The Story of Port Douglas

Posted by Daniel on Sep 2, 2010 - 4 comments

Julie Ferguson writes:

A fat, shapely bottle made of green glass, and a centennial cairn unveiled in 1958 are all that’s left of Port Douglas at the head of Harrison Lake. The bottle, old and grubby, sits mute but eloquent as I write. Rowdy prospectors passed it hand-to-hand swigging its whiskey and boasting of huge gold nuggets and how they’d find more. After a man downed the final mouthful, he flung the bottle under a shack. There it lay undiscovered for 116 years.


When the cataracts of the Fraser Canyon claimed the lives of too many prospectors desperate to make their fortunes, James Douglas, governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, ordered the construction of a safer route to the gold fields of the upper Fraser River. With no laborers to build it, he devised a cunning plan to get the job done over the summer and fall of 1858. He enticed the prospectors to build the road for food and a promise that they could stake their claims two weeks ahead of everyone else. Five hundred men accepted his challenge, despite no wages and having to pay a $25 deposit for the privilege. Pack mules for the new route were part of the incentive package too, but they never materialized.


The new overland and water route called the Douglas Road (129 kms/80 miles) began at the present Harrison Hot Springs, which Fraser River steamboats could reach. From there in July 1858, vessels transported supplies, including crates of whiskey, and the first 250 miners to the northern end of Harrison Lake; the remainder arrived soon after. On disembarking, they named the site Port Douglas (photo above from the BC Archives). Surrounded by mountains, the town rose on the small, alluvial fan of the lower Lillooet River close to a native village called Xa’xtsa.


The prospectors toiled in crews of twenty-five – some erecting buildings and others hacking out portages between Lillooet, Anderson, and Seton Lakes to Cayoosh Flat (Lillooet). Whiskey provided their only respite from the misery of mud and mosquitoes. By October, hordes of men were trudging north with wild glints in their eyes, picks and shovels swinging from their shoulders, and grubstakes on their backs.

Port Douglas was a typical gold-rush town – boom and bust. Jury-built bars, doss-houses, and a store proliferated as the thousands of prospectors roared through to the gold fields. With them came prostitutes, merchants, and clergy of various stripes, all lured by a quick buck to be made or souls to be saved. The onslaught gave Port Douglas its brief claim to fame – for about four years the town was the second largest settlement in southern British Columbia after Yale. And just as rowdy and undisciplined too.


The hard-drinking and brawling phase was short-lived. Port Douglas was bypassed when gold was discovered in Horsefly Creek near Williams Lake and the new Cariboo Wagon Road through the Fraser Canyon opened in 1863. Logging and mining breathed life into the town again in the late 1800s when steamers were still plying the lakes. This time they brought wives to join their husbands already working around Port Douglas. The women’s arrival gave more respectability to the run-down settlement as the bunkhouses transformed into homes and social life normalized. But the restoration wasn’t enough to ensure the town’s long-term survival despite several attempts to entice settlers with land. Port Douglas remained a backwater, providing housing needs for company employees.


In 1974, when a logging company bulldozed the town flat, the whiskey bottle reappeared intact, but filled only with stories to remind us of a nugget of British Columbia history.


© Julie H. Ferguson 2010