History

Search

As with most “boomtime” communities, the rush of prospectors and miners into the Slocan was soon followed by a flood of business people, eager to make their fortunes in their own way. By mid-1897 Sandon’s mines had a combined payroll of $25,000 a week, or over $1 million a week by today’s standards. From the staples, such as flour, sugar and beef, to the luxuries such as whiskey and tobacco, merchants were keen to meet the demands of the miners, as well as those of the mine owners. Picks, shovels, drill steel, ore cars, horseshoes, mine rails — before long, anything that could be desired, from oysters and ladies’ lingerie to blacksmith’s coal and dynamite was available in Sandon, often from a variety of businesses. During the boom years, the city’s business community featured 29 hotels, 28 saloons — one hotel was considered too “high class” to contain a saloon— three breweries, a bottling plant, three sawmills, three bakeries, three butchers, two newspapers, two Sandon’s many and varied thriving commercial enterprises doctors, two banks, a hydro-electric generating station, a bed and mattress factory, a sash and door factory, brickmasons, carpenters, livery stables, feed merchants, packers and freighters, saddle and harness makers, a telephone exchange and telegraph office, a post office, many restaurants, numerous clothing stores and tailors, a bookstore, tobacconists, drug stores, cobblers and shoemakers, grocers, dry goods stores, jewellers, hardware stores, bath-houses, laundries, barbers and hair-dressers, real estate agents, stock and mining brokers, investment firms, insurance agents and, of course, lawyers. Many of the business owners became prominent townsfolk, including E.R. Atherton, Sandon’s first postmaster and owner of a clothing store, who later became the city’s first mayor. Two business owners in particular stand out from the rest, however — J.M. Harris and Pat Burns. Harris, who at one point owned most of the city, owned several hotels — including two of the fanciest, the Hotel Reco and the Goodenough Hotel — real estate, investment and mining companies, office blocks, and the Sandon Waterworks and Light Company. An empire-builder with a vision, Harris saw Sandon as “his” city, and he invested a great deal of his time and money in a variety of civic improvements, from installing street lights to supporting the city’s fire department and hospital. However, Harris staked too much of his fortune on the city’s future, and as Sandon declined, so did his business empire. Burns, on the other hand, also made a fortune in Sandon, but was shrewd enough to “take the money and run.” In earlier years, he had followed the CPR rails west, supplying the construction crews with beef. Following the completion of the railroad, he opened a butcher shop in Nelson in 1893, but within the year the Slocan silver rush had prompted him to open stores in Sandon, Three Forks and Kaslo. These four stores marked Burns’ first venture into the retail market, a move that was to prove enormously successful. By 1897, Burns was reporting monthly profits of over $15,000 in his Sandon store alone, second only to his Rossland store, which grossed $23,000 a month. Eventually, Burns’ retail holdings would grow into one of the largest meat-packing businesses in Canada, Burns Meats, which survives to this day. Burns himself became a multimillionaire, and later was appointed to the Canadian Senate. Of course, there were also numerous less savoury enterprises, including brothels, bootleggers and gamblers. Sandon became infamous for its “wildlife” among surrounding communities, with its card sharks, con men and bordellos. Most of the gamblers left for greener pastures after the city government outlawed gambling in 1900, but the madams and moonshiners of Lower Sandon continued to ply their trade until the Great Depression of the 1930s finally closed their doors for good. Following the disastrous fire of 1900, a large number of Sandon’s businesses disappeared, as many were not insured, and could not afford to rebuild. With the Klondike gold rush heating up, many business people took this as a signal to seek their fortunes elsewhere. However, several dozen businesses chose to stay in Sandon, due in no small part to the urging of J.M. Harris, who used his still-considerable fortune to underwrite loans for many of the business people who agreed to remain in the city. Businesses in surrounding communities thrived during the reconstruction period, as trainload after trainload of supplies were shipped to Sandon for the rebuilding effort. A smaller, more compact, but much more organized business district emerged following the fire, which featured hotels, groceries, a couple of general stores, a drug store, a newspaper, hardware stores, and many others. The boom years were over, however, and Sandon’s business district would never be the hive of activity it was in the past. Burns Meats closed its doors in the early 1900s, and the building later became the Sandon Meat Market, under different owners. J.M. Harris hung on through Sandon’s periodic “minibooms” over the next 50 years, purchasing competitors’ stores and property as they closed their doors, convinced that the silver market would recover and “his” city would blossom again. In time, Harris would end his time in the valley as he had begun — owning most of Sandon. Following his death in 1953, his widow closed the Reco Hotel and sold off most of his property to lumber salvagers. Today, all that remains of Sandon’s once-thriving business district is the old Slocan Mercantile Block (the current museum), and reconstructions of the Burns Butcher Block, the ice cream parlour and the Atherton General Store, on the east side of the museum. Ruins of other businesses can also still be found, from the remains of the Virginia Block and the Reco Hotel to the concrete foundations and Pelton wheel from Harris’ original hydroelectric plant.

In 1926, pioneering entrepreneur and undisputed Sandon powerbroker John Morgan Harris did something that startled and surprised many who knew him. He got married. Alma Lommatzch of Vulcan, Alberta had come to Sandon in 1924 to work as Johnny’s secretary, but on November 8, 1926 Harris, who was then 62, married the dark-eyed beauty who was 40-some years his junior. Even in a community as renowned for its “bawdy life” as Sandon was, this match raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging, but Alma and Johnny were undeterred, and their marriage continued for the next 27 years. Over that time, Alma travelled the world with Johnny, from trips to Niagara Falls, Florida, Arizona, California, Key West, Florida and Johnny’s ancestral home in Marshall, Virginia – where they went on a fox hunt on a dank-looking day. An outdoors enthusiast, Alma also took to the countryside around Sandon, hunting grouse north of Kaslo, hiking to the top of area peaks such as Reco Mountain and Idaho Peak, travelling down to the depths of many of Johnny’s mines, learning to ski and even hitching a ride in an aerial tram bucket! In Sandon, Alma and Johnny presided over his businesses in the second Reco Hotel – a horse stable that survived the 1900 fire, only to be instantly gutted, expanded and reopened by Harris to replace his more opulent original Reco Hotel. An animal lover, Johnny’s treasured dog Rusty was a regular companion on her jaunts, and even pulled Alma around Sandon in a lightweight “Swede sleigh,” now on display in the Sandon museum. She also kept a bevy of Siamese cats, and older locals can still remember her calling them in the evening, “Lovie! Lovie!” Alma was active in Sandon’s social life as well, frequently hiking with the nurse from the Sandon Hospital, or palling around with Dorothy Pilley, a cook up at the Carnation mine. Always adventurous, Alma and Dorothy would often ride “the Carnation Bobsleigh” – a home-made four-person sled – down a hair-raising ride from the mine into town. Other frequent companions of Alma’s on hikes and travels around the area included Grace Sanford, Jeanette Shepherd, Gene Peterson, and young Iris Black, whose father had built the original Reco Hotel. In the 1930s, as the Depression dragged on, Alma watched as businesses closed and people moved away, leaving her and Johnny as two of the few store-owners left in the once-booming city. And she was there to record the aftermath of the tragic “Stewart Slide” in 1937, which killed little Evelyn Stewart and her dog, despite a massive rescue attempt by men from three surrounding communities. During the 1940s, while Sandon was an internment camp for JapaneseCanadians, Alma employed several of them, such as Eiko Hemni, who cooked in the Reco Hotel, where Alma had become the postmistress. The mini-boom of having hundreds of people in the city did not last, however, as internees were relocated to New Denver within two years. Johnny died in 1953, two years before the wash-out that tore the main street flume apart and devastated the town. At that point, the now-middleaged Alma lost hope of reviving the community, and moved to Silverton, where she later married long-time friend Ted Kleim. Alma continued to live in Silverton until she passed away, in 1988. Just recently, a collection of Alma’s previously unseen photographs taken in and around Sandon and on her many travels were donated to the Sandon Historical Society by Alma’s nephew. The SHS has now scanned all these invaluable historic photographs, and they can be made available for viewing. * This article is dedicated to the late Lorna Obermayr, who always stressed how important it is that women’s stories also be told, and their contributions recognized.

One of the wealthiest and most powerful men to ever live in Sandon, J.M. Harris was the subject of countless stories and endless speculation. A native of Loudon County, Virginia, Harris was secretive about his past history in the United States, and consistently refused to reveal more than a handful of facts about his life “south of the 49th.” Of course, this simply fueled the rumours, many of which grew more elaborate as the years passed. Today it is difficult to separate the many myths from the man, but certain facts are well known. Harris arrived in the valley from the Coeur d’Alene area of Idaho in 1892, at the age of 28. In later years, rumours circulated that he was forced to flee to Canada after killing a man in the United States, and even that “Harris” was not his real name, but Harris refused to either confirm or deny these stories. What is known is that Harris was attracted to the Slocan by tales of the fabulous silver strikes that were being discovered there. When he arrived at the junction of Carpenter and Sandon “Mr. Sandon”: John Morgan (“Johnny”) Harris, 1864-1953 Creeks, numerous homes and stores had already been built on the valley floor to accommodate the hundreds of treasureseekers already flooding into the valley. None of these early settlers had bothered to stake land for a townsite where they had built. Legally, they were all “squatters,” a fact that the quick-witted Harris was soon to exploit. Shortly after his arrival Harris staked the Loudon Claim, named after his birthplace, on the floor of the valley. After registering his claim, Harris informed the squatters, most of whom had arrived before him, that they must move their stores and dwellings off his land, or else buy them back from him. The earlier settlers were understandably outraged at this development. Feelings soon ran very high, and a flurry of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits were filed. Harris had the law on his side, however, and his Loudoun Claim eventually became the downtown core of the City of Sandon. Harris subdivided the surface rights to his claim, which he then sold to squatters and new arrivals alike, thus vastly increasing his wealth, virtually overnight. With his rapidly-increasing fortune, Harris went on a building spree, constructing hotels, office blocks, and the growing city’s original power plant, the Sandon Water Works and Light Company. The remains of this plant are still visible near the bridge over Carpenter Creek today. Eventually, his real estate empire grew to include mines such as the rich Reco Claim, which at one point in 1897 produced over $200,000 worth of ore in a single week. Of his many properties, probably the most elegant and well known was the Hotel Reco. Located at the junction of Carpenter and Sandon Creeks, the Hotel Reco was certainly the most luxurious accommodation in the city, where Harris entertained millionaires and mining magnates. Four stories tall, with a tower reaching to a fifth level, the Hotel Reco featured 75 rooms with hardwood floors and tinted walls, and a 100-person-capacity dining room. There was a call bell system, hot and cold water in all the rooms and a bathroom on each floor. A steam heating plant and a cold storage room were installed, and the kitchen, which featured a broiler and ranges, was located in an addition which was separate from the main building. However, Harris’ fortunes took a sudden turn in 1900. Already the population of the city had begun to dwindle, as declining ore prices, labour strife, and news of the fabulous gold strikes in the Klondike combined to lure men and investment away from the city. On May 3, 1900, disaster struck both Sandon and Harris in the form of a devastating fire which gutted most of the downtown core. Losses were estimated at $750,000, and included many of Harris’ properties, such as the Hotel Reco and the ornate Virginia Block, which housed Harris’ own offices. A lifelong gambler, Harris did not carry fire insurance, believing it amounted to “betting against himself,” and as a result his personal losses were catastrophic. Travelling in the United States at the time, Harris was alerted to the disaster and returned immediately to oversee the rebuilding of his beloved city. One of his first actions upon arriving was to begin the renovation of the only building in the downtown core to survive the fire, an old livery stable that had been saved through an incredible effort by the townsfolk. Harris had the original building gutted and expanded, and within 60 days he had re-opened the structure as the new Reco Hotel. Determined to rebuild, Harris used his own still-substantial wealth to construct numerous other buildings in the downtown core, including a new Virginia Block. Nevertheless, neither the Reco Hotel nor the Virginia Block approached the finery of the original structures that they replaced. The remains of the rebuilt Reco Hotel and Virginia Block are still visible in Sandon. Never one to back away from a risky gamble, however, Harris remained optimistic about Sandon’s future, and remained in the city that he had worked so hard to develop. As the Great Depression set in, he purchased competitors’ businesses, buildings and properties, always convinced that the tide would soon turn. An unrepentant “ladies’ man,” in the 1920s Harris married a woman from Alberta who was 40 years his junior. For the next 27 years, Harris and his wife, Alma, lived in the declining splendour of the new Reco Hotel. The Reco continued to operate throughout Harris’ life, and during the 1940s he employed a number of Japanese-Canadian internees in the hotel. However, even Harris must have realized the glory days were long past as the number of guests dwindled until only he and Alma were left. In 1953, at the age of 89, Johnny Harris died at the New Denver Hospital, two years before the destructive wash-out that devastated the downtown core once again. At his request, his body was transported back to Loudon County, Virginia for burial. Much of what remained of his once-vast empire was sold by his widow, who continued to live in Silverton until her death in 1988. Today, remnants of Harris’ personal property are scattered among collections across North America, but over time some of his personal effects have been returned to the city that he loved, and are on display in the Sandon Historical Society Museum.