The Centennial History of Oregon Vol. I
by Joseph Gaston

The First Steamboats

Out of the sail boat traffic grew the necessity for larger accomodations, and the ambition of the townsite proprietors soon formulated the scheme for the first steamboat. For the supremacy and to be first on the water with a steam propelled craft, Astoria and Milwaukie were rivals. Oregon City, Vancouver and Portland were even larger and more pretentious towns; but Astoria and old Milwaukie had the superior energy and courage for the venture.

There has been a great deal of discussion as to whom was due the credit for building and operating the first American steamboat on the rivers of Oregon. As the man is still living in Portland who knows all about this history, we will give his story of the whole matter and settle the question for all time.

As to the building of the old Lot Whitcomb, Jacob Kamm can truthfully say "all of which I saw, and a part of which I was." The Lot Whitcomb was launched at the town of Milwaukie, six miles above Portland on Christmas day, 1850, now sixty-two years ago. In his notice of the early steamboats, Judge Strong seems to think that the Columbia, a boat projected by General Adair, and built at upper Astoria in 1850, was the first boat. But that fact can't be well decided between the two contestants for the honor, as both boats were built in the same year, and there is no accessible evidence showing which boat "took to the water" first. Strong says that the mechanics building the Columbia were paid sixteen dollars a day for their work, and the common laborers handling lumber were paid from five to eight dollars a day in gold dust. They certainly fared better than the men working on the Whitcomb, for they got no pay until the boat was running and earning something, and then they had to take pay in wheat, and farmers produce, and convert it into cash or "store pay" as best they could.

The history of the Lot Whitcomb is mixed up with the struggle between rival towns for the location of the future city. Mr. Lot Whitcomb, one of the most energetic and ambitious men of early Oregon pioneer days, had located his land claim on the present site of the town of Milwaukee in 1847, and with the aid of Captain Joseph Kellogg, who arrived in the fall of 1848, started in to build a city. He had got together enough machinery to build a little saw mill, and was shipping little "lots" of lumber to the embryo town of San Francisco, in '49 and '50; the profits on which were so large, that he was enabled to buy the old bark Lausanne that had brought the fifty-two Methodist missionaries out here. In the Lausanne were a pair of engines and all the necessary machinery for a steamboat. These engines had evidently been forgotten, or over-looked as not necessary to the Methodist mission; and so Whitcomb looked upon his "find" in the bottom of the ship as an act of Providence to enable him to build a steamboat, and with her aid annihilate the pretensions of the little town of Portland. Whitcomb lost no time in getting those engines to Milwaukie and made all possible haste to build his boat. He had taken time by the forelock and hunted up a man at Sacramento, California, that was qualified to build a steamboat. That man he found in the person of a young man named Jacob Kamm, who was born in Switzerland, and coming to the United States and to St. Louis had learned the business of an engineer on the Mississippi river steamboats from the bottom up, and had his papers to show his qualifications. Whitcomb at once engaged Mr. Kamm, and brought him to Oregon to put up the engines and boilers, and put all the machinery in the boat.

This was a great opening for the young engineer, and Jacob Kamm was the man to fully appreciate it and make the most of his opportunity. Young, ambitious to succeed, industrious, frugal, and thoroughly conscientious in the discharge of every duty, and in protecting and promoting the interests of his employer, he won the confidence of everybody, and his fortune was made in the good name and good standing he secured from this first employment in Oregon. So that from that time on Jacob Kamm never lacked employment at the highest wages, nor friends, nor chances to get ahead in the battle of life.

While Mr. Kamm was entrusted with the most important work of putting in and operating the machinery of the new boat, Mr. W.L. Hanscom was employed to build the hull and cabin. All hands worked together with a hearty good will to complete the boat and make the best showing possible; although the reputed owners, Lot Whitcomb and Berryman Jennings, were in such straitened circumstances as to be scarcely able to pay the board bills of the men; having expended all their means to the purchase of the engines and machinery. The boat was practically finished and launched on Christmas day, 1850. Wm. Henry Harrison Hall was employed as pilot, Jacob Kamm as engineer, while the builder, Hanscom, acted as master in running the boat until she was paid for and the necessary papers issued by the collector of customs at Astoria. No authority from the government could be had to run the boat until the evidence was filed in the custom house that the men who built the boat had all been paid. Here was a veritable "snag" right in front of the first steamboat that was about as bad as a hole in her bottom. The collector of customs might wink at some violation of law, and allow Hanscom and Kamm to run her up and down the Willamette, and over to Vancouver, and down to St. Helens, but the Whitcomb must not dare to venture down to the Astoria custom house without the receipts in full of all labor, machinery and material bills. Some high financing had to be done, and done quickly. So Whitcomb and Jennings formed a syndicate - the first syndicate in Oregon - and got Abernethy to head the paper, and then circulated it among the wheat growing farmers up in the valley and they subscribed dollars payable in wheat; and finally enough cash and farmers' produce was put into the syndicate to pay for Oregon's first steamboat; Hanscom took cash as far as it would go, and wheat for the balance; Kamm took wheat and sold it to the Oregon City merchants and finally everybody that had a dollar against the boat got their pay; Hanscom ran her down to Astoria, filed a clear bill of health on the creditors' account, and General Adair issued the authority to run on the Willamette and Columbia rivers; and the Lot Whitcomb took the head of the fleet of the hundreds of steamboats that have followed in her wake; and John C. Ainsworth was appointed her first master.

As population increased, business on the rivers increased, and became more remunerative, while the stimulus of the greater business in the future incited others to try their luck at steamboating which has always been an attractive pursuit in new countries, where there were navigable rivers. Other boats were projected and built.

On December 29, 1860, there being at that time no law under which a corporation could be organized in Oregon, J.C. Ainsworth, P.F. Bradford, S.G. Reed and R.R. Thompson applied to the legislature of Washington territory and procured a charter incorporating said persons and their associates in the name of the "Oregon Steam Navigation Company." These men were at that time owners of several steamboats, plying on the Columbia river from Portland to Lewiston in Idaho and from Portland to Astoria; and also owners of a portage railroad around the Cascades of the Columbia. And after so incorporating the Company proceeded to build a railroad 14 miles long on the portage to pass The Dalles rapids and falls of the Columbia. These portage railraods thus constructed in connection with the steamboats owned by the Company, gave to that Corporation a practical monopoly of all the business on the great river, and constituted the first great transportation monopoly in Oregon. Under the first organization, the stockholders were R.R. Thompson, 120 shares; Ladd & Tilton, 80; T.W. Lyles, 76; L.W. Coe, 60; Jacob Kamm, 57; J.C. Ainsworth, 40; A.H. Barker, 30; S.G. Reed, 26; Benjamin Stark, 19; Josiah Myrick, 12; Richard Williams, 7; J.W. Ladd, 4; G.W. Pope, 4; J.M. Gilman, 4; George W. Hoyt, 3; 532 shares at $500 a share, making $266,000. On October 18, 1862, the company was reorganized under the general incorporation law of Oregon with the following shareholders: Bradford & Co., 738 shares; R.R. Thompson, 672; Harrison Olmstead, 558; Jacob Kamm, 354; L.W. Coe, 336; T.W. Lyles, 210; J.C. Ainsworth, 188; A.H. Parker, 160; S.G. Reed, 128; Ladd & Tilton, 78; Josiah Myrick, 66; Richard Williams, 48; A.H. Grenzebach, 52; J.W. Ladd, 48; J.M. Gilman, 44; P.F. Doland, 42; E.J. Weekes, 42; S.G. Reed Agent, 40; J.W. Ladd Agent, 40; Joseph Bailey, 36; O. Humason, 34; J.S. Ruckle, 24; George W. Hoyt, 18; Ladd & Tilton, 16; J.H. Whittlesey, 8; making a total of 3,988 shares of the nominal value of $1,994,000. As an illustration of the earning power of the boats at the rates charged for freight, fares and other services, the following transcript is taken from the company's books at The Dalles:

For the steamboat Col. Wright, for March 27, 1862 ..... $2,625.00
For the steamboat Co. Wright, for March 28, 1862 ..... $2,446.00
For the steamboat Col. Wright, for March 31, 1862 ..... $1,570.00
For the steamboat Tenino, for April 09, 1862 ..... $1,405.00
For the steamboat Okanagon, for April 11, 1862 ..... $3,540.00
For the steamboat Okanagon, for April 15, 1862 ..... $1,622.30
For the steamboat Okanagon, for April 18, 1862 ..... $1,020.00
For the steamboat Tenino, for April 22, 1862 ..... $3,232.00
For the steamboat Okanagon, for April 25, 1862 ..... $3,630.00
For the steamboat Tenino, for April 27, 1862 ..... $3,289.00
For the steamboat Tenino, for April 29, 1862 ..... $2,595.00
For the steamboat Tenino, for May 05, 1862 ..... $6,780.00
For the steamboat Okanagon, for May 11, 1862 ..... $2,145.00
For the steamboat Tenino, for May 13, 1862 ..... $10,945.00
For the steamboat Okanagon, for May 17, 1862 ..... $2,265.00
For the steamboat Okanogan, for May 26, 1862 ..... $6,615.00

These daily receipts were for up the river passenger tickets only in the gold fever rush to the mines of that year, and were the daily sum total for freight, passenger fares, meals and drinks at the bar. One single up trip of the Tenino took in $18,000.00.

The rates of freight charged were "all the traffic would bear;" and for measurement tons, were:

From Portland to The Dalles, 121 miles, per ton ..... $10.00
From Portland to Umatilla, 217 miles, per ton ..... $20.00
From Portland to Wallula, 240 miles, per ton ..... $25.00
From Portland to Lewiston, 407 miles, per ton ..... $40.00

Passenger Charges

Portland to The Dalles ..... $ 5.00
Portland to Umatilla ..... $10.00
Portland to Lewiston ..... $20.00

Owing to the high rates, opposition boats were started from time to time on both the Columbia and Willamette rivers; the most noteworthy of which was the People's Transportation Company in 1862. This company was organized by C.D. Kingsley, David McCully, Leonard White, Stephen Coffin and S.T. Church; of which Coffin was president, A.C.R. Shaw, treasurer, and Church, secretary. This company maintained its existence against the big monopoly doing a fair business and serving the people of the Willamette valley well for nearly twelve years, and then sold out to Ben Holladay, who will be noticed further along.

By 1871, the Northern Pacific Railroad was in the zenith of its prosperity and desired to use the Oregon Steam Navigation Company facilities in connection with their enterprise. They proposed to purchase a control of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company stock, and invited an interview with an authorized committee from the Oregon Steam Navigation Company to meet in New York City. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Ainsworth were appointed with authority to sell. They met the company in New York, and after much talk and frequent disagreements, they effected the sale of three-fourths of the capital stock of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, at the rate of $2,000,000 for the whole, taking one-half of the amount in N.P.R.R. Company bonds at par and giving easy time for money payments. The old owners of the company retained one-fourth of the stock and continued in the management, so they considered that they had made a good sale, but subsequent events proved it to be a mistake. Through the failure of Jay Cooke & Company, in 1873, the Northern Pacific was forced into liquidation and the bonds that the Oregon Steam Navigation Company directors still held and could have sold for cash at ninety cents, dropped to ten cents. The three-fourths of the capital sold to the Northern Pacific passed into the hands of the bankrupt estate of Jay Cooke & Company, and here it remained locked up for a long time. This failure served to shrink values all over the United States. The result was that Oregon Steam Navigation Company stock went down in the crash with other stocks. A plan was adopted by the trustees of the estate of Jay Cooke & Company to pay its creditors in kind. Each creditor accepting the proposition received fourteen per cent of his claim in Oregon Steam Navigation Company stock at forty per cent of its par value. This, as the creditors slowly and reluctantly came forward to accept, began to throw Oregon Steam Navigation Company stock on the Philadelphia and New York markets. Parties taking it knew nothing about it, and offered it at once for sale, and as they were ignorant of its value, the Portland directors were not slow in improving this opportunity to buy back a sufficient amount as would again give them control. Some of it was purchased as low as thirteen cents and the average cost of enough to give control was about twenty cents on the dollar, so in the end, covering a period of about five years, they found themselves the owners of the large majority of the stock at about half the amount they had sold for.

In 1879, Mr. Villard came to Oregon with the avowed purpose of purchasing the Oregon Steam Navigation Company property, or commencing opposition. He asked J.C. Ainsworth whether he and his associates were willing to sell. Mr. Ainsworth refused to take less than $5,000,000. An inventory of the company's property was made, together with a statement of the earnings for several years, with an offer to sell 50,320 shares at par. The directors thought it was too big a deal for Mr. Villard but he considered it a bargain. His plan was to form a new company, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, with a capital stock of $6,000,000 and an issue of $6,000,000 of six per cent bonds. He got an option till October 1st, by paying $100,000 in cash, which called for 40,320 shares of stock at par, to pay fifty per cent cash, twenty per cent bonds and thirty per cent stock. He allowed $1,000,000 stock and $1,200,000 in bonds for the Oregon Steamship Company, and $2,000,000 stock and $2,500,000 bonds to raise the cash required for Ainsworth. Leaving $1,800,000 stock and $1,500,000 bonds for the purchase of thirty-five miles of Walla Walla railroad and Willamette Valley Transportation & Lock Company. $1,200,000 stock and $800,000 bonds were reserved for new steamers. He submitted his plans to Jay Gould, but got a cool reception. He therefore laid the proposition before his friends in the east. His plan was to unite all the transportation facilities in Oregon. He asked his friends to join in exchanging Oregon Steamship for Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company securities, and to subscribe for the required cash payments for bonds at ninety with a bonus of seventy per cent in stock. He received a prompt response. Thus the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company grew out of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, and the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, after a score of years of properity unparalleled in the annals of steam navigation, passed out of existence in 1879. The Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company was incorporated June 13, 1879, with a capitalization of $6,000,000, divided into $100 shares. Mr. Villard was president.

The reference to Jay Gould above revives the story circulated at the time that when the United States was proceeding by judicial proceedings in the United States district court to appropriate a right of way for the canal at the Cascades, and the Oregon Steam Navigation Company was resisting the proceeding that David P. Thompson, who had no love for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, sat by and listened to the testimony of Captain Ainsworth, and prompted the government attorneys to compel Ainsworth to tell about all the immense profits of the company. And that after getting it on record, Thompson sent the figures to Villard, who telegraphed a sensational story to the western papers saying that the Union Pacific Railroad, which Gould then controlled, would immediately take steps to extend its road to the Columbia river, and down to Portland, thereby expecting and intending to buy the O.S.N. Company for a song. But, that after Gould had thus flushed the game, Villard scurried around Wall Street, got cash from other parties and rushed to Oregon and bought out Ainsworth & Company before Gould could get his agent out here; making a good illustration of one railroad sharp-shaking the plum tree while another, just a little quicker on foot, picked up the plums.

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