Charles D. Bowles

C. D. Bowles portrait

Lockley, Fred. "History of the Columbia River Valley, From The Dalles to the Sea." Vol. 2. S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1928. p. 118.


There are certain individuals of whom it is difficult to speak except in the language of eulogy, and of this type was Charles D. Bowles, a Portland business man, who was one of the industrial leaders of the Pacific northwest. He started with nothing but his inherent force of character, and his remarkable powers gave him prestige over his fellows and his activities as a shipbuilder were heralded throughout the world. In that connection he rendered service of inestimable value to his country in its time of greatest need and established a record never before equaled in the history of shipbuilding, creating as if by magic a great plant which supplied the government with ships at break-neck speed. In other lines of endeavor he also figured conspicuously, and although his business career was one of intense activity, he also found time for public affairs and philanthropic work, generously sharing his substance with others.

Mr. Bowles was a native of Vancouver, Washington, born April 4, 1864, and a son of Jesse T. and Minerva (Wilson) Bowles. His father was born in Montgomery county, Missouri, and went to California in 1850 but returned to the east soon afterward. In 1852 he again journeyed to the west, driving a team of oxen across the plains and working for a number of years in Portland. Eventually he became the owner of the original Sarah Wilson donation land claim, situated on the Oregon side of the Columbia river near Vancouver. The father cultivated the ranch until 1887, when he retired, and a portion of the estate is now owned by his daughter, Mrs. C. N. Johnson, of Portland, while the remainder is the property of the Columbia Country Club. Jesse T. Bowles fought in the Indian wars of 1855-56 and aided in capturing Peu Peu Mox Mox, the noted Indian chief. While living in Vancouver he was active in public affairs and served in the territorial legislature of Washington during the session of 1863-64.

His son, Charles D. Bowles, was reared on the home farm and became a pupil of a parochial school of Vancouver across the river from his home. For a short time he attended the University of Oregon, being unable to complete his course owing to the illness of his father. He then returned to the farm, to the management of which he devoted his attention. Among his daily tasks was the milking of thirty cows night and morning, and his youth was a period of hard and unremitting labor. He read law in the Portland office of Strong & Strong, also studying at home, and at the age of twenty-one was admitted to the bar. For a short time he practiced in Pendleton, Oregon, and then entered the railway mail service, with which he was connected for three years. He was assigned to the route between Portland and Albany and was regarded as one of the best men in the service. After tendering his resignation Mr. Bowles returned to his profession, opening an office in Vancouver, and there practiced for twelve years with marked success. In 1892 he became prosecuting attorney for Clark county, winning the election by a large majority and serving for one term. His knowledge of legal principles was comprehensive and exact, and in argument he was logical, forceful and convincing.

In 1903 Mr. Bowles went to Seattle and joined his brother, J. R. Bowles, in forming the Bowles Company, wholesale dealers in plumbing and steamfitting supplies. They first occupied a small structure of two stories and later moved to a building containing six floors and covering one-fourth of a block. In the upbuilding of that large establishment Charles D. Bowles played the leading part and retained an interest therein until his death on June 10, 1924, although he had retired from the active management several years prior to that time.

Mr. Bowles became associated with his brother in shipbuilding, and they sought as a partner J. F. Duthie, who had a small repair shop and was an experienced shipbuilder, the J. F. Duthie Company being organized. A large yard was established on Elliott bay and the industry developed rapidly under the expert guidance of Charles D. Bowles. His interests constantly broadened with the demands of the times and he came to Portland to take charge of the business of the Columbia River Shipbuilding Corporation, entering upon the work which was destined to bring him international renown. Of his achievements in that connection the Portland news wrote as follows:

"Understanding, organization, efficiency and a fine spirit of loyalty permeating every department of the vast yards that responded whole-heartedly to our country's needs were the factors that built the ships, broke records and gained for the Columbia River Shipbuilding Corporation its notable standing among the shipbuilding plants of the world. All of these were needed in full measure, it is true, but the success of the gigantic undertaking is in large measure due to the leadership of C. D. Bowles, who possessed so admirably the faculty of commanding those workers under him that they were made to feel that instead of working under him they were working with him.

"It was necessary to dredge approximately three hundred thousand cubic yards of sand and gravel from the Willamette river to make a site suitable for the erection of the required buildings of the Columbia River Shipbuilding plant. This work was begun October 30, 1916, and completed the latter part of December, 1916. The necessary buildings were rushed to completion and the program of shipbuilding was at once begun.

"One of the principal difficulties which Mr. Bowles had to contend with at the beginning was the dearth of the necessary number of skilled workers. No effort was made to secure men by disturbing the organization of other yards; no bonus was offered to win experts train competitive plants that had been in existence prior to that of the Columbia River Shipbuilding Company. Many men came to the plant with reputations as skilled shipbuilders but a greater majority of them knew little or nothing of the work when they came. Mr. Bowles realized the absolute necessity of putting these inexperienced men under the guidance of the best shipbuilders he could obtain; so he laid his plans accordingly. He paid liberal wages, established the best working conditions to be found in any plant in the country and slowly but surely built up an organization that was not only expert and efficient in every department, but loyal to the last man.

"Undaunted by the difficulties attending the perfecting of the organization, Mr. Bowles ever encouraged the men to keep on trying. It was with pleasure that he spoke of the efforts of the skilled men to import their knowledge to the newcomers; of the efforts of the latter to learn the trades that were wholly unfamiliar to nearly all of them, and of the splendid results finally achieved.

"After the yard had been in operation only a short time, in fact the fifth ship launched by the company, at a period when our country needed ships as never before, the steamer West Grove was launched in sixty-one days of loyal and patriotic effort. This was at that period the fastest time any ship had been built in any yard in the United States, and tended to speed up ship production in the other yards. The City of Eureka, the 'wonder ship,' as it was called, was built in the incredibly short time of twenty-seven days÷a record that will stand for all time. It is so much shorter than the time of any other shipyard that a ship owner can scarcely realize that a perfect ship could be finished in so short a period, had it not been done.

"The ship was complete in every respect and was so judged by the many forces of inspectors who were on her during her building. When the City of Eureka moved down the ways practically all the auxiliary machinery was aboard. Before the ship was twenty-four hours at the dock the battery of three Scotch boilers, fabricated in the plant, was installed; the carpenters and joiners had their work well advanced, and the pipe litters had a good share of the pipe work installed. Here was a most remarkable example of cooperation and coordination. The splendid spirit animating the whole plant, which produced this ship in twenty-seven days, made it possible for the ship to put to sea ten days later, an accomplishment unrivaled in the construction of steamers of this size, and it was indicative of the magnificent enthusiasm that pervaded the plant at all times. The City of Eureka was the masterpiece of the Columbia River Shipbuilding Corporation. When they built her they 'went over the top' and no other shipbuilding plant ever came up to that record.

"The plant of the Columbia River Shipbuilding Corporation was a veritable humming bee hive of industry. The force of workmen was increased until eight thousand five hundred were on the payroll at one time, and the plant delivered two ships a month at the peak of its production. This pace was kept up month after month and in May, 1918, the plant actually delivered three ships to the government. Month after month saw two ships leave the yard and in spite of this tremendous strain there was no downward trend in the quality of work on any of the ships. The fastest ships were the best ships, the men seemingly being bent on having their work a monument to their energy.

"Only when the figures are displayed is it possible for the average man to realize what was accomplished in the short space of three years under the leadership of Charles D. Bowles. The ships built by this plant, if stretched out in a single line, would cover two and a half miles of space and represent two hundred and eighty-one thousand, six hundred tons of dead weight capacity. The Columbia River Shipbuilding Corporation not only built ships but also built practically all the material that went into them, except the steel. All of the furniture, including the cabinet work, built-in-beds, desks, etc., was made in the joiner shop. The Smith & Watson Iron Works built practically all of the machinery installed in the ships. The many forgings which go toward making up the ships were manufactured in the blacksmith shop. All of the boilers for the ships were made in the boiler shop and in addition to this forty-five boilers of the same type were manufactured for private shipbuilding concerns. Besides all this, the smokestacks, air heaters, breathings and uptakes for all the vessels were made in the boiler shop.

"Mr. Bowles gave more than work to the plant. He gave such enthusiastic friendship and loyalty as lightened the labors of those with whom he came in contact and made work a pleasure. He was ever conscientious yet fearless in the discharge of the duties incumbent on him, fair to every man subject to his jurisdiction, however high or however humble.

"Other shipbuilding plants have been successful, so have other great industries called into being by the war, but in no other shipbuilding and in no other large industrial plant in this country was there manifested a finer or better spirit of loyal Cooperation and coordination among the various foremen and workmen and executives than was shown in the Columbia River Shipbuilding plant."

Mr. Bowles was the vice president of that corporation and in association with his brother founded the Northwest Steel Company, which also made notable progress under his judicious management, becoming one of Portland's great industries. A sagacious business man, he looked far into the future and counted the costs unerringly. It has been said that genius is ninety-five per cent work and five per cent gift, but he was a genius both by work and gift. In 1919 he disposed of his shipbuilding business in Seattle and thereafter his activities were centered in Portland, which was honored by his citizenship.

Mr. Bowles was married June 18, 1889, to Miss Almeda Thompson, a daughter of Rufus and Nancy (Gentry) Thompson and a member of an old and prominent family of Albany, Oregon. To Mr. and Mrs. Bowles were born four sons. Jesse C., the eldest, who is a graduate of Harvard and is president of the Bowles Company of Seattle, married Miss Louise Collins of that city and they have a son, William C. Warde R., a brilliant student, was graduated from Harvard before he was twenty-one and also made rapid progress in commercial affairs. He remained with the Bowles Company until March, 1928, when it was merged with others of a similar character, and the business is now conducted under the name of the Consolidated Supply Company, of which he is the president. In Seattle he married Miss Fay Karterman, by whom he has a son, Charles Joseph. Nelson C., the third in order of birth, was in the military service of his country during the World war, while the other sons carried on as heads of the various departments in the vast shipbuilding plants of their father. Nelson C. became vice president of the Bowles Company of Portland and organized the Morrison Electric Company, a Portland firm, which he controls. He married Miss Leone Cronkhite, of Seattle, and they now have two daughters, Patricia and Sally. Wallace D., the youngest son, was graduated from the University of Washington with the class of 1928. He married Miss Blanche Williams, of Seattle, and they have one child, Charles D.

Mr. Bowles was a stalwart republican and in 1916 was a delegate from Washington to the national convention of the party in Chicago. While living in Vancouver he joined the Mount Hood Lodge of Masons, with which his father was affiliated, and belonged to the Scottish Rite bodies and the Shrine at Seattle. His three older sons also became Shriners and are active in the affairs of the order. Mr. Bowles loved humanity and there was no horizon to his charity. His deep sympathy for the unfortunate prompted him to purchase and install the equipment for the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, which institution was opened in Portland on the day he was buried. When a resident of Seattle he aided in organizing the Mount Baker Park Improvement Club, of which he was the first president. He belonged to a number of clubs and was an ardent sportsman. While preparing for a hunting trip he was stricken with heart disease when apparently in the best of health and expired suddenly when fifty-nine years of age. Mr. Bowles was removed from life when at the height of his usefulness and his untimely death was a great shock to his family and countless friends. A man of broad sympathies, he was particularly interested in the welfare of children and old people and did all in his power to promote their happiness, but his benefactions were never advertised. At the time of his death his widow received the following letter of condolence from the board of governors of the hospital to which he had contributed so liberally:

"Dear Mrs. Bowles:

"It was with great sorrow that the board of governors of the Shriners Hospital For Crippled Children received the news of the passing of our friend and benefactor, your late departed husband.

"The majority of this board knew Mr. Bowles in his lifetime and some of us knew him as a close and intimate friend. All knew him as a stanch friend of the unfortunate, and especially the crippled children for whose care and relief this institution was founded. Mr. Bowles was a friend of this institution. He demonstrated his friendship, not by words, but by deeds. We have in the magnificent furnishings of our gymnasium for the crippled child substantial proof of his interest in the work of mercy to be carried on here.

"We regret his untimely taking off. It would seem that he should have been permitted to witness the use of these instruments by the children for whom they were provided; that he might have realized the full measure of pleasure and happiness he had brought into the lives of these innocent cripples. Words cannot express the depth of our sorrow, nor assuage your grief, but you should be cheered by the thought that he has only thus early been called to meet the inevitable fate of all, and while his earthly career is ended, his life, as that of all good men, cannot have been in vain. Its influence and example goes on.

"You have yet much to live for; a host of true friends, and four splendid sons, the greatest legacy any father and mother can leave the world. Through them the example of his wonderful career can be carried to the rising generations of men..

"In conclusion, let us say with Tennyson, as he spoke of Wellington after the battle of Waterloo: 'We doubt not that for one so true there must be other, nobler work to do!

"If this board, or any member thereof, can do that which will bring sunshine into your life, command us, or any of us."

The following tribute was paid by the editor of the Spectator:

"I wish to make no new friends nor to make more acquaintances; the wrench of parting is too severe, the sorrow of losing them too great. In the sudden passing of Charles D. Bowles all who knew him feel a sense of deep personal loss. He was a kindly, gentle, generous man, who respected the law, feared God, and loved his friends ÷and if he had enemies, forgave them. Somewhat shy and reticent, he did not seek new friends, but clung as ardently to the old ones as he did to his ideals. His tastes were simple, and his realized ambitions had all centered about a greatly beloved and loving family. Many of us will greatly miss Charley Bowles, who so quietly and unobtrusively made his way into our hearts."

Mr. Bowles had a great heart and a great mind, and there was perfect accord between them. He believed in the gospel of good, and the beauty of his character and his rare talents made him universally loved and admired.

"His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man."'


Submitted to the Oregon Bios. Project in August 2008 by Diana Smith. Submitter has no additional information about the person(s) or family mentioned above.

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