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James F. Wardner
Fairhaven Investor & Nationwide Character
Jim Wardner arrived in Fairhaven in 1889,
encouraged by promoter, Nelson Bennett, to invest his talents and his financial skills in guiding the future of this promising young town on Bellingham Bay.
James Wardner was born in Milwaukee in 1846, and if one can believe his autobiography, he began his investment career at the age of eight. Borrowing 75 cents from his mother, he purchased a pregnant rabbit, anticipating respectable sales profits based on the rapid population increase known for this particular species. Although profit was not as he hoped, he did manage to pay back his mother and add a bit to his pocket.
At the age of 13, he signed on as an apprentice in a drugstore. This led him to a stint as a hospital steward for the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.
In 1871, Wardner moved to California where he began his mining career with the purchase of a silver mine across the Mojave Desert from Los Angeles near a camp called Ivanpah. He sold that mine and moved to San Francisco and became involved in mining stock speculation. This was the beginning of his many adventures and misadventures in the mining business. He earned a fortune and then lost it all in further speculation.
| ||Returning to Milwaukee, Wardner now had a wife, Mary Hadley, and a new son. Vowing to settle down and get a regular job, Wardner was again struck by mining fever and off he went to the Black Hills of North Dakota. This time he established a freight business to supply the miners. The next several years featured a series of fiscal endeavors focused mainly on the operation of mines or the provision of supplies to miners. Interspersed were visits back to Milwaukee and his growing family. |
One of Wardner’s more successful ventures was in the Coeur d’Alene area of Idaho where he established the town of Wardner and dealt in both real estate and banking along with his mining activities.
Soon, however, his financial situation deteriorated, and on a trip to visit potential investors in Montana, he met Nelson Bennett who was on his way to New York. Bennett convinced Wardner to come to Fairhaven in Washington Territory and participate in the development of this growing new town on Bellingham Bay.
In 1889, Jim Wardner moved to Fairhaven and immediately launched into various business ventures. He purchased multiple business lots in the heart of town, established two banks, and within a month, he organized the Fairhaven Water Works Company, the Fairhaven Electric Light Co., the Samish Lake Logging and Milling Co., and the Cascade Club for its business and social affiliations.
Blue Canyon Mine
James Wardner, far right.
After earning $60,000 in sixty days selling properties, Wardner bought a coal claim on Lake Whatcom in 1890 where he opened the Blue Canyon Coal mine. He also incorporated the Marble Creek Marble Company
Close up of Jim Wardner
Photo from May 4, 1951 Seattle Daily Times,
Full page article
Noted for his good humor and whimsical nature, Wardner launched one of the more outrageous hoaxes of his day. Joking with a young reporter from the Fairhaven Herald, Wardner announced a new venture on Eliza Island to raise black cats, selling their pelts for a profit on the fur market. He called his venture the Consolidated Black Cat Co., Ltd. Due to Wardner’s reputation, the story was spread in media across the nation, and a number of investors lined up with the hope of cashing in on this novel venture. Sadly, the only riches spawned were the incipient seeds of legend.
Wardner brought his family to Fairhaven and built a grand residence on the southeast corner of 15th Street and Knox Avenue which is described in the Historic Neighbors section of this website.
In 1891, he sold his interest in the Blue Canyon mine to a Helena, Montana syndicate that included Peter Larson. The managers of the coal mine, J.J. Donovan and Julius H. Bloedel, teamed up with Peter Larson and established a logging and milling operation on the shores of Lake Whatcom. This was the beginning of the long and profitable association of Bloedel and Donovan’s timber operations.
By 1893, the Fairhaven boom collapsed amid a nation-wide economic depression. Wardner sold all his financial interests in order to shore up the assets of his banks in town.
Wardner’s adventures continued as he sailed to South Africa, arriving there on November 13, 1893. Returning home in 1895, he again turned to mining operations, this time in British Columbia, establishing the town of Wardner, B.C. From there, he moved on to the Klondike and finally to Cape Nome. Although Wardner ends his autobiography with his Alaska adventure, he was to embark on future endeavors that became much more personally challenging. While on a mining exploration in Nevada, Wardner drank heartily of water in a stream that was contaminated with cyanide from a facility further upstream.
Newspapers nationwide described Jim Wardner as "near death” from the effects of this poisoning, but he largely recovered and ventured into Mexico in search of a silver mine in the state of Sonora where he and his colleagues found themselves surrounded by the local Yaqui Indians. Wardner managed to get a letter out to Senator Du Bois of Idaho with a plea for help. A contingent of Mexican troops were dispatched to La Colorado after a threat from President Roosevelt, and the group was rescued.
Not long afterward, most likely from residual effects of his blood poisoning, James F. Wardner passed away in El Paso, Texas, on March 29*, 1905, and was laid to rest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he grew up. He asked that his burial marker be inscribed: "Oh, where, and oh, where has Jim Wardner gone? Oh, where, and oh, where is he? With his tales of gold and his anecdotes old, And his new discover-ee?” However, we find his grave marked with simply his name and dates. His wife, Mary, the mother of his nine children had predeceased him in 1901.
*This date corrects other publications. The news of Jim Wardner's death reached publications throughout the United States by following day, March 30, 1905.
Bellingham Herald, March 30, 1905
Wardner, James F. Jim Wardner, or Wardner, Idaho by Himself. New York: The Anglo-American Publishing Co., 1900. [Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2015.]