The Wagon Road North: The Saga of the Cariboo Gold Rush, Revised and Expanded Edition
Review By Chris Herbert
October 1, 2021
BC Studies no. 212 Winter 2021/22 | p. 216-217
As Ken Mather reminds us in the preface to this revised and expanded edition of Wagon Road North, it is for a good reason that Art Downs’ book has remained probably the single most popular account of the Cariboo Gold Rush since its original publication in 1960. Written in clear, succinct prose and amply illustrated with over two hundred images, Wagon Road North has long been a mainstay for those interested in the gold rush that reshaped the Central Interior of British Columbia. At sixty years since its initial publication and forty since the last revision, Wagon Road North has started to show its age, however. Mather’s updated version nicely addresses the weaknesses that have become more apparent over time while retaining the strengths of the original.
Wagon Road North is divided into sixteen chapters, the longest of which is eighteen pages, the shortest, just two. The narrative covers the initial gold rush to the Fraser River, the rush in the Cariboo, various groups in the gold rush, movement into and out of the Cariboo, and ends with several chapters on notable figures, the cemetery in Barkerville, and a look at the relics of the gold rush today. Each chapter is written in clear, engaging prose with numerous high-quality illustrations. Frequently neglected or terse in many books, the captions of the photographs are full of interesting details and nuances that greatly add to appeal of Wagon Road North.
Updating a classic work is a tricky and dangerous business, but Mather has succeeded admirably here. The biggest changes in this new edition come from the addition of three much-needed chapters: on the Chinese, Indigenous people, and women in the Cariboo gold rush. In each, Mather draws on recent scholarship to emphasize the heterogenous and multifaceted nature of gold rush society. This helps to correct one of the more problematic aspects of earlier editions: the tendency to depict the gold rush as the story of heroic white men and to minimize or denigrate the contributions other groups and individuals. With the addition of these three chapters and some skillful editing throughout, Mather has presented a far more nuanced picture of the gold rush that is at once both more accurate and more interesting to modern audiences.
The key to Wagon Road North’s enduring popularity is that it is the quintessential BC history coffee-table book. The layout, prose, and images all make it an extremely accessible account of a key moment in the province’s history. While there is now a significant body of excellent academic scholarship on the Cariboo Gold Rush and numerous other popular histories of the rush, Mather’s updates will help ensure that Wagon Road North remains a mainstay for years to come.
Victoria: Heritage House, 2021. 160 pp. $26.95 paper.