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1875–Record low at New Westminster / Barkerville melter out in the cold

January 24, 2015

A  temperature of  minus seven degrees Fahrenheit (-22 °C) was recorded at New Westminster in January 1875, possibly the coldest month ever in British Columbia.

The Fraser River was covered with ice from its mouth upwards, making for an easy crossing from Brownsville to the city.  Recreational skaters cut figures on the ice along the shallow banks of the south shore.

The newly built Yale Wagon Road proved its worth as a winter route for the mail and express drivers from the Interior.

At Chilliwack the Fraser was reported frozen so deep that the stream was blocked and turned "into the old channel of 1858." At Sumas the frozen lake afforded a short-cut for sleighs to York’s at Upper Sumas.

Island smelt frozen

On Vancouver Island, the British Colonist newspaper reported:

"The cold has not been so intense, in this latitude at least, within the recollection of the oldest resident."

In Victoria, “Herrings, smelt and salmon have been caught by the ice in the harbor and frozen stiff.”  At Nanaimo the temperature dropped to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The senior meteorologist in British Columbia, William Henry Bevis at Esquimalt, recorded a low of 8 degrees Fahrenheit (-13°C) for January 1875, observed at his ocean-front station at the Fisgard Lighthouse.

The cold outbreak extended clear down to Oregon. Freight wagons crossed the Columbia at Kalama, Washington, downriver from Portland.

Up-country the weather was reported colder "than ever known before," with the mercury dropping to 59 below at Bridge Creek.

Barkerville blaze

William Hitchcock -  Assayer - BarkervilleAt Barkerville, with the temperature at 26 below, occupants of the town’s wood-frame buildings were keeping stoves stoked around the clock.

On the 18th of January, a nervous William Hitchcock of the Government Assay Office began his day by sending out an application for insurance.

About an hour later, fire broke out in the adjacent building housing the laundry room of Louisa Christopher.  Miss Christopher lost her premises and the Assay Office went up in flames.  Louisa  was the future bride of local Constable George Green.

William Hitchcock was commended for saving the apparatus of the assay office, though he lost all his personal belongings. 

A Londoner,  in 1859 Hitchcock was appointed Assistant Melter assigned to the new Government Assay Office and Mint  in New Westminster, arriving in British Columbia in 1860. 

In 1869, in response to petitions from Cariboo miners who wanted a fairer exchange for their gold dust than that offered  locally by the banks, a Government Assay Office was established at Barkerville.  Hitchcock moved north to take charge of the new agency.

A widower,  William Hitchcock married young Eliza Eunice Hyde, daughter of Beaver Pass hotel-keeper George Hyde,  in September 1875. 

Hitchcock died in 1877 at the age of 53,  and the following year George Hyde died at 45. The two widows, Eliza Hitchcock and Alicia Hyde, moved to New Westminster together.  Eliza died in 1891, aged 35.

Thomas Robson Pattullo,  occupying a wing of the government building was also burned out. TR, who had made his own “mint” in Cariboo gold,  was the uncle of future Premier Thomas D Pattullo.

Government Assay Office - Barkerville BC

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