Biography of W. S. Ladd

It is seldom throughout the incipient stages of growth, down to a period covering many years in the development of a progressive commonwealth, that to any one man is accorded a foremost place by general consent. New countries, in these latter days of steam and electricity, develop often with rapidity; new issues are met by new leaders, while those who laid the foundation of society rarely retain their hold on affairs for any extended period of time. In this, however, Oregon has been an exception to the rule, and the career of William Sargent Ladd is a conspicuous example of the exception. Coming to Oregon when the country was young and there was no settled social, political or business order, he has exerted a continually increasing influence in the various lines of development which have added to the wealth and greatness of the State. Apart from his financial operations, which long ago placed him among the most wealthy men of the West, he has been among the builders of our State who have been most earnest for its social and moral progress. The results of his high integrity and of his efforts to elevate the tone of society and keep pure the moral sentiment of the community, make a double claim upon our respect and recognition. Fortunate, indeed, has it been for the State that its business leaders, like our subject, have been men whose social, religious and domestic relations have stimulated and honored the highest of her people. The lessons of such lives are the best inheritance of a State or people.

W. S. Ladd was born at Holland, Vermont, October 10, 1826. His father, Nathaniel Gould Ladd, was a physician, of a family that came to America in 1633. His mother, Abigail Kelley Mead, was a native of New Hampshire, and from her the son received the most prominent traits in his character, industry and power of continued mental effort. Both his parents were Methodists, and his youth was passed under the wholesome instructions and training which usually lead to success. In 1830, his parents removed to Meredith Village, New Hampshire, and three years later to a place called Sandbornton Bridge, now known as Tilton. Like other New England boys he went to school, and also learned to work: At the age of fifteen he began to apply himself in earnest to labor. His father then having no farm of his own, permitted him to try his hand at a neighbor’s, and afterward bought for him fifteen acres of very rough, rocky and wooded land which the youth brought into cultivation by his own personal labor.

Reaching the age of nineteen he found a somewhat wider scope for his abilities in teaching a public school-an experience few New England boys or girls have not had at some period of their lives. The school he undertook to conduct bore the reputation of being the roughest in that region, and pitched battles between teachers and pupils had been frequent. Young Ladd, however, was successful in subduing his refractory pupils at the first encounter, and not only maintained excellent order thereafter, but kept his scholars interested by the use of quick methods and practical suggestions.

About the time his term as a teacher ended, the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railway was running its line past Sanbornton Bridge where he was then residing. He sought and obtained a position in the freight house which was established there, continuing in this and other work connected with railroading, until he left for the Pacific Coast. During his school days, and for some time after he had reached manhood, he had continued to feel a deep interest in this part of the country. This interest was intensified by the subsequent discovery of gold in California. Unlike most men, however, the prospects of making a fortune out of mining had little attraction for him. He became impressed with the idea that not the region out of which the gold was dug, but that from which supplies and products were had for the miners, would obtain the greatest permanent wealth. This consideration, together with the information he gained of the country, from a Mr. Carr, who had lately returned to Sanbornton Bridge, after having been very successful in business operations at Portland and San Francisco, led him to the determination of making Oregon his home. Acting on this resolve, on February 27, 1851, he started in a sailing vessel from New York for the Pacific Coast. Arriving at San Francisco he met an old school friend, Chas. E. Tilton, who was engaged in selling consignments which he was receiving from New York jobbers. Mr. Ladd proposed to him that they go into business and sell goods on their own account. To this Tilton did not agree, and Ladd came on to Oregon, locating at Portland, where at that time everything was new and crude. He at first carried on a small business in selling out a few articles that he had brought with him. At one time his affairs reached so low an ebb that he was glad to save payment of six dollars for road tax by digging out and burning up two great stumps which stood opposite the ground now occupied by the Esmond Hotel.

About this time W. D. Gookin, who had known Mr. Ladd’s father in New Hampshire, arrived in Portland with a cargo of goods. This stock Mr. Ladd sold out, and cleared by the transaction $1,000. This sum he re-invested in articles of ready sale, and from that time was enabled to prosecute his mercantile operations with vigor.

In 1852, he was conducting an independent business, operating, however, with Mr. Gookin, who had made some $20,000 by a successful business venture in San Francisco.

“His business habits at this time,” says one who remembers them, “were most exemplary. He was promptly at his place, often being at hand as early as four o’clock in the summer mornings, to help off his customers with their wagon loads in the cool of the day. He economized his strength, avoided saloons, spent his nights in sleep, not in carousals-which have ruined many of Portland’s brightest men-and made it a point to observe the Sabbath by attendance upon public worship. He was a shrewd trader, meeting loss and profit with equal equanimity. Not easily excited he could view business affairs with coolness, and make the most advantageous moves in the hours of opportunity.”

In 1857 Mr. Ladd married Miss Caroline A. Elliott, of New Hampshire, a young woman of excellent mental endowments, with whom he had been acquainted since school days.

In 1852 Ladd & Tilton entered into partnership and continued their mercantile operations together until the spring of 1855, when the former bought out the latter, who thereupon returned to New Hampshire. Three years later Mr. Tilton returned and again became associated with Mr. Ladd, forming the banking house of Ladd & Tilton, which was opened for business in April, 1859. The bank has grown steadily and through it has been transacted a large part of the monetary business of Oregon. The capital was small at the start, but in 1861 it was increased to $150,000, and not many years elapsed before the capital was brought up to $1,000,000. When the partnership was dissolved in 1880, bills receivable amounted to upwards of $2,500,000, and so select and sound had been the conduct of this business, that when the bank made its statement in 1888 there was less than thirteen hundred dollars of this large sum outstanding.

Tough the old store first, and his bank afterwards, occupied his close attention and were the means of making his fortune, Mr. Ladd also branched out into a number of other ventures. He has been most active in developing the agricultural resources of the State, owning three farms of his own and five in partnership with S. G. Reed. These he conducts partly for recreation and amusement. He has been lavish of his, means in this particular and has done much in the way of introducing new and improved methods of farming, and in importing and breeding fine live stock. He is also largely interested in flouring mills, controlling at the present time about three-fourths of the entire flouring mill business of the Pacific Northwest. He is identified with what is now the Oregon Iron and Steel Company at Oswego, and has been a leading stockholder of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. Besides these interests he is one of the largest property holders in Portland and vicinity, owning many acres of valuable city land and a large number of business and residence buildings. He built the first brick building in Portland. His interest in school matters and public education has been long and continuous, being among the first to serve as a school director. He has been a friend of churches and public charities and his gifts have been munificent. He endowed the chairs of practical theology in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in San Francisco in 1886 with $50,000, and gave several scholarships to the Willamette University. Throughout a wide extent of country few churches have been built without aid from him. The Library Association of Portland, one of the most creditable and useful institutions of the city, has always felt his fostering care. For twenty years it has occupied the second floor of his bank building, on the corner of First and Stark streets free of charge. It has been Mr. Ladd’s custom from the first to set aside one-tenth of his net income for charitable purposes, placing it as a gift apart from other funds. It is said that an appeal for sufferers, if worthy, has never been refused by him nor by any member of his family.

To his wife he ascribes a great portion of his success, saying: “I owe everything to her. Through all she has been to me most emphatically a helpmate, in the best and highest sense, a noble wife, a saintly mother to our children. Always patient, thoughtful and courageous, she has cheerfully assumed her part of whatever load I have had to carry. We both started together at bed-rock; and from then until now we have taken every step in harmony.”

Their eldest son, William M. Ladd, has for several years efficiently aided his father in the management of his largely increased interests. He is an alumnus of Amherst College and since the retirement of Mr. Tilton, he has been a partner in the bank. The second son, Charles Elliott, is at the head of the large flouring business which his father in a large part created and now controls. The eldest daughter is the wife of Henry J. Corbett, son of Henry W. Corbett. The second daughter is the wife of Charles Pratt, of Brooklyn, N. Y., who is largely interested in the Standard Oil Company.

A man of Mr. Ladd’s intelligence and enterprise would be naturally sought after by his fellow citizens to fill positions of public trust. He has, however, invariably declined accepting any public office other than those involving usefulness without regard to public honors or emoluments. He has held the position of Mayor of Portland, and his name has repeatedly been mentioned for high public stations, but he has persistently refused to enter the arena of political strife. During the war he was a war Democrat, and has since exercised his right of voting his own ticket, although in national matters, he has of late years, sided with the Republicans.

Mr. Ladd’s main characteristic has been the indomitable persistence with which his plans have been pursued The strength of his will has been marked in every phase of his career, but “perhaps nothing shows,” says another, “more fully his unquailing spirit and the preponderance of his will, than his steady and persistent application to business since the infirmity came upon him by which he has been rendered incapable of physical activity. His uninterrupted application to business and development of great plans, is an example of how little the operations of a great mind and spirit depend upon the completeness of these temples of clay in which the soul spends its earthly life.”

Few men who could more fitly assume the name of “Money King,” realize more fully than Mr. Ladd, the idea of a man of great wealth and power holding his possessions as a public trust and sincerely striving to return all his dollars to the use of society, and to the advantage of his fellow men. While he is easily master, he is, nevertheless, a friend and favorite with his workmen and employees. He believes in fairness to all who work and that their rights and liberty be respected, and denounces the iniquity of combinations of capital which would deprive trade or labor of its freedom. It is for these qualities he stands closer to the hearts of the people than most men of wealth, and suffers as little from envy as any rich man in the nation.

Such is a brief outline of the history of a man whose active and enterprising spirit, sound business sagacity, open-handed liberality and pronounced Christian character, have contributed largely to mould the character of a growing city, and lay deep and broad the commercial honor, political virtue, enlightened education and sound principles of our young and growing commonwealth. Mr. Ladd is one of those who realize the duties and responsibilities of wealth, and the large assistance he has always lent to worthy objects of public effort are among the proofs of his benevolence and breadth of character.


Biography, History,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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