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Pioneer women of West Kootenay: Martha Collins

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Among the heritage buildings lining Washington Street in Rossland is the Collins Hotel, built around 1897. Its namesake was pioneer prospector and hotelier Martha (Mother) Collins, who also ran hotels in Ymir and Erie. She was said to have been known in every mining camp in the west. As one anonymous writer gushed:

There were few miners in the district who were not familiar with this extraordinary woman. She knew every man by his Christian name, and in the course of her long career seemed to have had every woman working for her at some near or remote time. Thrice in possession of $100,000 and several times flat broke, [her] experience was both extensive and peculiar. When the history of the Pacific slope comes to be written, Old Lady Collins, as she was familiarly called, should have a whole chapter to herself.

The same eulogist praised her grace under pressure, her razor-sharp memory, and her unerring judge of character: “A just confidence in her own powers and profound faith in her good fortune … characterized her moves on the business chequerboard. With very few exceptions, she knew exactly what ought to be done — and how to do it. She was born to rule and at once assumed power and responsibility as hers of right.” Another tribute called her “one of the best known hotel landladies from Omaha to San Francisco.”


Just how Martha attained such a lofty social and business standing, or made and lost her fortunes, is not known. While she was said to be “familiar with nearly every district, and even in the Gulf of Mexico, from New Orleans right up to Juneau” and could tell stories from “a long string of towns” over 40 years, I know little about her early life.


She was born somewhere in Virginia on Dec. 29, 1849 or 1851 according to conflicting sources. I don’t know her maiden name, who her parents were, or anything about her upbringing. It appears her first husband was Joseph Hanna, with whom she had a daughter, Josephine, born in 1870 at Clintonville, West Virginia. I know nothing of her second husband, Mr. Collins, with whom she had two sons, Harry Lorin, born in 1880, and Lorenzo, in 1882.


Nor do I know when she came west. Our first definitive sign of her, with Mr. Collins already out of the picture, is at Bellevue, Idaho in 1886, running the International Hotel. According to the Wood River Times, she “keeps the floor of her dining room thoroughly wet all the time and the room so dark that her boarders eat by lamplight. In this way the room is always cool and free from flies.”

Ad from the Wood River Times (Hailey, Idaho), Sept. 22, 1886


In 1887, she headed about 150 km west for Mountain Home, Idaho to open a new hotel, the Elmore House. She subsequently bought the Pacific Hotel in the same town and was declared to have the “reputation of running the best hotels” along the Oregon Short Line Railroad.


Martha’s daughter Josephine also lived in Mountain Home with her husband James H. Miller, whom she married on Jan. 18, 1888. Oddly, she gave her maiden name as Wright. James was 30 while Josephine was 17. Their daughter Martha Augusta, named for both of her grandmothers, was born in Mountain Home on Nov. 22 of that year.


But by then, Martha had moved on to running the Commercial Hotel in Caldwell, Idaho, another 120 miles northwest. With each new hotel came remodeling, renovations, and new furniture, plus additional newspaper testimonials about her business acumen.

Mountain Home (Idaho) Bulletin, June 2, 1888


Martha Collins’ reputation for taking charge in trying situations was well earned. Once, a party in Caldwell found themselves stranded when the stagecoach that was supposed to take them from their hotel to the train depot left without them. Martha immediately seized up the situation, ran onto the street, and hailed the driver of a team of mules hitched to an ice wagon.

Before the poor fellow realized what had struck him the wagon was full of chairs and a couple of strong men were tossing ladies over the high side boards. By this time Mrs. Collins had gained the astonished driver’s seat. Snatching the ribbons from his hand … and with a graceful wave of her hand to the gaping crowd that had collected, she started down the road like a streak of lighting. And she made the train, too.

Martha continued to operate the Commercial Hotel through May 1889, then set out for Oregon to look after a new hotel there. Her adventures in that state go unchronicled.


In 1891, she was in Tekoa, Wash., where her daughter and son-in-law were running an hotel. Their second daughter, Inez Frederica Lucille, was born either there or at nearby Oakesdale on May 21, 1891. From Tekoa, Martha rented the Thielsen hotel at Colfax, which later became known as the Hotel Collins. Her next few years are not well documented either.


But lured by the mining boom north of the border, Martha left Colfax in September 1896 for Rossland, where she rented a building and established another hotel. (In her absence, the Collins House in Colfax became a brothel, which was soon raided.) The Collins House hotel first shows up in the Rossland business directory of 1896-97 with Martha listed as proprietor. However, an ad in the Rossland Evening Record of April 1, 1897 shows she had already leased it to someone else.


While in Rossland

STOP AT

The Collins House

Washington Street

Graham & Washbarn

Proprietors


Martha’s name turned up twice the Rossland Miner in May 1897, first when a Mr. Brossau sued her for $515 in “wages and money loaned.” The judge awarded him $55.50.


The other item was just one sentence, but takes on great significance 124 years later: “Building operations will be commenced in the course of a day or two upon several new hotels [in Ymir], one of which, it is said, will be the property of Mrs. Collins of Rossland.”


The Quartz Creek Miner of Sept. 2, 1897, one of the few surviving editions of this early Ymir newspaper, carried the following ad for her new establishment:


THE HOTEL YMIR

is now open. Nice furnished rooms.

GOOD ACCOMMODATIONS.

Mrs. M. Collins

Proprietress


This is the same Hotel Ymir that stands today, much enlarged, altered, and filled with Hans Wilking’s amazing art collection. So it turns out that one of Ymir’s oldest and most important buildings was built for Martha Collins, something that has been completely forgotten.

Before: Ymir Hotel, in 2000.

After: Ymir Hotel, 2007.


She wasn’t in Ymir long, however. The following month, Martha was back in Tekoa under alarming circumstances: she and son Lorin were arrested for “using language intended to provoke an assault.”


The Spokane Spokesman Review explained that Martha’s daughter Josephine and son-in-law Jim were in the midst of separating. Their two daughters were to live with their father but Josephine had visitation rights. One day, Josephine visited the hotel they formerly ran together, but Jim refused to let her see one of their daughters, accusing her of attempting to abduct the child.


Jim took Josephine by the arm to stop her. Her resulting scream “could be heard in all parts of the town and a large crowd soon gathered.” Among them were Martha, Lorin, the mayor, and a police judge.


Martha charged up the stairs as the mayor and judge tried to block her. But Martha, “a woman of firm determination and massive build, promptly knocked the police judge down with her fist.” Lorin also tried to land a punch, but other bystanders grabbed him.


It wasn’t the fisticuffs that resulted in their arrest, but rather a related argument with a bartender who made “some sleighting remarks” about Martha. Her response, “though very forcible, would not appear well in print.” When the matter came to court a few weeks later, Martha was fined $1. Lorin doesn’t appear to have been formally charged.


In the meantime, Martha bought three lots on the corner of Ramsey and Hinkie streets in Tekoa and announced plans to build a new hotel. She appears to have changed her mind, however, and instead leased the Hotel Pedicord in Spokane, with plans to run it with her daughter. As with all of her business ventures, it proved short-lived.


In 1898, she was reported as making “quite a deal” in purchasing the Canadian Bell mine, about one mile from Ymir. Assays ran as high as $62 in gold to the ton, but Martha made no fortune.


Her whereabouts for the next two years are unknown, but possibly she joined the Klondike Gold Rush, as later she was described as “an experienced mine manager, having opened and developed several properties” in the Yukon.


She reappears in West Kootenay in late 1900 as proprietor of the BC Hotel at Erie, near Salmo. Her son Lorin, though barely 18, tended the bar. Notes in the Ymir Miner read:

Mrs. Collins will be pleased to see any of her Ymir friends when in Erie. The BC Hotel is the place … If you are looking for a good day’s fishing go to Erie, put up at the BC Hotel and Lorne [sic] will put you on … When in Erie stop at the BC Hotel and make an assay of the contents of Lorne’s bar. You will not find anything but the best brands of wines, liquors, and cigars … When in Erie stop at the BC Hotel. Mrs. Collins will treat you white [sic] and feed you on the best.

The 1901 census found Martha, now 49, still running an hotel at Erie with the help of Lorin, daughter Josephine, 30, and son Harry, 21, who was otherwise working as a railway brakeman. All listed the year of their arrival in Canada as 1898.


Only two guests were at the hotel the day the enumerator stopped by, but both were interesting: William (Canada Bill) Feeney was one of the earliest settlers of the Salmo Valley, while Robert W. Craig was the namesake of Craigtown, a phantom townsite nearby.


I can’t swear this was the BC Hotel, however, because when Martha sought a liquor license in late 1901, it was for the Mersey Hotel in Erie, not the BC, which was now run by David Church. (Erie had another hotel as well, known simply as the Erie.)

Erie, ca. 1905-15. The Mersey Hotel is the building at centre right with bay windows. (Greg Nesteroff collection)


Martha had also been actively prospecting that year, locating claims including the Clinton, the Woodburn (in partnership with D. Boyer), and the Dandy (in partnership with Duncan Dewar, John Brean, and William Flannigan). She also bought an interest in the Fissure, Monitor, and Standard claims from Flannigan.” None, to my knowledge, made anybody rich.


Martha continued to run the Mersey until late 1902, when she transferred the license to John Brean, aka Breau (I wonder if he was also the Mr. Brossau who sued her in Rossland in 1897). After about a year, Breau left to run the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Ymir and Martha’s daughter Josephine took over the Mersey with her new husband, George McBean, an Erie miner whom she married at the Methodist parsonage in Nelson on Nov. 26, 1903.


Wherever Martha went in 1903-04, she too found a new husband, a Mr. Davis, about whom we know nothing. If the wedding took place in BC, no registration survives. In November 1904, the Davises took over the Mersey from the McBeans, who in turn assumed management of the BC Hotel.


The following month, Mr. Davis also bought the Fort Sheppard Hotel at Waneta from Fred Adie, but I don’t know if Martha was involved in its operation. By March 1905, she already had a new job, operating the boarding house at the Second Relief mine near Erie. She also leased the Armstrong and Treasure box mines, part of the Transvaal-Zambezi group, and employed four men. According to the Ymir Herald, “Mrs. Collins expects to ship a car load of high grade ore about Christmas.”

The Fort Sheppard Hotel is seen at left, ca. 1920s or 1930s. Built in 1893, it was demolished in the early 1950s ahead of construction of the Waneta dam. (Fred Franzen photo, courtesy Thor Franzen)


At about 10 a.m. on March 10, 1906, a second-storey stove pipe at the BC Hotel came loose. The occupants on the first floor were soon started to discover flames bursting down the stairs. Everyone got out safely, and all valuables from the lower floor were saved, but the building was destroyed, an $800 loss. Josephine and her husband carried no insurance. A few months later, the McBeans leased the Winnipeg Hotel in Grand Forks. They ran it for a little over a year.


After another absence, Martha returned to operate the Mersey Hotel for a third time in late 1908. By now her third marriage was apparently over, for she reverted to being known as Mrs. Collins.


Sometime during Martha’s years as doyenne of Erie’s hotel scene, John McAvoy involved her in a practical joke he played on a couple named Ole and Justina who wanted to get married but missed the train from Salmo to Nelson. McAvoy told them he could help. As Rollie Mifflin recounted in The Early Salmo Story:

[McAvoy] hired a team of horses and a buckboard, with Ole's money of course, took the lovers to Erie and left them in the company of the owner of the Mersey Hotel, “Mother” Collins. The joker hunted up his friend explained the situation to him, and they agreed upon a plan to be followed and proceeded to the hotel. Mother Collins entertained Ole and Justina until the joker returned with the man they understood was the J.P., an officer of the law.

The man posing as the justice of the peace proceeded to perform a phony ceremony, with McAvoy and Martha serving as witnesses. It wasn’t until the next day that the couple realized they had been the butt of a joke.


Martha became a naturalized Canadian in 1909, but soon departed for California in failing health. One friend who knew her in Idaho and again in Rossland said he wished she were

as prosperous today as she was in the golden days of Wood River [Idaho] when she was worth $100,000. When I first met her she was a picture of health and in the bloom of youth and I am very sorry to see her in such a bad state of health and so unfitted for business as she is today. In the old days we looked upon Mrs. Collins as a woman in a thousand.

Martha Collins died on Aug. 16, 1910, age 58 or 60, in Sonoma County and was buried in Oak Mound Cemetery in Healdsburg, California, where her children erected a fine grave marker, although it has since become hard to read.


“Every mining camp from California to Alaska will hear the news with feelings of regret,” her obituary in the Nelson Daily News read. (But how would they have heard about it? Outside the Daily News, which ran a glowing tribute, I have not seen any mentions of her death.)


Interestingly, Martha’s former son-in-law James Miller is buried in the same cemetery, having predeceased her by less than two months at age 52.


Although I haven’t searched very hard, I’m not sure what happened to Martha’s three kids. Lorenzo and Lorin are ciphers after 1901. A report from 1908 had Josephine’s husband George McBean returning to Grand Forks from Silverton and preparing to head “for the north.” There is some indication Josephine was still in Grand Forks as of 1910, but she was not listed in the civic directory. She still owned property in Erie, including what I suspect was the former site of the BC Hotel, for a few more years. (Like her mother, Josephine also owned mining claims.)


I know a little bit more about what happened to Martha’s granddaughters, who were subjected to such unfortunate family drama at Tekoa in 1897. They were still living there with their father as of the 1900 census. Martha Augusta married Ymir resident Thomas Wilkinson at St. Paul’s manse in Nelson in 1911. She indicated she had recently relocated to Nelson from Santa Rosa, California. She died on Dec. 28, 1966 in Riverside County, California, age 77.


As of the 1910 census, Inez was living with her uncle and aunt, Frank and Nina Petray, in Mendocino, California. She married Alvyn Hover in Helena, Montana in 1914 (she indicated on the marriage registration that she was then living in Vancouver). She died on April 20, 1948 in Los Angeles, then known as Inez Lucille Smith, age 56.


No photos of Martha Collins are known to exist, but two buildings associated with her still stand in West Kootenay. Remarkably, the Collins House in Rossland kept her name for decades after her departure. In the 1930s, it was connected to the neighbouring Hoffman House and became a hardware store that operated into the 1990s. They’ve since been separated and restored to something close to their original appearance.

The Collins House in Rossland is seen at right in 2001, while home to a medical clinic. The building was then for sale, along with the neighboring Hoffman House.

The Collins House is seen at left in 2018, when it was once again for sale.


The Ymir Hotel, as noted above, is still in business, though Martha’s connection to it was previously overlooked. Olaf Haglund took over the Mersey Hotel in 1910 and operated it until it burned down around 1933. I haven’t checked to see if any of the many other hotels Martha Collins operated in Idaho, Washington, or Oregon are still standing.


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rverzuh
rverzuh
Jun 30, 2021

A fascinatingly detailed account of a Kootenay pioneer in the hotel business. All the more a rarity given that it was a women entrepreneur. It must have been frustrating to run into so many dead ends regarding her past, but you've done a superb job of gathering and collating what was in the historical record. Thanks again, Greg. Regards, Ron

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