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Ruins of Ainsworth

Updated: 1 day ago

The family of the late Ainsworth historian Lawrie Duff recently gave me the privilege of looking through his papers and photos before I deposited them at the Kootenay Lake Archives in Kaslo. Among the many amazing images, the one below, taken around 1962, stopped me in my tracks.

The J.B. Fletcher general store seen at left is still there of course, but it’s now a museum and gift shop. Behind it is the old Yale Lead-Zinc company bunkhouse, on the present site of the Yaqan Nukiy suites. There used to be a cookhouse next to it too. I’m not sure if it had been torn down by this time or was just out of camera range.

Of the three homes on the hillside, the one on the left is what later became the Mermaid Lodge and is still standing. The other two are gone. The log cribbing holding up the highway is also something to behold.

But for all of that, what surprised me most was the concrete foundation in the foreground, as I had no idea what used to be there. I soon learned it was the Henry drug store and post office. And therein lies our tale.

Dr. John Henry (universally referred to as Doc Henry) was born in Philadelphia in 1860. He graduated from Montreal Veterinary College but I don’t know when. He married Wisconsin-born Carolyn (Carrie) Hurd, though I’m not sure when or where either. I do know their daughter Ruth was born in 1889 at Charles City, Iowa and later that year Dr. Henry turned up in Spokane operating a vet practice, although the newspaper ad below indicated he soon switched premises.

Spokane Falls Review, Jan. 4, 1890

Another move followed in the spring of 1891 to Ainsworth, then enjoying a mining boom, but there is no word what specifically inspired Dr. Henry to join it.

He was first reported in the Nelson Miner of May 16, 1891 as building what was styled as the Pioneer Drug Store, despite no apparent training as a pharmacist, although he may have had access to prescription medications. He was in partnership with E.J. Adams, about whom I know little, but Mrs. Adams reportedly sold sewing supplies in part of the store. Their ad also indicated other lines of business.

The Miner, July 18, 1891

Like nearly everyone in those days, Henry and Adams were prospectors on the side, and they had at least one claim together, along with James Brennand and James Pringle, known as the Racket, on the northwest side of Kaslo Bay. It did not make any of them rich.

But by late May 1892, Henry and Adams dissolved their partnership in the drug store and Henry continued on alone. He was named Ainsworth’s postmaster as of Nov. 1, 1893, adding another source of income for his store, and served on the first Ainsworth school board.

He also plied his original profession for the federal ministry of agriculture, inspecting various livestock. In 1897, he checked horses, mules, cows, pigs (including a horse that belonged to the unlucky Lot Willey). The following year, however, he reported that he wasn’t called upon to make any inspections.

Dr. Henry’s building, on the northeast corner of Sutton and Wright streets (now Sutton and Highway 31), was a wooden false-front affair with a second-story balcony. Although not a single close-up photo of it is known to exist, it’s hiding in plain sight in some very well known Ainsworth photos. I’ve circled it in the ones below.

This is Ainsworth around 1891. The big building at centre is Rory McLeod’s huge Windsor Hotel, undergoing an expansion. At the back of the Henry store is a public hall and offices.

This is another famous shot, looking down Sutton Street. We know it’s before April 1896 because most of the buildings in Ainsworth’s business district burned that month — but Dr. Henry’s store was a lucky survivor.

This is the rebuilt town, between 1896 and 1901. This photo appears on the cover of the second edition of Ted Affleck’s High Grade and Hot Springs and is courtesy the J.B. Fletcher Restoration Society.

Having escaped Ainsworth’s biggest fire, Dr. Henry’s luck ran out in the early afternoon of July 9, 1901, when fire broke out in his store. The cause was unknown. According to the Nelson Daily Miner, “as soon as the alarm was given everyone in town turned out to do his best but it was impossible to save the building.”

Also destroyed was the public hall at the rear which was “blown up to save the town as it afforded an avenue for the flames from the place where they originated to nearly all the other buildings in town.” Ainsworth’s citizens “worked like Trojans,” the Miner reported “and saved the town only by their utmost labors.”

All of the drug store and post office effects were lost. Fortunately, Dr. Henry carried insurance, and 10 days later he was presented with a cheque for $3,500 (about $94,000 in today’s currency) by A.R. Sherwood, local agent for the Phoenix of London and West Fire Insurance Company of Toronto.

Dr. Henry rebuilt on the same site, putting up another two-storey building that appears to have covered about the same footprint, minus the balcony.

Though a vet by training, Dr. Henry was the only medical professional in Ainsworth, so his services were reportedly greatly appreciated by its residents. Like many drug stores, he also appears to have dealt in cameras and photographic supplies, and many early photos of Ainsworth were likely his handiwork. Lawrie Duff remarked that it’s easy to identify Dr. Henry and his daughter in those photos because both wore tiny glasses. And the J.B. Fletcher museum actually has a pair of his specs, seen below!

The only insight we have into Dr. Henry’s potentially mischievous personality comes from Kootenay historian Clara Graham, who taught in Ainsworth in 1912.

A tall, lean man of serious mien, Henry had a streak of humour in his make-up not apparent to the casual acquaintance. An interesting object, a 50-cent piece, had been ‘planted’ by this proprietor in a conspicuous crack in the floor of his shop. The glint in the hopeful eyes of the beholders when they spied this wealth, and their unobtrusive and always unsuccessful attempts to pry this coin out of the crack must have caused considerable quiet mirth to the owner.

Dr. Henry resigned as postmaster toward the end of 1916, after a run of 23 years, but kept his store going for much longer.

In September 1921, Ainsworth was again threatened with fire. This time the Central Hotel was destroyed. The Henry store also caught fire several times, but in the end the local bucket brigade saved the building, which escaped with a bad scorching and broken windows.

At some point Dr. Henry expanded into general merchandise, which put him in direct competition with the Giegerich store across the street (renamed the J.B. Fletcher store in late 1920s). It’s hard to fathom how the community supported two stores long after its mining heyday ended, but it did.

In July 1930, Dr. Henry began suffering from heart trouble that ultimately proved fatal. He died in hospital in Kaslo on Feb. 25, 1931, a couple of weeks short of his 71st birthday, and was survived by his wife and daughter.

Carrie kept the store operating and a 1934 burglary gives us some insight into the sorts of goods then being stocked. The thieves, who were soon caught, took rifles, fishing tackle, socks, and shoes, among other things.

It’s not clear when the store finally went out of business, but Carrie died in January 1942, age 79, following a two-year illness, having lived in Ainsworth for more than 50 years.

Here’s the weird thing: while the second Henry store stood for much longer than the first one, I only know of one photo of it, seen below. This is accounted for partly because it’s blocked in other photos by the Central Hotel and Anglo-American Hotel, located across the street and kitty corner respectively.

This picture comes from the Duff fonds and was taken sometime between 1930, when the Hot Springs Hotel (on the bench at far right in the top photo) was built, and 1949, when Yale Lead and Zinc came to town.

The company bought the old store from John and Carrie Henry’s daughter Ruth to use as an office. The Kaslo Kootenaian of March 24, 1949 reported: “Mr. P. Norberg of Nelson and Mr. J. Ericson of Balfour are remodelling Henrys’ store into an office. The building was recently purchased by Yale Mining Co.”

Yale Lead and Zinc used the building for most of the 1950s. While I was initially flummoxed at determining its subsequent fate, very fortunately Judy Hawes (who also provided the previous item) had the answer at hand from the Kootenaian of Thursday, Nov. 9, 1961 (something similar appeared two days earlier in the Nelson Daily News).

Fire of unknown origin levelled the office of the Yale Lead and Zinc Mining Company at Ainsworth on Monday morning approximately 4 a.m.
The long white building was located near the shore of the lake and an offshore breeze confined the blaze to that area and saved the community from being swept by fire.
The mining company closed the mine there in 1958 after eight years of steady production … A passerby awakened Ainsworth residents but the fire was too well advanced to save anything.

Compare the photo above to the one at top, and you will see the concrete foundation Lawrie Duff came across the following year or so when he snapped his photo.

A follow-up appeared in the Nelson Daily News on Nov. 8 with a photo of George Hobbs (seen below). It revealed the fire was thought to have been caused by faulty wiring or an oil stove and that the fire spread to a neighbouring barn that belonged to Hobbs and is clearly seen in Duff’s photo.

Three Kaslo youths woke people up by pounding on doors and honking horns. Volunteer firefighters were stymied by hoses that weren’t long enough. But they got more hose from the hot springs resort and cut a hole at the back of the barn to help Hobbs remove his possessions, including an outboard motor, fishing tackle and other gear. He then crawled in with the hose and put out the fire.

But the losses from the mine office included “several large motors, drill equipment and records.” The story acknowledged the building as a landmark built by Dr. Henry but gave an incorrect construction date of 1915.

On a recent trip to Ainsworth, I wondered if anything of the foundation might still be there. Despite driving and walking by that intersection umpteen times, I had never noticed anything. And yet sure enough, there’s a piece of it left. It’s hidden in the brush and not really visible from the highway, but it can be seen from Water Street.

What’s more, across the street is another ruin, reportedly from the Central Hotel that burned down in 1921. In a 1978 article for BC Outdoors, Edna Hanic wrote that the Central “even had a swimming pool in the basement, the walls of which are still standing …”

Here is a detail from that 1930-49 photo again showing what remained of the Central Hotel in the foreground.

And here is the site today. I had never noticed this ruin before either.

The fire gods seemed hell-bent on wiping the Henry store off the map, but luckily their home escaped a similar fate.

The Henry house was one of several fronting the waterfront near the north end of the community. Reportedly it was built by Kaslo’s Robert F. Green about 1890 and sold to the Henrys in 1895.

In 1911, the A.D. Wheeler home caught fire and threatened to spread to the others. Neighbours, including Dr. Henry, Thomas Lendrum, and L.B. Luther fought the fire with garden hoses and buckets. The Wheeler home was destroyed, along with a private bath house that used water from the hot springs, but the other homes were saved. The Wheelers rebuilt.

The original Wheeler home is seen at far left and the Henry home is third from left. (Lawrie Duff fonds/Kootenay Lake Archives)

Ruth Henry married mining engineer George Hobbs in 1930 and they lived in the home after her parents’ death. Ted Burns called them “defacto grandparents to many of the Ainsworth kids.”

Lawrie and Betty Duff visited them at their home in 1962. Lawrie recalled it was

Neat, clean, painted and a beautiful garden on the north and west side and fruit trees (apples, plums, pears) … There were steps down to lot level from the road and a modest back kitchen door on the west side. On the east side was a fine covered veranda looking out over the lake and a long stretch of stairs to a grass and fruit tree front yard.

They had a “long, delightful visit,” discussing Ainsworth of the 1890s.

Ruth died in Kaslo in November 1972, age 83, having lived in Ainsworth for 80 years.

The Henry/Hobbs home seen in 1993 in photos by Lawrie Duff.

The house, later numbered 3646 Highway 31, fell on hard times after George Hobbs moved to Alberta to spend his final years. It would not have been surprising had it too met a bitter fate, but thanks to some latter day restoration, it’s the only one of those homes that nearly burned in 1911 still standing. I don’t know the fate of the rest.

Rear of the Henry/Hobbs home seen from Highway 31 today.

— With thanks to Tammy White and Judy Hawes

Updated May 11, 2023 to add the item about the store being remodeled for Yale Lead and Zinc. Updated on July 3, 2023 to add more details from the Nelson Daily News about the fire that consumed the store. Updated May 27, 2024 to add details about the origin of the Henry/Hobbs home.

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Great story thank you so


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