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SPENCE, THOMAS, gold-miner, contractor, and public servant; b. c. 1826 in Dundee, Scotland; d. unmarried 7 June 1881 in Victoria, B. C.

Little is known of Thomas Spence’s early life, but judging by his writing skills he received little formal education. Many of his early years were spent in travel. He lived for some time in London, England, and left in 1845 for the Cape of Good Hope where he stayed 18 months. In 1847 he went to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands and worked in the government service for up to two years. Prospects of wealth and opportunity in California during the gold-rush brought Spence to San Francisco in 1849; there he was a merchant for four years until he, too, joined the search for gold.

It appears that Spence was quite successful in his quest for gold, but, like many other Californians, he was drawn north by news of the rich finds of the Fraser River gold-rush. Arriving in British Columbia in May 1858, he discovered a rich claim on Cameron Bar. However, Spence continued placer mining only long enough to accumulate the funds to finance construction of part of the Cariboo Road, and with Joseph William Trutch* and Gustavus Blinn Wright* he was one of the three main contractors of the road. Although the construction proved difficult and costly, and profits were low, Spence completed the 32-mile section from Boston Bar to Lytton by February 1862 and later, in partnership with Trutch, he built another section of 11 miles from Sailors Bar to Chapmans Bar near the site of the present Alexandra Bridge.

Bridge building was to become another of Spence’s accomplishments. Spence’s Bridge, which replaced Cook’s Ferry in February 1865, was the first bridge to span the Thompson River. It was washed out soon after it was built and it was only through the use of a borrowed Admiralty diving suit that stable footings could be established.

By 1865 the Cariboo Road was complete from Yale to Barkerville. There were 377 miles of 18-foot-wide road traversing some of the most rugged terrain in North America, and the colonial government was slowly recognizing that the roads required more expert maintenance than originally estimated. An unsuccessful effort to have roads maintained by a contract system was abandoned and on 28 March 1865 Spence was hired by his friend Joseph Trutch, now chief commissioner of lands and works, to become the first civilian superintendent of public works. His duties were to include supervision of road maintenance and road construction in the Cariboo district.

Although most of Spence’s time was spent maintaining the road from Yale to Barkerville, he made numerous side-trips. In July 1865 Henry Maynard Ball, gold commissioner, described the hard-working Spence as being “as usual full of business.” During the summer of 1866 he inspected construction of the Cache Creek to Savona’s Ferry (Savona) section for which Wright held the contract. Spring was usually spent repairing such thoroughfares as the Brighton and Douglas roads on the lower mainland. One winter job almost ended in disaster. As he was supervising the construction of a new bridge over James Bay at Victoria in January 1869, Spence was plunged into the waters below when a pile-driver collapsed the old bridge; he escaped with a few bruises. In 1874 he engineered the removal of one of the Sister Rocks which impeded stern-wheel navigation between Hope and Yale on the Fraser River. From 1875 until his death Spence was engaged in removing Beaver Rock from Victoria harbour.

Thomas Spence died on 7 June 1881 as a result of falling down the stairs of a hotel in Victoria. His obituary in the Daily British Colonist described him as “an amiable, kind-hearted man. . . . He had an active mind and constantly conceived great schemes and projects of a public nature; but in their execution in this country he was scarcely ever successful in a pecuniary sense.”

James R. Wardrop

Bancroft Library, Univ. of California (Berkeley), Thomas Spence, Dictation; A. W. Vowell, “Mining districts of British Columbia.” PABC, Henry Maynard Ball, Journal, 15 July 1865; Colonial corr., Thomas Spence corr. Daily British Colonist (Victoria), 6 Dec. 1859; 6 Jan. 1869; 7, 8 June 1881.

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Cite This Article

James R. Wardrop, “SPENCE, THOMAS (d. 1881),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spence_thomas_1881_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spence_thomas_1881_11E.html
Author of Article:   James R. Wardrop
Title of Article:   SPENCE, THOMAS (d. 1881)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   September 24, 2023