Stagecoach North: A History of Barnard’s Express
July 30, 2020
Review By Christopher Herbert
In Stagecoach North, Ken Mather undercovers the history of one of the most important companies in British Columbia: Barnard’s Express. From 1862 to 1914 this famed company carried passengers, freight, and mail along the Cariboo Wagon Road between the Lower Mainland, the Cariboo, and other points north. In so doing, the company not only functioned as a vital economic link in the colony and then the young province, it also shaped the human geography of the region, helping give rise to settlements like 100 Mile House and Cottonwood House.
Mather begins with Francis Barnard’s predecessor, Billy Ballou, offering stage service to the gold fields. Ballou, however, was soon edged out by Barnard, who, through a complicated series of contracts and partnerships, came to dominate shipping and transportation in the mainland colony. Barnard himself eventually moved into politics, where he was a vocal advocate of Confederation and dreamt of a trans-Canada stagecoach line. His son, Frank Barnard, proved to be a suitable heir to his father’s business, which by this time had grown to include the famed BX Ranch near Vernon. In 1888, Frank, by now heavily involved in politics and numerous other business ventures, sold out and over the next two and a half decades, the company would continue to modernize, eventually building two paddle-wheelers to serve the Upper Fraser and its tributaries and even experimenting with automobiles. World War I, the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and the loss of the government contract to carry the mail led to the demise of the company in 1914 and the liquidation of its assets.
Mather’s account is full of hidden gems. At one point, Mather reveals how the Express inadvertently “seeded” honeybee colonies along the Cariboo Road. At another point, he explains the full history of the company’s experiments with steam-powered road vehicles. Mather also has an entire section dedicated to notable robberies and accidents. The entire book is written in an easy, accessible style sure to be popular with the general public or amateur history buffs.
Professional historians will probably be more uncomfortable with some of the weaknesses in Mather’s account. At times, Mather has a tendency to write conversations with more of an eye for drama than for historical verisimilitude. Citations can be few and far between. The secondary literature Mather engages with is also out-of-date. In some cases, this can be excused: Barnard’s Express has received so little attention sometimes it is necessary to argue against accounts that are over 100 years old. But more modern histories would have also helped to steer Mather away from some more problematic assertions, like the idea that annexation by the United States was ever seriously considered in the colony as an alternative to Confederation.
Ultimately, Stagecoach North is an enjoyable read that provides a much-needed spotlight on an overlooked part of British Columbian History, suitable mainly to those with a general interest in the history of British Columbia but also offering useful nuggets to scholars of the time period.
Mather, Ken. Stagecoach North: A History of Barnard’s Express. Vancouver: Heritage House Publishing, 2020. 288 pp. $22.95 paper.