“Mr. Sandon”: John Morgan (“Johnny”) Harris, 1864-1953
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.