Canada – The Fogotten Gold Rush of Gravel Creek, Coalmont and Tulameen

gold rush

Forgotton Gold Rush Towns of B.C.

I stopped the car to read the sign:

“Welcome to Coalmont. WARNING To all doorstep Salesmen especially those selling magazines, encyclopedias and Fire Bells – your safe passage not guaranteed. WOMEN BEWARE There is predominance of Bachelors living here. Population: varies. Industry: None. Chief Sports: Sleeping and Day-Dreaming. Climate: Hot-Cold-Wet-Dry at various times. All Clubs and Lodges hold their meetings at midnight on the sixth Tuesday of each month. Coalmont will be delighted to serve you – provided you are lucky enough to find us open.”

I felt lucky to find the Coalmont Hotel open, and the barmaid seemed happy to take me on a tour. Above the saloon the creaking warped stairs led to a sloping hallway that opened onto the haunted guest rooms.

“At the first of every month old Pete still comes down the hall looking for the sack of gold he hid,” said the barmaid. Legend has it that Pete died in a drunken knife fight, and his poke of gold dust was never found.

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Another ghost paces the hotel’s front porch on rainy nights, and a woman in an old-style bonnet sometimes walks through the kitchen. This might be the ghost of the murdered and incinerated Hattie McBride who more often haunts Coalmont’s main street.

The hotel opened in 1912 when the Columbia Coal and Coke Company established the village. The mine closed in the 1940s and the town was almost deserted.

The Coalmont Hotel makes an interesting base for exploring the region. It has gone through many owners over the last century, and didn’t always manage to keep the doors open. It was partially restored and re-opened the saloon and guestrooms in 2012.

Nearby the abandoned gold mining boomtown of Gravel Creek is also full of ghost stories. Building foundations and a few rotting logs are all that remain of what was once the third largest city in British Columbia. Today the town site on the banks Tulameen River still attracts gold miners. Today’s miners arrive in recreational vehicles and pan gold mostly for fun. Gravel Creek’s cemetery has been left in disrepair, but the graves of the 1890s miners are still there, many of them decorated with a cover of a unique caramel coloured shale stone.

gold rush

This forgotten pocket of British Columbia is an authentic sample of the gold rush days. There’s little developed tourism industry here. In fact most of the tourists you’ll find in the hills around Tulameen are gold miners, prospectors, and panners.

An easy day-trip from Vancouver or ninety minutes from Kelowna, this area of B.C. is a perfect destination for a driving tour. To get there starting at the city of Princeton (on the Crowsnest Highway #3) follow the signs to Highway 221 heading northwest.

The road runs up through the dry country of ponderosa pines, and then up into the alpine domain of the lodge pole pine in the Canadian Cascades Mountain Range.

The drive in is spectacular, but stay alert at the wheel. The steep sided road has claimed many vehicles and killed a few careless drivers.

Coalmount is 20 kilometers from Princeton along the twisted cliff-hanging two lane blacktop. Tulameen is further ten minutes up the valley. This second village is built along the shores of majestic Otter Lake.

Unlike Gravel Creek and Coalmount, there was no commercial mining here. This lakeside village has always been a recreational getaway for residents of Princeton; a weekend cottage community since its founding around the turn of the 19th century.

For thousands of years before European settlers and miners came to the area, the shores of Otter Lake were used by the Coast Salish First Nations people as a seasonal hunting and fishing camp.

Aside from gold panning there is plenty to do in the area. Otter Lake and streams feeding into it are prime trout fishing country, and the big lake is a boating paradise. It is a beautiful fjord-like slash of pure water fringed by the Cascade Mountains.

There are 45 camp sites at Otter Lake Provincial Park on the opposite end of the lake from Tulameen village.

The Tran-Canada Trail runs along the edge of Otter Lake and continues through the Tulameen Valley along the old rail bed that once served the coal mine. Trails and back country logging roads also provide wilderness routes for hiking, mountain biking, off-road motorcycles and all terrain vehicles. In the winter, abundant and reliable snowfall turns the trails into a paradise for snowmobilers and cross country skiers.

If you want to try gold panning, buy a special pan in the Tulameen General Store or the hardware store in Princeton. The technique is easy to learn. Scoop up a pan full of sand, gravel or dirt from the stream bed or from the river bank. With a gentle circular motion swirl the contents, along with water to keep things loose. The larger stones should be examined and tossed out if they do not show traces of colour. Break up clumps of dirt up with your fingers and add them to the swirl. As you move the contents around and around, muddy water and common sand will float to the outside of the pan, leaving only the heavier gold particles at the bottom.

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Intuition might lead you to a productive spot. Look for small trickles of water feeding into the river. These might be leaching gold deposits from higher up the mountains. Watch the other miners, ask questions, but don’t infringe on anyone else’s patch. They used to shoot claim jumpers in the old days.

Maybe you’ll hit the next mother lode, or stumble across old Pete’s long lost sack of gold dust.

By Andrew Kolasinski

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