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A girl named Columbia

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

On Oct. 26, 1892, the sternwheeler Columbia was on the Arrow Lakes, en route from Little Dalles, Wash. to Revelstoke, when a passenger went in to labour.


Letta Holliday was moving from Pullman, Wash. to Edmonton along with her husband Andrew and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Mattie, but the family’s new addition wasn’t willing to wait for the journey’s end. Near Hall’s Landing, on the upper lake between Galena Bay and Revelstoke, Letta gave birth to a “fine, plump” baby girl.

The SS Columbia (left) and SS Lytton are seen at Revelstoke in 1893 or 1894. The Columbia was only in service for three years, but that was long enough for a birth to occur on it. (Arrow Lakes Historical Society 2014-003-978)


The delighted crew and passengers took up a collection of $70 or $80 (something like $2,400 to $2,700 in today’s currency) and Rev. J.C.C. Kemm presented Letta with an address that read in part:

Associated as we are, for the time being, as members of one household, sharing the same roof and partaking of the same table, such an event appeals irresistibly to that instinct of our nature which, although too often buried beneath a confused heap of conflicting interests and opposing objects, teaches us that after all we are members of one family, joined together in the great brotherhood of mankind.
We hail this child, therefore, as a daughter and sister, and we esteem it our privilege and duty to put on record this token of our goodwill, and to express our hope that by the blessing of Almighty God, prosperity and happiness may follow this child all the days of her life.

It was signed by 50 people: Capt. J.G. Core, master; G.W. Caton, purser; A.E. Lindquist, pilot; Charles Brydson, mate; Charles Bodmin, chief engineer; Peter A. Wilson, assistant engineer; B. Tompkins, steward; W.S. Jones, customs inspector; E. Chapman, J. Whitmere, H. Farland, S. Johnson, J.A. Bland, W.A. Getchell, William Nole, B.F. Shields, A.W. Osborn, M. Bergnshaw, John Nelson, J.C. Kemm, H.S. Neeland, George Alexander, James Anderson, Acton W. Sillitoe, J.P. Southerland, M.C. Chapman, Mrs. D. McCrae, Mrs. Jane Griffin, Thomas Downs, J.D. Paris, C.E. Barry, Ed Dundas, J.A. Hultman, G.W. Hughes, E.H. Fletcher, C.E. Shaw, G.A. Bigelow, S. Underhill, A. Robinson, W. Kirkup, H. Campbell, John Hecker, P. Fullman, William Kirby, J. McIntyre, M. McGowen, E. Leith, D. Byone, George Price, and W. Haywood.


In presenting the money, they made one request: that the girl be named after the ship and river on which she was born. Letta and Andrew loved the idea. Coincidentally, the bishop of New Westminster, Acton W. Sillitoe, was on board, and eagerly agreed to do the christening. The baby was named Columbia Florence Holliday.


“It is unnecessary to add,” the Vancouver Daily World reported, “that the rest of the day was converted into a Columbian Holiday alongside of which a Roman holiday pales into insignificance.”


The Revelstoke Kootenay Star added: “Had it been a boy he would, no doubt, have had to struggle through life under the name of Columbus.”


When the boat landed in Revelstoke, mother and child were taken to the CPR hotel, where both were said to be doing well. And that, when this story has previously been told, is where things are left. But what happened to Baby Columbia?


Thanks to online genealogical resources, we know that by 1894 the family settled at Lacombe, about 25 km north of Red Deer, where three more children were born — all on land: Uhel, Agnes, and Roy. The family was still there as of the 1901 census, but by 1910, they moved back to Washington state and farmed near Ritzville, southwest of Spokane.


On April 6, 1910, at age 17, Columbia married Leroy Garfield Burkhart, 30, at Ritzville and moved in with her husband’s family at Ellensburg. Leroy was a deliveryman for a grocery store.


The marriage registration revealed Columbia didn’t actually use that name: she called herself Florence. The following year, she gave birth to Gordon Kennedy Burkhart.

From at least 1918-20, they lived at Washtucna, about 50 km south of Ritzville, where Leroy worked on a wheat farm.


On the 1930 census, Leroy is nowhere to be seen, but Florence and Gordon were in Moscow, Idaho, where Florence worked in a specialty shop. On the 1940 census, Florence was listed as a widow — Leroy died in Ritzville in 1936, age 57 — and lived in Moscow with her son and daughter-in-law Vera Beckevold, whom Gordon married in Spokane in 1932. Florence was then manager of a clothing store and a member of the Idaho Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Club. She chaired their general convention in 1946.


We don’t know much about the rest of her life, but she died on June 15, 1992 in Paradise Valley, Arizona, age 99 — five months after the death of her son, and four months short of her 100th birthday. Her obituary in the Arizona Republic gave her name as Florence Holliday Burkart, stated she was a clothing store owner, and erroneously added that she was born in Washington state.

Columbia Holliday (1892-1992) was better known as Florence Burkhart. (Ancestry.com)


She was predeceased by her father (1944), mother (1946), elder sister Mattie (1947), and younger siblings Agnes (1917), Uhel (1981), and Roy (1987). Two other brothers were born after she left home: Dale (1914-72) and Kenneth (1912-2002). She doesn’t appear to have had any grandchildren.


The Columbia, on which Florence was born, burned in 1894 at Waneta.


UPDATE: Columbia was not the only child christened after an Arrow Lakes boat. William Bonnington Johnston was born in Nakusp. His middle name came from the SS Bonnington, launched the year of his birth.


When he died in Castlegar in 1983, age 72, his obituary claimed that he was actually born the same day the Bonnington was launched: “The doctor at the time was worried that he would miss the launching but everything worked out on time.”


The trouble is that Johnston’s death registration gives his birthdate as Sept. 12, 1911. The Bonnington was launched on April 24 of that year and had its maiden voyage on May 10. If his birthdate coincided with some other milestone related to the boat, I can’t find it.


Updated on Nov. 28, 2020 to add details about William Bonnington Johnston.

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I love this story! The Reverend's words left me teary. How beautiful that this baby's birth brought everyone on board the vessel together in celebration and love.

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