Biography of William Reid

William Reid, capitalist and banker of Portland, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, November 22, 1841. His ancestors for several generations were residents of Forfarshire, and the town of Dundee. David Reid, his father, was conductor on the first railroad ever operated in Scotland, and for thirty years was prominently identified with the railroad interests of that country. The education of our subject began in his native city at St. Andrew’s Parish School, and was completed at the University of Glasgow in 1865. At the latter institution, after finishing his literary course, he studied for the bar and was admitted in 1867 as an attorney. He began the practice of his profession at Dundee in partnership with Alexander Douglas, under the firm name of Reid & Douglas. He soon acquired an extensive practice, and acted as counsel for the United States for several American claimants under the Alabama treaty. In 1868 he was employed by Mrs. Mary Lincoln, widow of the President, to assist in the preparation of the Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln. While employed on this work he was appointed by President Grant as United States Consul at Dundee, and held the office at that port until his removal to Oregon in 1874. It was during the period he held this office that his attention was called to Oregon. From the official reports published on the State, and from intercourse with Americans, he gained much information concerning the State. In 1873 he prepared and published a pamphlet entitled Oregon and Washington Considered as a field for Labor and Capital. 30,000 copies were circulated, and the influence they exerted upon the development of this portion of the union is almost beyond calculation. The attention of capitalists and immigrants was directed towards this section, and one of the immediate results was the formation of the Oregon and Washington Trust and Investment Company, of Scotland, with a paid up capital of $250,000. The Earl of Airlie was made president of the company, and Mr. Reid its secretary. In 1874 he was sent to Oregon to organize its business in this State, and so highly impressed was he with the resources of this region that he determined to permanently locate here, and become a citizen of the United States.

In 1876 Mr. Reid, with several Scotch capitalists, established at Portland the Oregon and Washington Mortgage Savings Bank, the first savings bank of deposit in the State. This financial institution, with its predecessor, made loans averaging $650,000 a year until 1881, when they had $3,700,000 at interest, and not a dollar had then been lost by bad debts. In 1876 Mr. Red’s friends organized the Dundee Mortgage Company with a capital of $500,000. For three years this company loaned $750-000 per year. With it in 1880 was consolidated the Oregon and Washington Trust Investment Company, the united capital being increased to $5,000,000. In 1882 he established the First National Bank of Salem, and was appointed its president. During the following year he organized the Oregon Mortgage Company. The great confidence reposed in Mr. Reid’s sagacity and honesty can be best realized from the fact that from May, 1874 to June, 1885, he had made more than 5,000 loans, amounting to $7,597,741, of which $6,000,000 consisted of Scotch capital. The losses incurred in handling this large sum were very small, and it is doubtful if in the financial history of this country, any equal amount, used in the same way, was ever so judiciously or profitably managed.

In 1881 Mr. Reid organized the Salem Mills Company, and in 1882 formed a company with a capital of $200,000, called the City of Salem Company, which first introduced into Oregon the gradual reduction system of milling. This company erected at Salem the largest brick mills in the State, having with the hydraulic use of the Santiam river, an estimated 3,600 horse power. In 1884 he organized and established the Portland National Bank, of which he has since been president.

Soon after his arrival in Portland, Mr. Reid, in connection with Captain A. P. Ankeny, organized the Board of Trade of Portland, and was its active secretary for a period of six years. Shortly after the creation of this commercial body he appeared before both houses of the legislature, and strongly urged the passage of the first Oregon Immigration act, and it was largely through his efforts that the first State Board of Immigration was created. Of this body he was also appointed secretary, holding the position for three years. During this period he wrote several pamphlets describing the resources of Oregon, which were translated into Flemish, German, French, and Spanish, many thousands of them being circulated at the Paris and Philadelphia expositions of 1876.

The present railroad system of the Pacific northwest owes much to Mr. Reid’s enterprise and energy. In 1880 he conceived the idea of constructing a system of narrow gauge railroads in Western Oregon with its terminus at Portland, and was one of the organizers of the Oregonian Railway company, of which the Earl of Airlie was made president, and Mr. Reid local president. The construction of this system met with great opposition from rival railroad companies and the city of Portland. In the fall of 1880, 118 miles had been completed, but when Mr. Reid proposed to locate his terminus on the public levee of Portland, the citizens made a most vigorous fight against the project. The fight was taken into the halls of the Legislature, in the session of 1880, where, after considerable opposition, a bill was passed by a two-thirds vote of the senate and house, over the governor’s veto, entitling Mr. Reid’s company, which at that time was very popular with the farmers of the Willamette valley as an opposition road, to permanently occupy the public levee of Portland for its terminus and depot grounds. The road was then completed for a distance of 163 miles, and had its road bed graded to a point within eleven miles of Portland at a cost of $2,000,000, where its further extension to the city was stopped by the Scotch owners of the enterprise, who, despite Mr. Reid’s opposition, leased the road to the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company for a guarantee rent of seven per cent upon its paid up stock for a period of ninety-six years, whereupon Mr. Reid withdrew from its management. In 1884 the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company repudiated its lease, as Mr. Reid had predicted it would, upon the ground that the Legislature had not authorized the lease. Much litigation followed, and finally the court appointed a receiver. In the meantime the road had not been completed, and the grant of the levee by the legislature had expired. Residents of the Willamette valley who would he greatly benefited by the completion of the road, now appealed to Mr. Reid to again take hold of the enterprise. At their urgent solicitations he again applied to the Legislature for another grant of the forfeited levee, and undertook to complete the road from the place abandoned in 1881 to Portland. The bill which was introduced for this purpose led to another severe legislative contest, the City Council of Portland and the Scotch owners of the former road being bitterly opposed to the scheme. Notwithstanding their opposition, however, the grant was passed in February, 1885. Mr. Reid had previously incorporated the Portland and Willamette Valley Railway Company, and at once commenced the construction of the road from the uncompleted portion built in 1880 and 1881, and had the entire system finished to the terminus on the levee in Portland in November, 1887. This road, in which Mr. Reid has been so largely interested, has been of immeasurable benefit to the farmers residing in the fertile valley of the Willamette. Its existence is almost wholly due to his energy and persistence, and partly to the investment of his own capital. He is Vice President of the road, and its successful operation and its direct benefit to Port-land, have vindicated Mr. Reid’s judgment, and in a great measure silenced the opposition it originally encountered.

Mr. Reid’s success in railroad projects caused the citizens of Astoria in the spring of 1889 to solicit his services to finance and build the Astoria & South Coast railway from the mouth of the Columbia at Young’s Bay to the Willamette Valley, which the Oregon & California Railroad, with a land grant since forfeited, had failed to accomplish during the preceding eighteen years. Knowing the opposition he would encounter, Mr. Reid for three months declined the task; but after continued pressure from Astoria, and in person selecting his own route across the Coast Range, and ascertaining the location thereon of valuable beds of coal, iron stone, cedar and fir timber, he in July, 1889, undertook the responsibility of financing for and building that road, and became the president of the company. In December, 1889, he had fifteen miles of track laid, and twelve more miles graded. He then proceeded to New York, where he obtained propositions from railroad capitalists to supply the necessary capital to complete the construction of the 100 miles (including the Seaside Branch) from Astoria to the Southern Pacific company’s line in Western Oregon, and turn the road over, when constructed, to such New York capitalists in conjunction with himself.

So much for a bare outline of the career of Mr. Reid. It leaves untold many, very many, of the directions in which his aggressive energies have found outlet; it gives only a few salient facts in a life crowded with events and crowned with rare success. Enough has been told to prove that he is a man of undauntable will and perseverance, and a sagacious financier. He is a man of remarkable energy, and his capacity for work seems almost unlimited. Always active, ever-on-the-move and apparently never tired, it is a wonder to his friends when he finds time for needed rest. His main power seems to lie in the unconquerable spirit of perseverance with which his plans are pursued. If one path to a desired end is closed, he seeks another; but the object on which he has fixed his eye is never abandoned. He extracts pleasure out of work and appears most happy when organizing the business details of some great enterprise, really enjoying the task for its very complexity.

Mr. Reid was married in December, 1867, to Agnes, daughter of Alexander Dunbar, of Nairn, Scotland. They have had five children, of whom two are sons, born in Scotland, now twenty and eighteen years old, and three daughters, born in Portland.


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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