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Pioneer women of West Kootenay: Alice Foster

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

The photo below comes from a glass plate negative found in Alexander T. Garland’s store in Kaslo and is believed to show the International Hotel at Nelson. If so, the woman pictured may be Alice (Mother) Foster, alias the Midnight Nurse.

It’s hard to say for certain: there are no other pictures of her or the building to compare it to. The hotel opened at the corner of Vernon and Stanley streets in 1890 but burned down in January 1894.

Kootenay Lake Archives 990.012.0058

Kootenay Lake Historical Society archivist Elizabeth Scarlett notes A.T. Garland and his son Thomas opened a store in Nelson in 1892 before branching out to Kaslo, and A.T. took many photos during that period. There were also International Hotels in Rossland, Greenwood, and Fort Steele, but not Kaslo.

In any case, it’s an awfully curious scene; Mother Foster, if it is her, seems perplexed at the snowball-wielding man with a hand on her skirt.

Alice Foster was a nurse, midwife, laundry operator, and possibly a brothel keeper. It’s believed she was born in the southern US and for several years was a chambermaid on steamboats on the upper Missouri river.

Her husband William was a barber in Fort Benton, Montana before they married. He was there by February 1877. The ad below is from the Benton Weekly Record of May 10, 1878.

William was married before he met Alice, possibly a few times. From the same paper of Nov. 30, 1877: “Mr. & Mrs. William Foster have dissolved partnership. A party with a cedar bucket caused the rupture.” I don’t know what that means. But the Record added on Feb. 1, 1878: “The cedar bucket seems to have been forgotten by Foster. Good.”

Two weeks after that the Record described William’s shop:

Mr. Wm. Foster has a gorgeous tonsorial palace on Front street, furnished with patent chairs, marble and silver-mounted toilets, costly oil paintings and elegant bathing rooms. In the evening the palace is illuminated with colored lights, supported by bronze chandeliers, which add greatly to the Oriental magnificence of the palace. It is needless to say that Foster does a driving business.

On May 17, another improvement was noted: “Foster has added to the palace a new $60 barber chair — a double back-action arrangement, made of rosewood, silk velvet and gold-headed nails. The chair looks elegant and is very comfortable to sit in.”

Near the end of the year, Foster was jilted by a fiancée, leaving him suicidal, but he quickly became involved with another woman. The Record spoke of it all obliquely on Dec. 20:

Foster, of the Palace, returned from Helena a disappointed man — a victim of misplaced confidence. At first it was feared by his friends that, overcome by the heartless conduct of his affianced bride, he would proceed to lay violent hands on himself; but we are pleased to learn that he has adopted the wiser course of transferring his affections to another maiden, and is now as happy as ever.

The Helena (Montana) Weekly Herald of Jan. 9, 1879 carried the details of his wedding to the other maiden. (Note the mention of Millie Ringold, a black prospector who was an incredible character.)

Yet their bliss was also short lived, judging from this notice in the Record on Jan. 24, 1879:

On Oct. 8, 1880, the Record reported: “Foster is preparing for another divorce.” That same month he sold his barber shop to Smith and Spalding and established the Eagle Bird saloon and restaurant. This ad is dated Jan. 7, 1881.

In early 1881, William Foster was arrested for firing a gun at Joe Foster (relation if any unknown). However, the River Press of Feb. 2, said the evidence “showed up a lame case,” as Joe Foster had been trying to pick a fight with William, who told him to leave the bar. Joe was about to hit him with a chair when William opened fire. “The evidence showed that Wm. Foster was justified in using the pistol and to better effect than what he did,” the River Press wrote.

William stood trial, but the jury could not reach a verdict. On his lawyers’ advice to avoid a retrial, he changed his plea to guilty and was fined the minimum: $50 plus costs. Joe Foster pleaded guilty to a charge of assault and was fined $18.

In July 1882, William decided he could no longer afford to advertise in the Record, which apparently earned him the wrath of the publisher, who printed an attack on his establishment. The rival River Press fired back: “Contrary to the covert assertions of our neighbor, Mr. Foster keeps the best liquors, wines, cigars etc. the markets afford and his establishment is in all its appointments first-class. He treats his patrons gentlemanly, pays his bills and aims to do right as between man and man.”

Foster married again, although given the frequency of his weddings, we don’t know if this was to Alice or someone else. The River Press of Sept. 27, 1882 reported: “William Foster and wife returned from White Sulphur Springs day before yesterday, and the latter is much improved in health.”

On Jan. 5, 1883, Foster’s saloon burned down, in a fire that also destroyed the local courthouse. A suspect was charged with arson but acquitted. Foster then briefly took over the Phoenix Exchange saloon. He left town in February, headed for Barker, Mont., and left his partner William Maurer in charge. However, it turned out Foster was on the run from creditors. An unconfirmed report placed him in Medicine Hat.

The next sign of him was a year later. The River Press of Feb. 6, 1884 revealed he was indeed in Canada: “William Foster, a colored gentleman of more or less fame in Fort Benton is at present at Silver City, NWT and is running a restaurant.” Silver City is now a ghost town; it was beneath Castle Mountain, halfway between Banff and Lake Louise. The River Press then announced on May 28: “Mr. W. Foster, tonsorial artist, Silver City, has opened an establishment at Holt City.”

This ad ran in the Calgary Weekly Herald between June 25 and Aug. 6, 1884:

Holt City was a CPR construction camp, later known as Laggan, and now called Lake Louise. Alice probably looked after the baths and laundry end of the business. We know that by this time they were married, for an unclaimed letter in her name was waiting at the Fort Benton post office as of Sept. 15, 1883.

Then something terrible happened. Earle Dickey’s jumbled notes about it are held by the Touchstones Nelson archives:

Foster was shot by Flyn, conductor on work train ballasting road along Kicking Horse moving belongings from 33rd Siding to Golden City. Taking barber chair, etc. from flat car, broke ratchet on seat. Flyn, after another trip, came in to Golden for shave at Foster’s barbershop. Foster lathered him and when Flyn looked up he saw Foster stropping razor on stove pipe. The Big Headed Flyn said “You’re not going to shave me with that,” to which Foster replied, “Yes, you son-of-a-B, I’ll cut your throat.” Flyn leaped [from] the chair with Foster after him (for Foster sore about Flyn breaking chair). Flyn made for the door, and going to caboose, got gun, returned and shot Foster.

Dickey, a Revelstoke photographer, was born in 1893, so he was not telling the story firsthand. But a death registration does exist for William Foster, 40, dated at Revelstoke on Sept. 20, 1889. His profession was given as barber on the CPR line. The cause of death: “Shot and killed. Died after 20 hours from time of shooting.” The physician was Dr. F.A. Moore of the CPR and the informant was Cst. F. Gain of the North West Mounted Police at Golden.

For years I was unable to find any newspaper report of the incident. But it turns out that is because it happened in 1884, not 1889. The death registration (seen at right) was misfiled, which is not surprising since it is very hard to read.

The earliest report of the shooting was in the Calgary Weekly Herald on Sept. 24, 1884 (pictured below), which reported that Foster, “formerly a barber in this town,” had been murdered at a place called End of Track, in circumstances similar to what Dickey described.

Foster’s barbering outfit was being moved to the front of a train which James Finn, or Flinn, had charge of. A chair was broken, which enraged Foster. A while later, Foster called Finn into his tent and gave him a dressing down. Finn retaliated. Foster rushed at Finn with a razor. Finn backed up until he was in a corner, then drew a revolver and fired four shots, hitting Foster three times. Foster died the next day. There is no word where he was buried.

According to the Weekly Herald, “The victim was of a morose disposition and regarded as a dangerous man. It is said that he shot a man in Montana, and that this was the fourth time he was known to have drawn a razor, in one case cutting a man seriously in the abdomen.” (As we have seen, he did shoot at a man in Montana, although in self-defence, and not fatally. I can’t corroborate the rest.)

Foster’s death was reported in the Benton River Press, which simply reprinted the Herald story and noted he was a former resident.

Finn was said to have worked on the CPR construction for two or three years, and was foreman of the iron car. He was “quiet and inoffensive” and a favourite of the workmen, who believed the shooting was in self-defence. Two constables arrested Finn at Eldon, in what is now Alberta. He told them he was heading to Calgary to turn himself in anyway.

Finn was sent back to End of Track for a preliminary hearing before Inspector Sam Steele. The Weekly Herald’s account of Oct. 8 was more detailed. It said a slightly drunk young man named Edward Moran was in Foster’s barber shop, arguing with him about the US presidential election. As the exchange became heated, someone noticed Moran had a revolver in his pocket.

Finn was encouraged by others to take the gun from Moran and convince him to go home. He was successful in the first instance, but not the second. As he tried to lead Moran from the room, Foster came at them with a razor. Flinn fired; Foster fell after the second shot. According to the Herald:

The witnesses testified that if Flinn had not fired when he did he would certainly have been disemboweled by the razor …
The [accused] is a young man whose character is above reproach. He is highly respected by his employers and the men under him and has always been one of the steadiest and hardest working men on the whole line. He comes from Toronto, where his father still resides. Had there been a coroner he would have been dismissed, as a jury would have rendered a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Nothing was mentioned in this story about Finn damaging Foster’s barber chair, although I suppose that could have been why Foster came after him.

Steele ordered Finn to stand trial, but finding a judge to hear the case in a remote area proved difficult. It was feared the witnesses — all transient construction workers — would not stick around if the case was delayed. By November, no trial was in sight, and at Steele’s suggestion, Finn was released on $1,500 bail. He provided $500 himself and four others posted $250 each. He soon found work as a CPR brakeman in Calgary.

Several more months went by until the Weekly Herald of July 8, 1885 revealed: “Finn, the man who shot Foster in the mountains some months ago, was arrested in Calgary a few days ago and taken up to the mountains for trial, the grand jury having found a bill against him.”

But I can’t find any report of that trial or its outcome. Earle Dickey said the case was heard in Kamloops and “Mr. Teetzel and Doc. Norms furnished horses for witnesses.”

It is only based on Dickey that we believe William was Alice’s husband. She wasn’t mentioned in coverage of his death. However, she was said to have come to Canada from Fort Benton. Dickey added:

Mrs. Foster and daughter had run a laundry at Golden, and a white girl worked for them in laundry. On Foster’s death, mother and daughter and Agnes West opened up red light house — danced downstairs and girls had rooms upstairs — all coloured girls — Ag, daughter, Mag Hines, and herself.

While I can find no other references to Alice Foster having a daughter, in Revelstoke History and Heritage, p. 40, Edward Mallandaine wrote: “Naturally there were also a number of hostess houses. One of the mistresses was Madame Foster, a large coloured woman, and another was Irish Nell.”

Alice Foster left Revelstoke for Victoria, where she was about to depart on the Olympian for Washington state when a deputy sheriff came to her room at the Commercial Hotel early one morning and detained her for an unpaid debt. According to the Victoria Daily Times of Nov. 19, 1887, the warrant was issued at the request of merchant R.E. Lemon of Revelstoke, who said she owed him $199 (around $4,000 today). That is the same Lemon who was merchant prince of Rossland, Nelson, Sproat’s Landing, and other places, and namesake of Lemon Creek.

I could find nothing further to explain how this incident was resolved, but Alice returned to the interior. She turns up on the 1891 census for Lower Kootenay, listed as a widow, age 45, and appears in the civic directory for Nelson that year as “Foster Alice mrs., laundry.” In 1893 and 1894, she’s listed as a nurse.

She moved to Nelson by 1890, where she advertised her laundry weekly in the Miner. Ironically, the ads promoted her all-white staff — which is to say non-Chinese.

Her name also turned up a few times in news items in the Miner:

Nov. 29, 1890: One evening this week an individual with little sense and less manhood struck Nelson’s only midwife and nurse, Mrs. Foster, on the head with a rock, making quite a painful bruise. The next morning the provincial revenue was increased $29.25, justice of the peace Selous imposing the fine.
Jan. 24, 1891: Nelson’s only midwife, Mrs. Foster, is making a professional visit to Trail Creek.

(This was almost certainly for Mary Jane Hanna, who gave birth to twins Molly and Lydia in Trail on March 5, 1891.)

May 9, 1891: An incipient blaze in Mrs. Foster’s laundry on Wednesday gave the Deluge hooks a chance to show their agility. Foreman Bigelow looked like a real live fireman as he rushed down Baker street with a nest of buckets under one arm and a 50-foot ladder under the other. No damage.

Oddly, the the item about Mrs. Foster being assaulted was immediately preceded in the same issue of the Miner by another item that was clearly about her, even though she was not named.

Instead, it revealed another nickname for her: the Side-Wheeler, on account of her “being employed as a chambermaid on the big side-wheel steamboats plying on the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans.”

It noted that she lived in a shack on a hill south of Baker Street “and is reputed wealthy.”

She had a dispute with her nearest neighbours, three men recently arrived from Fort Macleod. She ordered them to leave their cabin, claiming she owned it and “she wanted no white trash like them living near her.”

They replied that they rented the cabin from the man who built it, and who owned an interest in the property. They refused to budge, using a racist slur. Incensed, Mrs. Foster headed for the woodpile and grabbed an axe.

In about a minute and a half people on the street thought a cyclone had struck that cabin. One man came flying through the door, another through the only window, and the third through the roof, [Mrs. Foster] having made him an opening by making a mislick with the axe. She then proceeded to throw their furniture through the window and door and in less time than it takes to tell it, she had all their possessions scattered over lots 13 and 14 in block 7. Later on she razed the cabin to the ground.

Mislick is an archaic term for a blow that misses its target. I believe Block 7, Lots 13 and 14 are on Victoria Street, between Hall and Hendryx.

On Nov. 23, 1893, Alice Foster attended the birth of John William Frederick Morice, the son of David and Elizabeth Morice, who ran an hotel at the townsite of Fredericton, near the Silver King mine — the only birth recorded there. She’s named on the birth registration, but I haven’t found her listed on any other early Nelson registrations.

Alice Foster died on July 27, 1894. The following day the Nelson Tribune carried her obituary: “Mrs. Foster, a colored woman well known in Kootenay, was found dead in bed at Nelson on Friday morning, and was given Christian burial the same day by her friends … She came to Nelson in 1888.” (The obituary also provided us with what little we know of her life before coming to BC.)

The Ledge subsequently added that “Mrs. Foster, a colored woman, well-known in Nelson, died a few days ago. She was the first woman to settle in that town.”

Her death registration, filed by Dr. E.C. Arthur listed the cause of death as “Suffered the alcoholism.” He guessed her age to be 60, older than what the 1891 census suggested. She was presumably buried in Nelson’s second cemetery on High Street, near the present campground. All the bodies there were exhumed in 1898 and reburied at the present cemetery.

An anonymous tribute appeared in the Nelson Daily Miner on Nov. 16, 1899 entitled “Mother Foster, the Friend of the Pioneer and Prospector.”

“You’ve got your hospitals and ladies aid societies in Nelson now,” said an old timer the other day, “but when I first struck the place in 1886, we had neither and the poor fellow that wanted care or nursing had a pretty hard time of it … Not until 1889 did we have a nurse amongst us. She was a big hearted old soul that was known throughout the whole district as Mother Foster. Many a poor fellow she nursed through. I have often seen her in the depth of winter riding up to the Silver King — not side saddle either — or off towards Ymir to attend to some urgent case. Mother Foster afterwards opened up a laundry and bathroom, where Hurry’s bakery now stands on Baker street. It was the only bath in the country then, and it was kept pretty busy, for the boys were not given to a plunge in the lake. The laundry was a great Godsend to us, too, for when it comes to a fellow washing his own shirt he is likely to put off the job for too long for health or comfort sake. Poor old Mother Foster died in ’93, [sic] and everyone for miles around attended the funeral. We lost a good friend when we lost her. There was $70 subscribed in as many minutes to give the old woman a decent burial.”

One other anecdote about Mother Foster from Nelson old-timer R.G. Joy appeared in the 1947 book Three Centuries of Canadian Nursing, p. 240.

The first practical nurse was Mother Foster, known to those who worked on CPR construction. She was a coloured lady, and her sobriquet was The Midnight Nurse. Mother Foster weighed 200 pounds and was able to take care of herself. When she arrived at Sproat’s Landing en route to Nelson, she came here on the deck of a cayuse, the only transportation available, and Paddy Sheran, liveryman, charged her a high price for the ride. Mother Foster also took in washing, and when Paddy went for his laundry, she got even with him.

The story was paraphrased in Jean MacKay Bannerman’s 1977 book Leading Ladies Canada, p. 91. An anonymous, undated history of Kootenay Lake General Hospital held by Touchstones Nelson, offered an explanation of her nickname:

The only person who could give any type of care for the sick was a woman called “Mother Foster” also known as the midnight nurse, because it was at midnight that she delivered a baby girl to Mr. and Mrs. Jim MacDonald, contractor and furniture dealer in Nelson. Mother Foster was the first practical nurse that we have any record of. She ran her own little private hospital, where the present Royal Canadian Legion is presently located.

However, a delayed birth registration says Edith Maud McDonald, born May 7, 1894, was actually delivered by Dr. David LeBau with the assistance of nurse Muir. There’s no information to corroborate her private hospital; the site named is where Dr. E.C. Arthur built his home office in 1892.

Mother Foster received her due at the Canadian Federation of University Women Stories Inspire Passion event and at Touchstones Nelson’s recent She, We, They exhibit. She’s also mentioned in Touchstones’ permanent exhibit and in John Norris’ Historic Nelson. But none of them had the benefit of the photo seen above.

Updated on Dec. 29, 2018 to add the newspaper stories about the death of William Foster, the ads for his barbershop, and the item about Mrs. Foster being detained at Victoria in 1887. Updated on May 31, 2019 with the item about the eviction with an axe.

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