Biography of Capt. James M. Gilman

CAPT. JAMES M. GILMAN. – The Oregon Steam Navigation Company, now known as the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, which is the great company of river and ocean steamers, and of the Northwestern railway system centering at Portland, has been one of the most distinctively Oregon organizations ever established. It has made Portland; and through it the great fortunes of the state have been built up. The steps in the life of this company are full of interest; and it is instructive to discover the qualities of its individual members, and what led them to the enterprise. They were worthy young men, some of them mechanics; and their only capital was in their active brains and ready hands.

Captain Gilman, the present large capitalist and real-estate owner in the city of Portland, was one of these young men. He was born in New Hampshire in 1826, and , losing his mother at the age of seven, lived until he was thirteen in the family of an uncle. His penchant for mechanics early showed itself; and it was the height of his boyish ambition to be able to understand and run a steam-engine. This early bias dominated his entire career. Starting off with his small bundle while but a mere lad, he walked to Charlestown, and finally to Manchester, finding employment as apprentice in the great shops of that place. His pay was fourteen dollars a month and board. Towards the close of his five years, he received twenty dollars.

After fulfilling his time at the shops, he turned his face homeward, more anxious perhaps to see one of his old-time schoolmates than anyone else; but at Boston he found a company of one hundred young men making up a fund in lots of three hundred dollars each to buy a ship, and with her to come around the Horn to California. Casting in his lot with the daring company, young Gilman set his face for the Pacific. The ship was the Lenora. Provisioned for a year, the vessel sailed forth. Embarking February 5, 1849, the young adventurers reached the land of gold July 4th following. In the ship were the parts for a small steamer, the New England, which was put together immediately after their arrival. An offer for her of sixty thousand dollars was promptly refused; and she was run on the upper bay and the Sacramento. The company sold out and dissolved, Gilman like the most of the others, going to the mines. He was obliged to return, however, to San Francisco on account of sickness, taking passage thither on the old steamer Senator on its first trip. After his recovery, the luck of the young engineer went cross-grained for a time. He was once at least in that condition described in the West as “dead broke.” From this slough he was kindly lifted by the loan of fifty dollars from his old captain, Green. He found employment (working at first without pay) as assistant, and finally as engineer on the San Joaquin. Upon the relegation of this craft to the bone yard, he bought, with a company, a small steamer for one thousand dollars, which he used for towing barges, and afterwards put her on the Oakland route.

About this time an Oregon man, James McCord, of the firm of Abernethy & Clark, bought the steamer Redding for towing vessels from Astoria to Oregon City. He prevailed upon Gilman to bring her up and run her that summer. He accepted the situation, but with no intention of remaining in Oregon. The Redding was the first steamer on the Columbia and Willamette, although the Hudson’s Bay Company had had a steam coaster which ran up the Vancouver. On preparing to return, Gilman found the steamer General Warren ready to leave Astoria, but refused to accept the captain’s request to take passage. Indeed the General Warren had scarcely crossed the bar before she sprang a leak, and had to be run upon the Clatsop Spit. She went to pieces; and the most of the passengers were lost.

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To put in the time, Gilman accepted a position as engineer on the Multnomah on the route to Oregon City (1852). Three years later, having by this time acquired that love for its majestic waters which the Columbia inspires, he was employed on the Bell, which ran to The Dalles.

A number of men now saw the immense profits of navigation on the Upper Columbia; and Ainsworth, Kamm and Gilman began the construction of the Carrie Ladd. This was built in the most substantial manner, indeed with the expectation that she could run the rapids at the Cascades. This was the beginning of the O.R. & N. (O.S.N.) Co. W.S. Ladd, J.C. Ainsworth, R.R. Thompson and Simeon G. Reed were the first directors. As the company added new steamers, and built the railroad around the Cascades and The Dalles, the profits became very great, as much as one hundred thousand dollars per month.

Captain Gilman remained with the company for many years, investing his profits in real estate at Portland, and turning it over every few months to good advantage. He built the Gilman House, an elegant hotel of the city. Portland consisted of Pettygrove’s cabin when the Captain first came here. After five years on the coast, he returned to his native place on a visit, marrying an old schoolmate, Laura F. Graves, with whom he returned to his home on the Willamette. But one of their children survives, Ida, the wife of Albert McKinnie.

Having seen Portland grow from one house to a thriving city of seventy thousand people, the Captain naturally has fait that it will ultimately become a large place. His career should be a lesson to young men. There is usually a fortune for the one who prefers to work for his board rather than be idle.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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