Biography of Henry Failing

Failing, Henry, banker, and one of the leading business men of the Northwest, was born in the city of New York, January 17, 1834. His father, Josiah Failing, for many years an honored citizen of Portland, was born in Montgomery county, New York. Early in life he went to Albany, to learn the trade of paper stainer, and in 1824, accompanied his employer upon his removal to New York City. He served his apprenticeship and followed his trade until forced to abandon it on account of ill health. He then engaged in the trucking business, following this line of work for many years. During this period he served for several years as superintendent of public vehicles of the city. In 1851, he came to Portland and established the mercantile firm of J. Failing & Co., with which he was connected until 1864, when, having acquired a modest competency, he retired from active business.

Arriving in Portland at a period of rapid changes and growth, he in many ways became thoroughly identified with its progress and was soon called upon to take a prominent part in the management of public affairs. In 1853, he was elected mayor of the city and did much to give a proper start to the destiny of the place. He took a warm interest in educational matters, and as one of the trustees of the public schools, devoted much of his time to their establishment and management. Their success in early days and present excellence are largely due to his efforts. He was an enthusiastic republican in political faith and was a delegate to the National Convention which nominated Lincoln for a second term, and of the convention which first nominated Gen. Grant. From the time he retired from business until his death, which occurred in 1877, his time and energies were largely devoted to religious and philanthropic work, and his aid and encouragement were freely given to all projects which had for their aim the moral and temporal good of his fellow men. He was ever the most modest and unassuming of men, but a man of strong character, abounding in good counsel and always ready to serve his friends and neighbors, but rather in a quiet than a public way. He was in many respects an ideal citizen, and has left behind him the record of a symmetrical, wholesome and worthy life.

Henry Failing was educated at a public school in New York, but began his business career at the early age of twelve in a French importing and shipping house. Two years later he entered the employ of Eno, Mahoney & Co., one of the largest wholesale dry goods houses in the city. Here he remained in the capacity of assistant book-keeper, also having charge of their foreign business, until 1851, when, with a younger brother, he accompanied his father to Portland. At this time the city was but a mere hamlet in size; containing not more than four or five hundred inhabitants. Father and son at once established the firm of J. Failing & Co., and began a general merchandising business. They built a store on a portion of the ground where Failing & Co. ‘s building now stands. Their business rapidly grew, and in a few years reached large proportions. Mr. Failing, senior, as previously stated, retired from the firm in 1864, and from that time until 1871, Henry Failing conducted it alone. In 1868, he began to restrict his business exclusively to hard-ware and iron supplies. Henry W. Corbett became associated with Mr. Failing in the hardware business, in 1871, under the present firm name of Corbett, Failing & Co., which, besides the principals named, now consists of Edward and James F. Failing, younger brothers of Henry Failing. This mercantile house does a wholesale business solely and is the largest establishment in its line in the Northwest.

In 1869, Mr. Failing and Mr. Corbett purchased nearly all of the stock of the First National Bank, the first bank established in Oregon under the national banking act, and for a number of years the only one west of the Rocky Mountains. Under their joint management, with Mr. Failing as president, this financial institution has been remarkably prosperous, and is now at the very head of the banking houses of the Northwest. Its capital stock in 1869, was $100,000, but was shortly increased to $250,000, and is now $500,000, while its present surplus is $650,000. Since his connection with this bank, Mr. Failing’s time and energies have been principally devoted to financial affairs, in which he has shown himself to possess the highest order of ability. He is largely interested in other business enterprises and owns valuable real estate in and near the city of Portland, but it is as a banker that he is best and most favorably known.

Although never an aspirant for political honors Mr. Failing was elected Mayor of the city in 1864 as a citizens’ candidate. He is a republican in political faith, and on State and national issues may be termed a party man, but in the management of local affairs he believes party lines should be ignored and that all good citizens should unite to secure the selection of those best qualified to administer the duties of public office without regard to their party affiliation. It was this well known position of Mr. Failing which induced the citizens of Portland to urge him to become a candidate for Mayor in 1864, when they desired to emancipate the city from the rule of politicians. At the urgent solicitation of many friends he consented to become a candidate, and was elected. His administration was conducted on a purely business basis such as a good business man would employ in the transaction of his own business affairs. During his term a new city charter was obtained from the Legislature, and a system of street improvement and sewerage was inaugurated. So satisfactory to the people was his conduct of affairs that, in 1865, he was almost unanimously re-elected for a term of two years. He was again elected Mayor in 1875 and for another term most acceptably served the people. He has since taken no active part in local political affairs beyond that required of a private citizen who is deeply interested in the welfare of the city. He was appointed a member of the water committee of the city of Portland under the Legislative act of 1886, and has since served as chairman of the committee. This committee purchased and enlarged the old water works, but is empowered to build and now has plans under way for the construction of a new system of water supply.

For several years Mr. Failing was a regent of the State University; first having been appointed by Gov. Thayer and re-appointed by Gov. Moody. He is also a trustee of the Deaf Mute School at Salem; trustee and treasurer of the Children’s Home, and of the Portland Library Association.

During nearly forty years Mr. Failing has been in active business life in Portland and has built up a large and rapidly growing fortune. It is needless to say that he has been a tireless worker. Such results as have crowned his life come to no dreamer of dreams and to no mere luxurious dilettante. He scarcely had a boyhood. At twelve he was at work and at seventeen carried upon his shoulders responsibilities fit to test the power of a mature man. His time from this period to the present has been almost completely engrossed in business, and although he has always lavished his energy upon his work he presents the appearance of one much younger than his years. This comes from an inherited robust constitution, an evenly balanced mental organization and a life free from excesses of any kind. He is keen and sagacious in business and possesses the highest order of financial ability, united to the power of apparently unlimited application of mind and body upon any project he undertakes. He has achieved a position in the financial affairs of the Northwest second to none in power and influence, but his naturally restless activity, buoyant spirit and physical vigor still urge him onward with all the force and energy associated with men many years his juniors.

Mr. Failing was married on October 21, 1858 to Miss Emily Phelps Corbett, sister of Hon. H. W. Corbett, who died in July, 1870. They had three daughters all of whom are living at home with their father.

Henry Failing is one of the strong and able men whose lives have been wrought into the history of Portland from the beginning of the city to the present day. He is a prominent man among those whose careers furnish the explanation of the growth, success and commanding position that Portland has achieved and so strongly maintains.


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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