Starbird Pass, Starbird Glacier, Starbird Range, Mount Maye
The fortunes of Thomas Starbird took a sharp turn in Autumn 1913, when Mountain Valley Ranch was destroyed in a fire with all of its contents. There was “very little” insurance.
A brief warning: this story contains reference to suicide.
Thomas Benson Starbird was born in January 1856 in Maine to parents Zepheniah Benson Starbird and Fidelia Butterfield. His father was a shoemaker. I was not able to find a lot about Thomas’ early life. Most summaries suggest he spent his childhood in Haverhill, Massachusetts, however in 1870 at age fourteen he was still living with his family in Oxford County, Maine.1
Starbird seems to disappear from the records after this, only to reappear in 1890 in Neihart, Montana as an officer of the newly formed Belt Mountain Miners’ union.2 By this time he had established himself in the mining field, however it is uncertain what official qualifications he had. Starbird became involved in numerous mining projects in Montana, usually as superintendent, and was described at one point as, “one of the best known mining men in the country.”3
The success of these American mining ventures is unclear, as is Starbird’s role in them. Among Starbird’s positions was with the Broadwater Mining Company on the Golden Sunlight properties near Whitehall, Montana, and later with the same company on properties at Neihart.4 Starbird also appears to have been interested in mines near Cornucopia, Oregon, and by 1897 had moved to Baker City, Oregon.5
For some reason, likely related to the mining boom in the East Kootenay at the time, Starbird headed north to Fort Steele in 1897 in a move to Canada that would end up being permanent.6 Starbird quickly purchased a lot in Fort Steele and arranged to have a residence built there.7
While in Fort Steele, Starbid worked in partnership with H.F. Collett (then of Great Falls, Montana) to locate and develop the Dodo claim nearby.8 Collett and Starbird continued their partnership for some time, heading up a syndicate representing Montana capital. Starbird seems to have been on the ground in charge of various mining properties, while Collett stayed at more arms length and promoted investment.
The interest of the partners turned north to the Windermere District in 1898, where they took the Hot Punch claim on Delphine Creek under bond from owners Ben Abel and J E Stoddart and began further development.9 Although the Hot Punch was certainly promising, Starbird and Collett got their big break later that year with the Red Line group on McDonald Creek. Considered an extraordinarily promising claim, the Red Line had been bonded and dropped by at least one other syndicate before being taken up by Collett, Starbird and Robinson.10
Through 1899 Starbird and Collett continued to diversify the investments of their syndicate, bonding one group on Horsethief Creek and taking up an interest in another on Law Creek.11 Starbird’s role in all of this mining speculation seems to have been with overseeing work on various properties, particularly as superintendent of the Red Line. Meanwhile, in 1899 Collett was optimisitc enough in the future of settlement in the Valley to purchase the townsite of Windermere.12 It’s unknown how long he held onto it for.
Work on the Red Line Mine was abruptly suspended in 1900. Starbird remained in the area, however, and his persistence paid off. When Paulding Farnham, of New York, took over ownership of the Red Line in 1901, Starbird was given management of the operation.13 Collett seems to have disappeared from ventures in the Windermere Valley shortly after.14
Settling in the Valley
Seemingly satisfied that mining on the Red Line was to become a long time venture, Starbird began to settle in more permanently. He built a log house and stable at around the halfway point between Wilmer and the mine alongside a newly constructed twenty-mile (thirty-two kilometre) long wagon road up Horsethief Creek.15 The house, which was known as “Blowfly”, was on a picturesque spot on the side of a hill sloping towards Horsethief Creek alongside flat ranchlands (see map for approximate location).16 It was completed with a dance in December 1901, and Starbird moved from being a lodger at the Delphine Hotel to a permanent resident of the Valley.17
Starbird continued to settle into Blowfly the following year (1902). In August, he went to Cooperstown, North Dakota where he was married to twenty year old Elsie Maye Lewis.18 Elsie was known in the Windermere Valley, having visited only a few months earlier with her mother and father. Elsie’s mother, Vianna, was the younger sister of Helen Brewer.19
Thomas Starbid was granted naturalization papers in 1903, making him a British citizen (Canadian citizenship didn’t exist until 1947).20 Meanwhile, development on the Red Line mine (by then known as the Ptarmigan mine) continued to be pushed forward.21 That progress stopped abruptly in the spring of 1904 when Starbird received instructions to close down the mine immediately. At first, it was assumed that this hault was only temporary, but that did not end up being the case.22 Although Starbird continued to be listed as superintendent of the property until at least 1909, no further work was done on the mine during that time.23
Meanwhile, Starbird and his growing family continued to live at Blowfly Ranch. Elsie had her first child, Thomas Lewis Starbird (known as Lewis), on 27 May 1903 in Golden.24 Their second son, Robert Starbird, was born in February 1907 (I was unable to find a birth certificate for Robert).
A humourous story about young Lewis Starbird appeared in the local newspaper in 1906. Thomas Starbird was talking with Robert Randolph Bruce and R.M. Palmer, “relating instances of remarkable fruit growing that had come under their observations. They had each told pretty good stories, when Master Louis Starbird, who is just three years of age, thought it had come to his turn to tell one, and with a very serious face he said: ‘Well, we had a tree that grew so many apples that it took us all a year to pick ’em.’”25
The ranch at Blowfly continued to grow with a “rustic home and numerous outbuildings [and] stables” accompanied by a green meadow cleared in front of the house. There was also an apple orchard nearby, with plans for cherries, pears, and plums.26 Starbird was something of an amateur clockmaker, designing and making a miniature model of his house to be used as a clock. The house also contained a large collection of taxidermy birds and animals.27
In 1910, Blowfly was rebranded by the Starbirds as Mountain Valley Ranch, “The Famous Pleasure Resort” known for majestic scenery and as a base for fishing, hunting and mountain climbing. It was, according the the advertisements, “Patronized by distinguished Patrons, including Royalty.”28 The royalty referred to were apparently the Prince of Hesse (likely Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse) and party in 1911.29 By then, Starbird had acquired an automobile to accommodate transportation in the area, and which he sometimes rented out.30
Misfortune and Death
The fortunes of Thomas Starbird took a sharp turn in Autumn 1913, when Mountain Valley Ranch was destroyed in a fire with all of its contents. There was “very little” insurance.31 The following spring, Starbird tragically took his own life while his wife and sons were in Windermere with friends for Easter.32 As was the habit at the time of sensationalizing such deaths, news of his suicide was reported in newspapers across the continent.
Starbird left behind a young wife and two young children. Elsie moved with her sons back to the North Dakota, where it seems she pulled her life together. In October of that year she reported the birth of her first son, now over ten years old, to the British Columbia Registration authorities, likely in order to get official birth records for him to facilitate his moving permanently to the United States. Elsie later remarried, but I was unable to find more information about her. I’ve always wondered what happened to the Starbird boys, and whether their descendants know that both Thomas Starbird and Elsie Maye have geographic features named after them.
The Starbird name survives both in the Starbird Range, which stretches above the Horsethief valley where Blowfly/Mountain Valley Ranch used to be, and the Starbird Glacier, at the head of Horsethief Creek. Thomas reported having come across the glacier while prospecting up Horsethief Creek.
Elsie Maye Starbird also has a namesake in the area. Mount Maye still bears her name, and the lake underneath Mount Maye used to be known as Lake Maye. Some may recognize that original name for the lake, but most will certainly recognize its more common present-day name: the Lake of the Hanging Glacier. I started writing about the lake for this post, but quickly realized that what should be a simple story of a descriptive name for a lake has a bit more to it than that. So next week’s post will dig into the story of Lake Maye aka: the Lake of the Hanging Glacier.