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Sandon founder’s family visits

ABOVE: Dan Davis (left) and his father Ron visited New Denver and Sandon last week. Dan is holding a photo of a very young John Morgan Harris, Ron
ABOVE: Dan Davis (left) and his father Ron visited New Denver and Sandon last week. Dan is holding a photo of a very young John Morgan Harris, Ron's great uncle. BELOW: Johnny in later life, enjoying one of his favourite pastimes. BOTTOM: Harris was buried in Virginia under his birth name.
— image credit: ABOVE: Greg Nesteroff photo BELOW: Sandon Historical Society/Alma Harris collection BOTTOM: Ray Cultrera photo

For the first time in 60 years, direct relatives of Sandon founder John Morgan Harris have visited the remains of the city he built.

Ron Davis, a video industry pioneer from Orange, Conn., and his son Dan, a software developer from Santa Monica, Calif., spent last week in the Slocan retracing their ancestor’s steps.

“It was fantastic,” Dan said. “I had researched so much of it, I wanted to see it for myself and get [my father] out here because he’s been working at it longer than I have.”

Through the magic of Google Street View, both had already explored Sandon’s streets, but were thrilled to sit at Johnny Harris’ roll-top desk in the museum.

They also collected several souvenirs: a splinter of the old Sandon boardwalk, a couple of pieces of galena, a hand-forged nut from the power station, and a stick of wood from an old garage in New Denver being torn down. The latter was apparently built with lumber from Harris’ Reco Hotel.

New Denver resident Agnes Emary, who taught in Sandon in the early 1950s and knew Harris, also gave them a hand-painted plate showing the city about that time.

Sandon’s king

Harris was Sandon’s wealthiest and most prominent citizen. He owned one of the chief mines in the region along much of the townsite, the waterworks, and power plant.

Born in 1864 at Vernon Mills, Va., the fourth of six brothers in the well-to-do Davis family, he changed his name after older brother Arthur fatally shot a rival storekeeper and fled to the Pacific Northwest. Arthur adopted the surname Harris and Johnny, who later joined him, appears to have followed suit simply so they could be introduced as brothers.

Beginning in 1886, Johnny tried his hand at many occupations in the burgeoning mining town of Wallace, Idaho — everything from impresario to ice salesman. But it was as a realtor that he made his mark. On his ranch, he laid out a townsite addition and began selling lots. Within a few years, he had acquired a great deal of land.

But he ran into trouble in 1891, shooting and killing a squatter on his property named Zach Lewis. Johnny and a co-accused were brought before a grand jury, which refused to return an indictment, believing it was self-defence. (If his reputation was damaged, it was swiftly rehabilitated, for he was soon named a notary public.)

The following year, Johnny heard of massive silver strikes north of the border, and although he had no practical mining experience, set out to join the Slocan rush. In addition to staking several claims, he and some partners bought a promising property called the Rueceau, later renamed the Reco, which for a while proved terrifically rich.

With the proceeds he began developing the city of Sandon, in a narrow gulch along Carpenter Creek — earning a reputation for ruthlessness and litigiousness in the process. He also bought a mansion in Virginia near his family home called Glenara, and installed his brother Henry’s family as live-in caretakers.

By 1897, Sandon and Johnny were both at their peak. Things began to unfold in 1900, however, when Johnny’s attempts to sell the Reco for $1 million fell through, just as the ore body started to run out. Then Sandon burned, and he suffered losses of over $170,000 — probably well in excess of $4 million today. He carried no insurance.

Sandon was rebuilt, but began a slow, steady decline as the mines tapped out. The city’s population declined as most right-thinking people pulled up stakes. Yet Johnny wouldn’t join them, insisting Sandon would yet come back. (And it did, briefly, as an internment camp for Japanese Canadians during World War II.)

When he was 62, Johnny married Alma Lommatzsch, who was 26. Hired as his secretary, she became his bride and then his caregiver as they eked out an existence in the Reco Hotel while the town crumbled around them.

Johnny Harris died in New Denver in 1953 at 89. Although he stubbornly remained in Sandon for over 60 years, at his request his body was returned to Virginia for burial.

Two years later, a washout undermined many of Sandon’s remaining buildings, spelling its end as a community.

Struggle over the Reco

Of Johnny’s brothers, one died in childhood, another never married, one married but had no children, and one had four children but no grandchildren, leaving only his brother Henry with surviving descendants today.

Henry was Ron Davis’ grandfather, although they never met. Ron’s father, Henry Frost Davis, was born at Vernon Mills in 1908 and raised on the family property, but left home as a teenager.

Ron was born in Chicago and moved to southern California as a child. Neither he nor his father ever met Johnny, but he recalls his mother “making a comment about him marrying ‘some 20-year-old hussy.’ It was the first time I heard of him, but my parents knew about him before that. All I knew was he had some silver mines.”

Following Johnny’s death, Alma tried to get the Reco mine working again, but needed approval from the Davis family, who collectively held a half-interest. They remained at a stalemate into the mid-1960s. “One day my dad handed me all of the stock certificates and Alma’s letters and said ‘Deal with it,’” Ron says.

Alma wanted a controlling interest in the Reco, and eventually succeeded in convincing a family member to sell her shares. However, that wasn’t good enough for the mining company Alma had lined up: they wanted all the stock.

She twice failed to have the courts invalidate the Davis shares, but finally succeeded on appeal. It was mostly for naught. Although some work was carried out, the Reco’s best days were long behind it.

Ron first visited Johnny Harris’ birthplace in the late 1960s or early ‘70s, shortly after the estate left family hands. He returned many years later with his sister and brother-in-law and got a tour from then-owner Henry Champ, a CBC News correspondent.

In 2002, Ron’s interest in Sandon was rekindled when he saw it profiled in the Ghost Towns of Canada film series. He phoned Veronika Pellowski, author of Silver, Lead, and Hell: The Story of Sandon, to talk about his great uncle, although at that time, no one here realized Johnny’s birth name was Davis. Ron says the family always knew about the alias, and when Johnny visited Virginia, he used his birth name.

Prior to Ron and Dan, the last Harris/Davis relative to visit Sandon was Johnny’s niece, Golda Davis Pollock, who came in 1954 to help settle his estate.

Alma Harris also raised her nephews in Sandon after her sister and brother-in-law died in a car accident. Some of their family has visited from Alberta in recent years.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Agnes Emary’s name.

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