The man who ran for mayor last year in the sprit of Nelson founding father John Houston has now launched a website devoted to his life and legacy.
Richard Rowberry is behind johntruthhouston.com, which includes a timeline and illustrated sections about Houston’s newspapers, politics, and persona.
“He’s a hero to a lot of people, myself included initially, without really knowing much about him,” Rowberry says.
“The more one learns about him, the less heroic he seems on some levels, although he did achieve a lot in the growth and prosperity of early Nelson.”
The website exposes Houston, warts and all.
Arriving in Nelson in 1890 after many years as a tramp printer, he established its first newspaper, The Miner, as well as a real estate business, and an electric company that proposed to serve the fledgling camp.
“As a writer, I’m always attracted to people with reputations as successful writers,” Rowberry says. “I was quite impressed by his Mark Twain-style.”
Houston sold The Miner after a couple of years, only to establish a rival paper, The Tribune.
When Nelson incorporated in 1897, he was elected mayor. During his tenure, residents voted on a proposal to buy his power company that was initially defeated — but then passed by two votes in a recount. Houston denied allegations of conflict of interest and vote tampering.
While his often fiery and bombastic personality earned him enemies, it didn’t seem to alienate voters. Although defeated in a re-election bid in 1899, he returned to the mayor’s chair in 1900 and was also elected MLA.
His time in provincial politics was disastrous, low-lighted by drunken speeches in the legislature and a fistfight with future premier Simon Fraser Tolmie.
“In his political life, he seemed to illustrate the Peter Principle,” Rowberry says. “He rose to the level of his incompetence. He fell apart at the provincial level and it would be interesting to find out psychologically what was happening.”
Houston was nevertheless re-elected MLA, and also secured another term as mayor. But personal demons finally chased him from office: after disappearing to Nevada for six weeks, he resigned the mayoralty.
Houston established newspapers at Prince Rupert and Prince George before his death in 1910 at age 59. His body was returned to Nelson for burial and his funeral was the largest the city had ever seen.
Rowberry worked with students to research and write the website and received funding from the Columbia Basin Trust as part of a multi-part project that also involves creating a theatre piece about Houston.
“Running for mayor was kind of a research project,” Rowberry says. “I want to make some sort of statement about Houston’s political philosophy and his accomplishments and how that could be applied to Nelson today.
“I touched a little bit during my campaign on the entrepreneurial approach to city government he exemplified and Nelson benefitted from. I’d like to see more of it.”
Rowberry is also hoping to create another virtual exhibit about the history of the city’s fire department, using the story of the fire bug of 1912 as a jumping off point.
He welcomes feedback at email@example.com or through his Facebook page.