The plaque on the Houston memorial on Vernon St.

COLUMN: John Houston is missing

Nelson’s first mayor had a habit of disappearing in the night without leaving a forwarding address.

Second of two parts

Last week we started looking into new information about the early life of Nelson’s first mayor, John Houston, including a fracas in a Texas saloon in 1877 that left him with nine stab wounds and within an inch of death.

Houston’s exact whereabouts for the next few years aren’t known, but he turns up next in Boise, where the Idaho Statesman of March 22, 1881 reported: “Mr. John Houston, who has been foreman in the Statesman office for the past six months, will leave tomorrow for Bellevue, Wood River. Mr. Houston is one of the best printers ever in Boise City, and a very intelligent, honorable gentleman; a good accountant and bookkeeper; capable of running a newspaper or job office — or most any other kind of business. We wish him good health and a handsome fortune awaiting him in that new El Dorado.”

According to a later account, Houston arrived in Hailey, Idaho, where the part owner of the townsite offered him his pick of two lots on Main St. Houston built a log home and although it only had a canvas roof and no floor, he rented it out for $30 per month.

That summer, Houston built another log home on a second lot that he rented for $35 a month. Between his properties and work on the Wood River Times, he earned over $200 per month. However, he became restless, quit his job, sold his properties, and walked to Butte, Mont., only to return a few months later and resume his position with the Times.

But on July 29, 1882, the Idaho Statesman noted: “John Houston, a printer, formerly of Boise and a man well known in every Territorial newspaper office, suddenly disappeared from this city on the morning of the 4th of July. He came here from Wood River, had several hundred dollars in his possession, and his disappearance has caused considerable alarm among his friends. It is thought that he may be in San Francisco or Portland.”

(Such disappearances would not be uncommon for Houston. During his last stint as Nelson’s mayor, he vanished without leaving a forwarding address and later turned up in Nevada.)

The Wood River Times found the disappearance “quite strange, as he owns a half interest in a mine on the East Fork of Wood river, which shows a good ore vein, and which he expected would enrich him. But he was always somewhat queer, and it is just possible that he is tramping through Washington Territory.”

The co-owners of Houston’s mining claim, known as the Sterling, placed a legal ad notifying him that he owed them $50, otherwise his interest would be forfeited.

The Statesman reported a possible sighting on Aug. 3: “Mr. Morris D. Abbott writes us that John Houston … passed through Baker City on the 12th of July on his way to The Dalles, Oregon.”

But his whereabouts were not firmly established until the following February, when the Times received a copy of a Milwaukee newspaper called Peck’s Sun, “which conveys as much information as a letter. The date is crossed out and changed to Madison, Wisc., Monday, Feb. 19. In a corner of the paper is written ‘30c a M.’ All this in John Houston’s handwriting. He is therefore in Madison, Wisc., working for 30 cents per 1,000 ems. As the price paid in the Times office is 50 cents per thousand, it is not unlikely that John Houston wishes himself back again, and that the wish will cause him to turn his wandering feet this way at an early day.” (An em is a typographical measurement.)

Nothing further was heard from Houston until February 1887, when he apparently became city editor of the Butte Miner. Presciently, the Wood River Times wrote: “He is a thorough printer and journalist, and an honorable, upright ‘white’ man, who would scorn to do a mean act; and if he would only settle down for good somewhere would soon make his mark in the world.”

A little more than three years later, after stops in Calgary, New Westminster, and Donald, Houston arrived in a fledgling town on the shore of Kootenay Lake to do just that.

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