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Biography of Capt. William Benjamin Wells

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CAPT. WILLIAM BENJAMIN WELLS. – This skillful early navigator of the Willamette and the Columbia, and one of the first projectors of the great steamboat and transportation companies of the later time, was born in Ogdensburg, New York, July 18, 1822, and at that port imbibed his love of the water which followed him his whole after life. At the age of twelve he moved with his father to the western district of Upper Canada, remaining in that province until his marriage in 1844 to Miss Mary J. Richardson. The young pair, who were very much devoted to each other, were ambitious to try life in the Western territories, and removed to Iowa, engaging in agriculture. Mr. Wells, however, was not satisfied with this secluded life, and took service on one of the barks on the lake. During a severe storm his proved his coolness and intrepidity, and for his gallant conduct was promoted. He further showed his humanity and devotion to the suffering at Ann Arbor, where his ship was detained while the cholera was raging. For many days and nights he took care of those in all stages of that dreaded disease, many of whom were deserted by all others.

Returning to his family in 1849, he prepared for the journey to Oregon, and accomplished that great undertaking the following season. Reaching our state, he engaged in boating on the Columbia above The Dalles. Little later he invested his returns from that business in the Eagle, a steamer on the Lower Willamette, and with Captain Richard Williams as partner plied between Oregon City and Portland. Two years afterwards the captains built for themselves the steamer Belle (1853), and operated with her on the Lower Willamette and the Columbia, on the line with the steamer Mary above the Cascades.

In 1856 he was active in the Indian war, transporting troops under Phil Sheridan from Vancouver to the portage. In the fight which occurred soon after, there happened a pleasant incident, hitherto unrelated, illustrating the coolness of our Captain. Being a portly man of fine bearing, and standing somewhat exposed observing the fight, a stray bullet passed so near as to take a cigar from his mouth and to kill a soldier at his side. A non-commissioned officer standing by observed, “Captain, with your permission I will retire a little, as you are most too conspicuous a mark for this occasion.”

Captain Wells took the first boat that ever went through the basin up to the Willamette Falls Company’s works, on the Linn City side of the Willamette opposite Oregon City, in 1854. He also took the first boat that went from the Lower Cascade Landing to the Middle, and the first that went from the Middle to the Upper Cascades.

In 1859 he sold his interest in the steamer to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, and established himself at North Cove, Shoalwater Bay, Washington Territory, taking a pre-emption claim and increasing his domain by purchase. He invested also in stock, and became a successful seacoast rancher in one of the most salubrious and delightful of all our seaward looking valleys.

In February, 1863, his useful life was ended, his brave heart stilled, by an accident in a sailboat. While crossing the bay in a plunger, a squall struck and capsized the little craft, drowning Captain Wells and his companion, a Mr. Clymer.

His wife having joined her husband in 1853, she undertook, upon his death, the conduct of the farm, and managed it successfully, until in 1869 she was united in marriage with Honorable W.W. Bristow of Eugene, and is now passing her years in the refinements of society and of a pleasant cultivated home at the city of Portland.


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