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by Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers’ Tales

Barkerville, in Canada’s Cariboo region, is where illusion and reality merge. Let me tell you a story: maybe it’s true, maybe not. Nonetheless, it sends a funny little shiver up my spine.

(1. Stagecoach Drivers)

(2. Bernard’s Express Stagecoach)

In May of 1866, a Mr. Charles Blessing and a companion, Wellington Delaney Moses, were on their way to Barkerville when they met up with a chap called James Barry. Barry persuaded Blessing to join him on a side trip, while Moses continued on to Barkerville where he opened a barbershop. Several weeks later Barry showed up in Barkerville alone, claiming to have no knowledge of what had happened to Blessing.

Moses distrusted Barry's evasive manner and his misgivings grew stronger when—as the tale goes—shortly after Barry's arrival, Charles Blessing walked into the barbershop one morning indicating that he needed a shave. Moses was relieved to see him but was, nonetheless, shocked at Blessing's appearance—his clothes were torn and filthy and his eyes were hollow. The barber sharpened his razorblade, but when he turned around, he was aghast to find that the moist towel he'd used to covered his friend's face was soaked in blood. He'd no sooner let out a cry of alarm, when the apparition vanished.

This all but convinced Moses that Blessing had been murdered, and his suspicions were confirmed when a Hurdy-Gurdy dancer showed him a distinctive gold tie-pin in the shape of a skull given to her by James Barry. Moses, horrified, instantly recognized it as belonging to his friend. In the meantime, Blessing’s corpse with a bullet hole through its skull had been discovered in the bush. Witnesses testified to the fact that Barry was armed with a pistol, but the definitive piece of evidence was Blessing's gold tie-pin.

With the hindsight of time, I know the outcome of the James Barry case. To quote the formidable Judge Begbie who pronounced sentence on Barry: “You have dyed your hands in blood, and must suffer the same fate... that you be taken to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

I am not sure whether Blessing's ghost still stalks the streets of Barkerville, but the town plays host to several other spectral inhabitants. Although no one has been able to identify him, a man in top hat and tails has been known to materialize briefly, on stage left at the Theatre Royal.

(9. Haunted and Historic Barkerville Hotel)

A shadowy woman at an upstairs window of the old Barkerville Hotel has been sighted on several occasions, even though the building is empty and locked up at the time. The St. George Hotel, too, has a mysterious phantom, a young blonde woman dressed in white, who appears around midnight by the bedside of lone male visitors. Women guests, it would seem, aren't worth her wile!

(6. Miner’s Cabin interior)

(7. Miner’s Cabin)

Some of Barkerville's ghosts are prankish poltergeists, others are solitary and wistful. None of them appear to be evil or violent. Perhaps this is because Barkerville's past contains few heinous criminals. Other than Barry's hanging, the only other execution that took place here, was that of a native Indian found guilty of murdering a man at Soda Creek.

(10. Old “ghostly” residents of Barkerville out for a stroll.)

The town, then known as Williams Creek, had none of the lawlessness of other American gold rush frontier towns. A few saloons featured German or Dutch Hurdy-Gurdy dancers and today as I drop by the reputedly haunted Theatre Royal, a line of amply endowed Hurdy-Gurdy girls in red dresses regale the audience with their anecdotal tales and double-entendres.

(5. Line Up for Theatre Royal Show)

I peer nervously at the wings of the stage – does a shadow lurk there perhaps? Unlikely. The audience’s rowdy applause and whistles is enough to discourage any self-respecting spook.

8. Billy Barker’s Shaft

Barkerville's most famous character is its namesake, Billy Barker. Apocryphal tales about Mr. Barker abound, but a favorite among them is that he was haunted by a recurring dream in which the number 52 seemed to carry a mysterious significance. Bearing out the tale is a laconic marker along Barkerville's main street recording the spot where, according to legend, Billy Barker on August 17th 1862 hit pay dirt at a depth of 52 feet!

Billy Barker realized half a million dollars in today's currency, but squandered it all, to die penniless at the age of 77. He is reputedly buried in a pauper's grave in Victoria's Ross Bay Cemetery. Yet, I wonder, is he? Or does his shadow prowl the streets of Barkerville on dark and stormy nights? Who knows? Who dares find out?

(3. St. Xavier’s Anglican Church on Barkerville’s main drag)

(4. Main Street, Barkerville)

(4a. Main Street – another view)

Barkerville Historic Town & Park
Phone: 1-888-994-3332
Fax: 250-994-3435
General Inquiries:

PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts (unless otherwise indicated)
1. Stagecoach Drivers
2. Bernard’s Express Stagecoach
3. St. Xavier’s Anglican Church on Barkerville’s main drag
4. Main Street, Barkerville
4a. Main Street – another view
5. Line Up for Theatre Royal Show
6. Miner’s Cabin interior
7. Miner’s Cabin
8. Billy Barker’s Shaft
9. Haunted and Historic Barkerville Hotel
10. Old “ghostly” residents of Barkerville out for a stroll.

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