James Henry Towles has intrigued me ever since I saw his photograph at the Bonner County Historical Society many years ago. Aside from his name, all I knew about him was that he was a Black man working as a saloon keeper in Hope, Idaho, in the early twentieth century. I wanted to know more and recently decided to see what I could find. I pieced together the outlines of his story using the federal census, deed records, city directories, and old newspapers.
Hope was a relatively new town when Towles arrived at least by 1901 and possibly several years earlier. The Northern Pacific laid tracks across the Idaho Panhandle in 1881-1882 and transcontinental trains were running a year later. There was little more than a small train station in Hope at first, but the town began to grow by the late 1880s when the Northern Pacific opened Highland House, a hotel catering to tourists. Hope became a railroad division point in 1888 with a roundhouse, shops, and employee housing. More than three hundred people were living there in 1900, all White except for a cluster of sixteen Chinese, mostly railroad workers, and one Black man, a hotel porter.
Born in Missouri around 1857, James Henry Towles, better known as Henry, was in his 40s when he came to Hope. He was educated, at least well enough to read and write, and he settled down to make a life for himself in the small lakeside town. Between 1901 and 1908, he purchased four large lots below Highland Avenue, at the northwestern end of town, and nine adjoining lots above. He had a comfortable home, garden, and orchard on this property, with enough room for some farm animals.
In 1902, the Kootenai County Republican reported that J. H. Towles, “a southern gentleman of experience in tobacco raising,” was trying several varieties of tobacco on his property. He had started plants in hot beds in March, transplanted them in June, and grew them to a height of eighteen inches by early October, a few weeks before his planned harvest. The four varieties that he planted were Twist Bud, Iron Oker, Yellow Prior, and Long Green. There were no further references to tobacco in the newspaper, suggesting that even the mild climate at Hope was not good enough for this crop.
Henry Towles also raised chickens, hogs, and at least one cow, and problems with all of the animals garnered attention in the newspapers. In 1905, Towles and another nearby rancher, Mr. Bullivant, regularly collected slops from one of the Hope restaurants to feed to their hogs and chickens. One batch of the food waste was tainted, most likely with strong lye from the kitchen, and caused the death of two hogs and twenty chickens at Bullivant’s place. Towles had even worse luck, losing five fine hogs that he had contracted to sell, along with seventy hens. An unhappy Mr. Towles told the newspaper, “Those two buckets of swill cost me a hundred and fifteen dollars.”
The cow landed Towles in a different kind of trouble. Officer Nugent impounded the animal in November 1910 when he found it roaming loose in Hope. This action angered Towles who complained that stock belonging to businessmen and members of the city council were allowed to roam the streets at will, with no consequences to their owners. This comment, labeled as “disrespect,” led to a hefty fine of $20, a lot of money in 1910.
This small scale farming was not the main source of income for Mr. Towles. He worked as a saloon keeper, probably in more than one bar over the years. He took over the Betz saloon in the Rainier Hotel in 1910. After hiring men to renovate the building, he opened his bar on February 10. His name periodically appeared in the newspaper in connection with his business. In one instance, he broke up a fight and later was called as a witness in the trial where “his testimony provided several amusing features and he had the court and jury laughing.” The defendant, however, did not find this funny and several months later accused Towles of allowing gambling in his saloon, threatening his liquor license. The board of commissioners, after hearing from Towles, took his side and granted the license.
In November 1905, Henry Towles helped solve the problem of “box car rustlers” who had been breaking into parked train cars in Hope to steal everything from coats and watches to booze and bacon. Three men walked into a saloon one evening and offered to sell bartender, Ezra Johnston, kegs of beer and cases of eggs at absurdly low prices. Johnston told them to come back later and after they had left, Towles, who had been dozing nearby, surmised that these were stolen goods. “You think too slow, Ezra,” he told the barkeeper. “I’m going after them.” He soon ran into a local man, serving as a fence for the robbers, who offered to sell Towles hams for fifty cents apiece. He agreed to take forty hams and some bacon. When the fence left, Towles woke Judge Dooley and a couple of other men. Together they caught the crooks red handed and recovered the stolen goods. The local fence served three months in the county jail at Rathdrum while the other two robbers each got a year in the state penitentiary.
Henry Towles was a single man when he moved to Hope and he was still listed as single in the 1910 census. He did not always live alone, however. A widowed cousin, Emma Elgin or Elligan, lived with him in 1910, along with her young son. She died in a tragic accident that August. George Davis, a Black porter at the Rainier Hotel, invited Mrs. Elligan out for a rowboat ride on a beautiful summer day. Their rented boat soon began to leak, frightening the woman so much that she stood up to move closer to Mr. Davis, tipping them both into the water. Davis tried to rescue his companion but she never resurfaced. Mrs. Elligan, known around Hope as “Henry’s cousin,” was “a quiet, modest woman well liked by her neighbors,” according to the newspaper. “The entire community regret her untimely demise.”
At the time of the accident, Henry’s mother also was living with him on an extended visit from her home in Kirksville, Missouri. Later that year, he traveled to Missouri to see his mother just before she died. He returned from the trip a married man. The Pend d’Oreille Review reported that “Mr. Towles brought home a charming young bride and he has been distributing cigars freely to all the boys.” The paper noted that he had “a comfortable home on the hill at north Hope.” Unfortunately I could find very little about Henry’s wife whose name was Martha, evidently known as Mattie. She had died by 1931.
Undoubtedly Henry Towles experienced racism, both subtle and overt, during his life in North Idaho. The incident with his cow, where he was slapped with an exorbitant fine for showing “disrespect,” is one example. The original photograph at the museum is labeled as “N—-r Henry,” and a life long Hope resident who I interviewed in the 1970s used the same epithet.
It’s also true that the local newspapers seemed to treat Mr. Towles like other men of the time. Articles about him almost never mentioned his race, and his occasional trips to Sandpoint or Spokane were noted just like the travels of other businessmen. He supported local community activities, donated to the Red Cross, and bought Liberty bonds during World War I. When the ladies of the Greater Hope Club wanted to raise money to build a sidewalk between Hope and East Hope in 1912, they solicited prizes from local businesses; Henry Towles donated a box of candy. Some Hope citizens took the train to Sandpoint in March 1913 to hear the famous Black educator, Booker T. Washington, speak to a capacity crowd at the Rink Opera House. The group, listed in the order given by the newspaper, included Dr. Knapp, Mrs. M. Wood, Miss Ethel Larson, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Towles, and Mr. and Mrs. Jones.
Henry Towles’ job as a saloon keeper ended by at least January 1, 1916, when statewide prohibition went into effect, and he began working for the Northern Pacific shops in Kootenai. During the 1920s intermittent mentions in the newspaper reveal that he was living in Spokane or the Seattle area, returning periodically to check on his property in Hope. He was employed in the Northern Pacific yards in Tacoma in 1926 but returned to North Idaho around 1931 when he was listed in poor health. Towles sold his Hope home and property to Arthur Croy in 1937 and bought a place in nearby Clark Fork. He apparently lived there quietly until his death on January 10, 1941, at the age of 84. Reverend A. H. Morton presided at the graveside service when Towles was buried in Pinecrest Cemetery. His grave remains unmarked.
Note: Thanks to Dale Coffelt of Coffelt Funeral Services for information on the location of Henry Towles’ grave. Thanks also to Hannah Combs and Heather Upton for their assistance with the photograph collection and archives at the Bonner County Historical Society.
Hope News Items, Kootenai County Republican, 25 April 1902, 1:5; Hope News Items, Kootenai County Republican, 3 October 1902, 1:5; Hope Brevities, Northern Idaho News, 14 November 1905, 4:3; Big Summer Resort, Pend d’Oreille Review, 17 November 1905, 4:3; Car Thieves At Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 24 November 1905, 1:1; Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census Of The United States, Schedule No. 1.– Population, Idaho, Kootenai County, Hope Precinct, June 1900; Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census Of The United States: 1910 Population, Idaho, Bonner County, Village of Hope, 18 April 1910, Sheet 2A; No title, Pend d’Oreille Review, 28 January 1910, 6:1; Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 4 February 1910, 6:2; Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 22 April 1910, 4:3; Leaky Boat; Woman Drowned, Pend d’Oreille Review, 26 August 1910, 9:1; Young Colored Woman Drowned At Hope, Northern Idaho News, 23 August 1910, 6:1; No title, Northern Idaho News, 22 November 1910, 6:2; No title, Northern Idaho News, 20 December 1910, 17:2; Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 6 January 1911, 7:4; Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 23 February 1912, 4:3; Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 28 June 1912, 7:1; Case From Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 11 October 1912, 4:3; Jury Disagrees In The Case Of A. Fullgarth, Northern Idaho News, 15 October 1912, 1:5; [Democratic Nominations,] Justices of the Peace, Northern Idaho News, 15 October 1912, 6:3; Here And Around About, Pend d’Oreille Review, 10 January 1913, 5:2; No title, Pend d’Oreille Review, 21 March 1913, 4:2; Liquor Licenses Issued, Pend d’Oreille Review, 4 July 1913, 3:4; No title, Pend d’Oreille Review, 18 July 1913, 5:5; No Saloons At Lakeview, Pend d’Oreille Review, 15 August 1913, 1:2; 1914 Bonner County Directory, p. 474; Bonner County Subscribers to Red Cross Army Fund, Pend d’Oreille Review, 29 June 1917, 7:4; No title, Northern Idaho News, 26 March 1918, 4:3; Honor List Subscriptions to Liberty Bonds, Pend d’Oreille Review, 11 October 1918, 4:1; News From Our Neighbors, Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 16 July 1920, 6:1; Hope, Pend d’Oreille Review, 19 December 1920, 3:1; Neighbor’s News, Pend d’Oreille Review, 25 February 1921, 6:1; No title, Northern Idaho News, 30 March 1926, 3:2; Hope, Northern Idaho News, 10 February 1931, 3:1; Rites For James Towles To Be Held Tomorrow, Northern Idaho News, 17 January 1941, 5:2; Clarksfork Resident Summoned By Death, Sandpoint Bulletin, 16 January 1941, 8:1; Notice Of Sale Of Real Estate, Northern Idaho News, 7 February 1941, 4:4; Certificate Of Death, State Of Idaho, File No. 122725; Bonner County Deed Records, Book 4:327-328 and 384, Book 9:580-581, Book 10:390, Book 14:477-478, Book 15:108-109, Book 37:329-330, Book 50:432, Book 51:362, Book 57:452, Book 60:455-456, and Book 64:184-185.