Ghosts of Ashcroft, BC
If you’ve ever made the road trip from Vancouver to Prince George, British Columbia, chances are that you’ve driven through the village of Ashcroft, located about an hour west of Kamloops in one of the most arid regions in all of Canada.
In addition to its 1,500 residents, Ashcroft is home to a number of chilling ghost stories. One of these tales tells of the frightening spectre of a Chinese woman whom travelers sometimes encounter at night on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway just south of town. Another Chinese ghost, this one the spirit of a friendly cook, is said to haunt (and occasionally bake ghostly bread in) Hat Creek House- a historic stagecoach hotel situated 20 minutes north of Ashcroft on the Cariboo Highway.
Of all the historic buildings located in and around Ashcroft, few have more ghost stories attached to them than the Sundance Guest Ranch, a dude ranch situated about ten minutes south of town off the Highland Valley Road.
The Phantom Prospectors
According to Stan Rowe- a nonagenarian, former Calgarian, and Sundance’s long-time owner- two of his former employees encountered a pair of phantoms one evening in 1978. That night, the two young ladies, both of whom worked as cooks in the ranch kitchen, headed out for a walk. The path they took was an old trail that skirted some of the desert hills ubiquitous in that part of the country- at that time, likely dark silhouettes in the twilight.
Suddenly, one of the women stopped dead in her tracks.
“Who are those men?” she asked, staring ahead down the trail.
“What men?” the other lady replied, following her co-worker’s gaze. All she could see in the gathering dusk was prairie grass, sagebrush, a few lodgepole pines, and a barbwire fence. To her, the trail ahead appeared empty and lifeless.
“Those two! Can’t you see them?” She giggled. “They look like they’re ready for a costume party.”
The lady proceeded to describe the men’s appearance to her companion who, for some reason, was having a hard time seeing them. Both were dressed in heavy boots, long canvas overcoats, and wide-brimmed hats that cast shadows over their bearded faces.
As she was speaking, the men turned off the trail, walked straight through the barbwire fence, and vanished into thin air.
The two women, the story goes, returned to the Sundance Ranch to relay the frightening tale to fellow staff members before catching the next bus to Vancouver.
Stan Rowe suspects that the strange apparitions that his employee saw that night in 1978 may have been the spirits of prospectors who came to Ashcroft more than a century earlier in search of fortune and adventure- participants in an event known today as the Cariboo Gold Rush. In order to make sense of Rowe’s theory, we’ll need a little backstory.
Trails to the Cariboo
Back in 1857, when British Columbia was an agglomeration of fur trading districts and British colonies, gold was discovered near the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers not far from present-day Lytton, BC (an hour’s drive southwest of Ashcroft). Immediately, veterans of the California Gold Rush of 1849, many of whom had settled in San Francisco, flocked to the new diggings and began to pan the creeks of the Fraser Canyon in what is now known as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. This event prompted the British Crown to consolidate many of its holdings in western North America into the Colony of British Columbia, a precursor to the province that we know and love today.
During the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, most prospectors made their way to the goldfields of the Fraser Canyon by one of two routes. The first route was the Fraser River itself- a waterway which was notoriously difficult to navigate. The second was the Douglas Road, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trail beginning in Port Douglas, BC, and ending in the settlement of Coyoosh Flat (present-day Lillooet); which British Columbia’s first governor, Sir James Douglas, reconstructed in 1858.
Of the thousands of prospectors who poured into the Fraser Canyon in the 1850s, only a few found gold of any significance. Many disenchanted gold seekers returned to California, while others, still hoping to strike it rich, pushed on into the interior.
In the 1860’s, some of these enterprising prospectors discovered gold in the Cariboo Plateau of south-central British Columbia. These discoveries launched the Cariboo Gold Rush, in which thousands of prospectors (chiefly of British, Canadian, and Chinese extraction) streamed into the British Columbian interior by way of the West Coast.
There were two main routes by which prospectors initially reached the Cariboo Goldfields. The first was a rugged and treacherous mule path called the River Trail, which wound through valleys and canyon bottoms, often running along cliff sides. The second was a rough freight wagon trail called the Old Cariboo Road, built by American contractor Gustavus Blin Wright in 1862. An extension of the Douglas Road, the Old Cariboo Road connected Coyoosh Flat (the terminus of the Douglas Road) with the settlement of Alexandria, nestled deep in Cariboo Country. Much of the road followed an old HBC thoroughfare called the Hudson’s Bay Brigade Trail. One of the more colourful stories to come out of the Old Cariboo Road involves a prospector named Frank Laumeister, who packed his supplies over the trail using Bactrian camels from the United States Camel Corps.
Shortly after the construction of the Old Cariboo Road, Sir James Douglas declared his intention to construct another freight wagon road which would comprise a new first leg on the journey to Cariboo Country; a thoroughfare which would make the less efficient Douglas Road obsolete. This road would begin in Yale, go through the Fraser Canyon, head up the Thompson River (a major tributary of the Fraser) and further up the Bonaparte River (a tributary of the Thompson) to the town of Clinton, a station on the Old Cariboo Road. The Royal Engineers of the British Army completed this project in 1865, constructing what is known today as the Cariboo Road.
The Birth of Ashcroft, BC
In 1862, before the construction of the Cariboo Road had commenced, two young, adventurous, upper class, Cambridge-educated English brothers named Clement and Henry Cornwall (the former being the future Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia) took a steamer to Victoria, BC. Like thousands of other adventurers, they crossed over to the mainland to the town of New Westminster (present-day Vancouver, BC), headed up the Fraser River, and trekked over the Douglas Road to Coyoosh Flat.
At Coyoosh Flat, the Cornwall brothers encountered a number of dejected prospectors who were returning emptyhanded from the Cariboo goldfields. After hearing their woes, the brothers reasoned that they would have better luck catering to the needs of prospectors than searching for gold themselves. Instead of following the crowd north, the Cornwall boys decided to venture off the beaten track and search for a good piece of land on which to set up shop.
After encountering several wild camels that Laumeister had turned loose- an incident which terrified their horses- the Cornwall brothers came to what Clement described in his diary as “a desirable looking flat watered by 2 streams with a fine surrounding range for cattle.” This area was located a short distance from the Thompson River, the Bonaparte River, and the so-called “River Trail”. Better yet, it lay along the proposed route of the Cariboo Trail. The brothers knew they had found a perfect location on which to settle, and so they travelled down the Thompson to Lytton, where they purchased the land from the regional magistrate.
Hiring former prospectors and local Shuswap Indians as labourers, the Cornwall brothers established a farm, a sawmill, a gristmill, a cattle ranch, and a roadhouse on their property, the latter which they named Ashcroft Manor after their birthplace in Gloucestershire, England. Following the construction of the Cariboo Trail, the Ashcroft Manor positively thrived, evolving into a favourite stopping place on the road to the Cariboo diggings and a sort of Mecca for British Columbia’s English gentry. By the late 1860s, Ashcroft Manor was famous for its foxhound kennels, its coyote hunting parties (which were modeled after the traditional British fox hunt), and its horse racing competitions, and was said to serve the finest liquor east of Victoria.
In 1884, the Canadian Pacific Railway was built across the Thompson River not far from the Ashcroft Manor. Almost overnight, the village of Ashcroft sprang up around the Cornwall brothers’ property. Due to the proximity of the railway, Ashcroft soon eclipsed Yale as the gateway to the Cariboo. Several years later, during the Klondike Gold Rush, Ashcroft served as the trail head of an all-Canadian route to the Yukon goldfields.
Considering Ashcroft’s beginnings, is it possible that the ghostly men whom Stan Rowe’s employee encountered in 1978 were the spirits of prospectors once destined for the Cariboo goldfields? Maybe they were the shades of bygone guests of the Ashcroft Manor. Or perhaps they were the ghosts of Clement and Henry Cornwall themselves.
The Ghostly Indian Girl
Another ghost story connected with the Sundance Ranch has its roots in a roundup conducted in the 1980’s or early ‘90s in which eighteen guests of the Sundance Ranch were invited to run cattle to a northerly pasture.
“We’d been rounding up cattle when a big downpour rolled in,” Stan Rowe told a reporter. Seeking shelter from the rain, the riders headed for a Sundance barn located several miles away.
When they finally reached the safety of the barn, all but one guest was accounted for. A short time later, this tardy patron, a sober-minded businessman, caught up with the party, a strange expression on his face.
“What kept you?” Rowe asked.
The businessman removed his Stetson to scratch his scalp. “This Indian girl,” he said. He proceeded to tell Rowe and the other guests about a Shuswap girl he encountered after being separated from the main group. The girl was dressed in a buckskin gown and was holding a string of trout. She had asked the businessman if he knew the way to the main trail, and invited him to have dinner with her.
Before the businessman could reply, a bolt of lightning obliterated a nearby tree. Thoroughly spooked, his horse bucked him off and galloped towards a nearby copse. The man raced after his horse, and by the time returned, the Indian girl was gone.
Rowe informed the bewildered businessman that, according to local legend, the ghost of a 19th Century Indian woman whose husband had drowned while fishing was said to haunt the area. Some believe that if you accept her dinner invitation, you won’t return.
Lightning Storms and Indian Ghosts
Curiously, the tale of the businessman’s encounter is not the only Canadian anecdote involving lightning strikes and vanishing Indian ghosts. Nearly a century prior, Cecil Denny, an officer of the original North West Mounted Police, claimed to have had a similar experience in a thicket near Fort Macleod, Alberta.
One afternoon in the summer of 1875, while fishing on the Oldman River, Denny found himself caught in a rainstorm. After tying his boat up to a cottonwood, he heard the faint sound of an Indians singing to the beat of a drum. Hoping to shelter himself from the storm, he made his way towards the sound.
After stumbling through the rain, Denny came to a clearing in a thicket in which he found a cluster of Indian teepees. Immediately, the Mountie knew that something was amiss. Although the wind was howling violently, it seemed to have no effect on the teepees nor the Indians who moved about them. The fires within the teepees shone through their openings with an eerie brightness.
All of a sudden, a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree. When the Mountie recovered his senses, the Indian village had disappeared.
Considering the tales of Cecil Denny and the guest of the Sundance Ranch, it is interesting to note that people who claim to have encountered ghosts often report an accompanying chill or a sensation of being suddenly sapped of energy. Some of those who have studied such encounters have theorized that ghosts might require energy in order to make themselves known. Lightning, which features in both of the aforementioned ghost stories, is believed to contain a whopping 5 billion joules per bolt- more than enough energy, one would think, to achieve such a purpose.
- Ranch Near Abandoned Supply Trail Is Rich With History- And Spirits; in the May22, 1994 issue of the New Haven Register; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
- Ghosts II: More True Stories From British Columbia (1997), by Robert C. Belyk
- The Story of the Ghost of the Chinese Cook, by Esther Darlington MacDonald in the October 15, 2914 issue of the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal
- Ashcroft House on the Cariboo Road, in the March 15, 2013 issue of the BC Gold Rush Press: Stories of the Fraser River & Cariboo Gold Rush
- The Early Years of Ashcroft Manor; by Edward Philip Johnson; Summer 1970
- Ashcroft; by John R. Stuart; in the March 4, 2015 issue of The Canadian Encyclopedia
- The Cree Ghost Village of Fort Macleod, Alberta, by Hammerson Peters
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