The Wickedest Little Settlement in British Columbia

Explore the town of Yale these days, and you’ll notice sights like the majestic Cascade Mountains, the mighty Fraser River, and the lovely historic buildings that possess an aura of quiet dignity, like the grand old 1863 St. John the Divine Church. The churchyard’s magnificent 160 year old tree has blessed generations of visitors with merciful shade on a hot canyon day. Every corner of The Yale Historic Site is immaculately kept, like the delightful garden area and neatly arranged tent city. Yale’s inhabitants are a tightknit community; neighbors get together at Barry’s Trading Post to catch up over coffee. To see Yale now, an unassuming small town, you’d have no idea of its past: wild, woolly, and devilishly wicked! The sudden surge of tens of thousands of miners during the Goldrush of 1858 brought with it many colorful characters: the previously mentioned church was actually established in part, to try to civilize them! 


First Nations people knew of the existence of gold in the river bars for thousands of years. Once they realized the value of it to the newly arriving British, they began to trade the gold for supplies. The presence of gold didn’t stay quiet for very long. Legend has it, that when the Hudson’s Bay Company sent 800 ounces of gold to a San Francisco mint for assaying, word got out to miners in California. The California Gold Rush of 1849 had died out, with new pockets of gold getting increasingly difficult to find. Immediately, miners rushed to pack their gear and head north to this golden promised land.


As a massive influx of miners poured into town, canvas tents were erected, town lots and streets were created, and a variety of businesses like hotels, banks, blacksmiths, general stores, and saloons popped up to take advantage of the increased population. Ladies of the evening peddled their promises of sinful activity to the randy miners. Saloons, many with gambling tables were a popular destination. In its prime, Yale had THIRTEEN saloons within a short distance along Front Street! Thousands of miners with free evenings, money in their pockets, and plenty of booze… what could go wrong? Claim jumping, robberies, fights, and even murders started to become common as lawlessness burgeoned.

Journalist and historian Gordon J. Smith wrote about historical sketches of a typical scene on Front Street during the goldrush days: 

“Contemporary artists have left prints depicting Front street depicting a row of gabled log buildings with almost every alternate one labelled “saloon” – often it is also a gaming house. The ungraded street is shown as thronged with a heterogeneous collection of people – hoop-skirted women and flannel-shirted miners with long boots, some depicted as dancing a jig on the street or the rough board walk. The places of amusement never closed their doors, day or night. Bennett’s gambling house, a large log structure where the roulette wheels were constantly turning, was the chief rendezvous, and here public gatherings took place… There were restaurants, saloons, and more saloons.”


Yale’s Front Street on payday during the Gold Rush era

There are countless tales of unlawful activity, murderous mayhem, and unscrupulous characters in the annals of Yale’s Gold Rush history. Here are just a sampling: 


Two days after a ball, a young Irishman named Barney Rice entered Bennett’s Saloon on Front Street and ordered a drink. After he finished his drink, he refused to pay and walked out. A barkeeper by the name of Foster followed him out, and as the Irishman walked away, Foster shot him dead. The body laid in the snow for several hours, blood turning the white snow crimson red. Foster fled and was never again seen in Yale. 


Judge Begbie, who sentenced Robert Wall to death

In 1858 former Hill’s Bar miner Robert Wall (now a drifter) sought treatment from the town’s beloved Doctor, Maximillian W. Fifer. It would seem that Mr. Wall’s frequent visits to local prostitutes resulted in a painful venereal disease. The treatment Dr. Fifer prescribed ended up causing Mr. Wall to be impotent, which instilled a desire in Mr. Wall to seek revenge on the doctor. On July 5, 1861, Mr. Wall entered the drug store where Dr. Fifer was working, and shot him with a small Derringer Pistol. The ball went through the doctor’s heart, killing him instantly. Mr. Wall attempted to escape by canoe. After a multiple day canoe and foot chase, Mr. Wall was captured in New Westminster. Judge Begbie sentenced Mr. Wall to death by hanging, and the gallows were constructed so that Mr. Wall would hang right over the grave of Dr. Fifer. The wheels of justice moved swiftly, and the public execution was carried out on August 23, 1861. Unfortunately, when the CP Railway was built, it went right over the grave of Dr. Fifer. (Read more in Hallowed Ground: Stories of the Yale Pioneer Cemetery, by Ian Brown). 


The grave of Mr. C.M. Blessing – the man James Barry killed

Author Robin Skelton, in his book, “The Cariboo Gold Rush Murder”, tells a story of a murder committed by a gambler named James Barry in 1866. Barry and two companions met up in Quesnel, to start a journey together to Barkerville to see what fortunes could be found. One friend was named Washington Delaney Moses, an African American Barber who was going to open his own shop. The other travelling companion was Charles Morgan Blessing, who happened to be from a wealthy family. Mr. Blessing carried a large amount of money with him to fund his adventure to Barkerville. Mr. Moses went ahead of them, anxious to get started on establishing a barbershop. Mr. Barry and Mr. Blessing continued together, but about 30 miles in, Mr. Barry decided he wanted Mr. Blessing’s generous cash roll, and murdered Mr. Blessing in cold blood– a single gunshot through the back of his head. He took his money and dragged his body out of sight. But before leaving, he stole a very distinctive tie pin off Mr. Blessing. The tie pin was a gold nugget, shaped like a human head. Mr. Moses went on to open a barbershop, and wondered why his friends hadn’t shown up. One day, Mr. Moses and Mr. Barry happened to run into each other, and Mr. Moses immediately recognized the missing Mr. Blessing’s tie pin, being shamelessly worn by the murderous Mr. Barry. He alerted authorities, who eventually discovered Mr. Blessing’s hidden remains. In the meantime, Mr. Barry was on the run, trying to avoid capture. Subsequently, Mr. Barry was caught in Yale, and soon after was tried, found guilty, and hung from Yale’s gallows.


Edward ‘Ned’ McGowan

The story of Ned McGowan is a long and complicated tale with considerable twists and turns, but the common thread throughout is that Ned was an instigator, and a mischief maker. Ned McGowan was born in Philadelphia, and as an adult, his hobby seemed to be causing trouble wherever he went. One of his aggressions included stabbing a newspaper editor who ran an article casting Ned in a negative light. He fled and he always managed, through connections in high places, to rise to the top before his own misadventure would cause him to fall again. He became a police chief in Philadelphia (who was highly corrupt, consorted with criminals and was involved in a jewelry heist); then he made his way to San Francisco for the 1849 Gold Rush, where he talked his way into becoming a justice of the peace, and even became a judge (one who “fixed” cases for the right price). In due course, his bad dealings caught up with him and he once again had to flee, this time for the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858. He soon became the leader of an American gang known as the “Boatmen of San Francisco”. They prospected and ruled Hills Bar, a spot known to be replete with gold. In the years that followed, he and his gang ran roughshod in Yale, with one misadventure after another, such as breaking open the jail and releasing its prisoners. Eventually the gang started a movement overtake British power in the colony and annex it to the US. The threat of a major war loomed and was fortunately avoided by a hair. And all this was instigated by one rowdy who liked to stir the pot!


Mr. Whannel was a trooper in the cavalry in Australia in the 1850s. There he married, had children and settled… until he met a lovely, buxom 18 year old lass. He then proceeded to leave his pregnant wife and children to run away with her. He and his girlfriend, who he passed off as his wife, made their way to British Columbia, where Mr. Whannel lied and presented himself as a captain of an Australian regiment. With such an impressive resume, he was hired to be Justice of the Peace in Yale, where he was disliked for his pompous arrogance. He used to draw his sword and dramatically shout “I am the law and this sword is my voice!” His nerve couldn’t back up his arrogant countenance, for as one story tells it, upon getting involved in a skirmish, he disappeared, only to be found hiding under his wife’s long, billowy hoop skirt. He was involved in a series of embarrassing circumstances and eventually his true identify was uncovered by authorities. He soon resigned and parted Yale with his “wife”.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this small handful of tales from the Gold Rush days; many more wicked and wild tales exist. Many direct descendants of pioneers who lived during that time still reside in Yale. If you are fortunate enough to run into one, you may hear a few more stories of their ancestors, who now rest in Yale’s Pioneer Cemetery. Or, you may be regaled by a ghost story or two: after all, there’s no rest for the wicked!

For more information on this wicked little settlement and other historic sites and attractions in this region, visit Hope, Cascades & Canyons.