Sea History 179 - Summer 2022

Page 20

From Pilot to President:

oregon historical society

f ter coming West in 1850, John Commigers Ainsworth became one of the most famous, wealthy, and influential figures in Pacific Northwest history. His business ventures in transportation, banking, mining and real estate not only made him and his partners rich, but also advanced the settlement, modernization, and economic development of the Columbia and Willamette River valleys.

John Ainsworth, taken during his late 30s or 40s. His lapel badge most likely commemorates his association with Oregon’s Freemasons, an organization in which Ainsworth enjoyed a long and prosperous career. Of all his business pursuits, Ainsworth’s presidency of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (OSN) remains the most frequently celebrated by historians. The OSN has long been considered the first large-scale capitalistic enterprise in the Northwest. During its 19 years of operation, the OSN monopolized Columbia River transportation and dominated the Northwest economy. Under Ainsworth’s leadership, the OSN introduced modern transportation infrastructure, communication systems, and elitist wealth to the Oregon frontier. 18

by Mychal Ostler For Ainsworth, steam navigation was much more than a strategy for making money. Beneath his daily responsibilities as manager and investor, Ainsworth was a steamboat pilot at heart. He had a deep emotional attachment to steamboating, one that money could never replace. Later in life, he reminisced about his years in the pilothouse: “The sensation to me, of entering a water that had never before been divided by the prow of a steamer, was beyond description.” Before he became a wealthy business owner, Ainsworth struggled with poverty and instability. Born in 1822 in rural Ohio, Ainsworth lost his mother at the age of three and his father a few years later. By the age of thirteen, the orphaned Ainsworth was forced to quit school and assist an uncle in his mercantile business. In his uncle’s employment, Ainsworth worked long hours as clerk, sales associate, stock boy, and bookkeeper. His uncle eventually encountered financial setbacks and had to close his business. Now unemployed, Ainsworth followed his uncle to Kentucky, where they purchased a keelboat and a cargo of merchandise. They spent the next summer season floating down the Ohio River, gradually selling off their cargo to travelers and riverside patrons. Ainsworth discovered his home on the water. He spent the next fifteen years making a living on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where he graduated from keelboat to steamboat, worked his way up the ranks to pilot, and eventually saved enough wages to buy his own steamboat, which he operated as captain. In 1848, news of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill spread through Ainsworth’s neighborhood and his career goals changed quickly. He sold his steamboat, along with the rest of his property, and booked passage to California. After disembarking at San Francisco in the summer of 1850, Ainsworth took a steamer to Sacramento City, where he found a community of other Mis-

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Captain John Ainsworth & the Oregon Steam Navigation Company

Jacob Kamm’s resume included at least 20 years of service in the engine rooms of steamboats on the Mississippi, Columbia, and Willamette Rivers. Kamm and Ainsworth became close friends and business partners when they met in Sacramento City in 1850. The two helped found the Oregon Steam Navigation Company in 1860. The OSN made Kamm rich. He sold his company stock in 1866 for a total of $159,500 (approx. $2.9 million today). sissippi Valley transplants. One was Jacob Kamm, a Swedish immigrant who had much in common with Ainsworth, notably an extensive and unique resume of steamboat operations. While he was based there, a man from the Oregon territory came to town, a Willamette River settler named Lot Whitcomb. On a business trip to Sacramento City, Whitcomb was looking for qualified men to operate what he envisioned as the first modern steamboat north of the Bay area. He sought out Ainsworth and Kamm and pitched his idea for the construction of a steamboat that resembled the best packets SEA HISTORY 179, SUMMER 2022

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