalks of history and the halls of power.” —Black Press columnist Tom Fletcher.
When treasure hunter, historian, author, publisher and television host Bill Barlee was again profiled in the Times Colonist, in 2001, it was because he’d published his biggest book yet, all of 352 pages and in hardcover. Like the others, it was about ghost towns and treasure troves in British Columbia’s south-central interior and based on the wealth of information he’d gathered over the years through archival research, interviews and firsthand fieldwork. He was lucky again in that many of the people he was able to interview were by then in their high 80s and 90s and time was running out for their memories and experiences to be recorded for posterity.
He was still cursed by the paradox of informing people of the province’s historic sites while knowing that some unscrupulous collectors were looting them blind: “One person took a boxcar and a half of relics out of Sandon, and someone else looted Phoenix.
“Those were the two most important ghost towns in the Interior.”
By then Gold Creeks and Ghost Towns was in its 24th printing in 32 years. At sales of 105,000 copies, Guide to Gold Panning was close behind.
Always ready to step up to the plate, Barlee set out to restore the ghost town of Sandon to its former glory as the mining capital of the Slocan by buying a block of surviving buildings. When they collapsed under heavy snow, he started to rebuild them. This is one of the rare instances where his hopes didn’t pan out; the replicas were never completed. Earlier, as a cabinet minister, he’d succeeded in having Hedley’s Nickel Plate and Mascot mines preserved as heritage sites by the province.
All of his experience had made him a champion of British Columbia’s cultural heritage which, he firmly believed, is the province’s greatest tourism potential. Dave Obee, who interviewed him for the Times Colonist, concluded his interview by declaring Barlee’s passion for history to be his greatest asset: “Barlee has a deep, deep love for his native province and that love of B.C. shines through in virtually everything he does.”
When Bill Barlee died in 2012, his lengthy obituary noted his “rich and varied career as a politician, historian, television host, author/publisher, museum collector/curator, entrepreneur, and high school teacher,” and that he’d long promoted B.C. history.
His major contributions to provincial history and heritage hadn’t gone unnoticed, Bill receiving the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal in 2002, and other awards from hotel and tourist associations. The Times Colonist’s Obee, who’d interviewed him 11 years before, remembered him as “one of the sharpest, most inspiring, most likeable people I have known”.
In Obee’s view, British Columbia needs more politicians like Barlee, his passing is that of “one of the greatest champions this province has ever seen”.
Randy Manuel, illustrator and former director of the Penticton Museum, considered Bill Barlee to be “a nugget, pure gold, remarkable in more ways than can be described.”
The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughan Palmer concurred: “If any recent B.C. politician deserves a historical plaque, it would be him. Given how he knew, loved and chronicled so many places in the province, the hard part would be deciding where to put it.”
Also of the Sun, Stephen Hume, remembered him for having “lit a fire” under his students when teaching them about B.C. history. Hume knew this for fact, having been a Grade 7 student of his: “Bill Barlee was a larger-than-life British Columbia character to whom the province owes far more than most of us will ever imagine.” Hume hopes that Barlee will be immortalized by a memorial that’s worthy of his contributions to British Columbians’ collective self-esteem.
Black Press columnist Tom Fletcher eloquently summed up Bill Barlee’s stellar career: “On subscription fees and a few classified ads, he built a life’s work that allowed him to walk the boardwalks of history and the halls of power.”
Oher than the loss of the buildings he’d hoped to restore in Sandon, Bill Barlee appears to have batted almost 1,000. But even he, like a fisherman, could tell of the one that got away…
There are two slightly varying versions of this tale; that written by Richard Litt for the Times Colonist in 1992, when Barlee told how he narrowly missed finding Black Jack McDonald’s treasure of gold coins, and Barlee’s own account, in Historic Treasures and Lost Mines. Let’s begin with Litt:
While researching in the Provincial Archives in Victoria, he was approached by an elderly man who introduced himself as Fred Etheridge. Barlee recognized the name as that of one of his first subscribers to Canada West. Etheridge asked him if he knew the name, Black Jack McDonald.
Yes, McDonald had been a famous Rossland prospector who, it turned out, had been Etheridge’s next door neighbour when he was a boy. The old prospector had befriended him, inviting him into his house and showing him his hoard of gold coins that he kept in 14(!) wooden boxes because he didn’t trust banks. The boxes, when dragged from another room, covered the entire kitchen table.
The old man and the young boy would then play with them, $1 to $20 gold pieces, scooping them out by hand and letting them fall back into the boxes with a metallic clink-clink.
So recalled a much older Frank Etheridge, that day in the Provincial Archives. Barlee, of course, was enthralled, and asked what had happened to the treasure? Etheridge didn’t know despite McDonald having made him the executor of his estate. The will made no mention of gold coins and Etheridge was convinced that they remained, hidden in McDonald’s house.
He no longer lived in Rossland, had no need of money, and simply had filed away the story which he chose to share with Barlee so many years later. Barlee determined to check it out. But it was late fall, he had work to do on his latest book; he would go to Rossland in the spring.
On a June Sunday in 1971, he knocked at the door of the McDonald house, to be greeted by a woman in a nurse’s uniform. Working on the long accepted standard that a property owner gets half the treasure, he straightforwardly told her the purpose of his visit.
When she invited him in, he could see that the old house had been redecorated. Yes, she said, by the man who sold it to her. From a neighbour he learned that this man, who made a living by buying and fixing up older homes in need of repair, had spent much of his time working in the basement — before taking early and unexpected retirement.
Further investigation revealed that the renovator had joined the local coin collectors club and was known to have made repeated trips across the border to Spokane, Wash., where, Barlee knew, one could easily dispose of gold coins, no questions asked.
Based on what Frank Etheridge told him, he believes the McDonald trove, because many of the gold pieces would be collectors’ items, to have been worth several millions of dollars!
But in his book, Barlee places the value of Black Jack’s American gold coins at no more than $75,000. He doesn’t name the miner in question, saying only that he had made his fortune from the sale of rich property for which he’d been paid in gold coin, that he’d retired to Rossland and lived his last years as a semi-recluse. He doesn’t mention Frank Etheridge by name, either, and the boxes in this account are cigar boxes.
His version of how he came to know about Black Jack’s gold is also contradictory of the Litt account. But no matter. He did confirm that the old miner’s house had been renovated by a man who suddenly showed keen interest in rare coins then made numerous trips to Spokane before retiring soon after. Barlee was convinced that the renovator found the cache that he called the “cigar boxes hoard” in the basement.