HOUSTON, JOHN, journalist, businessman, and politician; b. November 1850 in Caledon Township, Upper Canada, third son of William Houston and Mary Thomas; m., probably in 1892, Edith May Keeley, and they had one daughter; d. 8 March 1910 in Quesnel, B.C.
John Houston left school at 14 and went to Chicago, where he became a printer’s apprentice. He drifted back and forth across the United States for 20 years, learning other elements of the newspaper trade. He arrived in Calgary after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but soon struck out for Donald, B.C.; there he founded his first Canadian newspaper, the Truth, in June 1888. The following year he left and took his newspaper with him to New Westminster for about nine months. In June 1890 he established the Miner in Nelson, a settlement which two competing railway systems were transforming into the distribution centre of the West Kootenay region. He soon began to excoriate the CPR, probably because the company’s control of half the Nelson town-site lands limited the profits that he himself made from selling real estate. His confrontations with officials of the “greediest railway company on earth” became a part of local folklore. In the summer of 1892 Houston left both Nelson and the Miner, perhaps on one of the binges that afflicted him until 1907, but he returned in November to establish the Tribune and do battle with his former paper.
Houston’s reputation as a populist rests primarily on his chequered career as a purveyor of hydro power. He was one of the original directors of the private Nelson Electric Light Company, which obtained a provincial charter in 1892. Difficulties in acquiring a dam site above the town from Gilbert Malcolm Sproat* delayed the company’s production. Civic fears that a new city would have to take over the faltering power company as well as a feeble water company stopped a drive for incorporation in 1893. With the generation of electric power and the demise of the water company in 1896, Houston and others obtained enough local support to achieve incorporation the next spring. He won election as mayor on 15 April 1897.
During his first two terms (he was acclaimed in January 1898), Houston purchased for the city both the power company and the defunct waterworks and fought off political and court challenges which alleged conflict of interest. The power plant proved inadequate, however, and so he obtained a water licence for the city on the lower Bonnington falls in 1901. In 1905, during his last term, he persuaded voters to approve a major powerhouse there. He left office in mid year over a hiring dispute with members of his council.
Houston’s political career extended beyond Nelson. In 1900 he had been elected in the provincial riding of West Kootenay-Nelson as part of a faction under Francis Lovett Carter-Cotton*. He supported the personal government of James Dunsmuir*, but became disillusioned by the looseness with which it granted land to railway companies. In May 1902, under the influence of “four or five good-sized jolts of Scotch,” he played an important part in blocking a supply motion, defied the speaker, and called for an end to “this disreputable legislature,” although he protested the following day that he had not meant to defeat his friends. In the 1903 election Houston, who had become the president of the provincial Conservative party under Richard McBride*, won Nelson City. But Lieutenant Governor Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière formally objected to his appointment to McBride’s cabinet on the ground of his disgraceful conduct during the previous session. Others suspected that the premier had encouraged the lieutenant governor’s fastidiousness to placate the CPR. In 1907 Houston ran as an independent in Ymir riding but was defeated.
After a brief sojourn in Nevada, Houston launched a paper in Prince Rupert, the recently located Pacific terminus of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company. Calculating that the GTP would stop this enterprise in a camp where it claimed control of all land, Houston had the first numbers of the Empire printed in Victoria. When a GTP harbour engineer sought to prevent his press from coming ashore, Houston made use of his connections, now admittedly strained, with the British Columbia government. He persuaded a provincial constable to liberate his press from a GTP shed where it had been impounded. He then located his office on a lot within an adjacent Indian reserve which he temporarily secured by filing a bogus mining claim under the mischievous title of Grand Turk Fractional. That he was able to defy the company was due in large part to McBride, who disputed the ultimate title of the reserve with the GTP and the federal government. During the next two years Houston pilloried the GTP and championed the rights of squatters on his mining claim, the exclusion of immigrants from Asia, and, with the fervour of a new convert, prohibition. His efforts attracted journalistic and political attention. But he could not prevent the company from extinguishing his claim once it had settled its differences with the province. After the GTP prevented Houston from obtaining lots in the town-site sale of May 1909, he sold the newspaper for $10,000 and left.
He returned to British Columbia in the autumn to establish the Fort George Tribune at a settlement near the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako rivers. The GTP had indicated that it would locate a major divisional point in the district. In the few numbers of the journal that survive, Houston restrained his attacks on the railway and concentrated on boosting the area. Falling ill in the early spring, he went to Quesnel for medical attention. He died there on 8 March 1910 and was buried in Nelson with municipal honours.
Houston’s whiskey swilling has attracted the attention of many historians, but his role as a trenchant critic of large corporations, particularly railway companies, in British Columbia should not be overlooked. While not altruistic, he devoted himself on occasion to improving the communities in which he lived; he was a civic populist on the frontier.
[The most important source for John Houston’s activities remains the series of newspapers he founded and ran from 1888 through 1910: Truth (Donald, B.C.), 2 June 1888–13 July 1889; Truth (New Westminster, B.C.), 5 Sept. 1889–3 June 1890; Miner (Nelson, B.C.), 21 June 1890 to around June 1892; Tribune (Nelson), November 1892–11 Nov. 1905; Rossland Miner (Rossland, B.C.), 23 March–16 Aug. 1895; Empire (Prince Rupert, B.C.), 20 July 1907–July 1909; and Fort George Tribune (Fort George [Prince George], B.C.), 5 Nov. 1909–March 1910.
The only previous study of Houston’s entire career in Canada is Patrick Wolfe, “Tramp printer extraordinary: British Columbia’s John ‘Truth’ Houston,” BC Studies, no.40 (winter 1978–79): 5–31. Additional material on Houston’s campaigns to provide power to Nelson appears in David Scott and E. H. Hanic, Nelson: queen city of the Kootenays (Vancouver, 1972); a more systematic urban history of the city is found in B.C., Heritage Conservation Branch, Nelson: a proposal for urban heritage conservation (Victoria, 1981). Houston’s activities in Prince Rupert are detailed in the author’s thesis, “‘A thousand blunders’: the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company and northern British Columbia, 1902–1919”