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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.

Before the arrival of the railroads in 1895, all freighting and packing work was done with horses and mules. Not only was there ore to be freighted out, but also millions of pounds of food, camp supplies, building materials and mining equipment had to be hauled in to meet the needs of the fast-growing community in Carpenter Creek valley. Kaslo was only 20 miles (32.18 km) away as the raven flies; in actual fact, it was 60 miles (96.54 km) of trail that zigzagged around obstacles, took wide detours and forded swiftly-running, boulder-strewn streams. Packing quickly became a vital business. Wagon roads were built, and by 1892 freighting business between Kaslo and Sandon had begun. One year after the initial “Payne” discovery, 16 mines were in production, with six shipping out high-grade ore by horse. With the announced intention of both the K&S syndicate and the CPR to push the rails through, the future of the community was assured. In 1894, 8.8 million pounds (4,082,400 kg) of ore were carried out by horses to K&S railheads at McGuigan, Zincton, and Whitewater, or to CPR shipping points on Slocan Lake. On the return trip, the animals were loaded with freight of every description — food for people, feed for animals, mine rails, steel cables, drill steel, coal oil, dynamite, whiskey, wine, rum, beer, tobacco, doors, windows, pipe, picks, shovels, axes, saws, stoves, mine cars, horseshoes, nails, spikes, blacksmith coal, hammers, clothing, blankets— in short, everything the growing city needed. Much of this equipment had to be specially packed, loaded and balanced, and it was a skill the packers and freighters were proud of. Indeed, packers lived by their reputations for getting goods through safely and without damage. With the arrival of the rail lines in 1895, packing and freighting work increased. Men and as many as 800 horses moved an astonishing 19.2 million pounds (8.7 million kg) of ore from the Sandon area mines to the railways, in sacks weighing 150 to 170 pounds (68 to 77 kg) each. The load for the horse or mule varied, according to the animal, but the average was about 200 pounds (90.72 kg). Because most producing mines were near or above the 6,000-foot (1,828.8 metre) level, along thin Wanted: a sure foot and a keen eye Sandon’s many packers and freighters and their horses and treacherous trails, good horses and mules were treasured for their strength and sure-footedness, and more than one horse in the Sandon camp became famous for its abilities. Of course, sometimes these animals were loaded beyond reasonable limits. One story was told of a 400-pound (181.44 kg) compressor cross-head being loaded on “the best and strongest pack mule in the camp” for a four-mile trip up steep trails from Sandon to the Ivanhoe mine. Four big men were sent along, to take some of the weight off the animal every time it stopped to rest. Finally, after hours of brutal struggle, the men and animal staggered into the compressor house yard, “but before the cross-head could be unloaded, the poor beast collapsed and died.”1 In addition, many horses were used to haul the ore-trains underground. Using a primitive system of a candle in a tin can— known as a “bug”— hanging around the horse’s neck to light the way, the horses pulled trains of loaded ore cars to the mine portals, then hauled the empties back underground. Once again, many stories are told of specific horses in the Slocan camps who demonstrated remarkable skill in their work. Of all the “horse stories” in Sandon, however, one stands out, as it demonstrates the value the men placed on their horses, as well as the love they felt for them. On the morning of May 3, 1900, when fire swept through Sandon, only one building was left standing in the downtown core the next morning — a large livery barn, filled with horses. Unable to guide the horses out through the raging flames, firemen and miners had fought desperately, side-by-side, in a determined effort to save the animals. Somehow, in the midst of all the devastation, a minor miracle was performed, and not one horse was lost. Many of the horses’ rescuers were themselves homeless by morning, but no doubt none of them felt it was a wasted effort. Gradually, with increased automation and the advent of vehicles, horses were used less in the mines or on the pack trails, and the specific skills required of the animals and men became forgotten. From the 1890s, when four or five pack trains would pass through Sandon daily, the number dwindled until, by the late 1920s, the pack trains were virtually gone. Today, the only reminder of the packers and freighters and the long trains of hardy animals are a few rusty horseshoes still scattered on the By a quirk of geological nature, most of the major producing mines in the Slocan are high in the mountains, at or above the 6,000-foot (1,828.8 metre) level. Because of this, transporting ore down from the mines was a serious challenge for early mine operators. Some of the larger operations, such as the “Payne” or the “Noble Five,” built large tramlines to accomplish this. For many of the smaller operators, however, such an investment wasn’t economical, considering the returns. At the same time, transporting the sacked ore down narrow, treacherous trails by horseback in summer was dangerous and slow. A unique solution was devised, known as “rawhiding.” Miners would work at their claims all summer, sorting, grading and sacking the highergrade ores that were worth shipping. These sacks were stored at the mine site all summer, awaiting the deep blanket of snow that would descend on the Slocan mountains in the winter. Once the snows were judged deep enough, the shipping would begin for the season. The “rawhiding” process Hauling a one-ton sausage: Rawhiding ore in the high Slocan mountains consisted of taking the hide of an animal that had been slaughtered — usually a bull or a steer — and placing it, hair side down, onto the snow. The sacked ore would then be loaded onto the hide, usually up to a ton (1.016 tonnes) at a time. The sides of the hide were then drawn up around the stacked ore and laced up through eyelets that had been made along the edges of the hide earlier. In this way, a large “pouch” of sacked ore was created, similar to a sausage. This load was then pulled by a horse along the “rawhide trails” that led down the mountainside to the rail lines at Sandon. At the beginning of winter, while the trails were still covered with deep snow, the horses had to work harder to pull their loads. By mid-winter, there had been so many tons of ore pulled over these trails that they resembled bobsled runs. By then, the hardest task was not to get the load moving, but rather to keep it from running out of control. A rough-lock chain, specially built for use with the rawhides, was designed to act as a brake on the steep grades, and usually worked. It was not all that unusual, however, to see a horse coming into town on the dead run, trying to stay ahead of a runaway rawhide load. There are even stories of some of the smarter horses who supposedly learned to lean back on the rawhide when it began sliding, thereby “tobogganing” down the slope, sitting on the load of ore. While this is not impossible, it is more likely that the accelerating rawhide would catch the horse by surprise, hitting him on the back of the legs and putting him back on his haunches in a manner resembling a “toboggan-slide” ride. Rawhiding became so popular that the local slaughterhouse was soon unable to meet the demand, and whole rail car shipments of hides were brought in. As with packing and freighting, however, the modern world caught up with the Slocan, and technology gradually took over from the horses. Today, only a handful of early residents remember the practice, and the only trace of the old rawhide trails are in a few surviving photographs.

A diminutive man, R.T. Lowery stood only about five feet tall. Other than his height, however, there was nothing ‘small’ about the man. What Lowery lacked in height, he more than compensated for with his attitude. Brash, opinionated and combative, Lowery was a crusading pioneer journalist who argued with wit and skill on behalf of those who could not defend themselves, such as illiterate hard-rock miners and women forced to become prostitutes by lack of skills or education. Born in 1859 at Halton County, Ontario, he gained his first newspaper experience in Petrolia before being lured to the wild frontiers and silver fields of British Columbia. His first newspaper in the Kootenays was the Kaslo Claim, which lasted a mere 16 weeks before the ‘silver panic’ of 1893 caused the bottom to drop out of the silver market, and business in the young town dried up to a mere trickle. “The financial panic frosted the roses in the Slocan and made Kaslo look like a torn poster in a wet ditch. I barely escaped with my life,” Lowery commented wryly. Undaunted, however, Lowery soon packed up his small printing press and assorted equipment and moved on to Nakusp, where he began printing The Nakusp Ledge. In all, Lowery owned and operated some 10 or 12 Kootenay newspapers in different towns over the years. Commenting on the tendency of Lowery’s and other small area newspapers to ‘wander,’ the editor of the Bonner’s Ferry Herald wrote, “It is hard to keep track of the Slocan newspapers — they appear to be on wheels.” Indeed, this characterization more often than not appeared to be true. By 1894, Lowery had moved The Ledge to New Denver, but soon the booming growth in Sandon had convinced him to sell that paper and relocate to the heart of the silver fields. On September 26, 1896, Lowery, along with J.J. Langstaff, former editor of the Trout Lake Topic, printed the first edition of what was to become Lowery’s most famous newspaper of all, the Sandon Paystreak. Its first issue was filled with news of Sandon’s rapid growth: “The sound of the carpenter’s hammer is everywhere heard in Sandon, and building operations are being vigorously prosecuted on every side. Some very tasty dwelling houses are being erected, and the liveliest and busiest town in the Slocan country is every day assuming a more urban-like appearance than is usually met with a mining centre. Some 20 buildings, dwellings and otherwise, are now under construction, and more are contemplated.” In appearance, Lowery was said by some to resemble ‘a country parson,’ while others described him as rather more dapper than that. He was reputed to always dress with the greatest of taste, wore a small neatly-trimmed goatee, smoked two-bit cigars, and peered determinedly through steel-rimmed glasses. And although he was known far and wide as ‘Colonel’ Lowery, he admitted himself that it was a title he assumed, rather than one he had earned for military service. Despite this minor affectation, Lowery never lost sight of his dedication to the ‘common’ men and women who were his most ardent readers “Colonel” Robert Thornton Lowery, 1859–1921 and supporters. Arguing on behalf of safer working conditions for the miners, Lowery wrote: “The miner is the backbone of every mining camp. It is upon the money that he earns that we, who live in the towns hard by, get our daily bread and other luxuries. It is for him principally that the saloons are fitted up in gorgeous style. It is for him that the storekeeper is waiting so that he may pay his bills. It is through his hard work that many men of capital are enabled to ride in carriages and dine with dukes in Europe. “He gets $3.50 a day in the Slocan, and for this amount he pounds a drill and lacerates rocks in the darkness of the tunnel or shaft. He occasionally is assisted up the Golden Stairs by a premature blast, and sometimes gets introduced to St. Peter by the aid of a snowslide. Being of so much value to the community, his life should be freed from danger as much as possible. One way to do this is to have all buildings at the mines built in such a manner as to obviate the danger from slides, and render it unnecessary for men to flee for their lives, as has been done during the past week. “Miners may be plentiful, and some capitalists may think that their lives cut but a small figure, but we think different. We want every one of them to have a chance to die in bed, and we urge upon all owners the necessity of seeing that their employees are protected from the danger of slides in every way possible. Take our advice, boys, or when the slides come again, some of you may have to push clouds instead of holding the end of a drill.” Lowery definitely had a talent for writing with flair and style, and delighted in using this talent to skewer hypocrites and high-handed organizations such as the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Indeed, his condemnations of the CPR were so frequent and caustic that the rail line refused to carry his newspapers, and in place of a ticket issued him a lifetime ‘tie pass’ (the right to tromp down the tracks, counting the ties). Lowery’s style earned him many enemies among the rich and powerful, but he remained unrepentant and pugnacious as ever, and could give as good as he got with even a short paragraph: “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It is also a fact that you cannot make a good, honest and pleasant citizen out of a petty, spiteful, nosey, vindictive, gluttonous individual. Such fellows by accident are sometimes elevated to high positions, when they should be sawing wood in a penitentiary or looking out from the windows of a lunatic asylum.” Here is another example: “We would rather be a frog and live upon the green scum of a swamp than supinely sit and not use our pen in the defence of liberty and justice. The good have nothing to conceal and have only admiration from a trenchant editor. It is only the sneaking, cowardly, dishonorable, back-biting and blackmailing curs that writhe in mental agony when the editorial harpoon tears away their masks, exposing their detestable acts to the gaze of an outraged and indignant world.” However, despite Lowery’s many admirable qualities, he had several serious character flaws as well. Like so many newspapermen of his time, he was a two-fisted drinker who tended to indulge in semi-regular bouts with the bottle. His alcoholism would remain with him for most of his life, and resulted in periodic sessions in hospital for the feisty little editor. Indeed, on more than one occasion, The New Denver Ledge reported that: “Col. Lowery was discharged from hospital this week, the ‘same old thing.’” Undoubtedly, however, the most distressing aspect of Lowery’s character was his naked racism toward Chinese workers. True, this attitude was not uncommon in British Columbia during this time period, and Lowery was merely reflecting a commonly held view that because Chinese labourers were often willing to work for lower wages than other workers, they brought down everyone else’s standard of living. Nevertheless, his unrelenting bigotry toward the Chinese, while understandable in the context of his times, leaves today’s reader with a feeling of distaste. As the years passed, Lowery was once again on the move with his printing press. In 1906 he packed up his equipment and his pet bulldog, Keno, and moved on to Greenwood, where he ran another paper for 14 years. His health was deteriorating, however, and he suffered from dropsy, likely as a result of his years of alcohol abuse. By 1920, with his best years behind him, he sold his last newspaper and retired to Grand Forks where he died on May 20, 1921 at age 62. His funeral in Nelson, BC was a crowded affair, and many of his old friends and subscribers turned out to pay their respects to the irascible old editor. A lifelong bachelor, Lowery left no children or family behind, just some of the most well written and entertaining sketches of early mining camp life ever put to paper. Today, some historians have compared his writing favourably with that of Bret Harte, Mark Twain and renegade newspaper publisher Bob ‘Give-em-hell’ Edwards of the Calgary Eye-Opener. Without a doubt, he was one of the most fearless and uncompromising newspapermen of his time, and he has left us an invaluable glimpse into the lives of the miners, gamblers, prostitutes, business people, and ordinary citizens who populated the Silvery Slocan.

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