B.C. beachcomber finds 107-year-old message in a bottle from Bellingham man

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 17, 2013 

A Bellingham's man 107-year-old message in a bottle will remain a mystery for now, said the Canadian man who found it on a west Vancouver Island beach last week.

Steve Thurber, 53, of Courtenay, B.C., was walking along a beach south of Tofino last Monday, Sept. 9, when he discovered a glass bottle with a crusted cap lying in the sand, according to the Times Colonist of Victoria, B.C.

Through the murky glass, Thurber could see cursive handwriting on the outside of an envelope, signed by Earl Willard of Bellingham and dated Sept. 29, 1906. The envelope also said the bottle was thrown into the ocean 76 hours into a steamship voyage from San Francisco to Bellingham aboard the steamer Rainier.

According to U.S. Census records, Willard was born Aug. 28, 1888 in Michigan to William C. Willard and Sarah Coffey. That would have made him 18 at the time he flung the mystery bottle overboard.

By 1906, Earl Willard was living in Bellingham and working as a Teamster. His address in Bellingham is now home to the Bellingham Railway Museum. He married in 1907, moved to Vancouver, B.C. and then Seattle before settling in Los Angeles, where he worked as an electrical contractor until his death in 1948.

Several people have joined in the chase for information on Willard.

Kolby Labree, a Bellingham historian, said he wants Thurber to open the bottle.

"There is only so much you can tell about a person from census, death and marriage records and the like," Labree wrote in an email. "The real gem is having some kind of personal writing - the likes of which Steve has in the bottle. ... I'd love to know what his motivation was for tossing the bottle, or just more about what kind of a person he was."

Kathryn Devine, a reference librarian with the Washington State Library, sent U.S. Census information after reading an earlier version of the story in The Bellingham Herald. "We love historical mysteries like this," Devine wrote in an email.

But Thurber said what's inside the envelope will remain a mystery, for now. The bottle's metal seal is rusted around the lid and likely would have to be broken to be opened, he said.

"It's been like that for 107 years and I'm not gonna just bust it open because I think there might be something else in there," Thurber told CTV News.

According to Guinness World Records officials, the oldest known "message in a bottle" was discovered in 2012 by a Scottish fisherman who found a bottle dating back to 1914. That bottle was one of 1,890 bottles thrown into the sea as part of an experiment by the Glasgow School of Navigation to map the undercurrents around Scotland.

Thurber's bottle was made by North Star Bottling Works, which operated in the early 1900s in San Francisco.

The area where Thurber found the bottle had recently been excavated as part of a Parks Canada restoration project, according to the Times Colonist.

Reach Jim Donaldson at 360-715-2288 or jim.donaldson@bellinghamherald.com.

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