Biography of Jacob Kamm

No history of navigation upon the Willamette or Columbia would be complete without reciting the part borne by the subject of this sketch. From the time the demands of travel and commerce created business of any magnitude in this direction, down to the present time, he has been more or less prominently connected with this interest, and especially important was the part he bore in the incipient stages of its development.

He was born in Switzerland, December 12, 1823. At the age of eight, with his father, who had resigned his commission as captain in the Swiss army, he came to America. They removed to Illinois, where for a year his father was employed in farming and milling. From there they went to St. Louis, where his father conducted a hotel for some years, after which they removed to New Orleans. Here, at the age of twelve, young Kamm commenced the earnest side of life in a printing office, where he was employed until after the death of his father during the fearful yellow fever epidemic in the summer of 1837.

In the fall of that year with only a few dollars in his pocket, he started for St. Louis. Upon his arrival he secured a position as a cabin boy on a small steamer called the Ark. In the engineer of this steamer he found a kind friend, and during several following winters he boarded with his family. It was during this time he secured the principal educational advantages he ever enjoyed, going to school in the winter, and spending much time in studying while on the boat in summer. At the age of sixteen he became engineer’s assistant, or second engineer on the Camden, and afterwards served in the same capacity on the Illinois, Mumga Park, Gypsy and other boats.

He early developed great taste for mathematics and engineering, and improved every opportunity to advance his knowledge of both. While in St. Louis he joined an engineers’ association, an incorporated body, whose object was to raise the standard of efficiency of engineers. Before a committee of this order Mr. Kamm, upon attaining his majority, passed a most thorough examination as to the duties pertaining to an engineer; was highly commended for his thorough knowledge and qualifications, and given a diploma as Chief Engineer. With this endorsement, which at that time was considered to leave no question as to proficiency, he soon after obtained a position as Chief Engineer, and for several years thereafter served in this capacity on a number of boats, on the Mississippi and its tributaries, among them the Ocean Wave, Edward Bates and Hannibal. Ambitious to succeed, he over-taxed his strength, and in 1848 failing health forced him to stop working. In seeking to gain his health he was advised that a trip across the plains might be beneficial, and also desiring to visit the Pacific Coast, which the recent discovery of gold had brought so prominently before the public, he determined to make the long journey. In the spring of 1849 he started with a train, and October 10, 1849, arrived in Sacramento, California. Here for a short time he worked in a saw mill. He then went to San Francisco, and after spending the winter there, returned to Sacramento, where he secured engagement as engineer on the steamer New England, which ran up the Feather River, and afterwards had sole charge, acting as master pilot and engineer of the Black Hawk, then running from Sacramento to Marysville.

While in Sacramento he met Lot Whitcomb, who at that time was building the Lot Whitcomb at Milwaukie. By Mr. Whitcomb he was engaged to put the machinery in the steamer, and for that purpose came to Milwaukie. Practically alone, he did all the work required, even to riveting the sections of the boiler together. This somewhat famous vessel was launched December 25, 1850, and prominently figures in the nautical history of Oregon. Mr. Kamm was engineer of this steamer until she went to California in 1853. Afterward, with George Abernethy, Hiram Clark and J. C. Ainsworth, he became part owner in the Jennie Clark, built at Milwaukie, and the first stern wheeler in Oregon. Mr. Kamm became engineer. Later on they purchased an interest in the Express and built the Carrie Ladd. In December, 1859, the owners of the Mountain Buck, Senorita and Carrie Ladd, then running to the Cascades; the Mary and Hassalo plying between the Cascades and the Dalles, consolidated, and formed what was known as the Union Navigation Company. In this company Mr. Kamm was one of the principal owners, but remained as engineer on the Carrie Ladd, then running between Portland and the Cascades. In 1860 this company became incorporated under the name of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, a corporation which ultimately became very powerful, and whose influence on commercial affairs was very great. After the incorporation of this company, Mr. Kamm was appointed Chief Engineer, and served in this capacity for several years, having entire supervision of the construction of steamers and motive power of the two portage railroads at the Cascades and Dalles. He constantly added to his interest in the Company, by the purchase of stock, and but a short time elapsed before he was the second largest stockholder in the Company. Previously, however, he had become largely interested in steamboats on the upper Willamette. Mr. Kamm, with the other owners of the Jennie Clark and Express, formed the Willamette Navigation Company, which later on purchased the Rival, Surprise and Elk. This company, after establishing a successful business, sold out to the O. S. N. Co. in 1863.

The O. S. N. Co. was rapidly becoming a very successful corporation, when Mr Kamm, led by representations of those in whom he had perfect confidence, against his own judgment and inclination, was induced to part with his interest in the company, receiving a comparatively small amount for his large interest in what a few years later became the most valuable property in Oregon. This occured in 1867, after the company had passed through the most trying period of its career and just before its days of great prosperity began.

After disposing of his interest in the O. S. N. Co., Mr. Kamm purchased the George S. Wright, which he ran for nearly two years between Portland, Victoria, Sound points and Sit, Alaska. He then sold her to Bea Holladay, who kept her on the same route until she was lost, and no authentic tidings of the fate of crew or passengers were ever received.

For some six or seven years after the sale of the Wright, Mr. Kamm’s health was very poor and he traveled extensively to the various health resorts all over the country, without receiving much or any benefit. Notwithstanding his physical condition, however, his ambitious and naturally energetic spirit would not permit him to refrain wholly from business. During this period he organized the Vancouver Transportation Company, in which he has since been the principal owner and president. The Lurline and Undine are operated by this company.

Besides the enterprises named, Mr. Kamm’s energies have found employment in many other directions. He was one of the original stockholders in the Bank of California, organized in 1862, and after its failure, in 1875, assisted in its reorganization, and is still a large stockholder. He is a director in the First National Bank of Portland, First National Bank of Astoria, and the Ilwaco Railroad & Navigation Co. He is also president of the Snake River Transportation Company, which has the steamer Norma nearly completed with which it is intended to navigate the Snake River between Huntington and the mining district, a portion of this stream formerly considered not navigable.

Mr. Kamm is a large property owner, in Portland and San Francisco, and has one of the finest farms in Clatsop county. He has done much to improve the architectural appearance of the city of his home by the erection of the well known Kamm block on Pine street, extending from Front to First street. This large block was built immediately after the Villard failure, when even Portland’s most courageous and progressive citizens were despondent as to the future of the city. Mr. Kamm’s undertaking at such a time did much to restore confidence among the people and was the means of putting into circulation a large sum of money.

Despite a far from rugged constitution, Mr. Kamm has always been a very energetic man and few have worked harder or more persistently. He is now in the possession of a large fortune which his prudence and keen business foresight has made possible in the rapid development which has been going on in the Northwest during the last forty years. Honorable methods have always characterized his business career, and not a single dollar he possesses has been gained by trickery or oppression nor resort to dishonest or questionable means. He has always maintained an unsullied record for honesty, and possesses the absolute confidence of all with whom he has ever had business relations. He is a member of the First Presbyterian Church, and in a quiet and modest way with no desire for display has contributed toward church and philanthropic enterprises and assisted many toward making a start in the world. He is reserved in manner, has few intimate friends, but is steadfast in his loyalty to those in whom he has entire confidence. He is thoroughly engrossed in the management of his private business affairs, and finds his chief pleasure in the pursuit of business.

He was married September 13, 1859, to Miss Caroline A. Gray, daughter of the late W. H. Gray, who came to Oregon as one of the earlier missionaries in 1836, She was born in Lapwai, Idaho, then a part of Oregon in 1840. To Mr. Kamm and wife but one son has been born, Charles Tilton Kamm, who is married and the father of two children, and for several years has been captain of the Undine.


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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