Blog, History

Barkerville – ancient mining technology in action

A couple days back I visited Barkerville. One of the most interesting things I have seen on display there was an old water wheel that was put into action again – obviously just for the tourists, but it does the trick. Since Barkerville was founded and settled by British (and Americans) they took the hoisting and pumping technology they knew best from Cornwall. However when the Cariboo gold rush happened in the early 1860’s the best technology that was available in the British Empire was in fact not the technology that is presented there.

Newcomen's steam engine used to drain mine water in the English coal fields

Newcomen’s steam engine used to drain mine water in the English coal fields

By then, England was the leader in steam power and the water wheel as a means for pumping water and hoisting was already starting to become a relict of the past.

The most common technology used in England, especially in its coal mines was the Newcomen steam engine. So one wonders why this old technology was used at all ?

Well, I assume it boils down to four important factors.

  1. A main point is that no coal was available in the neighborhood, and neither was the infrastructure that is necessary to carry it. After all, even the highway that was ultimately built to connect Barkerville with the South was an expensive proposition.
  2. The second and more important one is the availability of capital. None of the miners had any money to begin with – after all a rush is attracting the rags to riches kind of people
  3. Also those modern engines were probably neither cheap nor easy to carry into remote areas – I imagine it is almost impossible on horse wagons with no established roads.
  4. And finally the most important factor. Why would one bother with all this sophisticated technology when one can make use of plenty of wood sitting around, use some minor pieces of steel and rely on technology that worked probably as far back as the Romans and Egyptians?
A water wheel depicted in Agricola's 1556 account on the state of the mining industry - De Re Metallica

A water wheel depicted in Agricola’s 1556 account on the state of the mining industry – De Re Metallica

Hence, second best technology was chosen and it worked well enough for all those miners that dug up gold, not only in Barkerville but also in subsequent gold rushes in North America. In any case, with the wheel on display in Barkerville the spirit of the middle ages, the Romans and Egyptians lives on in the mountains of BC. A visit well worth it!

1 Comment

  1. Dawson City and Sustainable Development – Mining Quest

    September 10, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    […] cities that had electrical light in Northwest America. At times places such as Dawson city or Barkerville were the biggest North of San Francisco and East of Chicago.  It could have gone on and on, and […]

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