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James Steel, banker of Portland, was born in Woodsfield, Monroe county, Ohio, on September 20, 1834, and is a son of William and Elisabeth (Lawrie) Steel. His father was born in Scotland, but came to America when nine years of age, and was engaged in merchandising nearly all of his active life. He was a man of strong character, and every action in business and private life was governed by the most rigid adherence to a lofty conception of right and justice. He was strongly opposed to human slavery, and was very active for more than twenty years prior to the War of the Rebellion in the efforts made by leading abolitionists toward liberating the bond-men of the South by means of what at the time was termed the “underground railway scheme.” He died in Portland in 1881, after which his wife lived with the subject of this sketch until her death in 1887.
The boyhood of James Steel was passed at Woodsfield and Stafford, Ohio, the family removing to the latter place in 1844. His education was limited to the common schools, and at the age of seventeen he began his business career in his father’s store. Two year’s later he entered into partnership with his father, continuing in such relations for three years. He then made a limited tour of the West, visiting Iowa and Kansas, and in the spring of 1856 located at Dubuque, Iowa, where he secured a position as clerk and finally as book keeper in a wholesale dry goods house. Here he remained until February, 1857, when, after a short visit home, he returned to Dubuque and became book keeper and general manager of a hardware house, remaining until 1859. This service was followed by engaging for a short time in the crockery business, which proved unprofitable and was given up.
During the memorable political campaign of 1860 he took an active part. After the contest was over he left Dubuque, and being out of employment at the time, the Member of Congress then elect from the Dubuque district proposed to secure him some political appointment, which he declined. During these later years his father had, through the kindness of his heart, been induced to lend his name to some friends by endorsing notes, which led to the loss of all his property, and while under the laws of Ohio he could have retained his homestead, yet he gave up everything to his creditors, but principally to pay the debts of others. This broke up the family and the subject of this sketch then came to the Pacific Coast, hoping thereby to advance his for-tunes and thus be able to assist his father and family.
In the summer of 1862 he came to Portland, and being without means, he for a time worked for his board. He then became clerk in the grocery house of Robert Pittock, where he remained until January, 1864, when he took the position of book-keeper and cashier in the dry goods and grocery house of Harker Bros. At the end of two years this firm retired from business, and for a short time thereafter Mr. Steel was located in Oregon City, straightening up the affairs of the Oregon City Woolen Mills.
Upon the organization of the First National Bank of Portland in 1866, Mr. Steel became its Cashier. Banking business at this date in Portland had not reached much magnitude, and for some years all of the practical management of the affairs of the bank devolved upon Mr. Steel. It was in this position that his natural talent for financiering found a congenial scope, and during the sixteen years he was connected with this institution he gained an enviable reputation as a careful business man. He saw this bank grow from a small beginning until it became one of the largest banking institutions on the North Pacific Coast, and during this period his labors were most highly appreciated by those associated with him.
In July, 1882, Mr. Steel resigned his position in the bank, to engage in a general warehouse and grain business on the line of the Oregonian Railway Company, having leased from the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company all of the warehouses owned by this corporation. He had hardly gotten his new business under way when unforeseen and unfortunate railway complications put a sudden end to the establishment of any well regulated or profitable business in this direction, and he was forced to abandon the enterprise.
In 1883 Mr. Steel became one of the organizers of the Willamette Savings Bank, and was elected its first President. The depressed condition of affairs which came upon the country soon after this bank was organized, left little for savings banks to do, and it was determined to change the institution into an active commercial bank, and in 1886 the present Merchants’ National Bank was formed, of which Mr. Steel has since been president. His labors in behalf of this institution have been marked by rare success; and today it is one of the most prosperous banking houses of the State.
Besides the business enterprises enumerated, Mr. Steel has been prominently identified with the Oregon Construction Company, which built the Oregon Railway and Navigation line from Pendleton to Huntington, and the Palouse branch of the North-ern Pacific Railroad, and had personal charge of the construction of the road from Colfax to Moscow. He was one of the promoters of and is largely interested in the Klamath River Lumber and Improvement Company, a corporation formed with a capital stock of $500,000. This company owns a large body of timber land in Klamath county; owns the town site of Klamath City; has a twenty years franchise for floating logs and timber down the Klamath river, and at the present time is building at Klamath City one of the finest saw mills on the Pacific coast. He is also half owner in the Oregon Pottery Company, of which he was one of the incorporators in 1884, and is Secretary and Treasurer of the Company, and is also president of the Portland Trust Company, a financial corporation of $160,000 capital, and doing a large business.
Mr. Steel is associated with his brother, George A., under the firm name of G. A. Steel & Co., in the insurance and real estate business. They, together with a few other leading business men, purchased about 400 acres of land, some two miles south of Portland which was divided up into blocks and lots and is known as Fulton Park, In order to bring this property into ready market, the two brothers proposed to their associates to build an electric motor road from the city to the land. Inasmuch, however, as the building of such a road would involve the expenditure of a large amount of money none of their associates in the Fulton Park scheme could be induced to invest their funds in an electric road enterprise. Knowing, however, that if the property was to be made valuable, some quick and inexpensive means of access should be had to it, a proposition was made by Mr. Steel and his brother to their associates that they would build the road themselves in consideration of the company guaranteeing them a subsidy, which, considering the benefits to be derived by the company, and the increased value that would be given to their property, was very small. Their proposition was accepted and the two brothers proceeded immediately to the formation of the Metropolitan Railway Company, incorporated under the laws of Oregon, with a capital stock of $200,000, which was subsequently increased to $400,000. Up to this time electric roads were in an experimental stage, and particularly so on the Pacific Coast. Two or three such roads had been attempted in California, all of which had proved disastrous failures. One road, however, was then being operated successfully in Seattle, Washington. After examining the matter as carefully as they could they were satisfied that such a system of operating a road would be especially adapted for a suburban road. They finally entered into a contract with parties, representing the Sprague Electric Co., to equip their road. In commencing this enterprise the primal object in view was to get access from the southern part of the city to Fulton Park. It was, however, at once seen that in order to make their enterprise a complete success, it would be necessary to have their line of road extend through the business part of the city, and finally by the purchase of a franchise from a corporation known as the Traction Co., and with some modification of the same from the city they secured a franchise which extends from G street, through Second and other streets, southerly to the city limits. When they commenced this enterprise they were unable to induce any other parties to invest their means in it, and therefore had to carry it through on their individual credit. The road is now in successful operation from G street in the city to Fulton Park, a distance of 4 1-7 miles; is being- operated very successfully, and is generally conceded to be one of the best properties in and about the city. They contemplate building a branch of their road to Riverview and other cemeteries contiguous thereto and ultimately to extend their line to Oswego and Oregon City. Besides the interests named Mr. Steel is financially interested in various other minor enterprises while his private operations in real estate have been conducted with almost uniform good results.
Mr. Steel was married in November, 1866, in San Francisco, to Miss Mary Ladd, a sister of W. S. Ladd, of Portland. They have had five children, four of whom are living, one son and three daughters.
Mr. Steel has been successful in business, not as the result of any single stroke, but rather as the result of patient, persistent and well directed effort. He possesses fine business judgment, excellent executive ability and an evenly balanced mind. He is naturally conservative, and wild speculative methods, with promise of great reward if successful, but with ruin as the price of defeat, have no charms for him. No man in this community stands higher for strict integrity of character, business probity and faithfulness to every trust and obligation. Portland has been benefited in many ways by his ready willingness to promote by his labor and his means every deserving public enterprise, and according to his ability to do and to give the city has had no more helpful and sincere friend. He, early in life, became a convert to the Christian faith and has been an active member of the First Congregational Church of Portland ever since his residence here, having served as trustee and treasurer for the last twenty years and also for several years as member of the board of deacons and as one of the committee on Home Missions. He is an ardent republican in political faith and takes an active interest in political affairs, but has never sought or desired public office.
He is generous and charitable, and although closely devoted to business interests, gives much time and freely contributes of his means to benevolent work. Personally he is a genial and pleasant gentleman, but modest and retiring in disposition and naturally shrinks from anything that would lead him into the public view. He is domestic in his tastes, loves his home, and finds his chief pleasure in the family circle and in friendly intercourse with intimate friends.