Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Harris Hotels: Ruby Rush and More

The Commercial Hotel at Harris, c. 1910.  From Harris: Heritage to Homage (1982)

In 1910, three of the seven Gordon brothers bought Commercial Hotel in Harris. Little did Henry (Hank), Wallace and Merritt Gordon know that  a few years later, their hotel would be the headquarters for one of the most infamous events ever to take place in Saskatchewan.

The Gordon brothers, born to Daniel and Maryann Gordon from Quebec, were raised in Minnesota where their father farmed. At least three of the brothers worked for a time in the mines at Butte, Montana, around the turn of the 20th century.  At that time, Butte had a reputation as a wild town, where any vice was obtainable.

In 1904-05, the entire Gordon family - sons and parents - filed for homesteads in what became the Harris district. There were no towns and the railroad had not yet come through. All building supplies had to be hauled 60 miles from Saskatoon by wagon, so they built their homes from sod. By 1909, the village of Harris was under construction. Alex Shatilla built a three-story hotel on the corner of Railway and Main. That fall he sold the hotel to the Gordon brothers.

Maybe the brothers got bored. Maybe, after the excitement of the mining camps of Butte, Montana, they were looking for a reason to stir things up a bit. Whatever the case, when Alex McCarthy walked into the bar of the Commercial Hotel one hot, dry day in the summer of 1914 with a cigar box full of stones, Hank Gordon saw an opportunity. McCarthy was a bewhiskered American miner recently arrived in the area. He knew the Gordon brothers, so who knows? Maybe the whole “Ruby Rush” was a set-up right from the start.

Raw rubies from a mine. Image source
The story of the “Great Ruby Rush” goes like this:  While working on a road gang in the Bear Hill about 20 miles northwest of Harris, McCarthy spotted some red pellets in a big black rock that looked an awful lot like rubies. Knowing that the Gordon brothers had extensive mining experience, he put the stones in a cigar box and headed for the Commercial Hotel. Over a glass of beer, McCarthy showed his find to Hank, who then called in his brothers. “We’ll look after it,” McCarthy was told. Word spread that the Gordons had stolen off to Saskatoon to stake their claim. Someone alerted the Saskatoon Star, for soon the newspaper was running headlines of a ruby and gold discovery near Harris. Within days, thousands of “prospectors” arrived in the village of Harris by train, wagon, buggy and on foot, some no doubt dreaming of instant riches similar to those of the Klondike Gold Rush sixteen years earlier. The mad Ruby Rush was underway.

The Gordon brothers and the Commercial Hotel profited greatly from the Ruby Rush. “Rubies” from the site of the discovery – a large black stone in the Bear Hills – were put on display at the hotel. The Gordons hauled loads of lumber, food and booze to the site where they operated a saloon, a restaurant and other entertainment in three large tents.  Prostitutes, card sharpies and con men followed in the wake of the Ruby Rush. Drunkenness was rampant, to the point that one man was found dead from alcohol poisoning. Eventually, word came from Saskatoon that the rubies were really garnets of little value.

For years afterwards, the people of Harris did not talk about the Ruby Rush.  It was a forbidden subject, especially as the main players and their families still lived in the community. It became easier to forget after the Commercial Hotel burned down in 1923.

From Harris: Heritage to Homage (1982)
Charles, the eldest Gordon brother, farmed at Harris until 1929 when he moved to BC. He died there in 1951. Hank maintained his interest in mining, and had mining ventures in Hope, BC. Fred’s family still farms near Harris. Lawrence (Larry) moved to Debden where he ran a cattle ranch. Francis (Frank) was a member of the Harris Elks Lodge for years. After the hotel fire of 1923, the Merritt Gordon family moved to Vancouver where for the next 20 years he owned and managed various hotels. The seventh son, Merritt, moved his family to Perdue and then Vancouver where he operated other hotels until the day he died.

The big black stone, source of the "rubies," in the yard of the Harris Museum

The Harris Hotel

Harris Hotel, 1980.  From Harris: Heritage to Homage (1980)

It was not until 1950 that Harris got another hotel. Fraser Laing moved a building from the “24 Wilson Farm” onto two lots on Railway Avenue and started the Harris Hotel, complete with beer parlour and family restaurant. A 2011 real estate listing stated that the hotel was not operating. The seven guest rooms were in need of renovations and the second floor required a fire escape. The hotel was for sale for the "drastically reduced" price of $99,000.

Harris Hotel, 2005. Photo courtesy of Ruth Bitner
© Joan Champ 2011


  1. Frank Gordon was my grandfather. im so pleased to have finally found out about my family history. ty for this blog you totally made my evening��☺

    1. That's wonderful! I'm so glad my blog was able to help you find information about your grandfather.

  2. Joan in your research did you come across any information on the Spa that was located at Crystal lake or beach near Harris?
    Apparently it was a big attraction in the early 20th century.

    Harry O.

    1. Hi Harry, I've heard of Crystal Lake near Harris and even seen old photos of it from back in the day (maybe at the museum in Harris), but I haven't done any research on the place - yet!

  3. The Gordon brothers are my great great uncles and my great great grandfather (Charles Gordon). The present day Gordons love this story and have forwarded the link to your blog many times! So much for my mother's efforts to ensure we were well-behaved enought to eat with the Queen!

    Jane Gordon (via John Robert Meehan Gordon - Russell Charles Gordon - Charles Ernest Gordon)

    1. I'm so glad I was able to help the Gordon family fine out more about its history. I'm sure the Queen would be amused!

  4. I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!