Opinion Column

BURGESS

Not the first time Clinton has faced down a menace

By Steve Burgess

Clinton, British Columbia. (Google Maps)

Clinton, British Columbia. (Google Maps)

Now it is the turn of Clinton to face a spreading wildfire.

An evacuation order issued for the Highway 97 town this weekend brought home once again what a terrifying force wildfires can be. But it's not the first time Clinton has faced down a menace, be it fire, homicide, or raging biker gangs.

A few years ago I got to spend a few days in Clinton. Antique shops line the stretch of Highway 97 that serves as the main street, and there's a fascinating little museum in the centre of town.

A fire raging through Clinton would destroy a lot history, including perhaps a piece of firefighting history — a 192 LaFrance pumper truck given to the town after a devastating 1958 fire that destroyed the Clinton Hotel. Like many frontier towns, Clinton has been shaped and re-shaped by fire.

The current Cariboo Lodge replaced an earlier version that burned in 1980. The Frontier Hotel met the same fate. Previously the Frontier was notable as ground zero in the Clinton Motorcycle War.

According to newspaper reports from September 1967, the battle began when riders representing a number of gangs, possibly including the Hell's Angels, rolled into Clinton and took over the Frontier Pub, wreaking havoc and beating at least one local senseless.

Soon the street filled with vigilantes, many of them armed. RCMP shut down every business in town and escorted the bikers to a guarded camp outside Clinton. But several men crept through the perimeter, armed with baseball bats and a .22 rifle.

An 18-year-old biker named Gerry Spreeuw was shot in the side (he later recovered). The riders were escorted all the way back to Vancouver, swearing revenge.

“We're ready,” locals told reporters. The bikers never returned.

Once known as 47 Mile House, Clinton was home to the notorious 1910 Betty Coward, who in 1910 became the first woman ever sentenced to hang in Canada, after being found guilty of murdering her husband John. (She would eventually escape the noose.) Now the town is facing a death threat of its own.

It's unfortunate that we don't always grasp the reality behind the stories that parade through our TVs and web browsers, but potential tragedy doesn't always seem real unless you happen to have a personal connection. I met a number of great people in Clinton and came to appreciate the beauty and history of Cariboo country.

Fingers crossed that this crisis will be beaten back like an invading motorcycle gang and become just another great story told by Clinton locals.