Portlands Commercial Growth and Development During Recent Years

The purely domestic commerce in the Willamette Valley was conducted with the old-time energy, employing forty steamers, with an aggregate tonnage of thirteen thousand, seven hundred and ninety-one, and twenty-one sailing vessels of various descriptions aggregating two thousand and thirteen tons. The Oregon and California Railway was now in active operation and the Oregon Central had tapped the agricultural portion of Washington county.

In 1873 there appears a great rise in exports. For the fiscal year ending in September the following showing is made: To foreign ports there were employed three steamers, the California, George S. Wright and Gussie Telfair, and thirty-five sailing vessels, for the most part ships or barks of large capacity from England. The exports of wheat to foreign ports was 640,262 centals, valued at $1,055,264; flour, 37,284 barrels, at $158,895, making a total of $1,284,149.

Foreign entrances aggregated a tonnage of nineteen thousand, one hundred and forty-three, and of clearances twenty-three thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven. Of American vessels in foreign trade the entrances were ten thousand, three hundred and two tons, and clearances nineteen thousand, four hundred and forty-four. The imports reached a value of $514,343, and exports about $1,600,000. This was all trade with foreign countries.

The following table exhibits the trade with California for that year:

Flour, quarter sacks405,672Apples, dried, packages2,533
Oats, centals117,117,012Butter, packages1,640
Wheat, centals337,391Beef, barrels112
Salmon, barrels1,361Bacon, packages409
Salmon, half barrels3,459Lard, packages6
Salmon, packages110, 563Hams, packages18
Apples, ripe, boxes14,644

These all aggregated a value of $2,500,000.

The aggregate of vessels entering on account of coast wise traffic was 112,100 tons; of clearances, 79,694 tons. The difference notice-able in the entries and clearances is explained for the most part by the fact that ships loading at Portland frequently dropped below at Astoria to complete their cargo.

From the above it will be seen that the total exports both to foreign ports and domestic was about $4,100,000 in value. It will also be noticed that this includes nothing of treasure which figured so largely in early shipments; as by this period the business of the country had so far advanced as to be conducted, so far as concerned money, by means of money orders, checks and bills of exchange, so as to obviate the necessity of the transfer of money in a body.


The commerce from this time down to the present has flowed on with steadily increasing volume, and the details need not be so extensively given here as in the preceding pages. It may be noticed that with the coming of Ben Holladay in Oregon, as a railroad prince and capitalist, there was a general increase of energy, and much greater rapidity. in despatch and shipments than before. Things took on a livelier air, and assumed more the tone and style of California business. Dash, vim and even recklessness was affected to a greater degree in all business circles, and especially in commercial ventures. The transference of the headquarters of Holladay’s ocean steamers from San Francisco to Portland, made also a great difference in the growth of the city and in swelling the streams of trade leading hither.

For 1871 the foreign trade rises to the value of $692,297. There were cleared for foreign ports of foreign vessels, five ships aggregating three thousand seven hundred tons, and two barks of two thousand six hundred tons. The American vessels were twenty-nine steamers and six barks and one schooner, of sixteen thousand tons. The coastwise arrivals aggregated eighty-six thousand four hundred and sixteen tons.

Imports for this year from foreign countries reached a value of $517,633.

For 1872 the entrances from foreign ports, comprised of American steamers eighteen, and American barks eight, with a tonnage of eleven thousand nine hundred and forty-six. Of foreign vessels, twelve barks and two schooners, nine thousand one hundred and forty. This made the total tonnage for the year, one hundred and thirty-one thousand and thirty-five.


The following exhibits the imports:The following exhibits the exports:
From England, value of$350,980To England value of$04, 744
British Columbia,31,294British Columbia,107,508
Sandwich Islands,171,332Ireland,187,549
Hongkong,115,338Sandwich Islands,8,824
All other,59,831Hongkong,33,995

During these years one notices with interest the steady increase in shipment of wheat to the United Kingdom-showing that Portland, as the commercial city of Oregon, was rapidly building up a great foreign trade. In 1871 this was but 99,463 centals, valued at $257,276; while in 1872 the shipments rose to 209,337 centals, valued at $511,166. Flour shipped to California was 192,500 quarter sacks. The total export of wheat was twenty-three thousand eighty-two tons, and of flour fourteen thousand five, hundred and fifty-eight tons. Although these figures show a large increase in quantity shipped, the prices realized during this season were so low as to impair somewhat the advantage thus derived.

In the district of the Willamette there were registered this year forty steamers, with an aggregate tonnage of thirteen thousand seven hundred and ninety-one tons, and twenty-one sailing vessels of various kinds, two thousand and thirteen tons. This large number of craft on the rivers shows a well sustained inland trade, and that the transportation lines were active in bringing to the sea-board the interior products.

In 1873 Portland experienced the great fire by which about a million and a half dollars worth or property were destroyed. This great loss, calling for its repair, all the money that might be raised upon real securities, necessarily withdrew from trade and commerce large sums which would otherwise have been applied to their enlargement. Confidence was for a time somewhat shaken, and the year was less productive than was expected at the beginning; nevertheless, the volume of foreign trade continued to steadily increase as before. For the fiscal year ending in September we find three steamers plying to foreign ports, in British Columbia. These were the California, the George S. Wright and the Gussie Tellfair. The latter of these was looked upon with some interest as the first iron steamship in our waters; and even more as having in her younger and wilder days been a Rebel blockade runner. Besides the steamers there were thirty-five sailing vessels, mostly owned in Great Britain. The total export of wheat amounted to 640,262 centals, valued at $1,055,264; flour, 37,284 barrels, at $158,895; making a total value of wheat and flour export to the United Kingdom, $1,284,149.

To California, wheat reached 116, 076 centals; flour, 209,304 quarter sacks.

The total shipments to California for this year are shown by the following table:

Flour, quarter sacks405,672Apples (ripe), boxes14,644
Oats, centals117, 012Apples (dried), packages2,533
Wheat, centals337,391Butter, packages1,640
Salmon, bbls4,361Beef, bbls112
Salmon, half bbls3,459Bacon, packages
Salmon, packages110, 563Lard, packages

The total valuation of the above is set down as $2,500, 000.

Coastwise entrances aggregated 112,100 tons; clearances, 79,694 tons. Foreign entrances, 19,143 tons; clearances, 23,467 tons. The tonnage of American vessels in foreign trade was-entered, 10,302; cleared, 19,444. The imports reached $514, 343, and the exports about $1,600,000 to foreign countries.

Following this year a new impetus to the production of grain was given in the upper Willamette Valley by the opening of the Willamette river to the head of navigation by means of a canal and locks at Oregon City. Steamers were thereby enabled to carry grain from points even as far as Eugene City to Portland without breaking bulk. So soon as the autumn rains-usually in October-swelled the volume of the river, these light crafts beg-an to remove the crops that the farmers hauled from considerable distances to shipping points on the river, and continued the traffic until late in the summer succeeding. The actual proportion of grain thus moved was not so large, but, on account of the competition thus afforded, rates of rail transportation were materially reduced.

The Portland merchants also, both in order to enable vessels of large draft to conveniently load at their wharves, and also to finish their lading beyond a degree of safety for passage down the Willamette river, constructed a number of immense barges to accompany the ships to Astoria, with the residue of their cargoes, or to leave it in store at that port as might be needed. This proved, however, to be only necessary as a temporary expedient, since the deepening of the channel between Portland and the ocean renders unnecessary all such expedients. New attention was directed to the safety and facility of passing in and out the Columbia river, and attention was called to the fact that out of more than one thousand arrivals and departures at the bar during the four years preceding but one loss was experienced, and this was due to the fright of the captain, chiefly, who abandoned his ship, to be rescued afterward by a party of sailors. Much railroad agitation was carried on in these years, and all were eager for direct communication with the East.

A good authority at the time thus speaks of the commercial condition: ” In summing up our year’s condition, we can say that if it has not been all that the most sanguine expected, it has, nevertheless, proved the incorrectness of what grumblers predicted for it. The sweeping disaster of the great fires of the two preceding years seriously effected many of the sufferers, and the effects of the heavy losses have not yet in some instances been overcome; but, notwithstanding these calamities, and a few reverses in trade circles, there have been no failures of large firms or of business suspensions of consequence. The sound commercial basis which underlies our leading houses, their wholesome system of trade, and their positive cautiousness against speculation all combine to provide against disaster and to inspire confidence.”

“From a table compiled this year to show the exports of wheat from 1868 to the middle of 1874, we find a total value of $11,105, 850. ”

“The bulk of the wheat was exported to the United Kingdom, and also a round aggregate of flour-but the largest proportion of the latter was sent to San Francisco, to New York, to ports in the Pacific, and to China and Japan.”

It is reported for this year that nearly two hundred ships were employed in the export trade; but this evidently includes all coast wise craft of every description.

For the year 1875 we find a somewhat low condition-or at least not so flattering as might be expected. From Walling’s directory we clip the following: “During the past year, Portland, in common with every other section of the Union, has felt the effect of the stagnation which has had such disastrous effects upon the commercial prosperity of the entire country; but remote as we are from the great centers of commerce, we have been comparatively free from the disastrous consequences which have left their impress upon the business marts of the eastern slope.”

As is usually the case in periods of business depression, merchants and others began industriously to invent means of expanding their trade; and soon a hopeful condition of affairs was attained. Work on the West Side railroad, which had been stopped at St. Joe, on the Yamhill River was resumed, and the region thus tapped, was brought into more intimate relations with Portland.

The number of American vessels entering. this year aggregated 100,602 tons; the foreign, 16,304 tons.

The value of exports is shown by the following table:

To England$ 799,81800
British Columbia136,60000
Sandwich Islands549,48000

Imports from these countries in foreign vessels were valued at $283,499; in American vessels, $163,359; total, $446,858.

The wheat sent to England during this year was 513,481 bushels; to Ireland, 548,986 bushels; flour, 48,110 barrels.


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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