History of the (first) Argenta Post Office…
The Argenta post office
Today we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the re-opening of the Argenta post office. It originally opened 15 years before that. Some records survive in the National Archives shedding light on how it came to be.
The application for a post office was referred to the postal inspector on May 16, 1898, and a report was three months later, stating that Argenta’s population consisted of about 20 miners and prospectors.
At the time, Argenta was a leaping off point for the Duncan and Lardeau mining districts. The town site was surveyed in 1893 but had not amounted to much. It had one hotel — the McLeod — operated by infamous horse thief Red McLeod. By 1898, its proprietor was William H. Bell.
Letters to Argenta were sent aboard the SS Kokanee, a Canadian Pacific Railway sternwheeler, which made twice weekly runs from Kaslo. The mail was left with William Bell at his hotel and return mail sent back the same way. So Bell was the unofficial postmaster and proposed to take on the official title.
The CPR was prepared to carry the mail from Kaslo to Argenta at a rate of five cents per mile, which worked out to $2 per round trip, $4 a week, or $208 per year. That’s the equivalent of about $5,700 today. On the revenue side, the post office was expected to bring in $75 per year, or about $2,000 in today’s currency. It wasn’t unusual for individual post offices to be subsidized.
The one drawback of transporting mail by sternwheeler was that the CPR wasn’t sure it could maintain the service over the winter.
For whatever reason, the post office didn’t open. So a second application was submitted and referred to the postal inspector on December 28, 1898 who filed his report in February 1899.
Not much had changed: W.H. Bell was again proposed as the postmaster, the expected costs and revenues were the same, and the CPR could only promise service between May and September.
However, that summer Argenta experienced a boom thanks to the proposed construction of two railway lines by rival companies. Two more hotels went up, one operated by Andy Johnston and the other by Swan Peterson.
There was also the intriguing Kootenay Landing Hotel, which fittingly began its life at Kootenay Landing — on a floating scow. A.C. Pearson and Henry Williams were the co-proprietors. When business became dull at Kootenay Landing, they towed their two tarpaper-covered buildings to Argenta. Here they advertised “The Kootenay Landing hotel is the best house to stop at in Argenta” and “The wet grocery department of the Kootenay Landing Hotel at Argenta is away above par.”
However, A.C. Pearson was twice fined for selling liquor without a license — $75 for the first offense and $100 for the second, which pretty much put them out of business. A few months later, the woman who ran the restaurant was brought before a magistrate on a charge of insanity and committed for a medical exam.
But before all of this happened, the postal inspector was asked to find out what the CPR would charge per hundred pounds and the probable weight of mail to be carried. He replied the CPR charged 35 cents per hundred pounds going from Kaslo to Argenta and the mail would probably weigh about 100 pounds per trip.
In the meantime, a private company made an offer. The Lodestar Gold Mining and Development Company of Kaslo owned a small sternwheeler called the Marion that was making daily trips between Kaslo, Lardeau, Argenta, and Duncan City and offered to carry mail for $7 per round trip.
The Marion was an interesting boat. It was built at Golden in 1888 and operated on the Columbia River, then was transferred to Revelstoke the following year and navigated the Arrow Lakes. In 1897, it was shipped to Kootenay Lake and acquired by the Lodestar company which ran it on Duncan Lake — then called Houser Lake — as well as the upper Duncan river.
The company owned five mining claims on Hall Creek and was headed by managing director James F. Smith of Montreal. James D. Carlyle, its secretary-treasurer, was in charge of the Marion. But it doesn’t appear the company’s mines were very successful.
The postal inspector noted in his report of July 5, 1899 that the head of navigation was at Lardeau and Argenta and that “These are rival towns, Lardeau being known as the Canadian Pacific Railway town and Argenta as the Kaslo and Slocan Railway Company’s town. Both are now preparing to build railways to the Trout Lake district, and it is estimated that from 500 to 600 men are employed on railway construction, besides a considerable number of miners and prospectors. The greater numbers of the men employed are in the vicinity of Duncan and a service to Argenta would not be of much benefit unless extended to Duncan.”
Duncan was the name for Howser in those days, which had also applied for a post office, and it was suggested mail could be dropped off at Argenta or Lardeau and then taken to Duncan by packhorse.
The postal inspector wrote: “There are a number of miners and prospectors in the vicinity of Duncan, who would make use of an office at that place. There is a store and hotel at Duncan, and establishment of an office appears to be a necessity. The service to Duncan would also provide for a service to Argenta in the event of an office being established at that place.”
However, he added: “It is found to be very difficult to obtain reliable information with reference to these remote districts without a personal visit as most persons with whom communication can be had, are as a rule interested in some way and consequently information given is biased.”
The Argenta and Duncan post offices both opened on September 1, 1899.
The Argenta postmaster was not W.H. Bell as originally proposed but merchant H.A. Carney. He and his father Augustus Carney arrived in the area in 1893 and were prominent land stakers and timber cruisers. Augustus was also a provincial land surveyor and magistrate. Carney Creek was named after them.
In the first ten months of his job, H.A. Carney was paid a total of $21.50, which is a little less than $600 today. But starting in 1900 he was able to supplement his income by taking the mail 12 miles to Duncan once a week. For this he earned another $185, or about $5,100 today.
We don’t know which company got the mail contract — the CPR with the SS Kokanee or the Lodestar Gold Mining with the steamer Marion. But if it was the Marion, it wouldn’t have been for long, because in January 1901, the ship sank in a gale while moored at Kaslo. In 1907, the Marion was broken up and its machinery used to bore wood pipes at a mill at St. Leon Hot Springs.
H.A. Carney resigned as postmaster on June 25, 1900 and a little over a month later was replaced by George Crawford, a packer, who held the job for exactly two years. The post office closed on August 1, 1902 by which time things had become very quiet in Argenta. The Johnson hotel burned down in March 1900 just as its proprietors were arranging to have an insurance agent visit.
The Nelson Tribune of August 15, 1903 wrote: “Argenta is playing the role of a deserted village, and its sole inhabitant holds undisputed sway alike over the town lots of credulous investors of 1893-94 and the abandoned railway grade which skirts the upper shore of the lake.”
The Duncan post office changed its name to Howser on January 1, 1900 and remained in business until 1969 when it closed ahead of the town site being flooded by the Duncan dam.
Why the Argenta post office re-opened in 1914 isn’t clear, except that the population had obviously grown to the point where it could be justified. A newspaper headline of October 8, 1914 said “Argenta has a post office.” The story read in its entirety: “A post office is to be opened at Argenta with H.D. Robertson as postmaster. The citizens of Argenta were much in need of this accommodation.”