ARTS, CULTURE and HERITAGE> Quesnel History
We have grown so much from our beginning when we became the commercial centre of the Cariboo Gold Rush in 1862.
It all started in 1793 when Alexander Mackenzie made the first crossing of the North American continent.
In 1808, Simon Fraser and his voyageurs travelled the Fraser River in search of the mouth of the Columbia River. Instead, they discovered the mouth of an uncharted river. Fraser sent his Lieutenant Jules Maurice Quesnel to investigate and subsequently named that river after him.
Quesnel was called Quesnellemouth to distinguish it from Quesnel Forks, 60 miles up river. In 1870 it had been shortened to Quesnelle and by 1900 it was spelled the way we know it today.
Prior to the discovery of gold in the Cariboo region in 1859, tribes of Carrier First Nations inhabited the site of the City of Quesnel, at the junction of the Fraser and Quesnel rivers. It was just a jungle of trees and brush-covered hills.
William Dietz, Ned Stout and several other companions had discovered gold on Williams Creek in the early spring of 1861. When Billy Barker staked a claim below the canyon on Williams Creek, other miners made fun of him, but in 1862, Barker & Company made their richest strike on the creek. It triggered the Cariboo gold rush and the boomtown of Barkerville, which, in its heyday, boasted it was the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco.
Quesnel, overshadowed by the glamour and frolics of Barkerville, gained importance during the 1860s as a stopover and supply depot for the miners in the gold fields.
Quesnel was, at first, reached by land over First Nations trails and later by the Cariboo Wagon Road. The appearance of steamships made it possible to carry more supplies and gold seekers up the Fraser River. As more and more people recognized the profit to be made in the supply town of Quesnel, many settlers chose to stay. Thus, Quesnel sustained continued growth in the years following the gold rush, while many other towns in the area were abandoned and left to crumble.
Ours is a colourful and exciting history, trimmed with fur (trade) and laced with gold (mining). Our rivers have echoed with the sounds of birchbark and dugout canoes. Hudson Bay Co. freight barges were towed to and from Fort George to the north and proud sternwheelers plied up and down the Fraser River, docking beside what is now Ceal Tingley Park.
Although there were many farms and ranches in the area, gold mining was the major industry in the area until the 1940s. Forestry and ranching were important in Quesnel and remain so today along with the growing tourism industry.
There are many firsts for this City. The first serious fire in Quesnel broke out in 1863 and another fire in 1874, which not only destroyed the Chinese section of town, but also killed a local Chinese man. Finally, in 1910, the Quesnel Volunteer Fire Department was formed. In January 1916 another fire burned and is still considered to be the most destructive fire in Quesnel history.
A telegraph system was established in 1865. The first bridge spanning the Quesnel River, built in 1875, collapsed that same year. A school was built in 1886 at the location of the Helen Dixon Centre.
Our first hospital was built in 1910 and 10 years later, the second. We are now proud to have the fourth hospital, which was an extension of the third. The famous doctor, G.R. Baker, after whom our hospital was named, arrived in 1912. He was loved by all and was soon nicknamed "Doc".
Our first theatre was built in 1914 when people still travelled to this growing community by wagon train. The arrival of the PGE Railway in 1921 brought both accessibility and convenience to the people of Quesnel. In spite of all the progress, Quesnel was still considered a village, and officially incorporated on March 21, 1928. It did not become a town until 1958, the same year a city hall was built. In 1979, Quesnel received city status.
The Gold Pan City today services a trading population of 27,000 and shops and services have multiplied with the population growth. There are 14 elementary schools, two secondary schools, a college/university campus, 21 churches, two pulp mills, five lumber mills, two shopping malls, an art gallery, airport, and a large hospital; twin arenas, curling rink, two golf courses, riverfront trails for walking and a large recreation center entertaining the sports minded throughout the year. Cross-country ski trails are abundant and an alpine ski hill is less than an hour away.
Every July, residents and visitors can enjoy Billy Barker Days, a family festival for all ages, which also includes the Quesnel Rodeo. The September Fall Fair and Exhibition brings exhibitors from many places to show their animals, produce and handiwork.
The Quesnel Museum, open year round, is noted for its interesting artifacts, exciting displays and helpful, courteous staff and volunteers. We hope you have enjoyed this brief trip into our exciting past!
Take a different tour
For a fun tour of the City's fire hydrants (yes, we said fire hydrants), download the tour brochure here.