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Canadian-born mayors of Northport

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

It may be in Washington state, but I regard Northport as an honourary West Kootenay town, given that its existence from 1898 to 1921 was largely due to a smelter built to treat ore from Rossland’s LeRoi mine.

Most people from Rossland and Trail are extremely familiar with Northport and vice versa. On top of that, at least four or five of Northport’s mayors were Canadian born. Can any other US town make a similar claim? I have no idea, as it doesn’t seem to be the subject of intense scholarly interest.

Canadian-born R.G. Field (lower right) was a member of Northport city council in 1915. W.B. Wilber (far right) might have been Canadian-born as well.

Courtesy Northport Historical Society

Were only naturalized American citizens allowed to run for municipal office? Another question I am unclear on, although there is plenty of doubt as to whether all those on this list would have met that requirement. I have a list of birthplaces for 31 of Northport’s mayors, although I am still missing quite a few. My list is almost complete from 1898 to 1941, but very spotty afterwards.

Northport was incorporated a city on June 1, 1898. I’m not sure when it became a town.

Joseph Devitt

Devitt was Northport’s third mayor, serving from Jan. 3, 1900 to May 22, 1901. He was born in Sarnia, Ont. on Jan. 16, 1858, 1860, or 1861, depending on conflicting sources.

He was furnace foreman of the Northport smelter by 1898 but left suddenly in 1901. According to the Northport News, he quit to move to Spokane. But the Spokesman Review reported he was “laid off because he sympathized with the union.” At the same time, he resigned as mayor. The News added:

Mayor Devitt is probably the best practical smelter man in the Northwest; he has the happy faculty of gaining the love and esteem of the men under him, and consequently the most skillful workmen will always stay with him, and they don’t need watching or prodding to compel them to do their duty; he has been one of our best and most intelligent citizens and we are sorry that he has left us.

He then headed to Crofton, on Vancouver Island, to take charge of a new smelter there. By 1910, he was running a stage line between Crofton and Chemainus.

He died in Crofton on Jan. 27, 1928 — the only one of Northport’s mayors to die in Canada. This is his obituary from the Anaconda Standard of Feb. 28, 1928, which provides most of the biographical information we have on him.

On the 1900 US census, Devitt indicated he came to the US in 1885 and was a naturalized citizen. Yet on the 1911 and 1921 Canadian census, he indicated he held Canadian citizenship.

John Fulton Costello

Costello was Northport mayor No. 6, serving from June 1904, following the resignation of James E. Daniels, through 1905. He was born in L’Original, Ont. on Dec. 15, 1864 to Martin and Anne Jane (Fulton) Costello. He immigrated to the US sometime between 1884 and 1887 and was in Stevens County as of 1896.

Despite his residence in Northport, and perhaps because of his Canadian citizenship, he was appointed inspector of fruit pests for the West Kootenay. Secretary J.R. Anderson of the BC Board of Horticulture explained it in his report for 1895-96:

During a visit to Kootenay I found that the inspection could not be satisfactorily done at Nelson, especially as there was considerable friction between the customs officials and the quarantine officer. I therefore appointed Mr. Costello provisional quarantine officer at Northport, in Washington, which was subsequently confirmed by the board. Northport, although in foreign territory, is practically the only point at which all fruit and nursery stock entering Kootenay can be inspected; the arrangement still continues.

On March 7, 1897, Costello married Josie Fronick in Rossland. Their son Martin was born in Northport the following year, and Costello was reportedly “proud as a peacock.” By then, he was working at the Northport smelter as chief clerk. He was also junior warden of the Northport Masonic Lodge, alongside W.F. Wilber, another name on this list.

Josie Costello died in 1901 as a result of blood poisoning following an operation for appendicitis. She was interred in Northport. The following year, John married Mary Elizabeth Scales in Toledo, Wash. and went on to have six children with her.

By 1908, he was running a Spokane paving company started by his brother Peter, who died in 1906. The 1910 census did not indicate he was a naturalized US citizen. As of 1920, he was in Portland, and by 1930 back in Spokane.

He died in Tacoma on Nov. 11, 1937, age 72. His last surviving child, Francis, died in Coeur d’Alene in 2011, age 94.

Robert Gibb Field

Field was born in Mosa, Ont. in September 1846 to Peter and Elizabeth (Fleming) Field. He married Mary Ann Campbell in Ontario in 1869 and the first of their three children was born the following year.

The family relocated to Washington state around 1880, first to Spokane, then Lincoln, then by 1900, Northport. As of 1901, Field was proprietor of the Union Grocery and Lodging House on Columbia Ave. (the ad at right is from the Northport News of that year).

He served as mayor in 1907 and possibly 1906 as well, but newspapers from the latter year are unavailable. He was still in Northport as of 1930 but died in Spokane on Dec. 17, 1933, age 87.

John Miller Ross

Ross, a druggist, was born on Sept. 9, 1875 in Pickering, Ont. to Walter and Elizabeth (Miller) Ross, third eldest of seven children. He moved to the US sometime between 1896 and 1898. He married Elsie May Lister in Ohio in 1911 and had three children with her.

He became mayor in December 1916 during an exceptionally tumultuous time in Northport politics that saw six mayors plus one interim mayor serve in the space of two years. He resigned on May 2, 1917.

He still lived in Northport as of 1920, but moved to Spokane by 1930. He died there on May 20, 1940, age 64.

Walter B. Wilber

Wilber (also written as Wilbur) succeeded Ross as mayor in June 1917 and served until October, when he too quit — or was pushed out. According to the Colville Examiner, Oct. 6, 1917: 

At a council meeting at Northport charges were made against Mayor Wilbur and City Marshal and Clerk Smith of collecting money contrary to the law. They were requested to resign, and upon declining to do so were impeached.

Impeached! Yet all the Northport News reported was “Northport is now without mayor, clerk, or marshall. At the last meeting of council these officials resigned and none were appointed to take their places.” No big deal, I guess. The following year, Wilbur sued the city. His complaint stated that they had been trying to collect a $2 poll tax from him — and had him arrested for refusing to pay.

The Examiner reported: “He alleges that the city had no authority to pass, enact or enforce an ordinance for collecting such a street poll tax, that it is contravention to the constitution of the state and of the United States.”

I don’t know what the outcome was.

Wilber, a market gardener, may or may not have been Canadian-born. Various sources given his birth as May 1847, 1848, or 1850, in New York or Canada. New York seems more likely, although a Walter Wilber of about the same age was born in Darlington, Ont.

He married Emma L. Orr in Adrian, Mich. in 1894, but she was not listed with her husband on the 1910 census at Northport. A man named Walter Wilber died on Aug. 23, 1934 in Lynden, Wash., but I am not positive it was the same guy, as there was a dentist named Walter Wilbur in Lynden — who coincidentally stood for mayor there in 1891.

Norma Alice Haigh

I’m not sure if Haigh was the first woman to serve as Northport’s mayor, but she may have been, taking office in May 1976. While Trail recently elected Lisa Pasin as its first female mayor, Haigh was born in Trail on July 28, 1922 to Arthur and Ada (Wiles) Nicholl. That was the same year Doris Robinson became the first woman to run for mayor of Trail. Until Pasin, no other woman let her name stand for the job.

On April 5, 1944, Norma married Douglas Haigh at St. Saviour’s Pro-Cathedral in Nelson. On the marriage registration she gave her address as 421 Carbonate St. in Nelson. Douglas lived on Gordon Road and was the son of Reginald and Matilda Jane (Lomas) Haigh.

In July 1946, they moved to Kettle Falls. Norma became a naturalized US citizen at Colville three years later. Unfortunately, her time in office coincided with another rough spot in Northport’s municipal history — although rough doesn’t begin to describe it.

In 1974, John Walls defeated Robert Wilson for the mayor’s chair, but Walls soon resigned to move to Spokane. Val Harworth was then appointed mayor, but died in office in 1975. Ed Markhardt was appointed mayor, but resigned in February 1976. Ed Dick was appointed mayor but resigned in May, although he continued to sit as a councillor. Finally, Haigh was appointed mayor — the fifth in two years.

Her term had barely begun when about 40 people marched down the main street and hung effigies of her and Dick from a power line support cable. At a council meeting, attended by sheriff’s deputies to keep order, someone threw a glass pitcher at Dick, whose nose was bloodied. These incidents resulted in lots of unflattering news coverage, like the item seen below in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner of June 3, 1976.

The source of the dispute was Dick’s decision as mayor to fire the town marshall and clerk.

A recall petition circulated calling for the ouster of Haigh, Dick, his wife Linda (also a council member) and councillor Ann New. After some legal wrangling, a compromise was reached where Dick agreed to resign and New to run in a recall election. If New won, council would pick Dick’s successor. If she lost, council would appoint her replacement from a list of four recommended by a citizens group.

By an 87-76 margin, voters approved New’s removal, but I don’t know who replaced her. Nor do I know how long Haigh ultimately served as mayor. She died in Colville on Jan. 18, 1989, age 66.

At least three other women have held the role: Ruth Willard, ca. 1986-88, Ollie Mae Wilson, from 1990-2001, and current mayor Karene Balcom.

Albin Almstrom

One final bit of trivia: Albin Amstrom served as a councillor on the inaugural Northport city council, elected in 1898, but resigned after only a few weeks to move to Grand Forks. From January 1918 to at least August 1920, he was mayor of Phoenix, BC. I’m not sure if he was still mayor when the city disincorporated in April 1921. Nevertheless, he must be part of an elite group to have held public office in both Canada and the US.

Almstrom was born in Sweden on Feb. 28, 1864. On the 1901 Canadian census, under nationality, the enumerator wrote “Swedish” but then added something else overtop that I can’t read. On the 1911 Canadian census, Almstrom indicated he became a naturalized Canadian in 1899.

He died in Grand Forks on Aug. 2, 1932, age 68.

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Dec 02, 2018

really fascinating, Greg, and so much fun to read. I guess no one worried about "dual citizenship" those days. thanks.

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