James Boyce Montgomery

James Boyce Montgomery portrait

Lockley, Fred. "History of the Columbia River Valley, From The Dalles to the Sea." Vol. 2. S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1928. p. 660.


James Boyce Montgomery was numbered among those men who brought the civilization of the west to a par with that of the older east, accomplishing this result through the development of business enterprise on the Pacific coast and the introduction of all those activities and forces which make for uplift and progress. As a railroad builder he made notable contribution to the work of opening up this section of the country and the value of his service can scarcely be over-estimated. His birthplace was Montgomery's Ferry on the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania, about twenty-five miles north of Harrisburg, and his natal day was December 6, 1832. He attended the public schools to the age of sixteen years and then left home to go to Philadelphia, where he secured a position on the Evening Bulletin and gained wide knowledge concerning the newspaper business. This brought him the offer of a position on the Sandusky (Ohio) Daily Register in 1863 and further progress in his business career was manifest through his appointment as editor of the Pittsburgh Morning Post of which later he became one of the owners. His successful management of the paper and the business of publishing that journal made it one of the leading newspapers of the country and Mr. Montgomery was by this time well established in journalistic circles, but thinking that he might find a still broader field in railroad construction, he disposed of his interest in the Morning Post to his partner and became a railroad contractor and builder in Pennsylvania. In 1858 he and two associates were awarded a contract to build a bridge across the Susquehanna river at Linden for the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad Company, and the excellent work done in this connection brought to Mr. Montgomery the contract for the building of the Bedford & Hopewell Railroad in Pennsylvania in 1859. Two years later he was associated, with Captain William Lowthes in the construction of the Nesquehoning Valley Railroad, but this work was necessarily suspended owing to conditions brought about by the Civil war, which made it difficult to obtain labor. However, work was resumed and completed in 1869. Mr. Montgomery was also awarded a contract for the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad and in 1866 became one of its directors, remaining on the board until 1869. He likewise built the wire bridge across the Susquehanna river at Williamsport. Pennsylvania, and his operations as a railroad builder were becoming increasingly important as time passed on. He became one of the owners of the charter of the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad, in which enterprise he was associated with Thomas A. Scott, George W. Cass, J. D. Potts and J. D. Cameron in the building of the line between Baltimore and Washington, D. C. He was likewise interested in the completion of four hundred miles of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, extending into Denver, was a partner of Sydney Dillon and came to be a recognized authority upon railroad construction. His activities increased in volume and importance until his name was known in this connection from coast to coast and in 1870 he came to the northwest, establishing his home in Oregon the following year. Soon afterward, In competition with fifteen other builders, he secured the contract for the construction of the first portion of the Pacific division of the Northern Pacific Railroad and constructed over one hundred miles of this line and also built the draw-bridge across the Willamette at Harrisburg for the Oregon & California Railroad. In 1870 he went to Scotland for the purpose of organizing a company which subsequently built or acquired one hundred and sixty-three miles of railroad in the Willamette valley, of which Mr. Montgomery constructed seventy-eight miles. He accomplished his purpose in organizing a company and placed a contract for rails at Stockton-on-the-Tees. At London he chartered two vessels to bring the rails to this country and he carried out his plans and purposes with such promptness, precision and skill that he had his rails in Portland six weeks before the arrival of a competitor. He was thoroughly systematic in everything that he did and seemed to lose sight of no detail of the business while giving due prominence to all important features. There was no waste of time, labor or material in his railroad construction work and each day marked off substantial progress that had been made. Nor did he confine his efforts alone to railroad building. He took large contracts for government work in the channels of the Columbia and Snake rivers, requiring the removal of great masses of rock, particularly at the John Day rapids. He built and operated steam sawmills at Skamokawa on the Columbia river, under the name of the Columbia River Lumber & Manufacturing Company, and he was sole proprietor of large docks and warehouses which he built on the water front at Albina. He never stopped short of the successful accomplishment of his purpose and obstacles and difficulties seemed to fade away before his unfaltering industry and determination as mists before the morning sun. He was continually seeking out better methods and quicker ways of reaching his objective and he knew how to manage men and meet conditions. Step by step he advanced, and although he started out practically penniless when a youth of sixteen, he came to be recognized as one of the foremost men of the northwest and enjoyed an equally enviable reputation as a railroad builder of the east,

His interests likewise centered in politics from the time when he cast his first presidential vote. He supported the democratic party until the formation of the new republican party, when because of its attitude on the slavery question he joined its ranks and voted for Abraham Lincoln. Six years later, and for two years thereafter, he was elected to represent Lycoming county in the Pennsylvania state convention and in 1866 was a member of the resolutions committee that reported favorably to the nomination of General Grant for the presidency, this being the first state convention to present the name of the General as a presidential candidate. Mr. Montgomery had no desire to fill office himself and it was not until 1890 that he would consent to do so, but in that year he was elected to the state legislature. Nevertheless he always exerted a wide influence over public thought and action and did much to shape political opinion both in the east and in Oregon.

In 1861 Mr. Montgomery was united in marriage to Miss Rachel Anthony, a daughter of Hon. Joseph B. Anthony, of Lycoming county, Pennsylvania. She passed away in 1863, leaving an only son. In 1866 Mr. Montgomery wedded Mary A. Phelps, the only daughter of Governor John S. Phelps, of Missouri, and a representative of one of the old and distinguished American families. Her great-grandfather, Noah Phelps, served as a scout and spy in the Revolutionary war, was commissioned captain and advanced to the rank of colonel. His son, Elisha Phelps, represented Connecticut in the national halls of legislation for eight years and was afterward chief justice of his state. He was the father of John Smith Phelps, who was born at Simsbury, Connecticut, December 22, 1814, and when seventeen years of age was graduated from Trinity College at Hartford, Connecticut. On his twenty-first birthday he was admitted to the bar and the following year he wedded Mary Whitney, of Maine. Throughout his life he remained a student and read Greek and Hebrew as readily as he did English, always reading his Bible in the original Greek. In 1837 he removed with his family to Springfield, Missouri, a village then containing only fourteen white families. In 1840 he was elected to represent Greene county in the Missouri legislature and four years afterward was sent from his district to congress, where he served for eighteen years and for twelve years of that period was a member of the ways and means committee, acting as its chairman for several terms. As early as 1853 he was bending every energy to build a railroad from Missouri to the Pacific coast and he is also accredited with being the father of the American postage stamp. At the outbreak of the Civil war he raised a regiment and at the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, was wounded. He had served in congress with Abraham Lincoln and they became warm friends, and during the Civil war period Mr. and Mrs. Phelps were guests of the president and Mrs. Lincoln for two weeks, the president inviting Mr. Phelps to attend a number of cabinet meetings during that period. Mr. Phelps was a Union democrat who believed in the right to own slaves and wrote a letter of criticism to Lincoln concerning the Emancipation Proclamation, Notwithstanding this the president appointed him military governor of Arkansas, in which capacity he served for two years, when he resigned on account of ill health. In 1876 he was elected governor of Missouri by sixty-five thousand majority, and, his wife having died, his daughter, Mrs. Montgomery, presided at the executive mansion during his administration, In 1882 the family came to Oregon and later a change of climate caused Mr. Phelps to go to Paso Robles, California, where he died in 1886.

Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery had been married at her home in Springfield, Missouri, October 23, 1866, and immediately after had gone to Philadelphia, but having invested fifty thousand dollars in Northern Pacific bonds, Mr. Montgomery came to Oregon to look over the country and find further opportunities for investment. He had been offered the position of territorial governor of Washington but Mrs. Montgomery felt that he should not accept this. However, they arrived in Portland, July 13, 1870, and soon afterward Mr. Montgomery entered upon the railroad construction program which claimed much of his time throughout the later part of his life. With the social activities of Portland, Mrs. Montgomery has long been prominently associated. In 1900 she joined the Daughters of the American Revolution on the invitation of Mrs. Benjamin Harrison and organized the Oregon branch serving as state regent for eleven years. She also organized the Society of Colonial Dames in this state, serving seven years as state president, when she resigned on account of other activities. Her activities in this field and her social prominence have made her widely known throughout the country. She has been entertained at the White House by every president from Andrew Johnson down to Coolidge with the exception of President Taft, and then because she did not accept an invitation. She was a student in the Convent of the Visitation at St. Louis when nineteen years of age, at which time she was introduced to and danced with the Princes of Wales, later King Edward of England, and she has met many of the most notable people of America. She possesses a remarkably fine library, containing many volumes which were the property of her grandfather and of her father.

Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery became the parents of seven children: Mary, now the wife of Rev. Henry Talbott, of Rochester, New York; Antoinette, who became the wife of Dr. Lewis Frissell, of New York city, one of the leading medical men of the country; Phelps, an attorney of New Haven, Connecticut; Elise, who is at home; Constance, who gave her hand in marriage to Walter F. Burrell, of Portland; Russell, who was born in the executive mansion at Jefferson City, Missouri, and who was lost at sea in Alaskan waters in 1900; and Margaret, who married Captain Rufus F. Zogbaum, of the United States navy. The family circle was again broken by the hand of death when Mr. Montgomery passed away in January, 1900. That he was one of the most distinguished citizens that Portland has known is indicated in the fact that Montgomery drive, one of the most beautiful in Portland, was named in his honor, as were also the Montgomery docks. He stood for progress and improvement along all lines and he contributed in notable measure to bringing about the advancement which has placed Oregon in its proud position in the galaxy of states. Mrs. Montgomery remains a resident of this city, where she has ever been a social leader. Imagine what it must have been to her, she who had been a society girl of the east, meeting the most distinguished people of Washington and of other centers of culture, to come to the northwest as a young matron, her life here involving a radical change of conditions. She says that she has lived in everything from a tent on construction right-of-way to palaces. Her innate culture and refinement, combined with her liberal education, made her a potent factor in bringing about that civilization of which Oregon and Portland especially has reason to be proud. Surrounded by every comfort, she delights to dispense the hospitality of her home not only to her countless friends in Portland but to many prominent in the Daughters of the American Revolution and in other connections who visit the Rose city.


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

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