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Home Social History Captains of Industry

Captains of Industry:
Sandon's thriving commercial enterprises

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 ...

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 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, drugstores, 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.

virginia

Bank in Harris's Virginia Building (courtesy John Sanderson)

Harris's Virginia Building - 1897

Bank inside Virginia Building

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 multi-millionaire, 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 "mini-booms" over the next 50 years, purchasing competitor's 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 began it- 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 (now the Sandon Historical Society 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 hydro-electric plant.

The Historic Sandon Walking Tour, available at the retail counter in the museum, provides a handy reference guide to these and many other structures and ruins within the Sandon townsite.

 
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