More than a century ago, the Cariboo Highway was little more than a dirt track, but despite its rough condition, the road bustled with an endless stream of fortune hunters intent on making their way to the rich gold fields of the north.
Mileposts, like 70 Mile and 100 Mile dotted the rugged road and were home to roadhouses where travellers could find a warm bed, a hearty meal and rest their horses.
The 105 Mile roadhouse, built in 1905 by Benjamin McNiel and his brother, Lester, was meant to be such a place. The massive 10 bedroom structure unfortunately never saw much business and ceased to house travellers by 1912. It served most of its years as a family home to the McNiel clan and was a well-placed base for Benjamin and Lester, who’s company drove freight up and down the BX Stage line.
Ben married a Victoria school teacher, Laura Blackwell in 1912, after an 11-year, long-distance courtship where letters sent back and forth kept them connected.
Many of those letters, along with other precious personal belongings of the couple have been preserved and can be seen at a place that has become a true jewel of the South Cariboo.
It’s the 108 Heritage Site, an eight-acre plot of land that has become home to the McNiel house and a host of other interesting historical buildings from days gone by. The house was moved there in 1979 on threat of demolition and became the property of the newly formed 100 Mile Historical Society. Use of the land was granted by owners, Block Brothers Industries, under a 100-year lease that cost the society a token $1.
Their hard work has resulted in a tourist’s dream, where visitors can explore the many buildings and learn about their history from tour guides like university student, Jessica Stewart. She grew up in the South Cariboo and has returned each spring for the past 10 years as a guide.
On entering the Heritage Site, the natural first stop is the stately McNiel house, where people are greeted by someone like Jessica, who is extremely knowledgeable about its history. She’ll share background information about the house and then offer a very insightful guided tour. It begins in the front room, comically called the Bull Pen’, where men would gather in the evening and shoot the breeze, play cards, or have a drink or two.
An unusual feature of the room and much of the entire home is the embossed tin sheeting that covers the ceilings and some walls. Jessica explains that it was considered a status symbol of the day, affordable only to the wealthy.
The McNiels had family money and owned several business in Vancouver and their beautiful furnishings helped to advertise that fact.
The tin coverings went beyond the interior, with the entire outside clad in an embossed brick pattern sheeting, coloured red, to resemble brick. It was brought cross-country from Toronto by wagon and was something rarely seen outside of the big cities.
The house is filled with furnishings, utensils and brick-a-brack representative of the 1820’s through to about 1950.
Jessica explains how the brightly coloured upholsteries and wall papers found in the house truly tell the story of decorating preferences of the day.
Down the hall, at the back of the house, a cluttered kitchen is a museum in itself, filled with conveniences like butter churns, (wooden and glass); a bulky hand crank knife sharpener which takes up a good corner of the room; a hand water pump and a massive circa 1923 Findlay wood-burning cookstove.
A climb up the creaky wooden stairs brings visitors to the unexpectedly spacious top floor, where 10 rooms once sat waiting for weary guests. Now, six are open to the public, all decorated in different themes and with several of the McNiel’s personal effects.
The piece of land, too, is rich in history, encompassing a portion of what was once the site of the 108 Milepost. It featured a log hewn hotel, built in 1867 which sat on the opposite side of the road from the present Heritage Site. It marked the junction of the Cariboo Wagon Road and another busy route that spurred off to the east, rambling through Horsefly and on to Likely. Remnants of the dirt track are still visible, but now pass through private lands.
The old hotel originally sat on the east side of the Cariboo Highway, but in 1892, it was torn down by its owner, Stephen Tingley and rebuilt as the current post house. Parts of another building were also used in 1880 to construct a combination telegraph station and store as well as a sturdy bunk house which the many hired hands called home.
Not far from the house is a small log barn, packed full of antique harnesses, saddles and other horse tack. It once complimented a much larger one which sat on the other side of the highway, but burned down in between 1904 and 1908.
Tom Rutledge, president of the Historical Society and Garry Babcock, vice-president, know much of the history and many of the stories surrounding the site.
Plan to stop at the 108 Heritage Site when you’re travelling this summer.
Babcock explains how post houses and their barns full of extra horses typically sprung up at the bottom of the steepest sections of the Cariboo Wagon Road.
Babcock says the horses were needed to help pull freight wagons up the otherwise impossible inclines.
Dwarfing the little stable on the 108 site is the cavernous Watson Clydsdale barn. Known as the largest log barn in Canada, the 40×160′ structure was built in 1908 by the property’s owner at the time, Captain Geoffrey Lancelot Watson. According to Babcock, Block Bros. Industries, who owned the building in the 1970’s, used it as a venue for promoting their huge 108 Ranch development and cut some of the supporting beams to create access for snowmobiles. It wasn’t long before the barn began to sag and become unsound, but the Heritage Society stepped in to have it dismantled, repaired and resurrected.
A rustic trapper’s cabin found on the site is one of the few structures dismantled and brought in from elsewhere in the Cariboo. Rutledge found it while exploring several years ago in the Hendrix Lake area. He learned that it was built by a pioneer by the name of Tingley in about 1930 and had for several years been inhabited by squatters. He got permission from the land owner to take it down and move it to the Heritage site, which he did completely. Right down to the sod roof and the several small trees that had sprung from it over the years. Every summer, the sod comes alive with yellow flowers that spring naturally from it, as they had done for years at Hendrix Lake. Babcock added that a couple of summers have also seen visits from former residents of the cabin, still bitter about being evicted.
Another building not native to the 108 Mile site, but representative of those found in so many tiny Cariboo communities of yesteryear, is the 133 Mile School house. Built in the 30’s by Bud Felker and Ernie Wright, at different times it was also known as both Enterprise and San Jose School.
The log building was dismantled, with the pieces left to sit on a trailer for several years before being donated to the Heritage Site. Babcock said the owner’s wife intended to rebuild it as a tea house on their own property, but interest waned. Her husband, Andre Chevigny, who was a log home builder, donated it to the society and even erected it for them.
A low-slung log building which was once the ranch’s ice house, currently serves as a craft store where locally made treasures now sit on display where huge ice blocks, harvested in the winter from the frozen surface of adjacent 108 Mile Lake, once packed the space. The well insulated and windowless structure kept the ice solid for months and ensured there was a ready supply for the main house kitchen’s icebox fridge.
Amid the many turn-of-the-century structures, sits a piece of South Cariboo history, not near as old, but just as important to the growth and commercial stability of the area. A huge shelter, built recently by Ainsworth Lumber Company guards the portable sawmill and tractor that forestry company icon, David Ainsworth rambled into town with in 1952. He’d hauled the Jackson Lumber Harvester all the way from the Lower Mainland with a dream of building a business on the shoulders of B.C.’s rapidly growing forest industry. He succeeded, with a thriving Ainsworth Lumber Company forest product plant now found not only in 100 Mile House, but in many other locations all over North America, as well.
The newest addition on the site, a masterfully crafted replica log church, is currently a work in progress. Once finished, it will serve as a wedding chapel and be used for various public functions.
So many buildings, each, with their own stories to tell can be found at the Heritage Site but if visitors take the time to dig a little deeper, they’ll also find an abundance of scandalous rumours and legends waiting to be revealed. Haunting tales of murder, phantoms and even of stolen treasure buried on the grounds have shrouded the history steeped grounds through time. Stories that nobody seems willing to confirm, but no-one will deny.