Biography of William Sargent Ladd

WILLIAM SARGENT LADD. – Of the gentlemen who came to Oregon with the purpose of forming here not only a settled social and political, but also a determinate business order, there is none to-day more prominent than W.S. Ladd. Our state has often invited comparison between her leading men and those of other parts of the nation, not at all fearing that she should suffer even if the investigation and analysis were carried to the extreme. But, in the case of the gentleman before us, such a comparison would never be thought of, since he has long been reckoned among the most wealthy men of the nation even in this age of colossal fortunes. But although thus able to take his place in the line of those who control the financial operations of the United States, the solid, common sense of Oregonians, the most of whom have worked from the ground up, pays but little respect to wealth apart from character. It is therefore a matter of much congratulation that the man who might, most justly of all, assume the name of “Money King,” has other claims upon their respect and recognition which make his wealth seem but adventitious. He is as one of the plain, hard-working builders of our state, who has been earnest for the social and moral as well as financial progress of the Northwest, that his name appears here. “Woe to that land whose prince is a child.” Equally ill for it when its social and business leaders are men of pleasures and immorality. It has been well for Oregon that her prince on ‘change has been one whose social, religious and domestic relations have stimulated and honored the highest of her people.

W.S. Ladd was born at Holland, Vermont, October 10, 1826. As a boy he grew up tall and slender, active of mind and body, and was impelled by a quiet but intense ambition. In his father, Nathaniel Gould Ladd, a physician, and of a family that came to America in 1623, he had a guide and an example of every manly virtue; and in his mother, Abigail Kelly Mead, he found the stimulus to industry, and the life of mental effort. Both his parents were Methodists, and gave him the sort of instruction and training which usually lead to success. Like other New England boys, he went to school and learned to work, and furthermore developed the romantic idea of life on the sea, which was never brought to realization. His parents moved to New Hampshire, and found work for him on a farm, and afterwards bought a piece of fifteen acres of very rough, rocky and wooded land which the youth brought into cultivation by his own personal exertions.

At the age of nineteen, he found a somewhat wider scope for his abilities in teaching a public school at Loudon, New Hampshire; and, although this was one of those districts where the teachers and pupils had pitched battles, he was successful in subduing his impudent pupils at the first encounter, and moreover kept them awake by the use of bright methods, and questions for them to think about.

After the cessation of his duties as pedagogue, the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railway was running its line past Sanbornton Bridge, now known as Tilton, at which place he was residing; and he sought and obtained a situation in the freight house which was established there, and continued in this and other work connected therewith, thereby gaining practical business ideas that became of great service to him thereafter.

For some years after reaching independent life, he had felt an interest in the Pacific coast, having learned of the peculiar products and exports of California; but, upon the discover of gold in 1848, he became impressed with the belief that not the region out of which the gold was dug, but that from which supplies and products were obtained for the mines, would obtain the greatest permanent wealth. Finding that the Willamette valley in Oregon bore this relation to the mines of California, he was attracted towards it as a promising field. These abstract considerations were much intensified by conversation with a Mr. Carr, who had been to the Pacific coast, and who, from business operations at San Francisco and at Portland, had laid by something of a fortune, and had returned to the village in which Ladd was living. Determining thereupon to make Oregon his home, the young adventurer, now our banker, made preparations and set sail from New York February 27, 1851.

Arriving at San Francisco, he there found Mr. Chas. E. Tilton, an old school friend, engaged in selling consignments, which he was receiving from New York, to jobbers; and he proposed to him to go into business and thereby sell the goods themselves. To this Tilton did not accede; and Ladd came on up to Oregon. He found our state still exceedingly crude, although, under the administration of Governor Gaines, affairs were taking form. But at Portland all the beginnings were slow and difficult. He carried on a small business in selling out a few articles that he brought with him; but his affairs reached at one time so low an ebb, that he was glad to save paying his six dollars road tax by digging out and burning up a couple of fir stumps in the street in front of his store, which was opposite the ground now occupied by the Esmond Hotel.

Soon afterwards he found an opportunity to close out the goods brought in a vessel to Portland by W.D. Gookin, who had known his father in New Hampshire. By this transaction he cleared a thousand dollars, and immediately reinvesting this sum in articles of ready sale was enabled to prosecute his mercantile business with vigor and increasing profits. Here, indeed, he got the hold and made the beginning of his present great business, which from that time to this has never suffered a retrograde movement. In 1852 he was conducting an independent business, operating, however, with Gookin, who by a successful venture in a vessel with a cargo of lumber to San Francisco had made twenty thousand dollars. Later, Mr. Ladd went to that city to make arrangements for a future mercantile business, and on his return brought up for his friend sixty thousand dollars in coin.

His business habits of this time are remembered as most exemplary, – 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, – and made it a point to observe the Sabbath by attendance upon public worship. He was a shrewd trader, meeting loss and profits with equal equanimity. Not easily excited, he could view business affairs with coolness, and make the most advantageous moves in the hours of opportunity. Thus, once, upon receiving word from Tilton that turpentine was running low in the San Francisco market, he made a shipment by the steamer General Warren, which was an old vessel. Striking upon the Columbia bar as she went out, she went to pieces. The morning the news of the wreck reached him, Ladd purchased in a few hours all the available turpentine in Portland, and had it in his store. This brought ten dollars a gallon at San Francisco, the profits more than covering his former loss.

In 1852 his business was strengthened by a partnership with Tilton, and in 1853 by the arrival of his brother Wesley. In 1854 he was united in marriage to Miss Caroline A. Elliott, of New Hampshire, a young lady of excellent mental endowments and acquirements, and of a noble character, with whom he had been acquainted since school days. In 1858 steps were taken with Tilton for the formation of a bank; and in 1859 the institution was ready for operations. This is the bank, located at the corner of First and Stark streets, in which so large a part of the monetary business of Oregon has been transacted. It was started on a limited scale; but in 1861 its capital was increased from fifty thousand dollars to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The earnings, however, which were returned to the business, brought the capital up to one million dollars. Thereafter dividends were ordered; and, when the partnership was dissolved in1880, bills receivable amounted to upwards of two million, five hundred thousand dollars. It has always done a sound and select business, and has followed the policy of keeping below current interest, as rates have become less and less, asking for instance loans at two and one-half percent per month, when from three to five per cent was readily obtainable. So secure has this bank been that Oregonians have depended upon it as certainly as upon the sunrise or the rainfall. When it made its statement in 1888, there was less than thirteen hundred dollars outstanding, although over one hundred thousand dollars which had been previously charged to profit and loss had been collected since 1880. It is still operating with the same success as formerly.

But while his old store and his bank have occupied his close attention, and have been the principal means of making his fortune, Mr. Ladd has branched out into a large number of other ventures, chiefly of a public interest. He is one of the greatest farmers in the state, owning three farms of his own, and five in partnership with S.G. Reed. He conducts these partly for amusement and recreation, but very much also for the sake of discovering and introducing the most improved methods, testing machinery and importing fine livestock. he has been lavish of his means if these particulars, and has done the state substantial good thereby. He has rigidly followed what he believes will lead to public utility, and for that reason has eliminated from his régime the breading of fast horses. It is understood that he controls about three-fourths of the entire flouring-mill business of the Pacific Northwest. He is identified with the Oregon Iron and steel Company, at Oswego, and has been a controlling stockholder of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company. He owns lots and buildings all over Portland, and permits in them only respectable and legitimate businesses.

His residence on Jefferson street, built as early as 1859 from drawing of a house which he and his wife saw while on a visit to the South and East at Bangor, Maine, has long been an ornament to Portland. His interest in school matters and public education has been deep and continuous; and he has given his own time to their furtherance. He has been a friend of churches and public charities; and his gifts have been munificent. It is said that an appeal for sufferers, if worthy, has never been refused by him, nor by any member of his family. With his workmen and employés he is easily master, but nevertheless a friend and favorite; and his remembrance of all in his pay every Christmas is a sort of touch of human kindness that makes kin to him the laboring masses. 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 that he is looked upon with favor and pride by the people of his city and state; and he suffers as little from envy as any rich man in the nation. There are few, indeed, who realize more fully the idea of a man of great wealth and power holding his means 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.

Perhaps nothing shows more fully his unquailing spirit, and the predominance 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 earthy life.

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 help-meet, in the best and highest sense a noble wife, a saintly mother to our children. I can place no adequate estimate upon her help to me in building up our fortunes in this state. 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.”

In his children, Mr. Ladd has special cause for satisfaction. The eldest son, William M. Ladd, inherits much the same vigor of body and intellect and will as have lived in his father. He has been furnished the best of educational advantages, having traveled in Europe, and being an alumnus of Amherst College. He was married in 1885 to Miss Mary Andrews, of Oakland, California. He is a present a partner in the bank. The second son, Charles Elliott, is also a man of fine tastes and scholarly instincts, an alumnus of Amherst College, and is now at the head of the large flouring business. He was married in 1881 to Miss Sarah Hall, of Somerville, Massachusetts. The eldest daughter was married in 1880 to Henry J. Corbett, son of Senator Corbett. The second daughter was married in 1880 to Charles Pratt of Brooklyn, New York, a gentleman well known in the business world as being largely interested in the Standard Oil Company, as well as other large manufacturing interests located in the Eastern States.

Another says of our subject: “No one ever can read the history of W.S. Ladd without being impressed thereby. During his mercantile career, he never misrepresented in order to sell an article. On the street, his word was as good as another’s bond. His gifts and donations have been munificent. He endowed the chair of practical theology in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in San Francisco, in 1886, with fifty thousand dollars, and gave several scholarships to the Willamette University. Throughout a wide extent of country, few churches have been built without aid from him. The bank is a liberal instituti8on, as well as an aid to progress. The Library Association of Portland, has alwa6ys felt his fostering care, having for twenty years occupied, rent free, the second floor of his bank building. It has been his custom from the first to set aside one-tenth of his net income for charitable purposes. It is a principle of his business never to go to the law, except as a last resort.”

A life lived upon so high an aim as the above has been of vast service in our state hitherto, and will still be of use in stemming the tides of social, business and political toils that are so fast coming upon us.



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

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