Henry Failing

Henry Failing portrait

Lockley, Fred. "History of the Columbia River Valley, From The Dalles to the Sea." Vol. 2. Chicago, S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1928. p. 18.


An outstanding characteristic of the American people has been their adaptability to conditions, environment and opportunities, and one of the great sources of the country's growth and substantial development is found in the fact that the citizens of the east have recognized the great chances for progress offered in the west, and leaving the older localities have developed new cities and districts and profited by the natural resources offered in other sections of the country. Such was the life record of Henry Failing, and Portland for many years profited by his efforts, while his capability and efficiency won him recognition that led to success and to most honorable achievement in fields outside of business. Into the great fabric which constitutes the history of Portland the life record of Henry Failing was inseparably woven. No one can carry his investigations far into the records of the city without learning of the notable and important part which he played in its upbuilding, especially in the field of finance and in connection with the political affairs of the rapidly developing metropolis of the northwest.

His birth occurred in New York city, January 17, 1834, his parents being Josiah, and Henrietta (Ellison) Failing, whose family numbered eleven children. The father, whose birth occurred in Montgomery county, New York, was descended from ancestors who came from the German Palatines and settled in the Mohawk valley of New York in the early part of the eighteenth century. The youthful experiences of Josiah Failing were those of the farm-bred boy and in young manhood, about 1824, he removed to New York, where on the 15th of June, 1828, he wedded Henrietta, daughter of Henry and Mary (Beeck) Ellison, the former born in York, England, and the latter in the state of New York of Dutch ancestry. Soon after their marriage, however, they removed to Charleston, South Carolina, where occurred the birth of their daughter Henrietta, and in about one year Mr. Ellison died suddenly, after which Mrs. Ellison returned with their infant child to her parents' home in New York, where Mrs. Failing was reared to womanhood. In the Beek line she was of Holland descent, her ancestors coming to the new world when New York was a Dutch colony. Nathaniel Beek, the father of Mrs. Ellison, served with the American forces in the Revolutionary war, joining the Ulster county regiment of the New York militia.

The same qualities which made his ancestors substantial citizens of the east caused Henry Failing to take an active part in the development of the west, though his boyhood, youth and early manhood were passed in the Empire state. He pursued his education in the public schools of the eastern metropolis until April, 1846, when at the age of twelve years he left school, although he had already obtained considerable knowledge concerning the elementary English branches. Starting out in the business world, he became an office boy in the counting house of L. F. de Figanere & Company of New York, the senior partner being a Portuguese, while the junior partner, Mr. Rosat, was a French merchant from Bordeaux. The firm's business was largely with French dealers of New York and while there employed Henry Failing acquired an intimate knowledge of the French language. By the time three years had passed he became an expert accountant and obtained the position of junior bookkeeper in the large dry-goods jobbing house of Eno, Mahoney & Company and his services were of great value to that firm. He also acquired valuable experience there and in these experiences was laying the foundation for his later advancement and success. In subsequent years Mr. Eno said that one of the mistakes of his business life was in allowing Mr. Failing to sever his connection with his house.

On the 15th of April, 1851, when only seventeen years of age, Henry Failing accompanied his father and his younger brother, John W. Failing, from New York to Oregon. On a steamer they made their way to Chagres on the isthmus of Panama, proceeded by boat up the Chagres river and thence to Panama by mule train, after which they boarded the steamer Tennessee bound for San Francisco. From the latter port they proceeded on the steamer Columbia to Portland, where they arrived on the 9th of June, 1851, and among the passengers on that trip was C. H. Lewis, who was afterward treasurer of the water committee when Mr. Failing was a member thereof. For many years afterward the two gentlemen always observed the anniversary of this trip together. The business circles of Portland, then a small town, gladly welcomed Josiah Failing and his sons, who established business under the firm style of J. Failing & Company on Front street, one door south of Oak. There Mr. Failing carried on business for many years, being associated with the enterprise until January, 1893. He also took a prominent part in affairs relating to the development and progress of the city and was steadily growing into prominence. He became a member of the first city council in 1852 and the following year was chosen mayor of the little municipality. In 1854 he retired from active business, but Henry Failing continued under his own name. On the 21st of October, 1858, he married Miss Emily Phelps Corbett, the youngest sister of the Hon. H. W. Corbett, one of Portland's distinguished citizens of an early day. Mrs. Failing passed away in Portland, July 8, 1870. Of their four daughters one died in infancy, the others being Henrietta E., Mary F. and Emily Corbett Cabell. The last named married Colonel Henry C. Cabell, U. S. A., who died February 12, 1922.

It was in 1869 that Henry Failing became an active factor in financial circles of Portland, at which time he and his father and brother-in-law, H. W. Corbett, purchased a controlling interest in the First National Bank, which had been established in 1866 by A. M. and L. M. Starr and others. Henry Failing was elected to the presidency of the institution, which at the time he and the others assumed ownership increased the capital stock from one hundred to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. In 1880 this amount was doubled and in that year the surplus and undivided profits exceeded the capital. In January, 1871, the mercantile interests of Mr. Failing and Mr. Corbett were consolidated under the firm style of Corbett, Failing & Company, an association that was maintained for twenty-two years, when Mr. Failing withdrew, the partnership being dissolved.

While no history of the mercantile and financial development of Portland would be complete without reference to Henry Failing, neither can the history of the state be fully given without mention of his political activity. In the campaign of 1862 he was chosen chairman of the state central committee of the Union party, which was composed of republicans and war democrats and which carried the election of that year. He was thirty years of age when in 1864 he was chosen mayor of Portland and during his term of office a new city charter was obtained, a system of street improvements was adopted and much good work was done along the lines of progress and improvement. When he became a candidate for reelection he received only five dissenting votes˜a fact which indicates most clearly his splendid record in office and the efficient work he had done for public improvement. He studied closely the needs and the opportunities of the city and he embodied his high ideals in practical effort for their adoption. Through legislative enactment of 1885 he was made a member of the water committee and upon its organization was unanimously chosen chairman, so continuing to serve until his death. He was a man always clear in his opinions, earnest in purpose and thoroughly reliable in every connection. Concerning his activity as a member of the water commission, a contemporary writer has said : "His marvelous judgment and powers of exact calculation are well illustrated by his service as chairman of the water committee. For many years he, substantially unaided, annually made the estimates required by law of the receipts and expenditures of the committee for the year next ensuing. These estimates are, under the varied circumstances necessarily considered in making them, characteristic of him, and some of them are marvels of exactness. His estimate of the cost of operation, maintenance, repairs and interest for the year 1893 was one hundred thousand dollars, and the actual outlay was one hundred thousand, two hundred and eleven dollars and ninety-one cents. His estimate of receipts for the year 1892 was two hundred and forty thousand dollars, and the receipts actually collected were two hundred and thirty-seven thousand, three hundred dollars and eighty-five cents. His estimate of the receipts for the year 1897 was two hundred and thirty-two thousand dollars. The amount actually collected was two hundred and thirty-one thousand, eight hundred and sixty dollars and ninety-five cents. The magnitude of the task of making these estimates is emphasized when the fact is considered that not only the fluctuations in the population of a city must be considered, but climatic conditions anticipated, and the amount of water consumed in irrigation based thereon; the amount of building and the volume of trade considered, and an estimate made of the amount of water consumed in building and in the use of elevators. These various sources of revenue were all carefully considered and estimates made which were in excess of the actual income in but trifling amounts."

Even a detailed description of his service in public office and his activity in business fails to cover the scope of his life work. No plan or project promoted by Portland or the state for upbuilding and improvement sought his aid in vain. He served for a number of years as regent and president of the board of the University of Oregon and was also a trustee and treasurer of the Pacific University, the oldest educational institution of the state. No good work done in the name of charity or religion failed to receive his cooperation. He was an active, earnest and helpful member of the First Baptist church of Portland and of the Baptist Society, acting as president of the latter for many years, and he was also treasurer of the Children's Home. He was associated with William S. Ladd and H. W. Corbett in purchasing land and laying out Riverside cemetery, and this beautiful city of the dead in which he now rests was largely the result of his labors. He was called to the presidency of the Portland Library Association and his efforts largely furthered that organization, while he also gave most generously for the purchase of books. He never forgot the men who were pioneers with him in the upbuilding of Portland and the state and he proved his friendship and loyalty in a financial way and also through other. avenues which indicated his intellectual hospitality. His life was crowned with successful achievement in business and was fraught with good deeds and actuated by high purposes. He came in close contact with those forces which were ennobling in the life of the community and contributed to its intellectual and cultural progress. While his own educational advantages were limited, he was always an apt student in the school of experience, constantly broadening his knowledge through association with his fellowmen and through study of conditions and situations bearing upon the thought and activity of the times. Thirty years have been added to the cycle of the centuries since Henry Failing passed away on the 20th of December, 1898, but his name remains an honored one in Portland and his memory is enshrined in the hearts of all who knew him. What Portland would have been without his cooperation it is impossible to determine, but all who study history know how closely, helpfully and prominently he was associated with the activities which have made the Rose City what it is today. He was prompt and efficient in the discharge of duty, faithful in friendship and loyal in every relation of life. Of him it was written : "In every home of the city where he was known˜and his acquaintance was wide˜the news of his demise was received with sorrow and regret. He had attached himself closely to his fellow townsmen not only by reason of his public activities but by those personal qualities which win warm regard and enduring friendship. He was a man of fine personal appearance˜an index of the larger life and broader spirit within."


Submitted to the Oregon Bios. Project in February 2007 by Diana Smith. Submitter has no additional information about the person(s) or family mentioned above.


Updated on 12 Feb 2007.