The mid-1800s to the early 1900s was a time of great growth and development in B.C. The natural riches in the province—gold and salmon—lured people from around the world to the land where Indigenous peoples have lived for millennia. Towns popped up around the province to accommodate the growing population, and many of them are still standing today. These living historical sites offer visitors an immersive, interactive experience.
“The heritage sites from 100 to 150 years ago are really interesting because they bring to life a particular time in British Columbia’s evolution and share some of the challenges and rewards that western settlers experienced when they began to grow communities in the province,” says Janice Fraser of Destination BC. “These sites also showcase nature and wilderness as a defining part of British Columbia’s culture.”
Whether you’re a history buff or just looking for a fun family adventure, there’s much to be discovered in these five historic towns.
A 20-minute steam train ride drops you in the heart of the village, where you can visit the blacksmith and dressmaker, pan for gold and catch a play at the Wildhorse Theatre before enjoying a pint of Fort Steele Mountain Ale and retiring to the recently refurbished 1890s Windsor Hotel. Fort Steele Heritage Town, a historic park in the East Kootenay region, features 60 buildings dating back to the gold rush boom. It’s also a living attraction: keen employees grow crops, raise animals, forge tools and bake goodies the way people did when Fort Steele was first thriving.
“Visitors can see what our past was like, they can feel it, they can touch it and they can come away with first-hand experience of what the 1890s were like in this region,” says Kathy Cooper, CEO of Kootenay Rockies Tourism. “It is more than just authentic buildings from the past—it is truly stepping back in time.”
English prospector William “Billy” Barker had no idea he was about to kick off an industrial revolution when he gave up searching for gold in California and trekked to B.C. But on August 17, 1862, he struck gold in a creek in B.C.’s central interior and set off a 20-year boom that helped build not only his namesake Barkerville, but also the province. Today, the town is the largest living-history museum in western North America, complete with more than 100 heritage buildings and 200,000 items in the collection. Visitors can enjoy tours with historical interpreters in period costumes, blacksmithing and cooking demonstrations, stagecoach rides and more.
“Barkerville is more than the heritage town,” says Amy Thacker, CEO of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association. “It’s an entire provincial park that has National and Provincial Historic Sites. There’s nature and heritage and family experiences all in this beautiful setting in the Caribou Mountains.” For example, Thacker went snow tubing on the site’s Shamrock Tube Run this past winter.
They came from all over the world, seeking their fortunes in the Cariboo gold rush. Thousands of miners found refuge at the Hat Creek roadhouse, which was built in 1860 and operated for a century. Visitors can tour the guesthouse and try their hand at gold panning, ride in a horse-drawn wagon or stagecoach and visit the Secwepemc village to get an Indigenous perspective on the gold rush from guides from the Bonaparte Indian Band. They can even spend the night in a covered wagon that’s been converted into a cabin. Other camping options include miners’ tents, cabins, RV sites and a lush lawn where you can simply pop your tent.
Cassiar Cannery , near Prince Rupert
Looking out on the calm water of the Skeena River from the deck of a heritage house at Cassiar Cannery in Northern B.C., it’s hard to imagine the coastal marsh area was once a bustling place of business. The cannery was established in 1889, on the cusp of the salmon boom, and quickly became its own small town complete with a store, houses and a doctor’s office. It was in business for eight decades and holds the record for the longest consecutively operating cannery on the West Coast. Today, visitors can stay in the former homes of cannery managers and visit the nearby North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site. The University of Northern British Columbia also offers a three-day experience based at Cassiar called Canneries of the North Coast, which takes visitors to what remains of some of the more than 20 canneries that once lined the Skeena.
Step back into time as you stroll along the 800-foot-long boardwalk that frames this sheltered cove on the northeastern corner of Vancouver Island. In 1912, telegraph lines were being raised in the region and resident Alfred Marmaduke “Duke” Wastell convinced crews to set up a station at the bay he later named Telegraph Cove. Wastell went on to establish a lumber mill and a salmon saltery and build a village for his employees. Today, you can stay in one of the heritage homes, dine in the old saltery and enjoy the incredible scenery from one of the province’s last boardwalk settlements. Telegraph Cove sits on the traditional land of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation and is a gateway to the Broughton Archipelago, a jigsaw puzzle of hundreds of islands ideal for exploring by kayak. Telegraph Cove is also on a popular path taken by orcas and is home to the province’s first whale watching company, which you can learn more about at the Whale Interpretive Centre in the old freight shed.
Places like these not only preserve B.C.’s history but give residents and visitors alike perspective on the evolution of the province, says Destination BC’s Fraser. “I hope that visitors take away a sense that British Columbia is a place that’s ever evolving and that the spirit of the people is one of adventure, pioneering and pushing boundaries.”