Lillooet is one of the oldest towns in the province and was a supply point for miners heading to the Cariboo gold fields when the gold rush began in 1858. When the gold rush was at its peak, Lillooet boasted a population of 15,000 and was the second largest settlement north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. While the town site itself was small, shantytowns and tent cities such as Parsonsville, Marysville and Cayoose Flats sprawled across the river benches, filled with men desperate to find their fortune in the mud, rock and gravel of the Fraser River and its tributaries.
Lillooet was born in 1858 on the banks of the Fraser, tucked into the foot of a mountain on a bench above the river. The Indians named it for the meeting of three waters - the Fraser River, Cayoosh Creek, and Bridge River. As the hub of traffic from the coast to the gold mines, and as one of the Colony's most important towns, it seemed destined to become a very large city.
The Royal Engineers built much of the road north to Alexandria and by 1860 Lillooet had blossomed into a supply centre for miners, packers, farmers and ranchers and the seat of government for the gold traffic.
As the town grew, more and more miners wintered there instead of travelling the weary miles to the coast. It is said that ten thousand people once spent the winter in Lillooet and on the adjoining banks of the Fraser.
The town prospered, and [...] families began to settle in Lillooet. [...] Ranchers and farmers found ready markets in the mining camps. Cattle, hogs, chickens, and turkeys were raised to be sent north to the miners. Feed was grown in the perfect climate on the bench along the Fraser. Seed from Mexico was the beginning of highly sought-after alfalfa hay which grows profusely in this climate. The main crops of the farmers were turnips, potatoes and beans, including the now well-known Lillooet bean.
Lillooet's geographical setting is well described in the Annual Mining Report of 1889:
The town of Lillooet is situated upon the plateau of the Fraser River, snugly lying under the lea of high, abrupt mountains, reminding one of the town of Helena, with the mighty Fraser rolling past, instead of a national highway. Mr. Allen, MPP, was quite enthusiastic over the merits of the little town under the hills and shewed us some splendid fruites and vegetables that were raised under the genial influence of their beautiful climate and irrigation. It is indeed a charming location and all that it requires is commercial life and enterprise, which will, no doubt, come in due time through the development of the mineral wealth of the surrounding country.
But when the wagon road was built through the Fraser Canyon, the main traffic bypassed Lillooet and its importance as a stopping place waned.
The town fortunes have fluctuated almost directly with mining on the banks of the Fraser and Bridge rivers and in the Bralorne area and with the good and hard times of the logging industry.
Remnants of the gold rush remain in the windrows of washed river rock piled along the banks of the Fraser, in Lillooet’s fascinating museum displays and along Lillooet’s Main Street, constructed wide enough to turn around a team of oxen.
And to this day, “colour” can still be found on the Fraser River. All you need is a gold pan and some time to enjoy a few hours on the river bank.