This is a piece of 19th Century wallpaper, made in England, that I found in the most unlikely place.
It’s a bit of a long story.
When I was 18, my cousin Corry talked me into going out to British Columbia for the summer. She’d moved there from Toronto a few years previously and was working as a cook in a lumber camp in the B.C. Interior. She was house-sitting at a little place on a mountain outside of William’s Lake, for a family that was away working with a travelling circus (for real). They had a pony that they left behind, so we’d take care of the pony, and I could find a job in town. We didn’t have a car, and it was a long, hot walk down the mountain into town. As I was only 18, I wasn’t old enough to work in bars, and the only other jobs were at fast food restaurants. After two hideous weeks working at a Dairy Queen for a man who ripped off his employees, I quit my job, Corry quit hers, and we spent the rest of the summer exploring.
Corry had a friend named Mike who was a prospector. Not the fancy kind that works for mining companies—a genuine old-fashioned prospector who supported himself by panning for gold. Mike knew the locations of old mining sites from the Cariboo Gold Rush (1860s). They were remote, only accessible by foot, but still had lots of gold in their rivers. Some of these sites still had old buildings and sluices and such. After Corry and I quit our jobs, Mike said he was going to take us to some ghost towns.
I’d been to Barkerville, which is a touristed-up gold rush ghost town near Quesnel. An interesting place, especially if you’re interested in Canadian history, but a tourist attraction nonetheless. It had Can-Can girls, a fake pan-for-gold attraction, and the requisite Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe. Mike’s ghost towns were authentic, abandoned settlements in remote locations unlikely ever to attract tourists, or in some cases any humanity at all. We drove for miles and then got out and hiked a few more. No sign of civilization anywhere. We followed a river until we came upon an old abandoned mill. It was here that Mike taught me how to pan for gold, for real, and I actually found a few flakes. (It was also here that I dropped my camera in a river, which is why the quality of my pictures is terrible.)
Then we continued on to one of his “ghost towns.” Following the river, we eventually came to a clearing where there was a group of several log buildings in various states of decomposition.
Apparently the gold really was at the end of a rainbow…
Closer to the woods were several other tiny log cabins that were in better shape, being slightly less exposed to the elements.
These cabins dated from the 1860s Gold Rush. On the door post of one of these cabins was pinned a note—it was written in the early 1970s by a man who explained that he had squatted in this cabin during the Depression, and had come back to visit several decades later. He may in fact have been the last person to visit this place until Mike discovered it.
Nearby the squatter’s cabin was another cabin, no more than about 6′ x 8′. Dark, cramped, with a dirt floor…
…and imported, flowered, gilt wallpaper.
Some patches had peeled off, particularly near the absent door, although most of it was intact. A few scraps littered the floor, and I couldn’t help taking one. I wish I could have taken a picture inside the cabin, but I didn’t have a flash. It was the most inconguous thing I’d ever seen. This was the roughest hardscrabble home one could imagine, and someone had attempted to civilize it with gold and silver, likely expensive, imported wallpaper. It reminded me of the Journals of Susanna Moodie—the part where she describes rather hopelessly trying to preserve her fine English bone china in the wilderness.
Maybe this miner had a wife he was trying to make comfortable. Or maybe he was a British gentleman sent to the colonies to make his fortune, and homesick for his previous life, or in need of motivation to suffer the harsh northern winters. Or maybe he just had an ironic sense of humour. (I say “he” because the miners were invariably men, but there’s always the chance a woman lived here, perhaps as a cook, or maybe an industrious madame setting up a one-woman brothel. Having since visited other abandoned mining towns, I am aware this is a possibility.)
I have no idea where these cabins are now, or if they’re still standing. I hope so. I also hope Mike is still panning for gold.