There’s gold at St. Albert Place and it’s as valuable a history lesson as any that has come through. Sure it’s been more than a century since the last gold rush, but there are still ripples of it that can be felt on the streets of modern-day St. Albert and Edmonton. I’m not talking about K-Days either.
Gold Mountain Dream is the new exhibit at the Musée Héritage Museum. It was first created as a partnership between the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Canadian Museum of History as a way to pay tribute to the stories of many Chinese migrants who came to this country in search of gold starting in the 1850s.
“The California, the B.C. and the Yukon gold rushes brought people from all over the world, but it happened at a time in the mid-1800s that transportation was also improving. There was large migration happening, but it was also an incentive for people to come because they thought they’d try their luck with that in the various places,” explained museum curator Joanne White.
“We’re always looking for things that not only we can tie a local story to but also that takes us out into the wider world – beyond our small borders – and teaches us something.”
The Fraser Valley became the focal point for many of these migrants and their experiences deep in the mountains shaped much of Chinese-Canadian history, she said. If you’ve ever wondered where 100 Mile House or 150 Mile House got their names, this is probably a good enough place to start.
The exhibit uses the travelling exhibit to kick things off. White and the museum staff went from there to link it with this city and tell stories from St. Albert’s past, too. Most of that lore comes from the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, as some businesspeople made efforts to turn St. Albert into a waypoint for those who were en route to the rush.
Of course, the greed led many to lose their senses and trek across country to the Arctic Circle in search of glittering gold. There were many others who chose to stay but still reap some of the benefits.
“Some were actually providing services and supplies and things. It was generally those (people) that made more money, unless you happened to get lucky. The ones that were running businesses and supply things were doing much better.”
One of the other interesting local stories is about a group of Métis who knew the northern trails and organized to form a company to be guides and traders, a successful proposition since many outsiders were way out of their elements in Canada’s far north.
There are many recognizable names from the city’s history that come up in this regard, including Henry McKenney who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Co. before starting a supply store in St. Albert in 1883 and being the postmaster for a decade soon afterward. His success led him to become St. Albert’s first MLA.
Maybe his story isn’t as interesting as that of William Cust, the Irishman who chose to follow his desire for riches first to San Francisco. It’s written in Black Robe’s Vision, the definitive history book of St. Albert, that by the time Cust was 35, he had mined his weight in gold, which reportedly was just shy of 200 pounds.
“Cust actually made $40,000 in the California Gold Rush, which was huge,” White said. “He then heard about another gold rush in California and lost it all in that one.”
The book also states that he never lost his lust for gold and never learned his lessons either. He ended up in the Cariboo area of B.C. for the next rush and he brought Edward Carey, another 49er (a veteran of the California Gold Rush, in other words) with him. They made major discoveries of Canadian gold but Carey possibly didn’t have Cust’s stamina for mining. He wound up coming back to open the Norris & Carey Store before serving on Edmonton Town Council for nearly a decade.
Of course, no tale of gold and greed comes without violence or other nefarious acts. Among the St. Albert connections involved in the various gold rushes, there was a murder and an accidental killing. Gold rushing is dangerous business.
“God forbid you found gold because then you had to deal with it without getting robbed,” White noted.
Severe Villeneuve also wound up getting a job as the doorkeeper at the gold commissioner’s office but was found taking bribes “because everyone had gold.”
“You can understand the temptation: everyone was trying to make a buck any way they could.”
One of the most interesting pieces in the exhibit does much to demonstrate the potency of gold rush fever. Recently, the Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museums of Alberta was renovating the Pendennis/Lodge Hotel on Jasper Avenue to turn it into a museum. They discovered a trove of artifacts in the rafters, including maps and bags of clothes, plus other interesting documents. They suspected there could be a connection to the Klondike because of the age of the hotel so they did some further inspection.
A lot of the clothes turned out to be simple working man’s clothes with tobacco pouches in the pockets. There was also mud on the pant legs. They weren’t actually authenticated as directly related to the gold rush; however, that didn’t stop White from doublechecking.
“There was nothing. I went through the pockets. I think they already looked. I did find tobacco.”
The only bona fide Gold Rush artifacts are a pair of Joseph Kluthe’s snowshoes. He had his own interesting story to tell.
“He wound up snowshoeing hundreds of miles because they got lost. He made it to Vancouver and had to wire home to his wife for money to get home. It was a rough slog.”
Get the fever
To help the public get into the spirit of things, the museum is hosting an event called Dumplings and a Movie on Saturday, April 13, from 2 to 4 p.m.
Staff will play a series of short films about the California, British Columbia and the Yukon gold rushes while serving some Chinese finger food.
Admission is free, though donations are welcome to this family friendly event. Films will run at 2:10 and 3:10 p.m. Visit www.museeheritage.ca for more information.