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William S. Ladd

Before coming to Portland in 1851, William Sargent Ladd worked as a school teacher and a railroad agent in New Hampshire.  From these small beginnings Ladd built a fortune in the west.

Ladd set out for the West Coast, with the intention of taking advantage of the frantic activity in California.  His first venture was supported by a friend from school, Charles E. Tilton. Together they stopped in San Francisco to sell the goods they had brought from the East Coast. Ladd finding the market already overburdened, suggested taking the goods to Oregon.  Tilton stayed in San Francisco, and conservatively, sent a small shipment of liquor with Ladd. 

In the year of William S. Ladd’s arrival, Portland was little more than a ramshackle trading post. The city had been incorporated only 3 months before Ladd’s April arrival.  According to accounts “Some 120 one story, roughly constructed box like buildings, many painted white straggled from the river front inland about 500 feet amid several older log structures.”[i] Stumps from half-removed trees still peppered the streets, which were little more than muddy cart tracks.

The townsite had been chosen for its navigable rivers and proximity to productive farm land.  It was not an agricultural settlement, however. Only 821 people had been counted in the US Census in December 1850. The December 4th issue of the Weekly Oregon nearly doubled that figure by counting Native Americans and transients[ii].

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 was producing a massive migration of entrepreneurs and opportunity seekers westward.  San Francisco grew from 200 hundred to nearly 40,000 people in the space of five years and many of the transients in Portland, and the Oregon Territory, were spilling over from the influx in California.  The populace made up of merchants, sailors and ex-minors did not come to Portland intending to create a town.  The most sedentary of the groups, the merchants, often resided for a year or two before returning to the East Coast or San Francisco. 

The day after his arrival, Ladd opened his single item store. Several weeks later, he added eggs and produce from Tualatin Valley to his stock. By August he set out independently. He acted as a commission agent, selling goods shipped from the East, brought in produce from local farms, and bought from wholesalers. His suppliers included Henry W. Corbett & Company, J Failing & Company and Allen & Lewis. His business associates along Front Street formed the basis of his social circle and business contacts for the remainder of his career in Portland.

With the gold strikes in Southern Oregon in 1852 and 1853, Ladd found himself acting as a pseudo-banker. He extended credit to his customers and accepted many forms of payment including goods or property.   In addition, the boom brought on by the discovery of gold allowed Ladd to build the first brick structure in Portland. In the summer of 1853, the building on Front Street marked the growing visibility of Ladd in Portland’s life. 

Within several years Ladd was organizing investors and financing a wide array of enterprises. In 1854, he began the Pacific Telegraph Company with other investors.  By investing in a large sternwheeler with Captain Ainsworth in 1858, he became involved with goods shipment.  Four years later, Ladd, Ainsworth and other investors formed the Oregon Steam Navigation Company.  The company would control much of the shipping that entered Portland.  Not everything, however, was a success. As a trustee of the Portland Milling Company, Ladd went through its failure in 1854 and became acquainted with bankruptcy practices. 

Seven years after his arrival, and already a prominent merchant and citizen, Ladd returned to the East Coast with his family. In part, he intended to resurrect his partnership with Tilton.  His experiences with the rapidly increasing market of Portland illustrated the need for a bank .  With Tilton’s partnership the Ladd & Tilton Bank was created.  Spurred by the recession of 1859, the bank grew at a surprising rate. By providing capital beyond the merchandise driven short term loans, expansion in manufacturing was made possible.

By the mid-1860’s, land transportation was an increasing concern throughout the United States. The primary investors in Oregon Steam Navigation, Ladd,  Reed and Ainsworth, were among the coordinators of the Oregon Central Rail Road in 1866. The small village that Ladd had arrived in was long gone.  The population in 1865 was over 6000, the growth rate was nearly 300 percent, and throughout the state the population would double in the1870s.[iii] A number of people, including Simeon Reed, Ladd’s former clerk and business partner in the Oregon Steam Navigation company, worked with outside investors.  As Washington, Idaho and California expanded, the OSN faced considerable competition to their virtual monopoly on trading.  It became imperative to the business partners to expand their interests into other forms of transportation.  A number of complicated dealings resulted in a partnership between Northern Pacific and the OSN. 

Nation wide, the building of railway lines was full of  magnificent failures and meteoric successes that often engulfed development plans.  German investor, Henry Villard, had a tumultuous history as a rail road tycoon in the Northwest. Through quick and sometimes shady maneuvering, Villard brought together many of the investors in railroads and also began work on the Portland Hotel. Just as quickly as he made money, the profits from his railroad schemes ran out and construction of the hotel was halted at the foundation.  Between 1883 and 1885 the substrate of the building lay exposed and the site became known as “Villard’s Ruins.”  The project was resurrected by George B. Markle Jr. and completed 7 years later; with Ladd becoming one of the largest investors. 

Public Service

Ladd was first and foremost a businessman. He was a banker and a merchant who seemed to pursue profit for its own sake.  But his standing as a prominent citizen almost necessitated his acting as a guiding force in the community. His first appointment made him the treasurer of the Portland Academy.

Given the transient nature of many of Portland's citizens in the early years, city government was unstable at best. Leadership in Portland was sporadic, with councilmen and mayors resigning midterm, often to pursue business interests elsewhere.  As a result, the main objectives of the city council -- clearing the streets, establishing a cemetery, and providing police and fire protection -- went unmet. A petition circulated in 1852 to revoke the city charter, was signed by 150 citizens, including Ladd.

With a new charter in 1853, Ladd’s friend and business associate, Josiah Failing, was elected mayor. Despite his objections to incorporation, Ladd was elected to the city council.  The newly charged council of 1853-1854 met with problems similar to previous sessions.  The mayor and the president of the council both had considerable business setbacks, which kept them from attending to the business of the city.  The following year Ladd was elected mayor, and a new charter was put in place that would last 10 years.  Within three months, the council completed the following:  imposed licenses on many businesses, such as saloons, theaters and pawn brokers; authorized purchase of a cemetery; created penalties for disorderly conduct and immoral practices; and created a fire department. The business of the council slowed after those months, but it had still accomplished more in those three months than the combined sessions of the previous three councils.  When the current Mayor had left town without notifying the city council, Ladd was elected again in 1858.

Ladd’s community participation included involvement in the Presbyterian congregation. As the 1870s brought prosperity to many, the growing urban environment also saw its share of social problems. The Ladies' Relief Society created a Children’s Home for orphans, and Ladd became the head of the board of trustees.  Ladd also sat on the public school board.  For 20 years Ladd provided the Library Association a home in the Ladd & Tilton bank and bestowed a large monetary contribution upon his death.  Ladd's charitable contributions grew with his success.  Institutions as diverse as the Humane Society and the Arlington Club received his support. His donations were not limited to Portland causes; in 1886 he donated $50,000 to the establishment of a San Francisco Seminary. Upon his death, Ladd’s left $450,000 in trust for charitable purposes.


On the trip to the East Coast to secure funding for the Ladd & Tilton bank, the Ladd’s ordered the plans for the house built at Sixth Street between Jefferson and Clay.  What had been dense forest at the time of Ladd’s arrival, the block had been densely forested. By 1874 they expanded the home, added elaborate grounds and the carriage house.  He was a well established figure who was well regarded in the community. 

In the 1870s Ladd established the two pieces of property that remain with us today.  In 1877, he acquired Crystal Spring Farms, part of which was later developed into Reed College, and in 1878 the property that would become Ladd’s Addition. This recognizable district remains the same as it was mapped by Ladd in 1891.[iv]

By the end of Ladd’s life Portland was no longer a muddy western trading outpost.  Rival cities such as Albina and East Portland had been incorporated into the town. Bridges spanned the Willamette, and street cars moved the populace. The small wooden structures had been replaced by stately homes, and stone edifices. Dominating the center of the town was the grand Portland Hotel. Portland was the second largest and most economically active city on the West Coast.  While many individuals were involved with the development of Portland, including some who played a more public or flamboyant role, Ladd deserves to be remembered for the breadth of his involvement in the creation of the city.  His was a pivotal role in the development of Portland as a city, amassing and providing the capital needed for its growth, as well as tools for the edification and support of the populace.  What we know of him as a man is retained only in the few comments or quotes left by his friends and colleagues, and in those things he chose to invest with his time and money. 

[i]  MacColl, E Kimbark . Merchants Money  & Power, The Portland Establishment 1843-1913. P 17

[ii] ibid.  p 2

[iii] ibid.  p. 205, 164

[iv] Paulson, Rod. Portland Neighborhood Histories Volume 1 A-L P.3

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