William “Billy” Houston
Although his tombstone reads “1863”, William Houston was born April 6, 1865 in Clinton, Missouri. Growing up in Gentry County, Billy did farm work. Having no formal education, he taught himself to read as an adult. His childhood idol was neighbor, Colon Spence Smith who was ten years his senior. Spence caught the mining bug and set out on many adventures in the west. On his return to Missouri, he found 20 year old Billy eager to hear the mining tales and longing to create his own adventures. It was inevitable that he would follow Spence out west. Billy worked his way west doing farm labor and working logging camps. By 1889, he was prospecting his own claims in the Clark Fork area.
As a loner, Billy wandered the mountains becoming a man of nature. He knew about the stars, sun and moon using them as a guide; and patterns of tree growth as his compass. Standing on the summit of a mountain, he would point his direction to travel and walked a straight line, “the shortest distance,” on the world he believed to be flat.
In 1890, Billy learned from an “old Indian” about lead deposits north of the “little lake” on the Selkirk Mountain divide between the Kootenai River and the Washington line. Excited, Billy obtained grub stakes from his friend, Spence Smith, and from Charles L. Heitman and Frank Wenz. Partnering with another miner, Fred Sutter, they started searching for the deposits in September 1891.
In October 1891, at 6,000 feet elevation, the men found the largest outcrop of silver-lead ore they had ever seen. The solid mineral ore lay on the surface in an area 1,000’ x 100’ covering a distance of several miles. They could hardly contain their excitement! Billy and Fred staked the mining claims and sent Henry Steidler to Rathdrum to record them; which he did on November 19, 1891 under the names: Continental (for the Great Divide), Blue Joe (for a horse owned by Sam Smith) and Jasper (unknown origin). Fearing claim jumpers, Billy and Fred stayed on the mountain late into the year. With deep snow and no snowshoes, they decided to follow the caribou down. The herd split; Billy followed one herd along the summit, while Fred’s herd took a lower trail leading him to a cabin on the north end of Upper Priest Lake. He was found by Albert Klockmann who had learned of the claim through Steidler. Klockmann took Fred to Sandpoint for the winter. Billy’s fate remained unknown.
In the spring of 1892, Klockmann bought Fred’s interest in the claims and headed up to find Billy. Klockmann reached the base of the mountain, but once again did not reach the claim. To his surprise, Billy Houston, in a starved condition clad entirely in caribou hides, stumbled into camp. He had barely survived and appeared to have “snow madness.” Klockmann took Billy to the hospital in Spokane where it took a year to restore his strength.
Klockmann bought interest in Billy and Spence’s claims. He built a 70 mile pack trail through the forest around the Priest Lakes, constructed a cabin, started mining and chased away claim jumpers.
Billy, healthy again, went with Klockmann to start mining and by December 1893 had a tunnel 100 feet long developed with concentrates of 60% lead and 40% silver. Billy pointed the way to Nelson, B.C. (to record the claims) and to the Kootenai River, showing Klockmann “shorter straighter routes.” In September 1894, Billy was in Bonners Ferry and decided to head downriver on a steamer to Ockonook to find a pack trail up to the claims. Billy and Klockmann worked the claims alone, often Billy would stay to work and Klockmann would head down past the lakes for supplies. By 1896, the tunnel was at 400 feet and Klockmann was tired of the trip for supplies. Billy talked about the trail to the Kootenai River, and one day they set out on snowshoes at daybreak reaching the river by nightfall. The route was 100 miles shorter! In the spring of 1897, they built a twenty mile trail and then would swim the river with pack horses to reach Porthill. Later, Klockmann built a ferry to transport ore across the river. With the construction of the Kootenai Valley Railway in 1899, plans were made to ship the ore by rail. By 1901, the tunnel was at 1,000’, Klockmann formed the Idaho-Continental Mining, Co. for the five investors, and a rough road was constructed which crossed Boundary Creek twenty-three times.
Billy, tiring from the heavy mine work, decided to sell his claims to Klockmann in 1902. Spence Smith, Charles L. Heitman and Frank Wenz followed suit. Klockmann acquired full interest in the mine. Billy continued to accompany Klockmann on packing trips. Martha, Klockmann’s wife, wrote: “Bill brought up the rear leading three pack horses with blankets, grub and pieces of machinery for the mine. We crossed the twenty-three bridges over the creek, then, the climb really started. After reaching the mine and Mr. Klockmann’s cabin, Bill brought in the blankets and grub then threw his on the trail. I asked him why and he said ‘see that flat stone, that is my pillow, I sleep across the trail to keep the horses from going back to the ranch.’ He was the human fence.”
Klockmann continued to develop the mine. By 1904, one hundred men and fifteen four-horse teams were working; a railcar load of ore was moved to Porthill every day. He had an aerial tram from the foothills across the valley floor and the Kootenai River built in 1918. By 1922, the mine had 9,000 feet of underground workings in six tunnels and 1,500,000 shares had been sold at $1 each.
Billy retired with his dog, Hank, to a little cabin below the mine near the Kootenai Valley; spending his time out in the hills trapping, hunting and fishing. Klockmann would visit and make sure that Billy had everything he needed. Klockmann had a flagpole installed near Billy’s cabin which was visible from the Klockmann Ranch at the mouth of Boundary Creek. Billy raised the flag whenever he was in need, and supplies were delivered to him. On one visit, Klockmann discovered Billy had taken in a pet skunk; the house’s odor was overpowering and Klockmann told Billy he needed to get rid of the animal. Billy released it on the Porthill side of the river. A visitor remembered a time when Billy couldn’t find his reading glasses. Billy crawled up in the attic and came down with not only his glasses but also several pieces of silverware. He said he had a pack rat that stashed things from the house in its nest, and occasionally he had to climb up to retrieve them. The cabin was quite cluttered, so when Billy went up in the hills one time, Klockmann sent some guys over to clean up his cabin. They cleaned it, carried all the old things out and put in new furniture. When Billy got back, he was so mad he threw all the new stuff out, gathered up all his stuff and put it back in the cabin. Once, Klockmann brought Billy a radio. The next time he went over he found the radio sitting on the back porch; asking why it was out there, Billy replied: “Oh, I put him out on the porch. He won’t let me talk. He just wants to do the talking.” Later, the cabin burned and he moved to the ranch house.
Klockmann said Billy Houston was the finest man he had ever known. He quoted Billy, “Living in the hills now for many years and studying nature, which is so wonderful that it does not even duplicate a single leaf, I believe we are to live in harmony with our fellow man and all creation.” Billy never let Klockmann shoot anything they could not eat at one time. They ate birds and fish for meals, no deer or caribou unless they would be in camp long enough to use up all the meat. Klockmann complained that Billy would not let him shoot the porcupine which ate their shovel handles for the salt left there from their hands. Billy trusted and made friends with every animal in nature. “He was utterly fearless”, Klockmann said, “we met on our hikes timber wolves, cougars, brown and grizzly bears without ever taking a shot at them; but once, we spooked a mother grizzly with three cubs”. Klockmann unloaded his firearm on her, but she kept coming closer. Billy took off his hat and threw it at her, she reared up and he fired one shot into her head, dropping her to the ground.
William “Billy” Houston died on December 21, 1927 at the hospital in Bonners Ferry. He was buried in Grandview Cemetery in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Albert Klockmann died in 1942 and was buried in the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Porthill, Idaho. Martha Klockmann thought their friendship was too great for the 30 mile separation, so she had Billy exhumed and interned in the Klockmann family plot in Porthill; a fitting end to a life spent as constant companions searching for riches in the Selkirk Mountains.