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HON. JOHN GATES. – This gentleman was the chief engineer of the old Oregon Steam Navigation Company during its palmy days of navigation, and will always be remembered as one of the brightest minds of our state, as his inventive genius has earned for him the not inapt title of the Edison of the Pacific coast. He was born at Mercer, Maine, and as a youth learned the machinist’s trade, rising to the position of foreman of the shop in which he had been apprenticed. Coming to California in 1849, he was engaged in mining at Auburn and at Michigan Bluffs, and in 1852 was engaged as engineer for the old sawmill at Portland located near Jefferson street. His industry and thrift soon enabled him to buy a one-third interest in the mill; and his steady rise in wealth seemed assured. But a fire burned the mill, destroying at the same time his property and prospects.
A start once lost meant many more years of hard work; for in those times the first accumulation was the point of difficulty. Nevertheless this misfortune proved as but the door to his later usefulness. He secured a place as engineer of construction with the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, having already the reputation of great carefulness and fidelity. But in this position he began to develop his native inventive genius, and during his services of twenty-seven years took out more than thirty patents for the safety, speed and economy of steamboats. Twenty-seven of these were obtained during the first ten years of his service.
His first invention was an automatic oiler for both low and high pressure engines. This was followed by a spark arrester; and then came his sectional boiler, by which the saving in fuel was forty-five per cent, the experiment being first tried on the Oneonta. His most celebrated patent was that of the hydraulic steering gear, by the aid of which a pilot may steer with the certainty of a hair’s breadth in the heaviest weather. Upon presenting the model of this to Messrs. Ladd, Reed and Ainsworth, directors of the company, the two former advised the use of steam; but Ainsworth insisted on clinging to the policy of following Gates’ ideas until he produced a failure, – a consummation which he never reached. These gentlemen had the greatest confidence in their chief engineer, and were every ready to furnish the means for experiment. His other patents may be briefly summarized as follows: Spark arrester, ash pan, cut-off valve, thumbscrews for holding wheel ropes, and several patents for steam pumps.
It is not too much to say that the wonderful success of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company was due as much to Gates as to any one man. Upon a river confessedly so difficult as the Columbia, his care and skill prevented all disasters, – a blown boiler, or any accident due to a lack of skill in construction never occurring. He made navigation upon it speedy and remunerative, and delightful to the traveler. Many original ideas in construction are due to him, such as the graceful covering of the stern wheel, making the afterdeck possible on stern as well as side wheel steamers. The idea of dredging the river channels with a deep sunken screw was also his.
He built a large fleet of steamers, of which the following is a list of the principal ones: Orient, Occident, Almota, Wide West, R.R. Thompson, S.G. Reed, Daisy Ainsworth, Autocrat, Hassalo, D.S. Baker, Anna Faxon, Wyatchee, Oneonta, Washington, Harvest Queen, Mountain Queen, Emma Hayward, Henry Villard, John Gates, Spokane, Bonita, Welcome and Dixie Thompson. He also designed a magnificent side-wheeler to be named the City of Portland, with two hundred and fifty-eight feet length of deck, thirty-six feet beam and ten feet hold, to cost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and to ply to the ocean during the summers and carry wheat in the winters. But the railroad soon coming postponed the plan.
With the eclipse of steamboating on the Columbia due to railroading, his activity largely lost its scope, and to a certain extent produced his premature death at the age of sixty-one. His rugged frame and active brain could not move without its customary load.
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He held the office of United States inspector of boilers many years, and at the time of his death, in 1888, was mayor of Portland. He was a man whom the people loved and honored, and although closely confined to his proper work, was greatly interested in all public progress and in moral enterprises. His funeral obsequies were attended by the whole city, business being closed during the house. His inventions have a public value never dreamed of by himself; and the record of his life is one more commentary upon the reward that waits for those who, by fidelity to their own duties, and by conscientious discharge of their own business, seek to benefit the world. His demeanor was ever quite and modest; and he was exceedingly kind to his employés, showing them an attention and respect not always bestowed. Like men of firm character everywhere, he had great tenderness of heart.
His first wife, Miss Mary Blodgett, whom he married in 1848, died in 1860, leaving three children, Fred, Mrs. Harriet L. Mair and Miss Mary. Mrs. Rachel Gates, née Scales, survives him, and is living with her four children, Nellie T., William H., Edna R. and John, on the competence which he left.