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James Frederick Wardner Series
An introduction: miner, cat rancher, town boomer, city father,
man of legend from the Rockies to Washington,

Skagit River Journal introduction
By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore, ©2003, last updated July 2011
(James F. Wardner)
James F. Wardner

      James F. Wardner is the creator of one of the most famous whimsical hoaxes of the 1890s Northwest, the Black Cats Co. We post this new excerpt about Wardner as a transcription from an excellent source. Jim Wardner of Wardner, Idaho, By Himself, (New York: The Anglo-American Publishing Co., 1900) is his memoir with some fascinating facts of his rise to wealth and some chapters written with tongue far into cheek, most riotously the chapter headed, "My Cat Ranch."
      Wardner carried on the gag from its birth in Fairhaven in 1891 through nine years when he published this memoir. He laid out many clues over the years, but none were finer than the supposed general manager of the company, Mr. Sam Weller, of Cincinatti, he was. Just the name hearkens back immediately for we who cruised into Dickens via The Pickwick Papers (1867). Sam Weller's introduction as the increasingly delightful Mr. Pickwick's man is a key to enjoying all the layers of that wonderful serial. Wardner's genius was to label such an executive as the setup for the gag. His cultured readership understood and most played along. But the satire and wit was so sparkling at times that the story ballooned, from a tale Wardner told to a Fairhaven journalist as a joke while bored, and the resulting straight-forward story that was picked up and transmitted all over the world, as you will read. This story marks the time when I first wriggled my toe in the water of historical-narrative writing, with the help of the late Galen Biery. If I had only used a tape . . .
      We suggest that you read this summary profile of Wardner first, which gives more broad scope of his life, and then the second story introduces you to the Black Cats and the results of our original research, conducted over countless 25-cent beers at the Kulshan Tavern four decades ago. With owners Rex and Marion Odell chiming in and occasionally in the company of Fairhaven Mayor Bobby Burns. And then read our new transcription of "My Cat Ranch." That portal path is quite a trio of tales. In fact, you can follow the path that we suggest below in the Background files to fully enjoy Wardner, this capitalist who shared so much with us before his death in 1905.
      And the new transcription of "My Cat Ranch" is icing on the cake of this silver king who was truly self-made and unique, among many competing characters in Fairhaven, including William "Lightfoot" Visscher and the occasionally dirty Dan Harris. We are confident that the cat tale will become at least the third funniest story on our site, of 700, along with the Otto Klement diary tale of 1881 and the good ole boys and the pig in Lyman, and Frank Wilkeson's recap of how flim-flammers took the Swede loggers for a ride in old Sedro by the river in 1889. That's mighty fine company.
      The rest of our original profile below is almost all due for some updates and newer information, which will be posted later this summer. We are still researching the Boston Mine, which was apparently his tidy grubstake upon becoming a mover and shaker in Fairhaven.

Wardner came to Fairhaven in 1889, Washington's pivotal year
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      James Frederick Warner arrived with a flourish in the city of Fairhaven on Bellingham Bay in 1889, that pivotal year when Seattle, Ellensburg and Spokane burned and Washington became a state. James Bennett was building the Fairhaven & Southern [hereafter F&S] Railway and booming the towns at both ends — Fairhaven and Sedro, just 26 miles apart on a diagonal from northwest to southeast.
      Nearly 115 years later, Wardner is best known for two things: his castle, which still perches on the south flank of Sehome Hill, 500 feet above Fairhaven; and one of the best folklore tales of Whatcom County — the black cat farm of Eliza Island. The first is solid and still dominates the slope as a bed and breakfast inn, but the second is ephemeral as a sunset out on the bay. But we are getting ahead of ourselves and Wardner should be known for many more exploits.

The first prince of bunnies
      Wardner was one of the classical self-made men of the frontier. Much of the record about him is folklore but we recently found excerpts from his autobiography that are very revealing. He was born in Milwaukee in 1846 and started in business at age eight dealing in rabbits because he noted correctly that they multiply rapidly. Such would not be his last experience with pelts. Like Sedro-founder Mortimer Cook, he made several fortunes on his own and lost them, only to take wing again like a Phoenix. (And those who have enjoyed reading my memories of Fairhaven Mayor Bobby Burns and his bunnies might get a chuckle; you will find the link there to our new chapter about Bobby.
      After working as a hospital steward for the 39th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, Warner lost his savings when he invested in an "anti-cow-kicking stool" that recalcitrant cows promptly destroyed with their hooves. This steeled him for his future out west, where he headed in the late 1860s. His fortunes fluctuated like a roller coaster's path, both in mining and in sales. His first mining adventure was in Arizona, where he made good money, followed by a stint in Utah. In Deadwood, South Dakota, he cornered the egg market for the upper Midwest. At different times, he was an assistant to a tape worm specialist, grew orange crops in Los Angeles and tried to figure out how to raise pigs on a diet of acorns. Bellingham historian Galen Biery shared one of Wardner's extravagant claims that he once he bought a silver mine, invested in stocks that tanked and was left with two quarters. After one quarter rolled down a grate, he went inside a near by saloon and bought a drink with the other. He came back outside, lifted the grate and found $9.50. He borrowed $24 more from a friend and went to Nevada.
      On several occasions when he achieved modest success as a retailer, Wardner became bored and sought other adventures. After a short stint as a freighter in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, he went back to "civilization" in Milwaukee, where he became an ace salesman for a product called Butterine. He was doing very well until he shipped his product by rail down to New Orleans where the train was delayed on a rail siding and the product melted while it sat in boxcars in full sunlight. After selling the mess as grease, he read about a gold strike in north Idaho and back he went.

Idaho, where Wardner eventually strikes it rich
(Wardner mine and town)
Wardner town and a mine after the turn of the century. Photo from the Wardner Museum

      When Wardner returned to Idaho, he started on an economic roller coaster that eventually led to a vast fortune 15 years later. According to the Illustrated History of North Idaho (1903), he had a "forwarding," or freight, business in 1883 in Eagle City, the first town to really boom in the hills east of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Eagle City was typical of Western boomtowns in the period because it faded as quickly as it rose, but it did attract some enterprising folks such as Wyatt Earp and his wife Josie, who operated the White Elephant Saloon there in 1883. Miners and storekeepers simply moved up Prichard creek in January 1884 to form a new town they called Murrayville. The latter town is now named Murray and Eagle City is a ghost town. By late 1884, Wardner had a grocery and general store in Murrayville, where he sat in the middle of the action and waited for things to shake out. From his autobiography we learn that Wardner became bored again by late August 1885 and was about to give up on Idaho and return to Milwaukee. Although the mineral deposits in the nearby mountains looked promising, the nearest railroad was far away to the west at Spokane Falls and future prospects looked slim. Chuck Peterson, a former mayor of Wardner, Idaho, writes that Wardner's buddies threw him a going-away party and the drinks piled up. Suddenly a grizzled old miner appeared in the bar with word of what became known as the famous Kellogg bonanza strike. Wardner decided to stick around.
      According to Peterson's combination of fact and folklore, Wardner had already grown weary of retail and again longed for both excitement and wealth. He hiked into the hills with whiskey for fuel and found Noah Kellogg, who is now proclaimed as the most famous miner in Idaho history. In different versions of the Kellogg myth, either Kellogg or his burro discovered the site of the eventual Bunker Hill Mine on Aug. 26, 1885. Kellogg took some of the ore that his burro pawed out of the hillside to a fellow prospector named Philip O'Rourke. O'Rourke recognized the quality of the ore and they filed their claim on Sept. 10, 1885. They immediately sought a grubstake since both were tapped out; other Murrayville retailers staked them originally. In Peterson's colorful tale, Wardner spun like a dervish around Kellogg and his fellow prospectors, blazing trees with a hatchet to carve out a claim to the water rights in the hills around, which in the West can often be as valuable as gold. Wardner ponied up $15,000 of his own to grubstake Kellogg, O'Rourke and Cornelius Sullivan, a gambling partner of O'Rourke who staked a claim of his own. In return, Wardner exacted a first option on the claims, promising the motley miners to attract major capital.
      The challenge energized Wardner and he immediately headed to San Francisco where he contracted with the Selby Smelting Co. to sell the initial ore. On his return to Idaho, he contracted with the three prospectors to take out 25,000 tons at five dollars a ton. Wardner built a small initial mill at nearby Milo Gulch that had a capacity of 100 tons per day of ore that contained both lead and silver. But after removing about 800 tons, the ore that had looked so promising at the start petered out and Wardner was in debt. In his autobiography he recalled that once again he almost gave up the ghost and returned back east. Then one day he was staring into a whiskey glass in the workers' still when his foreman crashed in and announced that his crew had found an ore seam that was about 36 feet wide.
      He headed back out again, this time to Spokane, San Francisco and Portland, but the money men there turned him down. Next, he decided to look eastward over the border to Montana territory and a heavyweight there who also had political moxie. He approached Governor Sam Hauser, who also happened to be the president of the First National Bank in Helena. Hauser had been appointed as the second territorial governor and he made a fortune when he divvied up the town of Red Lodge with Henry Villard of Northern Pacific [hereafter NP] Railroad. They redrew the nearby Indian reservation's border so that the new burg could sit on top of a booming coal mine. He also mined sapphires near Helena and kept his eyes on any promising gold or silver claim.
      Hauser sent his own experts to verify the ore's value at Wardner's claim and then put up the seed money for the necessary concentrator in return for a share. A concentrator was a stamping plant that produced a concentrate of the minerals or metals and further treatment was required to recover the pure metal. According to the 1982 Idaho Miner magazine, "Jim's return on his investment was a dollar a ton for the ore removed from the mine plus one-third share of the profits and $50,000 for the water rights during the life of the contract." A manuscript from the Bunker Hill Mine papers at the University of Idaho explains that "he was able to interest a syndicate composed of A.M. Holter, S.T. Hauser, A.M. Euster, and W.E. Cox, all of Helena, Montana, and D.C. Corbin of Spokane, who organized the Helena Concentrating Co. This company built the first mill on the Sullivan side of the gulch in July of 1886."
      In April that year he joined with Hauser and many of the same investors to organize the Coeur d'Alene Railway and Navigation Company. They planned to establish a railway connecting some point on the main line of the Northern Pacific Railroad with Coeur d'Alene Lake, and a line of steamers to operate between the railway and the head of navigation on the river. Wardner's namesake town formed in 1886 between two mountains of ore and the return on his mine investment and the water rights grew into a small fortune.
      As with all Western booms, the secret was to know when the excitement peaked and to get out of town with the cash before the hangover started. In 1886, Wardner financed a gondola that crossed above the city of Wardner from south to north to haul ore from the mines. This was necessary because the city was in a bowl between mountains. The mine partners decided to invest in an expensive tunnel in 1886 and Wardner began selling off his interests. By 1887, Simeon Gannet Reed, a Portland capitalist, purchased the mining claims and mill for a total of $750,000. That sale may have been very timely because a combination of a severe blizzard and the following Chinook wind and floods wiped out the train's roadbed.

(Fairhaven September 1890)
      Fairhaven in September 1890, looking west from the Great Northern Railroad dock up Harris street, with Mount Baker in the background. This photo appeared in the 1890 Fairhaven Illustrated magazine. From the Bourasaw collection.

Fairhaven or Bust!
      During the Idaho railroad negotiations, he met Nelson Bennett, an NP contractor who would soon raise capital in 1888 for the F&S railroad project in Washington territory. Bennett told Wardner that Fairhaven on Bellingham Bay was the next town on his boom list as soon as he finished blasting out the Stampede Pass tunnel for NP. We recently read the fine book, The Lyric Singer, written by the late Dorothy Koert about Bellingham's poet laureate Ella Higginson, which provides some details about Wardner's next move:
      [In 1889,] Ella heard many rumors about a new arrival in Fairhaven. Since Jim Wardner of Wardner, Idaho, had come to Fairhaven, the village had become known nationally. In Spokane, Jim Wardner had met Nelson Bennett, who said 'Jim, I want you. I am building up a great city — Fairhaven will be the terminal point of three great overland railroads. [Ed. note: Bennett was then courting several railroads, among them Union Pacific, and more seriously, the line that James J. Hill was building across the Rockies, which would soon become the Great Northern.] Jim Wardner went on a business trip to New York before he decided to come to Fairhaven. He was an ambitious and wealthy man, but some of the local citizens greeted his arrival with mistrust, for he was too flamboyant for the conservative. Nevertheless, he became an influential citizen. An energetic man, he created publicity across the nation by his frenetic activity and sometimes outrageous business ventures; but he was known as an honest man 'who made and lost millions rapidly and cheerfully — though prone to enormous and colorful exaggerations.'
      Bennett and his partners incorporated the Fairhaven Land Company [hereafter FLC] in Tacoma in November 1888 as a subsidiary of the Fairhaven and Southern Railway. The company had subscribed capital of $250,000, with the largest share belonging to C. X. Larrabee, who amassed a fortune from silver and copper mines in Montana. Energetic capitalists such as J. F. Wardner, Roland G. Gamwell and C. W. Waldron came from all over the country to invest in the new town. Fairhaven was platted in 1883 by one of Washington's most colorful characters, Dirty Dan Harris. The FLC bought Harris's property plus an adjoining plat owned by Edward Eldridge and Erastus Bartlett and called Unionville or Bellingham at various times.
      Bennett also bought the old Kansas Colony property at the original town of Whatcom along with other scattered claims along the bay. All these purchases were based on the premise that a transcontinental railroad company would choose Fairhaven as its western terminus after building across Cascade Pass near the Skagit river. A brickyard was started in Happy Valley, an eastern section of Fairhaven, and the FLC placed an initial order of 1,000,000 bricks in July 1889 at $11 per thousand for the planned edifices of the terminus town.

Wardner makes himself at home
      Wardner arrived sometime in 1889 and in just one month he had organized the Fairhaven City Water and Power Co., where he was president; the Fairhaven Electric Light Company, where he was secretary and treasurer; the famous Cascade Club in the Mason Block; the Samish Lake Logging and Milling Company; the First National Bank, where he was vice president; and the Fairhaven National Bank, where he was also president.
      The Mason building, which has been fully and beautifully restored, housed offices for forty very active real estate companies of the booming town plus dozens of doctors, dentists and lawyers. It also housed the Hamilton Townsite Co., a promotion by the Huntoon brothers. The Cascade Gentleman's Club on the west side of the top floor was managed by Captain Grahame, survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade of Balaklava, and Wardner could keep his finger on the pulse of the young town by stopping by for coffee or brandy in the afternoons.
      Wardner was on hand the first day that a train ran on the F&S line, Christmas eve of 1889. Bennett, always punctual, earned a substantial bonus for the FLC by completing the line by Christmas day. Wardner's First National Bank opened on the first floor of the brand new Fairhaven Hotel the day after Christmas and in the first six months the bank accumulated a surplus of $6,600 after it was capitalized by $50,000.
      The FLC placed advertisements in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and New York newspapers and circulars were sent abroad as far away as Germany, attracting boatloads of investors and settlers every week. By the spring of 1889, business lots in Fairhaven were selling for between $1,000 and $1,500 where only shacks stood a few months before. In her fine book, Fourth Corner, Lelah Jackson Edson described Wardner as a real estate plunger, a most apt term. Wardner bought 135 of the lots and several sources estimate that he made $60,000 in real estate profits in the first two months after his businesses opened. He was second only in ownership to fellow banker Waldron, who also invested in the new town of Woolley when it formed at the end of the F&S line in 1890. The crown project of the FLC was the five-story Fairhaven Hotel, built in the Jacobethan Revival style by noted architects Frank Longstaff and H. N. Black in the tradition of grand railroad hotels. Wardner decided that one of his banks should be in the lobby; Waldron built his Bank of Fairhaven a block south on 12th street. Charles X. Larrabee bought the hotel and other Bennett properties just before the nationwide Depression plunged the whole area into financial turmoil in 1893. The hotel was torn down in 1953 as Washington celebrated the centennial of the territory. The Waldron building still stands.

The Wardner Castle
(Wardner castle)
Wardner castle a century ago, but this is probably not Wardner's family. Galen Biery photo. Read more at this fine Whatcom County Museum website. Click photo to see rare photos of the interior from the 1890 Fairhaven Illustrated magazine.

      Wardner moved his wife and large family over with him and he decided that they deserved the finest home that money could buy. Several sources insist that Longstaff and Black built the house but we have obtained a very rare copy of the 1890 Fairhaven Illustrated magazine, which notes that they did not build it. Instead we agree with the current owner of the house that the builder was noted architect Kirtland Cutter. Cutter was fresh from helping rebuild Spokane after the great fire of August 1889, where he would have caught the eye of both Mr. And Mrs. Wardner. Cutter later designed Spokane's famous Davenport Hotel. In Fairhaven, Cutter built the Wardners a 23-room palace that perched 500 feet above the town on the south cliff of Sehome hill at the corner of Knox and 15th street. The house was apparently completed in time for the incorporation of Fairhaven that spring, the papers for which Wardner added his signature.
      Wardner's wife, Mary, and children, Elsie, Kate, Edward, Golden, Alice and Charlotte must have been stunned after living in much more humble houses in Idaho. One room was prepared as a nursery for little James Frederick, who, we discovered, was baptized on Aug. 23, 1891, at St. James Episcopal church. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described the three story home as "the finest residence in Fairhaven on a terraced hill . . . [the] house is surrounded by a handsome park, designed by an expert gardener, decked out with rare flowers and shrubs." The lucky invited guests were agog as they viewed the six fireplaces, old English latticed glass on many windows, fir and oak woodwork and colored ceramic tile fireplaces. One bath was appointed with Handel lamps, a Belle Epoch guilt mirror and a 19th-century Carrera marble bust of Beatrice. The third floor contained a billiard table, a game and exercise room, the special Pine Room, and the feature that dominated the Fairhaven skyline — the Turret Room. The 12-foot octagonal room afforded a breathtaking view is breathtaking panoramic view of Puget Sound to the north, the bay, Lummi island and Fairhaven harbor to the west and the mountains and forest to the south and southeast. The beautiful grounds were restored by the former owner of the renamed "Castle Gate House" Bed & Breakfast, right down to the Japanese warrior sculptures that guard the secluded garden. 2011 update: The Wardner house sold within the last year; we will share details when we have them.

Wardner's Swan Song and Bloedel & Donovan
(Blue Canyon City and coal mine)
Blue Canyon City and coal mine

      Wardner's tour in Fairhaven was very short, roughly two years, but he went out with a bang. After Capt. Henry Roeder opened his mill on the bay in 1853, the major industry in the early days was a coal mine at the north flank of Sehome hill, which closed in 1878 after a number of fires, floods and cave-ins all around. For the next ten years the original towns along the bay languished but many knew of coal outcropping on the far southeast shore of Lake Whatcom, a few miles to the east. In 1890, Wardner decided to buy what was called the Blue Canyon claim for $20,000. He had met two very enterprising young men when he first moved to Fairhaven and, after sizing them up, he took them on as partners and managers of the new venture.
      Julius H. Bloedel came out West from Wisconsin and visited Fairhaven in 1889, where he met John J. Donovan, who was then managing Wardner's Samish Lake Logging Co. The two men took a liking to each other and Bloedel moved out here for good in 1890. Wardner hired Bloedel to develop the Blue Canyon Coal Co. [BCCC] mine and arrange for wagons to carry coal over the hill to Bellingham. Barges transported the coal up to Silver Beach from Blue Canyon City. In March 1891 Bloedel himself led the first two wagons with the first BCCC coal over the hill to bunkers on Bellingham bay. Donovan, who started out as a teacher in New Hampshire and later was chief engineer for Bennett's construction squads for the Northern Pacific railroad, became superintendent of all BCCC operations, including the mine and the barges. After arriving in 1889 with a pack on his back, fresh from surveying the possible Cascade Pass rail crossing, Donovan became an ideal partner in the coal business.
      When Wardner sold out his BCCC and Samish Lake businesses in 1891 to a Helena, Montana, syndicate headed by Peter Larson, Bloedel and Donovan, those men became the key managers of the businesses. After the coal played out and a deadly 1895 explosion almost closed the mine, they concentrated more on the various logging companies and in 1913 they formed their own business, which competed with Ed English as one of the most significant logging operations in northwest Washington.
      Wardner also sold his castle to Larson. He could see the writing on the wall. Even though James J. Hill had flirted with Fairhaven, he was going to place his Great Northern railroad terminus in Seattle and Wardner could see that the Fairhaven boom was headed for a bust. He was right, of course, because the nationwide Depression of 1893 ended the Fairhaven big dream and buildings such as Waldron's were never fully occupied above the first or second floor. While diehards hung on, hoping for Hill's largesse, Wardner sold the castle and took his family on a world tour, spending the years of the '90s Depression in various locales including South Africa, Mexico, Alaska and then British Columbia.
      Fifteen years after making his first fortune in the foothills of the Rockies, Wardner completed the circle and moved in the late 1890s to the Kootenay district of eastern British Columbia, almost due north of his stomping grounds in Idaho. Another town was named for him — Wardner, B.C., which is now just a wide spot in the road in the middle of a beautiful recreational district. But a century ago, it was another frontier village that grew quickly with mining and logging as the Depression ended. Once again, he was a partner in a proposed railroad there, but the town and surrounding area never boomed like his towns in Washington and Idaho. That may have been due to the after-effects of the Depression of 1893-96. As far as we know, Wardner and Sedro-founder Mortimer Cook are the only frontiersmen to found or inspire towns in both B.C. and the U.S. Wardner died in El Paso, Texas, on March 3, 1905.


      Handwritten blank page at front: "only few printed." $1.50, New York Library copy, Jim Wardner of Wardner, Idaho, By Himself, New York: The Anglo-American Publishing Co., 1900. [Return]

Links, background reading and sources
Here is where to start for all things Wardner and then pursue the Black Cats
The new transciptions of Wardner's autobiography, including his last word on Black Cats
Still more Wardner background
Then the background articles about Fairhaven and the principals of these stories

Update: 2007, communication from Wardner family
      We are very pleased to have received letters from descendants of the Wardner family, starting in 2004, and we urge any other descendants to contact us because we plan to update this story later in 2007. Randolph Wardner was the first. His grandmother, Charlotte, was the seventh of eight children of James Wardner, and Randolph's mother was an only child. Gary Kistler wrote to us and let us know that his grandfather was Hadley, the oldest child of James's family. He also told us that James Wardner died in El Paso, Texas on March 3, 1905, and is buried in Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his home state. His wife died in Chicago on New Year's Day, 1901, and is buried next to her husband. Jon M. Wardner also wrote. He is involved with the Wardner family association and he told us that the first of the Wardners in the U.S. arrived in Boston in 1752. This timeline (http://www.crowsnest-highway.ca/timeline.pl?page=26) of Wardner, Idaho, and Wardner, British Columbia, confirms the year, but not the date: "March 28, 1905, El Paso, TX: James F. Wardner dead."

Story posted on June 25, 2003, updated April 12, 2007, last updated and moved to this domain July 6, 2011.
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