Nuggets from Barlee’s gold pan

Bill Barlee's love of history led him to walk the boardwalks of history and the halls of power.

A lone rider heads into the parched hills of the South Okanagan in Irvine Adams' 1970 painting The Gateway to Inkameep.

VICTORIA – Shortly after word came of the death of B.C. historian and politician Bill Barlee, my wife searched through her seemingly endless trove of B.C. books and produced half a dozen of his original self-published quarterlies, known as Canada West magazine.

The earliest one is Winter 1970, where the publisher’s note advises that subscription rates were increasing 20 cents per year to $2.95. Subscriptions were up to more than 1,600 and counter sales were increasing, but costs were also up and Barlee refused to accept either display advertising or U.S. subscriptions.

The only colour pages in the issue are high-quality prints of four majestic paintings commissioned for the magazine. Irvine Adams’ scenes of sacred aboriginal sites in the Okanagan-Similkameen include The Gateway to Inkameep, where Barlee remarks: “Today that stream which once teemed with redfish no longer surrenders its once-valued harvest and the perimeter of the desert is gradually being eroded by man’s questionable progress.”

With the typography of Old West wanted posters, Barlee provided tightly sourced accounts of B.C.’s legends.

“Lost gold mine at Pitt Lake” analyzes and adds to earlier accounts that begin with an aboriginal miner known as Slumach, who would periodically arrive in New Westminster to squander a small fortune in gold, then disappear up the remote tidal lake. Slumach was hanged for murder in 1891 and in the next 70 years, 11 more men would die trying to find his secret. A scientist as well as a storyteller, Barlee concluded that the area’s geology is wrong and the fabled gold-laden creek “probably does not exist.”

A passion for prospecting runs through the magazines, and hints at Barlee’s aversion to treasure-seeking Americans. They overran B.C. in historic waves to take gold, and according to Nelson Star reporter Greg Nesteroff, Barlee believed they continued to loot Canadian heritage sites.

Nesteroff was inspired by Barlee’s work, and traced his lonely mission to restore the ghost town of Sandon, “the mining capital of the Silvery Slocan.”

Barlee bought a surviving block of buildings in an effort to make Sandon another Barkerville, but heavy snow collapsed them. As tourism minister, Barlee found money to build replicas, and construction began on three.

But Barlee lost his Penticton seat to Bill Barisoff in the 1996 election, and today only half-built shells remain.

“He was still selling Sandon’s restoration as an economic saviour for the region when he ran for federal office in 2000,” Nesteroff writes. “But by then he was ridiculed for it, and finished a distant second.”

Barlee’s 1972 Canada West profile of the boomtown of Hedley would resonate in his career as an NDP MLA and cabinet minister in the 1990s. Hedley’s Nickel Plate and Mascot mines produced fortunes in gold, silver and copper before they played out, and Barlee led the fight to preserve their history.

Today you can tour the Mascot mine, a proud historical site with a spectacular climb up the rock face that serves as the Grouse Grind of the B.C. desert.

I first discovered Barlee as a reporter at the Kelowna Capital News in the early 1980s, when he did a weekly history show on CHBC television called Gold Trails and Ghost Towns. A bare-bones studio affair with tales and artifacts displayed for host Mike Roberts, the show lasted a decade.

Barlee didn’t lack courage, quitting a teaching career in Trail and Penticton in 1969 to start his magazine. On subscription fees and a few classified ads, he built a life’s work that allowed him to walk the boardwalks of history and the halls of power.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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