Saturday, January 14, 2017

Miner, Builder, Real Estate Developer, and Ferryman John Silcott [otd 01/14]

Ferryman Silcott. J. H. Hawley photo.
Clearwater ferry operator John M. Silcott was born January 14, 1824 in Loudoun County, Virginia, just west of Washington D. C.. The family moved to Ohio about four years later.

He grew up in Zanesville and as a young man worked as a carpenter, boat builder, and crewman on keelboats and river steamers. During the Mexican War, he worked at a government supply depot, after which he moved to New Orleans.

In 1849, he joined the eager rush to California. Silcott quickly discovered that his carpentry skills were in great demand, so he pursued his trade in San Francisco and Sacramento. With a solid stake, he and three partners bought proven claims in northern California. John prospected gold fields there and in southern Oregon until about 1858, when he followed the rush into British Columbia.

The Canadian venture did not pan out, and the cost of the expedition sent him back to carpentry when he ended up in Walla Walla, Washington. Again he did very well as the town expanded. In 1860, he moved to the old Nez Perce mission on Lapwai Creek, where the Indian agent had him erect a new building for the Agency. Silcott then stayed on there as a sub-agent.

Many years later, the Lewiston Teller related the story of “the first Christmas celebration in the Lewiston valley,” hosted by “Old Uncle John” Silcott. He invited “every white man within fifty miles” to a his party. The repast was short on traditional dishes – wild goose replaced turkey – but rich and bountiful nonetheless. Concoctions blended with “medicinal” alcohol from a five gallon container no doubt masked any possible shortcomings in the cuisine.

Not to be outdone, William Craig, an old mountain man turned settler, then hosted the first New Years celebration. But, the Teller said, “a dire situation arose.” Guests at the Christmas party had guzzled all the alcohol. Luckily, two new, and still sober, arrivals volunteered to rush off to Walla Walla for ten gallons of whisky. The paper noted that, “They made the trip and broke the record for rapid freight service.”

The following year, Silcott built a ferry across the Snake River downstream from Lewiston. He benefited greatly from the surge in area traffic with the gold discoveries around Pierce, Elk City, and Florence. Encouraged, he built another ferry connecting Lewiston with the north shore of the Clearwater River. He also leased a ferry on the Spokane River.
Old western ferry. Library of Congress.
Silcott acquired land around Lewiston and helped plat the town. His real estate ventures did well, although not as well as they might had not newcomers “jumped” many of his lots. He also claimed a homestead on the north side of the Clearwater and built a home near the ferry landing.

In 1882-1885, Silcott sold off all his ferry holdings except the Lewiston-Clearwater vessel. He continued to run that ferry until a year or two before his death, successively lowering the fares to just cover his expenses.

Old Uncle John died in 1902 and was buried on the Clearwater homestead beside his Nez Perce wife, Jane, who had died in 1895.
References: [Hawley], [Illust-North], [Illust-State]
“Lewiston (Silcott) Ferry,” Reference Series No. 759, Idaho State Historical Society (1982).

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