Harris, John Morgan

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Harris, John Morgan

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John Morgan Harris (JMH) was born in 1865 in Vernon Mills, Virginia. He was the eldest son of a respected and aristocratic family, whose fortune and lifestyle collapsed during the years following the American Civil War. In hopes of redeeming his family’s name and wealth, JMH traveled westward in 1885 when he was barely out of his teenage years. In the spring of 1888, when rumours of a huge silver strike in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene district circulated through the northern plains, he left for the Panhandle of Idaho.
He arrived in the heart of Idaho’s Silver belt in 1889 amidst the numerous thriving mining camps. Harris decided that the Wallace camp would become the “town” of Couer d’Alenes and bought more than twenty lots in the area; two of which cost him a total of 50 cents.

JMH was a man of old southern manners, soft spoken and slight of stature, not a man equipped for life on the rough and ready frontier. However, he was a quick study and very adaptable. He became a very successful real estate agent, and as a sideline, sold pianos to miners. Wallace was destroyed by a fire in 1890 but it did not falter and was rapidly rebuilt.
There were some hard edged drifters in the Couer d’Alene area in those years, men with names like “Arkansas” Ed Harroun, “Con” Sullivan, Wyatt Earp. A number of these men gravitated towards Wallace and “jumped” the lots owned by Harris and others.

One such tough individual was Zach Lewis who had a reputation as a gunman. Lewis ignored Harris’ claim to a one acre lot and proceeded to build a house on the lot, despite Harris’ objections. Harris challenged Lewis to a duel in 1891 and at the end Lewis lay dead from four gun shot wounds. In retaliation, several of Lewis’ friends threatened Harris who decided to relocate. Having heard of the discovery of high grade silver deposits in the area, he sold his lots and headed to the Slocan District of British Columbia, Canada.

He settle in the Sandon mining camp and paid a French Canadian by the of Ruecau $2,700 for several undeveloped claims on a steep mountain side east of the camp. For a year JMH had no success and he allowed a group to bond his properties. However, in 1894, Harris’ new company, Reco Mining Company hit the edge of a high grade lode.

In 1896 his company produced nearly 1,000,000 ounces of silver and almost 7,000,000 pounds of lead. The mine continued to be produce month after month.
Harris returned to Idaho a millionaire, built himself a mansion called “Glenora” and lived the life of a country squire for a few months, after which he returned to Sandon and to work. Sandon was still a thriving mining community and was now an incorporated city.

Although many miners began leaving for the Klondike Gold Rush, Harris decided to build Sandon into an ongoing success. He already owned the Reco company, the Sandon Light and Waterworks company and several hotels, including the Reco and the Goodenough and bought six other businesses, including a three storey office building he called “The Virginia”.

Sandon’s most productive years, 1895 through 1897, were over and Harris realized that he could no longer rely on the silver mines to increase his fortune. He decided to settle down and conserve.

In 1900 a fire leveled Sandon, leaving behind only Harris’ livery stable which he converted into the second Reco Hotel. He built a second building and called it “The Virginia” once again. Sandon did not have the same style it had once had but Harris never lost faith that it would prosper.

In 1902 Harris found out that one of his properties had been trespassed on and that another mining company, The Byron White Company from Spokane, Washington, was mining ore on his claim. Harris sued and was counter sued. These were the first disputes in what was to be years of bitter litigation over ‘Apex Rights’, a law which essentially allowed the original owner of a claim to follow a vein into other properties.

Harris won in County Court, lost on appeal to the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and won the final round in the Supreme Court of Canada. The final step was the Privy Council of England where JMH won again. The cost of litigation for Harris was over $100,000 but he gradually recouped this through his various companies. He was once again comfortable, but Sandon, began to slip and took a sharp turn downward. By the mid-1920’s the city was on the verge of bankruptcy.

In 1928, at the age of 63, Harris decided to advertise for a wife. A succession of women traveled to Sandon, all expenses paid, but it was not until Harris met Alma Lommatzsch, age 26, that he married. JMH promised Alma that she would be his sole beneficiary.

The depression of the 1930’s saw a decline in the fortunes of both Sandon and Harris, and he and his wife had a strained relationship. The arrival of Japanese Canadians in the 1940’s alleviated the situation to some degree but after World War II the population shrunk to six.

Harris died in 1954, at the age of 90. His death was recognized throughout the West Kootenay area and the province. He was buried, according to his last wishes, in Virginia. When Harris’ last will was read Alma found out that The “Virginian”, the once celebrated “King of Sandon”, the wealthy mine owner, had left his wife exactly one dollar.


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