Writing By The Steamer – Part Three

Stories From The Early Mail Service Of Victoria

by Paul Parizeau

Early Express Companies

The sturdy little paddle-wheeler ‘Yale’ was slowly pushing its way against the early spring current on the Fraser River two miles above Hope. As it approached Union Bar on that quiet Sunday the peace was abruptly shattered as a violent explosion blew the ship’s boiler apart flinging great chunks of the ‘Yale’ in all directions. The captain and four of the crew perished and the injured and stunned survivors struggled ashore as best they could. Among the latter was the ship’s purser, Francis Jones Barnard, a native of Quebec, former woodcutter and constable in the colony of British Columbia. The date was April 14, 1861, only a few months before John D’Ewes would pocket the proceeds from the Victoria Post Office, leaving the colony of Vancouver Island poorer by thousands of dollars. Now, Fate was about to spin the wheel again for the two struggling colonies but this time it would stop at a winning number.

Francis Jones Barnard

On that April day Francis Barnard decided he had had enough of ships, at least for the time being. Soon, he was out on his own, backpacking freight and mail into the Cariboo mines from Yale, an incredibly difficult and dangerous round trip of more than 750 miles. Saving every spare penny Barnard finally accumulated enough to buy a few horses with which he started his own version of the ‘pony express’. Later this was to grow into an elaborate and efficient organization of stages, express offices, roadhouses and paddle-wheelers, as well as a horse ranch and even shops where the Barnard Express Company or B.X. as it came to be known made its own equipment. By the time of Confederation, Barnard’s red and yellow stages drawn by two, four, or six horses had become a familiar sight throughout British Columbia. By no means was the B.X. the only express company operating in the far-west colonies, but continuing on as the British Columbia Express Company it certainly was the most successful and long-lived of all of the ‘home-grown’ lines.

As he became financially successful, Barnard retained his shares in the company but went on to become a member of the provincial legislature and later a federal member of parliament. He was also one of a group of colonists who were responsible for having B.C. join Canada in Confederation. One son, Frank became a lieutenant-governor of British Columbia. Another son, Harry was elected mayor of Victoria and was largely instrumental in having the Empress Hotel built here.

Barnard’s Stage [Coach] At Yale, For Soda Creek, c.1868

In 1858 when thousands of miners headed north from California to try their luck along the Fraser River they brought with them what they considered to be their own express company, Wells Fargo, founded in the States in 1852. Soon it had opened its first office in Victoria on Yates St. and later Barnard’s opened an office next door. Other express operators from California, including Billy Ballou also went into business in Victoria as well as on the mainland. Wells Fargo, however, was content to open a bank here and to handle mail and freight between Victoria, San Francisco and Europe leaving the smaller operators to develop the hazardous routes to the mines. Later, Wells Fargo associated itself with some of the more successful local operators including Barnard’s Express and Dietz & Nelson’s to form a sort of express network throughout the colonies.

Dietz & Nelson

From the outset of the goldrush the miners who were accustomed to the reliability and relative speed of the express service in California came to rely on its northern counterparts, and most of their letters, papers and treasure were conveyed by the express companies. Governor James Douglas recognized the fact that the colonial mail service sponsored by the government, although inexpensive, was hopelessly slow and inadequate to the needs of the miners, but there was little he or his successors could do except to allow the express to continue carrying a high proportion of the mail. At least the colonies were able to charge the express operators, and through them their customers, the standard postal rate on all mail and thus build up a fund with which they hoped to establish the postal system on a firm and efficient basis.

For example, to send a letter from Victoria to San Francisco either by Wells Fargo or its rival Freeman’s Express would cost the sender 5¢ for the colonial postage, 3¢ for U.S. postage and about 25¢ for the express charge. Rates varied depending on the weight of the letter. Express rates to the mines were much higher and a grave marker in the Barkerville cemetery sadly testifies as to one of the reasons. It reads ‘Kimball, E.H., Sacred to the memory of, native of Bradford, Mass. Died the 31st. of January, 1874. Aged 38 years. The Keithley Creek expressman, he was killed by an avalanche near the gorge of Six Mile Creek. Besides the mail and express, it is said, he had a considerable treasure in his possession at the time of the accident. Some 48 hours after the accident the body was recovered with the treasure and express strapped to him.’

2c Black (73). Two, used with two singles of 10c Yellow Green (68), each cancelled or tied by San Francisco cogwheel on cover originating in Vancouver Island and sent to London, England, blue oval “Post Office, Paid, Victoria Vancouver Island” handstamp, two strikes of “San Francisco Cal. Jan. 30” double-circle datestamp, endorsed “via San Francisco and Panama Per Royal Mail”, red “New York Am. Pkt. 3 Apr. 24” credit datestamp, London receiving datestamp (Mar. 8, 1866) and backstamp, a few letters of address changed in ink.
2c Black (73). Used with 5c Brown (76), centered to right, and British Columbia & Vancouver Island 1865 5c Rose (5) on 3c Pink entire with Wells, Fargo & Co. printed frank, from Victoria B.C. to San Francisco, blue ’35’ oval grid ties British Columbia stamp, blue ‘Wells, Fargo & Co. Victoria Feb. 15’ oval date stamp ties United States stamps and cancels entire.
Wilby’s Mail Courier Service, c.1865

In his book ‘Reminiscences of Old Victoria’, Edgar Fawcett recalls the scene at the Victoria express office on steamer day. “…I was going up Yates Street, past Wells Fargo’s bank and express…” It was steamer day, and Yates Street was full of life, as it always was when the San Francisco steamer had just arrived with passengers, freight, mails and express. The latter was the more important in those days. The chief business was done with San Francisco, and most of the letters came by express, costing twenty-five cents each, from San Francisco. The large front office was opened to the street and was full of business men and others. The staff of the express consisted of Colonel Pendergast, Major Gillingham and a man named Miller, as messenger. I stopped and squeezed inside, where there was a scene that never will be enacted again in this city, I think, in the way of business. Major Gillingham was unlocking express bags and cutting open bundles of letters, which he handed to Colonel Pendergast, who was mounted on a chair and calling out the address on the letters. If the addressee was there he called out ‘Here’, and the letter was handed across the room to where he stood, or if not there, was taken by a friend. After all the letters had been called, the audience trooped out and went to their offices to peruse their correspondence.’

A sort of love-hate relationship existed between the government officials on the one side and the express people on the other. Various government administrators including the fiery Captain Gosset, and later W.R. Spalding, Postmaster of British Columbia, as well as Governor A.E. Kennedy, successor to James Douglas as governor of Vancouver Island objected strenuously each in his turn to having the express companies carry the mail. But each was forced to recognize the realities of the situation and finally to look the other way. On their side the express operators were for the most part scrupulously honest in their dealings with miners, businessmen and government alike, thus giving no cause to curtail their service.

Inevitably the day arrived when the postal system overtook the express service in efficiency and cost, and when that happened the latter devoted itself to passengers, large and more legitimate express parcels and light freight. Finally about seventy years ago the last mail run was made, and from that day forward the car and the locomotive took over from the horse-drawn stage coach to get the mails through to all points in B.C. other than coastal settlements where the steamer still prevailed.

The story of our express companies has never been told in its entirety, and so far as I could determine no book deals exclusively with this picturesque and dramatic chapter in our history. Most of our citizens are familiar with the saga of the Wells Fargo stages and the Pony Express riders across the western plains of the United States, I wonder how many of them know of the equally heroic men who pioneered along the early trails and primitive roads of our own rugged provinces.

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