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Bestselling Cariboo Gold Rush classic book by Art Downs now back in print

Ken Mather. Carla-Jean Stokes photo

Victoria-based book publisher, Heritage House Publishing, is proud to release a newly revised and updated edition of Wagon Road North: The Saga of the Cariboo Gold Rush, the first book the company published.

This now-classic pictorial account of the Cariboo Gold Rush trail was first published in 1960 by Art Downs. Wagon Road North is considered the quintessential popular history book chronicling gold-rush-era BC, and this newly updated, expanded, and re-designed edition has been carefully edited by author and historian Ken Mather.

Wagon Road North focuses on the Cariboo Wagon Road—the crucial transportation route stretching from Fort Yale to Barkerville that made it possible for tens of thousands of prospectors to make their way to the Cariboo goldfields in the 1860s. It brings to life the adventures, hardships, and blind ambitions of the men and women who risked everything in the quest for gold.

Art Downs (1924–1996) was always passionate about history and in 1960, the year after Barkerville Historic Park was established, he put together Wagon Road North. The book was an instant success and was reprinted in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1967, becoming one of the bestselling books of its time.

Its success prompted Art and his wife, Doris, to start their own book publishing company in 1969, appropriately named Heritage House. Its first publication was yet another revised edition of Wagon Road North. The book continued to sell in great numbers and, in 1973, a second revised edition was published, followed by a third revised edition in October 1980. Its most recent revised edition came out in 1993.

Downs was not new to publishing when he established Heritage House Publishing. He had purchased the Cariboo Digest from its founder, Alex Sahonovich , in 1955. Under Downs’s editorship, the magazine became BC Outdoors, which he sold in 1979. In 1995, Heritage House Publishing was purchased by Rodger Touchie, and in 2019 the company celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Ken Mather is the author of several books on pioneer and ranching history, including Trail North(2018) and Stagecoach North (2020). He first came across Wagon Road North in 1979 when he joined the staff of Barkerville Historic Park in the position of Interpretation and Education Coordinator.

“The book helped make the gold rush and the town of Barkerville come alive for me,” says Mather, who has worked in curatorial, management, and research roles at a number of historic Canadian sites.

In 2018, Touchie and Mather attended the BC Historical Federation’s annual writing awards—where Mather’s book Trail North won second prize—and the conversation ended up on Art Downs and Mather’s own interest in Cariboo history. When Touchie lamented that Downs’s book had gone out of print after the 1993 edition and asked Ken if he would have any interest in updating a new edition, Mathers stated that he would be proud to edit the latest upgrade with new material.

As Mather got down to the task of updating Wagon Road North, he was “struck by how well it has withstood the test of time.” Mather lightly altered the original book, focusing on updating language and attitudes toward Indigenous Peoples, and recognising the contributions of women and the Chinese community in more detail.

“Ken has done an absolutely wonderful job,” said Touchie.

Wagon Road North includes more than one hundred archival photos, many of them rarely seen, as well as maps and contemporary images of historical sites.

“Another Heritage House author and photographer, Liz Bryan, contributed some contemporary photos,” says Touchie, which illuminate the new edition.

Wagon Road North marks one of the most successful books ever published in BC and pays tribute to the original publisher of Heritage House,” concludes Touchie.

“Art’s legacy remains in many areas: as a writer, as an editor, and as a publisher,” says Mather. “But perhaps his greatest legacy has been Wagon Road North, which is still being purchased and read sixty years after its first edition and fifty years after it became the first publication of Heritage House Publishing.”

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