Biography of Joseph Buchtel

JOSEPH BUCHTEL. – The peculiar composition and make-up of this man is that of only one in a million. He is noted for his daring deeds of adventure, if they may be so called; and his whole life is made up of daily events in rescuing others from their perilous positions; indeed, so much so that he is known far and wide as the “Oregon Life Saver.” Hundreds, if we may not say thousands, who are living to-day directly owe their lives to him. The natural daily routine of circumstances seems to have brought him upon the scene just in time to act; and, being possessed of that warrantable cool-headedness , that while others were so ungovernably excited and frantic with fright, he, of all men, and at all times, maintained that perfect equilibrium to act instantly, effectively and in each instance and under all circumstances and upon all occasions with the merited success of saving the life of someone, and sometimes a dozen or more.

In times of imminent danger or immediate peril, Mr. Buchtel seems not to have given the first thought to his own personal safety; but instead, taking his life in his own hands, he went forth to the rescue. With perfect confidence in his own ability, and assured correctness of his own judgment, on the very brink of some perilous occasion, where the lives of two or more are lightly weighing in the balance, we see Mr. Buchtel, not only taking the position of some great general or eminent commander, but likewise filling the more humble positions of the private in the rear ranks of the great momentary battle of life; for while he issues his orders to those around and about him in such commanding tones as to yield prompt obedience, he himself is also hard at work, and doing the most daring work of all. Thousands have stood and excitedly witnessed his daring achievements on many occasions, and have applauded him, one and all, when the danger was over; while hundreds of thousands on the other hand have read in cold type, o’er and o’er, as fervently as meager imagination could portray, of the many venturesome feats performed by Mr. Buchtel; for the press of Oregon have not been sparing in recounting his hair-breadth ventures and noble deeds of valor.

Up to the time he was twenty-one years of age, his life did not differ materially from those of many others. It was about his twenty-first year that he came to Portland to cast his destinies with the future of the Pacific coast. Mr. Buchtel was born in Union Town, Stark county, Ohio, November 22, 1830. At the tender age of four, he trudged to school and whiled his time away in the old log schoolhouse; and while he was very young then, still the picture of that old log schoolhouse lingers in his memory. The scenes to-day appear like a dream, as the visions of bygone days revive them by some incident or picture in after life; for the early impressions time never effaces.

Seven years later his parents moved to Urbana, Champaign county, Illinois. Illinois at that time was a new state; and its greatest possession was thousands and thousands of tenantless acres of prairie, carpeted with nature’s green. From twenty to one hundred miles separated neighbors; and division-fence quarrels were few and far between. Urbana people then did their trading at Chicago, a hundred and fifty miles north, or on the Wabash, fifty miles east. One was as handy as the other; for the rough and almost impassable road to Wabash fully made up for the additional one hundred miles to Chicago. In the spring of the year, for convenience, Chicago was really the nearest.

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Mr. Buchtel’s father followed shingle manufacturing at Urbana, making lap shingles and running the sawmill, until his death, which occurred two years after removing to Illinois. The bereaved family then consisted of himself, brother, sister and mother. His mother resides with him at the ripe old age of eighty-two, with a life well spent in usefulness. His brother Samuel also resides in Portland, being a printer and painter. In Illinois, young Buchtel also went to school, and graced another log house with his daily presence. The demise of his father ended his school days; for he had to go to work, which he did, for five years, at the tailor’s trade. The trade was not to his liking; and he would have rather taken a thrashing everyday than to have gone to work, the calling was so distasteful to him. But circumstances altered his case; and it was the best opportunity that the then present afforded. To assist and aid his widowed mother was uppermost in his mind; and, while the calling was repulsive, yet he would endure it for the pittance it yielded to the family.

His next occupation was farming. To this he took kindly; but the changes of time placed him as clerk in a store, and afterwards removed him to a brickyard, where he toiled early and late. Later on he purchased a daguerreotype outfit, making the old style pictures, which, by the way, Mr. Buchtel contends are the best ever produced by any process, not excepting any. Afterwards he was appointed deputy sheriff of Champaign county by Sheriff E. Ater. While acting in that capacity, he first met that great and noble man, Abraham Lincoln. Urbana was on his circuit, as it was that of Hon. O.L. Davis, Mr. Gridley, Ward S. Lemon, S.A. Douglas and John Wentworth.

He started for Oregon on April 23, 1852, in company with the late I.R. Moores, of Salem. Their train was large and late getting in; and when they arrived at Fort Boise the food was getting very low. Colonel Moores called for volunteers to go ahead to save “grub;” and seven of them, including Mr. Buchtel, took a small amount of food and started on. Two days before they reached The Dalles they were entirely without food, with no possible chance to get a mouthful. Worn out and almost starved, three out of the seven reached the Dalles on the 3rd of September, the four others being left on the road with other camps not able to travel. At Warm Springs Mr. Buchtel gave his every cent and about all his crackers and bacon to his comrade, Nate Therman, who had given out and was sick, and left him, expecting never to see him again. However, after resting a week, he succeeded in finishing the journey. Now Mr. Buchtel went on his journey literally empty handed, as he says, trusting to luck.

They arrived in Portland September 5, 1852, utterly without money. One Hall of the party had two dollars which he had saved; and of course they purchased some bread, on which they lived a day or two; and Mr. Buchtel rustled for a job. Colonel Backenstos took pity upon him, and employed him to cut five acres of oats, for which he paid him twenty-five dollars, though the job was worth only about five dollars. He then helped to load the Charles Devens with lumber, and went to Oregon City and took a job to cut wood for John Campbell. While there, he recognized one Robert White, because of the family resemblance to his brother, whom Mr. Buchtel had known in Illinois. Mr. White went with him to Canemah and introduced him to Captain L. White, who gave him a position on the steamer Shoalwater. He continued running on the river for five years during the winters, and in summers took daguerreotypes, as he had purchased the outfit of L.H. Wakefield in 1853. He then started in business in the old Canton House, now the American exchange; and there for thirty-five years he followed the business in Portland as the pioneer artist in every style of picture except the daguerreotype, and was one of the three pioneers in that, the others being D.H. Hendee and L.H. Wakefield.

In 1865 Mr. Buchtel was elected chief engineer of the fire department, and again re-elected in 1866. In 1874 he was grand representative of the I.O.O.F., and met with them in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1880 he was elected sheriff of Multnomah county, Oregon, and served for two years.

He was the first builder of street railroads in East Portland. After disposing of his gallery, he entered the real estate business, and established himself at the corner of L and Water streets, East Portland. He is the inventor of the telegraph fire hose, which was patented in1872, and also invented a coupling for the same in1883. He also lets his inventive genius crop out in the hand fire extinguishers, and the patent wire-fence post, on which he is now applying for a patent.

He was the champion baseball player for fifteen years, being pitcher and captain of the Pioneer Baseball Club for twenty years. He was also a champion foot racer, and was barred for years against competing for prizes, as no one would enter against him after he won the silver trumpet so easily over all competitors. We will add a few instances of his bravery and life risks in saving others from peril, thou in so condensed a space it is impossible to do justice to one-half his heroic acts.

While on the plains, the Indians often manifested a warlike disposition. At one time an attack was expected, such being looked for during the night. On the arrival of darkness, instead of camping, Mr. Buchtel persuaded the train to continue on, and said that he would remain behind and engage the attention of the savages. This was done; and our hero prepared a smoke fire, which the Indians thought to be a camp. They halted, expecting to make an attack in the morning. After a few hours had passed, and believing the wagons far ahead, he left his perilous position and set out to join the teams ahead, which he did late the following morning.

A son of Honorable W. Cary Johnson was crossing First street in Portland, Oregon, with his mother, just in front of a street car. Mr. Buchtel was in the act of dropping his nickel in the fare-box, and saw that the child had left his mother, ran back, and was fairly under the horse. The driver was looking back into the car, and did not see the boy. This was an occasion when there was no time for words or ceremony; and our subject at once grasped the lines from the driver with his left hand, and the brake of the car with his right, and jerked the horse back against the car. The drier, whom he had pushed from the platform in his effort to get at the lines and brake, grasped the child; and he was not as much hurt as frightened. This boy, a few weeks ago, on reaching his eighteenth birthday, presented Mr. Buchtel with a gold-headed cane as a token of his parents’ and his own esteem for saving his life.

He also had a thrilling experience on board the Canema in a whirlwind above Rock Island, in which his cool-headed bravery no doubt saved all on board. Again, Mr. Wilmer’s team came tearing along on Washington street between First and Front; and of course Mr. Buchtel was on hand just in time to catch them and prevent them from plunging with the three men in the vehicle into the river. In speaking of this episode, Mr. Buchtel said; “I always put implicit confidence in my feet; and they never went back on me.” Engine number two was going up front street at full speed; and, as he was foreman, he was running along the side of the engine, which is built too close to the ground to pass over a man without crushing him to a jelly. All at once Mr. Fishel was thrown directly in front of the engine about sixty feet ahead. Mr. Buchtel’s unrivaled speed enabled him to reach the man in time to drag him out of the way, only one foot being touched; and that was so protected by the boot that he was lame only a short time.

As the steamer Willamettewas drawing near the landing at Independence, she only partially slacked up, as there was only one passenger to land, and they wished to save time. The landing at this place is entirely a clay bank, and, as the passenger sprang out on the slippery bank, he kept slipping back and down, and would undoubtedly have been caught by the guard of the large steamer and crushed to death, had not Mr. Buchtel, quick as thought, caught the man by the shoulders and thrown him under the guard into the river. Captain George Jerome threw him a rope; and he was pulled out alive and well instead of a corpse, as he would have been but for Mr. Buchtel’s timely aid. At a theater on Stark street, when he was chief engineer, the scenery caught fire; and a general stampeded started. With his usual quickness of thought, our “Joe” yelled out; “Sit down, that is part of the play. All is well!” And the play went on.

On one occasion, he was on board a steamer which had been chartered to take out a picnic party. The crowd was immense for so small a craft; and they were only comfortably started when Captain Pease called him to the pilot-house, and with a face as white as chalk said; “Joe this top load must go into the river. She is overloaded and everybody will drown.” Mr. Buchtel at once went into the main cabin and said; “Gentlemen, this boat has been tendered by the company to this picnic party free of charge; and I want every man to come down and sign a paper in which we accept and thank them for the generous act. Come, every man.” They did go and the upper deck was safe. Two stout deckhands were placed at the stairways; and they allowed no one to go up to the cabin. Captain Pease appreciated his quick wit, and thanked him sincerely; but the crowd never knew how near they were to an awful calamity. The steamer was taken to the sawmill and thoroughly braced before the return of the party.

The steamer Shoalwater was on the Upper Willamette, and was backing away from John Cruse’s landing, when her boiler exploded. She was twenty feet from shore; and the explosion threw fifteen of the passengers into the river. Mr. Buchtel was on board; and, with a run across the deck, he made the jump of twenty feet, landing on the shore. He then procured a pole, and by almost a miracle succeeded in saving all the lives. He states that the hero of the accident was General M.M. McCarver, who was one of those thrown into the water. Mr. Buchtel extended the pole to him first; but the old gentleman cried out; “Never mind me, Joe, Save the others first.”

Afterwards a similar accident happened on the Gazelle; and Mr. Buchtel recovered the body of Mr. White, whom he had saved in the accident on the Shoalwater. But this time he was too late, as Mr. White was dead, and his body mutilated. In a building on Washington street formerly used as a city hall, a mass meeting of Republicans was being held. Atwood’s saloon was situated underneath; and, as Mr. Buchtel entered, he noticed the ceiling swaying down and giving way under the immense weight above. He quickly went up the stairs; and as he went, he wondered how he could get the crowd out by degrees, as he knew that, if they all rose to come out at once, the floor would go down. He crowded to the center of the room, where Governor Gibbs was speaking, and said” Pardon me a moment, Governor, but we have just secured an orator to speak from the balcony, and desire one-half the audience to come out and listen, as this room is uncomfortably packed.” So part of the large audience filed out; and Mr. Buchtel himself delivered an address from the balcony.

He was married in Oregon City, in 1855, to Miss Josephine L. Latourette. There have been born to them seven children, – Albert, Joe, Lilly, Addie, Frank, Archie and Fred. Albert died at the age of twenty-three, and Joe at the age of seven. Lilly is the wife of N.L. Curry, son of the late Governor George L. Curry. Addie is the wife of W.G. Kerns, of The Dalles. The three boys are still at home, Fred, the youngest, being aged twelve.

Mr. Buchtel is now fifty-nine years of age, and enjoys splendid health, being still engaged in all his outdoors sports, such as racing, jumping, baseball, fishing, hunting, and everything that requires strength and endurance. He is a man of powerful physique, and is as tough as a white-oak knot. He was never sick but once in his life, and that was when he was a boy, when he had chills. Mr. Buchtel never has used tobacco in any form, and is otherwise, both socially and morally, one of the best citizens in the state.



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

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