Biography of Hon. Henry W. Corbett

HON. HENRY W. CORBETT. – The reminiscences of the early pioneers of the Pacific Northwest must ever posses a peculiar interest for all who can look back to the days when the wigwam of the Indian was seen on every hand, and when the old log cabins of the founders of this great section of the union were few and far between. Pioneers of civilization constitute no ordinary class of adventurers. Resolute, ambitious and enduring, looking into a great and possible future of the undeveloped country, and possessing the sagacious mind to grasp true conclusions, and the indomitable will to execute just means to attain desired ends, the pioneers to the Pacific Northwest, by their subsequent career, have proved that they were equal to the great mission assigned them, – that of carrying the real essence of American civilization from their Eastern homes, and planting it upon the shores of another ocean. Among the many who have shown their fitness for the furtherance of such object, none are more deserving of praise than the gentleman whose name is inscribed above. Whether in the material welfare of his adopted home, the Pacific Northwest or the nation at large, he has been one of the most progressive of citizens, always to the fore in everything which contributes to advancement, socially, politically, financially and educationally, and is also universally recognized as a very liberal philanthropist.

Mr. Corbett was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, February 18, 1827. At the age of three years he removed with his parents to White Creek, New York, remaining there until about 1838, when another removal was made, this time locating near Cambridge, in the same state. At the age of thirteen he entered a store as assistant, and thus began his career in the mercantile business, in which he has since been so very successful. He held this position for two years. In the meantime he attended school at the Cambridge Academy, after which he entered a store in Salem. After a stay there for a year, he went to New York City, and engaged in the dry-goods business for seven years.

In the fall of 1850, he shipped a stock of goods from New York by the bark Frances and Louisa to Portland, Oregon, he following such shipment in January, 1851. From New York to Chagres, now called Aspinwal, the trip was made in the steamship Empire City. From Aspinwal to Panama the journey was made partly by small boat and partly on the “hurricane deck” of a mule. After reaching the latter place, he remained ten days, and embarked on the steamship Columbia for San Francisco. This vessel was the first steamship built to run between San Francisco and the Columbia river. After a few days stoppage at the Bay City, he came on in the Columbia on her first trip north, arriving at the mouth of the Columbia river on the 4th of March, when he was transferred to a river steamer called the Little Columbia, a vessel of some fifty feet in length, and proceeded to Portland, arriving there on the following morning. This craft not being supplied with sleeping accommodations, the passengers were obliged to make the most of the deck for a bed; and their meals were served upon tin plates, some using their lap for a table, while others utilized the floor.

At this time Portland contained about four hundred inhabitants; and its business was confined to five or six small stores. Its present site was then covered with a heavy growth of timber, with the exception of a small portion of the frontage, where the stumps still remained and where sidewalks were unknown. He clambered up the banks of the river, made his way to the Warren House, situated on the corner of Oak and Front streets, the principal hotel, which would accommodate, by judicous crowding, about a dozen people. Soon after, he discovered a storehouse being erected by Halleck & Webber, which he engaged to occupy when finished, at one hundred and twenty-five dollars per month. His shipment of goods arriving in May, before the completion of the store, he hoisted them by tackle to the second story, using a ladder for a stairway. At night he hauled up the ladder, and slept with his goods on the soft side of the floor.

Having previously taken a trip to the head of the valley, visiting the various places on the way, – Oregon City, Salem, Santiam, Albany and Corvallis, – and returning by the way of Lafayette to Portland, he had familiarized himself with the then chief towns in Oregon, with the exception of St. Helens and Astoria. The population at that time, embracing what is now Washington, Idaho and part of Montana, was about fourteen thousand people. The Willamette valley was then considered the chief agricultural portion of the Pacific coast, California drawing mainly her supplies in the way of vegetables and lumber from Oregon; while the former was chiefly valued for her mineral products. Mr. Corbett therefore regarded the latter as ultimately to become the great agricultural section of the Pacific coast, and the more permanently prosperous. With this view he made that state his permanent location. After fourteen months’ residence, having been reasonably prosperous, and being in poor health, he determined to return to New York, to consider a proposition of entering into business with the firm that he was formerly connect with, and who at that time were partners with him in his venture to Oregon.

After dividing with them twenty thousand dollars, which were the proceeds of his undertaking, and remaining there one year, at the same time having under consideration their proposition to enter into copartnership with them, and after mature consideration, he determined to return to Oregon and make it his home.

He had left a stock of goods in Portland with R.N. and F. McLearn, with whom he had formed a copartnership before leaving. He commenced his shipments of goods around the Horn again, and arrived in Portland in June, 1853. A few months thereafter he dissolved copartnership with Messrs. McLearn, and continued form that time in business for himself, until about the year 1866, when the copartnership of the present firm was formed under the name of Corbett, Failing & Co. While there are others now in business who came a few months later of the same year to Oregon, it is believed that Mr. Corbett is the oldest merchant in the state. He entered into other enterprises besides those of mercantile pursuits, notably being engaged in river transportation. He also took the contract for carrying the mails in 1865 between Portland and Lincoln, California, a distance of six hundred and forty miles, and stocked the same with four-horse coaches, he having succeeded the California State Company, greatly to the satisfaction of the people of Oregon. Shortly afterwards, in1866, he was elected to the Senate of the United States, to succeed Honorable James W. Nesmith.

He was early identified with the Republic party of Oregon, and was chairman of the Republican state central committee, and conducted the campaign in which David Logan came within thirteen votes of being elected to Congress in place of Lansing Stout, the Democratic candidate. The usual Democratic majority previously had been about two thousand. after the election of Lincoln, he attended the inauguration, and was there when the council of the Cabinet was held in March, 1861, in which the question was considered, whether Fort Sumter could be relived, General Scott having given it as his opinion that it would take twenty-five thousand men to reinforce and hold such fortification. The result was that the Cabinet decided that no steps would be taken looking to that end. After learning these facts from Thurlow Weed, at the Astor House, New York, on the 11th of March, just before sailing for Oregon, he asked the great journalist if he didn’t believe it would be a wise course to load a ship with provisions, and give the Southern Confederacy notice that they were going to provision Fort Sumter, and that if they fired upon the ship, the responsibility would be upon them. Thurlow Weed’s response was that he thought it a good idea.

On Mr. Corbett’s arrival in Oregon, about a month later, he was surprised to learn that this course had been pursued by our government. He has no knowledge as to whether or not the action of the government was taken at the suggestion of Mr. Weed, who was a most bosom friend, and was supposed to be the “power behind the throne,” of Mr. Seward. Certain it is that the result of the action caused the uprising of the North as one man, after the firing upon the ship destined to the relief of Fort Sumter.

Mr. Corbett and Leander Holmes were delegates to the first convention that nominated Lincoln; but, not being able to reach there in time, they forwarded their promise to Horace Greeley, who represented Oregon in that convention. Mr. Greeley’s strenuous opposition to Mr. Seward resulted in the nomination of Lincoln. Oregon, therefore, through its delegate, played a conspicuous part in the nomination of this great man. Mr. Greeley entertained a warm feeling towards Mr. Corbett, who visited him during the time the Tribune advocated letting “our Southern brothers depart in peace.” He remonstrated with Mr. Greeley against such a policy, saying to him” If we concede that, there is no reason why the New England states should not secede from the Middle states, and the Middle from the Western states. In such contingency, we should be broken up in the small confederacies, with no power at home or respect abroad. The only way to maintain this nation in its strength and power is to let these Southern people know that they cannot withdraw from this union without going through fire and blood.” To his surprise, the next day he read an article in the Tribune with the prominent headline, “On to Richmond.” From that time forward the Tribune advocated the vigorous prosecution of the war to put down the Rebellion.

Mr. Corbett, during his term in the Senate of the United States from 1867 to 1873, – during the reconstruction period, – when the nation was heavily burdened with debt and required the most judicious and careful management of its finances, that its honor might be maintained and the debt paid according to its pledges, was ever faithful to its true interests by advocating the payment of its debts according to its obligations, whether real or implied. By doing so he maintained that the government could fund its debt at a lower rate of interest, sustain its honor and save more than by any form of repudiation, as was advocated by those inimical to the best interests of the government. His earnest efforts in this direction had great weight with the best thinkers of that day; and to this firm stand of his and those acting with him is the highest credit of our nation due. Mr. Corbett was vigilant and watchful of the best interests of the state in securing appropriations for our rivers and harbors, and of other beneficial measures pertaining to its welfare.

Since his retirement from the Senate, he has been active in promoting such organizations and measures as would tend to the advancement of the best interests of the state and city with which he has been so long identified. He was for some years president of the Board of trade, president of the Seamen’s friend Society, commissioner of immigration, president of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society, one of the prominent trustees of the Children’s Home, which he endowed quite largely, and president of the board of trustees of the First Presbyterian church, to which he gave very substantial aid in erecting their beautiful stone structure.

He was largely instrumental in establishing one of the finest cemeteries on the Pacific coast, called “River View,” being president of the association. he is a director of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, largely interested in street railways, the Portland Cordage Co., Portland Linseed Oil Co., is vice-president of the First National Bank, the leading financial institution of the Pacific Northwest, vice-president of the Oregon Fire and Marine Insurance Company, and interested in almost all other institutions and enterprises tending to the advancement of the great Northwest Pacific slope. He has also ever taken a deep interest in educational matters, and has been for a long time one of the board of trustees of Tualatin Academy and Pacific University. He is at this time giving largely of his means to the erection of the finest hotel north of San Francisco, and is president of the Portland Hotel Co.

Mr. Corbett was married in 1853 to Miss Caroline E. Jagger, of Albany, New York, the fruits of this union being two sons. The eldest, Henry J., is occupied in the First National Bank, and is known as one of the most able of the younger financiers and capitalists of the metropolis. Hamilton F., a young man of rare promise, died some four years since, at the age of twenty-four years. Mrs. Corbett , a lady known and greatly beloved throughout the breadth of Oregon, died in 1864, deeply mourned by her many friends.

Mr. Corbett was again married in 1866 to Miss Emma L. Ruggles of Worchester, Massachusetts, a lady whose genius for the conduct of refined and cultivated society has long been recognized both at Washington and in her own home in Portland, and reminds one of what is told of the salons of Neckar, Dr. Stael and other mesdames of the yesterday of France.



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

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