Biography of Robert Couch Kinney

ROBERT COUCH KINNEY. – Oregon will always treasure with respect and admiration the memory of the men and women who came in the days when the Pacific Northwest was the home of savage tribes, mountain men and a few traders, to plant homes and lay the foundation of an empire on the waters of the Columbia. They dared much when they accepted the roll of pioneers to the Pacific. Some became notable for success, and developed character that gave standing to the new state; for the constitution and early legislation of Oregon showed statesmanship seldom equaled in the erection of a commonwealth.

Among those who preceded the gold excitement was Robert Couch Kinney, who illustrates the capacity of a new country to develop character and insure success. He was the son of a pioneer and nephew of another who went in early days to Illinois and inherited qualities necessary to success in a new country.

Mr. Kinney was born in St. Clair county, Illinois, July 4, 1813. At the age of twenty-five he married Eliza Lee Bigelow, who survives him, and moved to Burlington, Iowa. He went boating and afterwards ran steamboats on the Mississippi with success, then conceived the idea of founding a city, and located and helped build Bloomington, now the prosperous city of Muscatine, Iowa. He engaged there in milling, and acquired a knowledge of that business which he afterwards put to good use in Oregon. Early circumstances had not been favorable to education above the grade of the common schools; and circumstances here favored him. By arrangement with his partner he was off duty half the time, and employed the spare time in study and reading that gave him a general knowledge of law and literature. He made himself familiar with ancient history and the classics, and became familiar with writings of ancient days as well as with the literature of our own time. He studied the principles of commercial law with Judge Hastings, so well known later in California.

The banks of the Mississippi being unhealthy, he became interested in Oregon by correspondence with Barton Lee, the early pioneer, who so eloquently told the advantages of Oregon that in 1847 he and his brother Samuel and their families joined the company of General Palmer. They had a prosperous journey, and the same fall located the Donation land claim in Chehalem valley that will always bear his name. He lived there many years, always recognized as a man of character and judgment. When the constitutional convention was held, he was elected as a delegate from Yamhill county. His energy overcame difficulties that defeated others. He procured sheep from Doctor Tolmie of the Hudson’s Bay Company; so he possessed flocks and herds when only the fur company and mission were supposed to have them. He cared for his stock so as to realize all they could yield him. He saw the value of the country for fruit production, and set out sixteen hundred trees that in a few years yielded large returns. He procured a good work on horticulture, and mastered its contents, adopting the methods laid down in his orchard work with entire success.

He laid great stress on the value of education, and in 1857 moved to McMinnville to take advantage of the schools. His wide reading and conscientious regard for right principles and knowledge enabled him to be of use in those formative times. In the constitutional convention he was influential, though not officious, and made a specialty of three points. One was against slavery, another was to provide public schools, and the other to prohibit large state indebtedness. By the influence of men like him, these provisions were incorporated in our fundamental law. His progressive spirit was seen in railroad affairs, as he was one of the first to attempt corporate organization. What was then the Oregon Central and is now part of the Southern Pacific system was organized by his help. The first meeting was at his house; and his son Marshall was its secretary in 1868.

As years went by and his sons grew up, Mr. Kinney’s enterprise took broader shape. In 1862 he bought in and run a flouring- mill opposite Portland, and in 1863 started a business house at Umatilla to help the flouring-mill. In 1867 he moved to Salem, having bought an interest in the Willamette Woolen Mills. That move started there at an early day. The same company owned a large flouring-mill in upper town; and, as Mr. Kinney realized that the future of this mill was more certain than that of the factory, he traded his bulk of stock to the company for stock in the mill company, and became its manager.

Mr. Kinney now had a large and prosperous business, and found room for all his business sagacity. Assisted by his sons in the Salem Flouring Mills Company, he built up an immense trade in flour and grain. They had branches at Portland, San Francisco and Liverpool. They shipped many cargoes of flour to Europe; and the first full cargo of Oregon flour was sent by them to Liverpool.

In March, 1875, Robert C. Kinney died from the effects of an accident that occurred while visiting his ranch in Eastern Oregon. He had a powerful physique, was rather tall, and very large and heavy. Great size distinguishes the family. When working some farm machinery, he received a fall that did not seem dangerous; but he never recovered. His kindly face was no longer seen on Salem thoroughfares; and for weeks and months he kept to the house. One day the news spread that “Rob Kinney” was dead, casting a shadow on the hearts of thousands. as to the writer of this, that so kind a friend and so good a man had left us, we felt that he was “not lost, but gone before.”

We have shown Robert Couch Kinney as a man of affairs who had risen from common life to affluence and high standing. There was seldom failure in his plans; because he planned with judgment. He was cautious while he seemed bold; for he understood the situation. Few men are so balanced in mind and capable to plan and execute as he was. But there is a pleasanter phase to his character than even the possession of ripe judgment and the realization of success, a phase that all who love his memory will dwell upon with warm appreciation. We will now look on the traits that make his memory precious to many, and leave no trace of rancor in any human soul.

R.C. Kinney was kindly by nature, and was always ready to assist the needy. In his charities and kindly acts, as in his business life, he was prudent and sagacious. He was a manly man, and admired true character. He was not apt to waste means on the unworthy, but was a sincere friend of religion and education, and did his part to maintain public and private charity. He felt no sympathy with immoral lives or vulgar traits; for he was essentially a man of pure life, a Christian in word and deed. He assisted many while he lived, and was unfriendly to none. He was original in mind, and had a foresight that came from study and observation. He was in almost every respect equal to his opportunity, which can be said of few mortals.

The stone that marks his grave was procured from Scotland, a massive, polished shaft of Aberdeen granite. One side bears imperishable testimony of the love and reverence of his children in the single word, “Father.” After his death the business was conducted by his sons. The eldest, Albert, resided in charge in Salem, where he died in 1881. It answers the full need of his deservings to say that he was the worthy son of such a father, and possessed in an eminent degree the traits that marked the life of his sire. It is not easy to say more, and not just to his memory to say less.

Mrs. Kinney survives to a kindly old age to share the devotion of her children. Of the survivors, Mary J., the widow of J.H. Smith, resides at Harrisburg, Oregon. August Couch, a graduate of Belleville College, New York, is a practicing physician at Astoria. Marshall Johnson, who has been distinguished for business sagacity, is engaged in Salem in the canning and milling business, and is in other business at Astoria. Alfred Coleman, who is a surgeon by instinct and a successful physician, practices his profession at Astoria. Josephine Florence Walker is the wife of a business man in San Francisco. William Sylvester carries on extensive lumber manufacture at the mouth of the Columbia. Eliza Lee is the wife of Doctor John Payton, and lives at Drain, Oregon. All bear testimony in the character of their lives that they came from a sterling race that leaves the world the better for their having lived and labored in it.



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

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