Unsolved Disappearances in the Fraser Canyon
Some of North America’s most disturbing mysteries are unsolved disappearances in which human beings vanish without a trace in national parks and other wilderness areas. Although the blame for such disappearances can often conceivably be laid at the feet of predatory animals, natural accidents, or even foul play, cases in which the victim vanishes completely from a confined area with few natural exits, without leaving behind so much as a clue as to his fate or whereabouts, are not unheard of. According a file from the archives of the late great Fortean researcher Gary Mangiacopra, the veracity of which this author has failed to establish, a rash of such cases took place on a rugged mountain road in southwestern British Columbia in the early 1860s, at the height of a historic event known as the Cariboo Gold Rush.
Back in 1858, hordes of Californian prospectors descended upon British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon, drawn by news of a gold strike made at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. In 1861, at the tail end of this Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, news of a new bonanza to the north incited the Cariboo Gold Rush, in which thousands of British, Canadian, and Chinese prospectors flocked to fresh diggings in what is known as Cariboo Country. In response to this stampede, British Columbia’s Governor James Douglas commissioned both private contractors and a contingent of the British Army’s Royal Engineers with the construction of an 18-foot-wide wagon trail through the rugged and treacherous Fraser Canyon. By this so-called Cariboo Road, throngs of hopeful stampeders made their way from the lower Fraser Valley to the diggings at Barkerville and Williams Lake.
According to an article in the May 1961 issue of the magazine Fate, written by one John L. Zeller, some of the first gold-seekers to brave the Cariboo Road never made it to their destination, vanishing with their mules and outfit somewhere along that perilous cliffside path. Prospectors began to attribute these disappearances to a mysterious predator they called the “phantom of the Cariboo Trail”. Zeller went on to relate the experience of a freighter named John Fillmore, one of the first victims of this canyon menace.
“John Fillmore was travelling this trail with 50 pack mules loaded with supplies for miners along the Cariboo,” Zeller wrote. “On the night of August 5th Fillmore and his men made camp near Spence’s Bridge. They unloaded their packs and set a guard for the night. Then something unusual happened. In the dark sky, high above them a strange white light appeared and moved back and forth several times before vanishing again. The camp guard reported that nothing else unusual occurred during the remainder of the night. However, at daybreak it was discovered that three of the mules were missing. When Fillmore arrived in Cariboo he reported his loss to the proper authorities and the first victims of the Cariboo phantom had been officially chalked up.
“Three nights later, George Lateau, carrying gold on pack mules, made camp near Yale… That night the guard reported some weird-looking lights which moved in a half-circle above him and then disappeared. Once again, as in the Fillmore incident, three of the mules were missing when dawn arrived.”
Zeller went on to describe how riders were sent both ahead up the trail and back down to Yale in search of the missing animals. Despite that the horses were considerably faster than the plodding mules, and would surely have caught up with them within the day even had the latter been driven to the limit of their endurance, the riders found no trace of their quarry on the trail, nor on the canyon’s sandbars far below.
“The phantom of the Cariboo Trail became the topic of conversation from one end of the country to the other,” Zeller wrote. “Many persons were convinced that a ‘strange creature’ lurked in the mountains; still others talked of devils or ghosts.”
The writer went on to state that the famous new American detective organization, the Pinkerton Agency, was called in to capture the elusive phantom. In an effort to bait what they suspected was an especially-skilled highwayman, the detectives placed an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing that a mule train carrying $50,000’s worth of Cariboo gold was scheduled to travel down the Cariboo Road. The detectives made this trip on the date stated, filling their wagon with heavily-armed guards in place of the advertised dust and nuggets.
“The men slept very little on the night they camped along the trail,” Zeller wrote, “mainly because of the unusual activity taking place. They all witnessed those weird white lights moving above them, as had been reported in all the previous cases. Other than that, and also as in the previous cases, nothing else unusual was reported by the alert guards.
“Nevertheless, in the morning, three of the mules had vanished. Once again, efforts to catch the ‘phantom’ had failed…
“This mysterious ‘phantom’… was never explained. How did it operate? How could mules suddenly vanish under the watchful eyes of guards? Where did the mules go? Nobody could lead them over the high cliffs and it was equally impossible for them to continue on the trail without being sighted. What were those weird lights?
“The question remains: Who or what was the phantom of the Cariboo Trail?”
In a brief commentary on Zeller’s piece, published in the August 1961 issue of Fate, Frank Page of Vancouver, British Columbia, likely echoed the reflexive sentiments of many readers with his conclusion, “I’m inclined to think that space craft visited that area during gold rush days, and I’ve no doubt that a few wild men known as Sasquatch crossed the trail.”
While wildmen and UFOs would doubtless be worthy candidates for the phantom’s identity were Zeller’s tale true, this author has failed to find any corroborating evidence for reports of phantom lights or Pinkerton detectives on the Cariboo Wagon Road. History has recorded a number of chilling tales set in the Fraser Canyon, including the decapitation of American miners in 1858; the brutal auto-massacre of the Whatcom Company during the Fraser Canyon War; the legend of the dog people – ancient subterranean predators who are said to have preyed on natives in the night long ago; and the strange story of Jacko, the mysterious wildman from Yale. On the phantom of the Cariboo Trail, however, all sources which this author has consulted are silent. True or not, Zeller’s colourful account, set during one of Canada’s lesser-known historical events, makes another intriguing addition to the growing body of material that is Canadian folklore.
- “Phantom of the Cariboo Trail,” by John L. Zeller in the May 1961 issue of the magazine Fate
- McGowan’s War (2003), by Donald J. Hauka
- Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New El Dorado (2018), by Daniel Marshall