Wardner, by his own account, was a man always on the lookout for whatever would make him rich. With that goal in mind he spent some time as an assistant tapeworm remover, the owner of the exclusive rights to an anti-cow-kicking milking stool in the entire state of Wisconsin, a failed investor in hogs, the exhibitor of a “wild man,” the owner of a saloon and store in Deadwood where he claimed to be the first to sell oysters to gourmand miners, a freighter with 500 yoke of oxen, a gambler who once won a few thousand on a walking contest, and the distributor of butterine (a butter substitute), some of which he personally hauled into Idaho mining camps by pulling a toboggan.
Wardner had done pretty well in the Coeur d’Alene mining district with his various enterprises and was all packed up to go back to Wisconsin to his long-suffering wife, ready to give up his dreams of riches, when an acquaintance he’d grubstaked a bit came galloping into town. Upon seeing Wardner he said he could now pay him back for his past kindness because he and some other men had found one hell of a vein.
Never one to let news of a rich find slide by, Wardner set out that evening to find the mining camp. He came upon it just at sunrise. The three men sitting around the fire knew Wardner and when they saw that he had brought whiskey welcomed him into the camp. As the sun cleared the mountain tops a flash from across the canyon could not be missed. It was sunshine reflecting off a long, exposed vein of galena.
Noah Kellogg told Wardner the now famous story about how his jackass had gotten loose and led the men on a chase through the woods and across downed timber for quite some time until they saw the beast standing still and looking across the canyon as if something had caught his eye. That something was the flash of galena Wardner had now seen. The jackass would forever get credit for the discovery of the Bunker Hill Mine. A refrain from an old concert hall jingle from the time went like this:
“When you talk about the Coeur d’Alenes
And all their wealth untold,
Don’t fail to mention ‘Kellogg’s Jack,’
Who did that wealth unfold!”
Wardner, perhaps the first to hear that story, began thinking of a way to get in on this fabulous find. He told the men he thought he’d take a little stroll and asked if he could borrow an axe in case he needed to blaze a trail. He blazed, instead, a spot in a tree alongside what would later be called Milo Creek and wrote his claim to water rights in the stream in pencil on the blaze. Then he went back to the miners and asked them to come along with him. When they got to the tree, he asked them to witness his claim to water rights.
Men who had not just found wealth beyond their wildest dreams might have simply drowned him on the spot, but they played fair with Wardner and signed as witnesses, knowing that water rights were absolutely essential in mining and kicking themselves for not thinking of that sooner.
Wardner then agreed to put up a considerable sum—more than $15,000—to get the operation going. He bought up some lots in a nearby town which would end up being called Wardner. Eventually he would sell his water rights and mine shares in the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mines, and strike out for other adventures. Chasing gold would take him to the Klondike, South Africa, and British Columbia. There’s another small town named Wardner in British Columbia, named after you know who.
Jim Wardner went on to make and lose fortunes, even trying his hand at raising cats for their fur for a time on an island in Puget Sound. He died in El Paso, Texas in 1905.
Image: Wardner, Idaho, in 1886. The animal in the foreground with kids astride it is the “4 million dollar” jackass that found the galena that would become the Bunker Hill Mine. The star in the upper right of the photo is the location of the mine. The photo comes from the book Jim Wardner, of Wardner Idaho published in 1900, which is an excellent read.
Thanks to Tim Blood who led me to the Wardner book.