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WRIGHT, GUSTAVUS BLINN, businessman, surveyor, and ship’s captain; b. 22 June 1830 in Burlington, Vt; m. 25 Feb. 1875 Julia Anna Sutton in Portland, Oreg., and they a daughter who died in infancy and two sons; d. 8 April 1898 in Ainsworth, B.C.

Details of Gustavus Blinn Wright’s early life are sketchy, but it is known that he spent several years placer-mining in California in the 1850s before arriving in British Columbia early in 1858. Since the richer discoveries of placer-gold were made in the interior of the colony, transporting supplies from Fort Victoria, on Vancouver Island, quickly became a lucrative business. By August 1858 Wright was likely the most important packer on the Harrison-Lillooet trail, the main route to the gold-fields. In 1861 he joined Jonathan Holten Scott and Uriah Nelson in purchasing shares in the sternwheeler Maggie Lauder (rechristened Union later that year). Wright and Scott also bought shares in the Flying Dutchman in 1862 to increase further the capacity of their transportation companies.

It was in road construction, however, that Wright rose to prominence. In January 1859 he had given engineering advice to Governor James Douglas* and in 1862 he became one of the three main contractors building the Cariboo Road under the supervision of Colonel Richard Clement Moody* of the Royal Engineers, the others being Joseph William Trutch* and Thomas Spence*. Wright was awarded the contract for the major portion of the road, from Lillooet to Alexandria. Building an 18-foot-wide wagon road through unsurveyed land proved costlier than expected, and upon completing two-thirds of his section Wright had already spent the funds available under the contract. The colonial government reluctantly agreed to advance a further sum, thus allowing him to finish the road in 1863.

Wright’s work on the Cariboo Road was marred by accusations made by other contractors that he was diverting the road to benefit his land speculations and ancillary businesses. After the government decided to support the somewhat controversial route he had proposed, Wright attempted to have the terminus changed from Alexandria to Soda Creek, where he had just launched the Enterprise, the first sternwheeler on the upper Fraser River. This change would have given Wright a monopoly on transportation to Quesnel, the main gateway to the booming gold-fields of the Cariboo. Despite charges that the government was biased in Wright’s favour, he was awarded further contracts between 1864 and 1866 such as the section of the Cariboo Road between Quesnel and Camerontown, the Cottonwood River bridge, and the Cache Creek to Savona’s Ferry (Savona) road, which provided a link with the gold-rush area at Big Bend on the Columbia River.

In 1869, in partnership with Edgar Marvin, Wright built a second ship, the Victoria, for the upper Fraser River. Although the colony had been in a recession since 1866, hopes were rising that a new gold-rush would develop in the Peace River and Omineca districts, and Wright planned to secure a monopoly of transport to the north. In 1871, seeking a passage by water to the Omineca, he captained the Enterprise through very rough rapids and canyons to Stuart Lake, the gateway to the region, but he abandoned the venture when it became clear that the overland passage was cheaper and quicker.

After this unsuccessful trip, Wright remained for some time in the Cassiar district as a merchant, and he occasionally fulfilled surveying contracts for the railways on behalf of the Canadian government, including several for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Like many other speculators in British Columbia, he awaited the next boom, which was to begin in 1880 with the building of the CPR and would continue into the 1890s with the great hardrock mining boom in the Kootenays.

During the 1870s Wright had spent some of his winters in Portland, where he was married in 1875. His wife’s brothers-in-law, Abel D. Wheeler, Otis Sprague, and George Jennings Ainsworth, all developed extensive interests in hardrock mining in British Columbia. Wright soon returned to developing the transportation facilities of the province. With Ainsworth he built the Eagle Pass Wagon Road between 1882 and 1884. Described later as a “useless road,” since the CPR soon superseded it, it was to have served as an important link with the proposed Columbia and Kootenay Railway, one which the provincial and federal governments hoped would funnel Kootenay ores along a Canadian route to prospective Canadian refineries on the west coast. Once again, however, Wright found himself involved in a scandal. The land grants he had received from the province in return for building the wagon-road he quickly sold at a profit to John C. Ainsworth, the father of George Jennings. The dominion government later claimed the land was part of the federal railway belt, but after a great deal of federal-provincial wrangling, the Wright-Ainsworth transfer was upheld.

In addition to building roads, Wright opened the first general stores in Ainsworth and Revelstoke and operated the first major mines in the Kootenays. As part of the Ainsworth syndicate in the 1880s he negotiated contracts with the federal and provincial governments and, although he and his partners did not succeed in obtaining the contract to build the Columbia and Kootenay Railway, he greatly assisted the development of the region.

The last ten years of Wright’s life were spent merchandising, promoting the Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway, and speculating in mining. By some he was seen as a scoundrel, but others, according to the Nelson Miner, considered him “a real, live, genuine boomer from boomerville.” He may have been the “prince of hustlers,” as the Miner claimed, but he was never afraid to dirty his hands and invest his resources in new, untried frontiers.

J. R. Wardrop

B.C., Ministry of Health (Victoria), Vital statistics, records for G. B. Wright. Fraserview Cemetery (New Westminster, B.C.), Tombstone inscription. PABC, Add. mss 529, G. B. Wright biog., comp. E. L. Affleck (typescript, 1976); GR 436, F 15857, J. R. Hall to W. S Gore, 1 Sept. 1891; GR 1372, F 59, F 933, F 940, F 943, F 960, F 961 a-b, F962, F 1069, F 1115, F 1145a, F 1633b, F 1919. B.C., Legislative Assembly, Journals, 17 Feb., 1 March 1886; 21 March 1888; Sessional papers, 1879: 272; 1896: 577–81. British Columbia Board of Trade, Annual report (Victoria), 1882–83. British Columbia Mining Record (Victoria), 3 (1897), no.3: 19. British Colonist (Victoria), 27 May 1859, continued as Daily British Colonist, 25 Dec. 1862; 28 May 1863; 7 Jan. 1870; 26 April, 2 May 1871; 6, 25 Aug., 3 Sept. 1872; 23 Jan., 26 Feb. 1875; and Daily Colonist, 20 April 1887, 14 April 1898. Cariboo Sentinel (Barkerville, B.C.), 11 Aug. 1869; 7 May 1870; 24 June, 16 July, 12 Aug. 1871. Mainland Guardian (New Westminster), 1 June 1878. Miner (Nelson, B.C.), 8 Nov. 1890 E. L. Affleck, Kootenay Lake chronicles (Vancouver, 1978); Kootenay pathfinders: settlement in the Kootenay district, 18851920 (Vancouver, 1976). R. E. Cail, Land, man, and the law: the disposal of crown lands in British Columbia, 18711913 (Vancouver, 1974). Lewis & Dryden’s marine history of the Pacific northwest; an illustrated review of the growth and development of the maritime industry . . . , ed. E. W. Wright (Portland, Oreg., 1895; repr. Seattle, Wash., 1967). Ormsby, British Columbia. N. R. Hacking, “Steamboating on the Fraser in the ‘sixties,” BCHQ, 10 (1946): 1–41. S. G. Pettit, “The tyrant judge: judge Begbie in court,” BCHQ, 11 (1947): 273–94.

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J. R. Wardrop, “WRIGHT, GUSTAVUS BLINN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wright_gustavus_blinn_12E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wright_gustavus_blinn_12E.html
Author of Article: J. R. Wardrop
Title of Article: WRIGHT, GUSTAVUS BLINN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1990
Year of revision: 1990
Access Date: April 16, 2014