Capt. James T. Gray

James T. Gray 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. 50.



Said Fred Lockley in the Oregon Journal of May 1, 1925: "Captain James T. Gray, who lives at Grayhaven, midway between Portland and Oregon City, comes of a family of pioneers by land and sea, and himself is no exception. He is an old-time river man and has lived in Oregon for seventy-three years. When I visited him recently at his home on the Willamette river he said :

"'I was christened James Taylor Gray. I was named for Colonel James Taylor, of Astoria, a pioneer who was very active in local affairs during the early days. I was born August 12, 1852, on Clatsop plains. My father, Dr. William Henry Gray, was born at Utica, New York, in 1810. When he was twenty-six he was employed by the missionary board as a secular agent. He came with Dr. Marcus Whitman to Oregon in 1836. In the following year he returned to Utica and married Mary A. Dix, my mother. While making the journey across the plains in 1837 he was attacked. The Indians with him were killed and he was wounded and captured. The redskins held a council to decide how to kill him. Some wanted him burned at the stake. Others thought torturing him more slowly would be more enjoyable, while some thought they would get more thrill out of having him run the gauntlet. While they were debating the manner of his death father took out his small black flute case from his coat pocket, opened it, screwed the flute together and played a hymn tune. As he played tune after tune the Indians stopped their discussion. They decided any man that could make music come from a hollow black stick was a medicine man˜or was crazy, so they turned him loose. He kept a day by day journal of this trip. Years later my sister, Mrs. Jacob Kamm, located this diary in the, east and purchased it.

"'My mother was one of a family of ten children, nine of whom were girls. The only boy, my uncle, John Dix, was a wholesale chemist. Immediately after their marriage my father and mother started for Oregon on horseback. They had as companions Mr. and Mrs. Elkanah Walker, Mr. and Mrs. Cushing C. Eells, Rev. A. B. Smith and Cornelius Rogers. At the Missouri river they joined a company of trappers and others who were going to the Oregon country. Captain John A. Sutter, the founder of Sutter's fort, where gold was discovered in 1848, was in the party.

"'My father was a carpenter and joiner and an expert cabinetmaker. He was a natural mechanic and superintended the construction of the mission buildings at Wai-il-at-pu and Lapwai. Later he had charge of the work of constructing the first building at Willamette University. He moved to the Willamette valley in 1842. In 1846 he bought from Rev. J. L. Parrish a donation land claim on Clatsop plains. Father was a charter member of the First Presbyterian church on Clatsop plains. In 1849 he went to California and brought back a considerable amount of gold dust. While we were living on Clatsop plains father went back to Missouri, where he purchased three hundred blooded sheep. He and my cousin, Phil C. Schuyler, drove those sheep from Missouri to Oregon, the trip taking five months. When they reached the Willamette valley father put the sheep aboard the scow and took them down the Columbia river. He passed Astoria and brought the scow to Tansy Point to land the sheep. When close to the shore at what is now Flavel, father threw a rope to a man on shore, asking him to secure the line so that they could pull the scow to the bank. The man was a rather crochety individual. He refused to take up the line and the south wind, which had sprung up, carried the scow offshore, finally blowing it into the eastern end of Baker's bay, seven miles distant. Here it was wrecked in the shoals and all of the sheep were drowned. Father had mortgaged his place, and with this heavy loss was unable to pay up, so he lost it.

"'We moved to Astoria, where father went into business. In 1858 he went to the Fraser river mines on a prospecting tour. He decided to stay up there, so he came back for the family. We went to Fort Hope, where father built a_ boat about fifty feet long. He employed Indians to row it and carry freight and passengers between Fort Hope and Fort Yale. I don't know what horse power this boat had, but I know it took twenty Indians to row it, so I guess you will have to rate it as twenty Indian power.

"'Father did considerable mining in the next two years. While prospecting he ran across a claim on Ossoyes lake, the southermost link of the Okanogan lakes, which extend across the border into the United States. The claim was two miles south of the Canadian border and on the east side of the lake. He came back to Fort Hope and got the family. We rode across the mountains and took our possessions on pack horses. We camped while father hauled logs from the nearby mountains and built a cabin.

"'The next spring father decided to build a schooner to go down the Okanogan river to the Columbia and thence down the Columbia to Deschutes Falls, as Celilo was then called. He planned to secure machinery for his schooner, load it with supplies and bring them up the Columbia and Okanogan to the miners in British Columbia. When he decided to build a boat he had no lumber or nails and very few tools. With the help of the older boys, he felled some trees, whipsawed the lumber, and built a boat, fastening the planks with wooden pegs. As the freight was a dollar a pound, he decided he would get along without nails and everything else that he himself could make. He located a patch of wild flax, which he had the children pick. He also set them gathering gum from the trees. He used the flax in lieu of oakum to calk the boat. The gum he melted for pitch. Not having any canvas, he made some large sweeps to serve as oars. He christened her the Sarah F. Gray, for one of my sisters. The boat, which was ninety-one feet long, had a twelve-foot beam and drew twelve inches of water. It was launched May 2, 1861, and on May 10 he started on his long trip to The Dalles. In spite of lack of machinery and sails, and though the boat was fastened together with wooden pegs, he negotiated Rock Island rapids and Priest rapids successfully, and in thirteen days arrived at Deschutes.

"'On July 4, 1861, our family started for The Dalles. A. J. Kane decided to go with us. As we left the ranch his horse threw him and he was badly injured by his saddle horn. Will, my brother, who was sixteen, took charge of the party after Mr. Kane's injury. One of the reasons why we left the ranch was that the winter had been severe, and although we fed our cattle leaves, most of them starved to death. The following spring the mosquitoes were so bad they made the cattle almost frantic. When we left our ranch on July 4 for the lower country we went on horseback and by pack horse. We passed through McLoughlin's canyon just about noon. In all my life I have never seen so many rattlesnakes as in that canyon. They were sunning on the rocks and on the trail. There were thousands of them.

"'We swam the Columbia at the mouth of the Okanogan. We went through the Grand Coulee and planned to go to The Dalles by way of the Yakima and Simcoe valleys. We crossed the Columbia and camped on the Yakima side. That night a stockman rode into our camp and told us the Indians were planning to go on the warpath and had killed a man and his wife at Moxee Springs the night before. We at once swam back across the Columbia, to go down on the other side. That night the Snake River Indians drove off our horses. Will struck out on his riding horse to recover them. He overtook the Indians and demanded the return of our horses. The chief sent some of his young men back with Will to return the horses to us. I shall never forget how we crossed the Big Bend through the Grand Coulee. The pack horse with the water kegs had run away and smashed the kegs. I had lost my moccasins and my feet were so sore from prickly pear spines that I could hardly walk. It was a hot day and we were all very thirsty. We saw some green willows in the coulee, and digging under the loose rock, we struck ice, and under the ice was a hidden spring. I shall never forget how good that water tasted.

" 'Father built a steamer called the Cascadilla, and launched it in December, 1862. He ran it to Lewiston and plied on the Snake and Clearwater rivers. He freighted wood from Lapwai and lumber from Assotin to Lewiston. Father sold the Cascadilla in the summer of 1864 and we moved back to our old home at Astoria. We had rented our house there while we lived at Portland and The Dalles. All of father's private papers, deeds, records and family keepsakes had been left in the storeroom. The renters had broken the lock, or it might have been broken by boys while the house was unoccupied. In any event, father's papers were scattered and lost. The captain of an English ship saw a book floating out toward the bar anti lowered a boat and picked it up. It was father's and mother's family Bible, which contained all of our records. The captain continued on his way to Liverpool and sent the records back to father from England.

"'For some years father was in business at Astoria. In the late '60s the owners of the Marine Gazette, a paper published in Astoria, asked father to write about the early days in Oregon. In 1864 he had already been in Oregon twenty-eight years and the newcomers were interested in the experiences of the pioneers, so father wrote a series of articles about his experiences in the '30s, '40s and early '50s. These articles created such widespread interest that father decided to expand them and write a history of the settlement of the Oregon country. In our home we had a room twenty by thirty feet in size. Father put up shelves on three sides of this room and collected every book, pamphlet and document in Oregon that he could secure. He got together a wonderful collection of materials so he could consult the original sources. He and mother wrote "Gray's History of Oregon," a book long out of print and very hard to procure. It is too bad this wonderful collection of historical documents that father collected was destroyed, as many of them were almost unobtainable at that time, and that was more than fifty years ago.

"'With his son-in-law, Jacob Kamm, father went to Alaska on the George S. Wright and acted as interpreter for W. H. Seward when he negotiated the purchase of that country from Russia. Father came home a great believer in Alaska and a thorough expansionist. He thought the United States made a great mistake in relinquishing to Great Britain the territory south of 54-40 and making forty-nine degrees our northern boundary. Father brought back to Portland from Sitka two Alaska cedar logs, the first exportation of Alaska timber to be made. This wood is not very aromatic, but it is free from gum and makes splendid cedar chests. My father, like most of the pioneers, had little money to spend in advancing the interests of Oregon. However, he gave his time and energy toward the upbuilding of our state and did all in his power to prevent the British from securing the Oregon country. While Dr. Whitman went to Washington, D. C., to confer with government officials father traveled throughout the Willamette valley, calling upon the widely scattered settlers, in whom he aroused a strong feeling in favor of United States annexation. The first council to organize a provisional government February 2, 1843, was held in his home and he made the address and offered the resolutions changing the meeting at Gervaise, first Monday in March, 1843, to a political meeting and he was chosen first secretary of the historic Champoeg conference. He died in 1889. Mother passed away in 1879.

"'My brother, Captain John Henry Dix, was the oldest child in the family. He was born in 1839 at Lapwai, Idaho, and in 1.859 began his career on the water as a pilot on the Fraser river. Later he worked for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company on the Upper Columbia. While hunting he shot a ramrod through his hand. The surgeon who attended him was half-seas over and in place of amputating one of the fingers, cut off his hand at the wrist. Later, when the surgeon was sober, he was filled with remorse for what he had done, but this did not bring my brother's hand back. After this injury he left the employ of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and at Astoria purchased the steamer U. S. Grant. He obtained the contract to carry supplies and troops between Astoria and Forts Stevens and Hancock and also carried the mail between Astoria and Ilwaco. There was then no jetty or breakwater, so there were heavy seas in the Columbia. John's wife was Laura Bell, a daughter of Colonel John Bell. My sister Caroline married Jacob Kamm and has spent most of her life in Portland. Mary Sophia married Frank Tarbell, a merchant, who later became treasurer of Washington territory. Sarah Fidelia, a native of Salem, Oregon, became the wife of the only son of Governor George Abernethy and is living in Forest Grove. My brother, Captain William Polk Gray, was born at Oregon City in 1845 and resides in Pasco, Washington. Since the age of fifteen he has spent most of his life on the river and during the Civil war was a cub pilot on the steamer Yakima, operating between Celilo and Lewiston. He brought the first raft of lumber down the Snake river to Umatilla Landing. All previous efforts to bring rafts of lumber down the Columbia had met with disaster. Will married Ocia Falkland Bush whose father was a sea captain. She was born at sea, at the Falklands, hence her name. Albert Williams Gray was born on Clatsop plains and became a steamboat captain on the lower Columbia. While on river boats he rescued at least seven persons at the risk of his own life, and thrice saved me from drowning He married a Miss Schoeben, of Vancouver, Washington, and is deceased. My brothers, Edwin Hall and Truman Powers Gray, died in childhood. I was the next and last child.

"'I went to school with Will Ladd to Professor Boynton. The Hotel Portland now occupies the site of our school, and where the Journal building now stands was a part of our playground. From Portland we moved to The Dalles and I attended the school there taught by Professor Post. He was strong on mathematics and current events. He drilled us on arithmetic and had us read from the papers and magazines. He was a peculiar man in some ways. He taught a summer term. We reported at three A. M. and were through at nine in the morning. Professor Post thought we studied better when it was cool than in the heat of the day. Some of the parents wouldn't let their children turn out so early and he had to teach them later, so he taught us from three A. M. to three P. M. "'When I was a boy the line of work that I most desired was on the river. In 1869, when I was seventeen, I went to work as a roustabout and deckhand for my brother aboard the U. S. Grant. Like my father, my brother John was a strict disciplinarian. I had to turn out at three A. M. to wood the boat every day. I was more or less used to getting up early, though, for my father was a great hand to be up by daylight or sooner. In the winter mornings we boys used to like to lie abed till five o'clock or later. Father would call us and woe be to the one who did not respond instantly. Father would come upstairs and throw cold water in our faces, then march us downstairs. He said the cold water would cure us of being sleepy, and it did.

"'In the late ' 60s and early ' 70s one of the principal exports of Ilwaco was Shoalwater bay oysters. Our boat took these oysters, which were shipped in sacks so Astoria. When the weather was too rough for the small boats to land at Ilwaco, we would carry the oysters out to the boat and sometimes the waves would break clear over our heads. By letting my clothing dry on me I never caught cold. I became as strong as an ox from these long hours of heavy work and while in my brother's employ I rescued some pasengers who had fallen overboard. When I was nineteen I could lift eight hundred and fifty pounds and many a time I have carried three hundred pounds up an incline of several hundred feet. When the U. S. Grant was laid up for repairs my brother hired a sailing sloop to put on the Astoria-Ilwaco run and I went along to see to the transfer of the mails and the loading of the cargo of oysters. On one of my trips the captain of ' the sloop put on more oysters than I thought safe, as a gale was brewing and the water was rough. I protested to the captain about his overloading the sloop. He thought I was a mere boy and resented my interference, so he loaded the boat heavily. We set out with a stiff breeze, but as we neared Sand island the wind veered to the northeast, which means that it came downstream with the course of the river. I said, "Captain, hadn't you better anchor until the tide changes to flood?" "We can make it," the captain replied. He soon saw that the overladen sloop couldn't make it back to the lee of Sand island, where I had advised him to anchor. The wind, added to a strong current, was taking us straight for the breakers of Clatsop Spit.

"'Captain Wass of the tug Astoria saw our plight and he did a mighty venturesome thing. He drove in between us and the breakers to give us a line. He went so close to the shore that his tug bumped its bottom on the sand. He threw us a line. I caught it and took two turns around the mast, intending to take two hitches in the line. I had one hitch and had thrown the end of the line back of me, preparatory to making the second hitch, when one passenger, who was panic-stricken, stopped bailing and seized the end of the line. I tried to pull it from his grasp, but he held on with desperation. The hitch rendered, and we were loose. The passenger let go the line as he was about to be drawn overboard. The tug had given us headway, but we at once started drifting back toward the breakers. Captain Wass headed back once more and risked his own life and that of his crew, not to mention the wrecking of his tug, to get a line aboard us. I caught it and made it fast. We swung out and away from the breakers, and Captain Wass headed into the wind and sea for Fort Stevens.

"'We were shipping considerable water. I set the passengers to bailing while I threw sacks of oysters overboard as fast as I could to prevent our filling and sinking. Captain Wass, seeing our plight, went as slowly as he could. When we got off Tansey Point, where Flavel is now, we shipped several heavy seas and the sloop began to go down. I seized a sweep, laid it across forward, and signaled Captain Wass to stop. Sea and air were a smother of foam, and he failed to see my signal. As the boat sank beneath my feet I shoved off. I was dressed in heavy sea boots and oilskins. I found the oar wouldn't support me, so down I went. The water was ten fathoms deep. I held my breath as I started for the bottom. I couldn't kick my boots off. I had collected money in Ilwaco and was weighted down, both pockets being full of silver dollars and half-dollars. I had gone down about three fathoms and was losing the last of my breath when something floated up between my legs and I was shot up with great violence to the surface of the water.

"'When the boat was swamped and went under she went down stem first. When the oysters rolled from her deck the boat came up bow first by reason of the air confined under the forward deck. The mast came up with a rush when the oysters were dumped. I happened to be directly over the place where the mast came up. It came up between my legs and forced me to the surface. There were five of us on the sloop˜the captain, two deckhands, the passenger and myself. We clung to, the rigging while the heavy seas broke over us. Captain Wass, looking back at his tow, saw the sloop emerging from the water. He lowered his lifeboat and the sailors dragged us aboard. He cut the towline and let the sloop go. We went down into the boiler room to thaw out, for the winter sea had chilled us to the marrow. The sloop rolled over once more and disappeared. Later it was found on the beach near Seaside.

" 'I had piloted vessels across the bar before I was of age and was appointed a captain before my twenty-first birthday. My first application papers were signed by George Flavel, Sr., and Captain George H. Flanders and the first license granted me bore the signatures of Captain William Dierdorf and Captain James Lotan. When my brother, Captain J. H. D. Gray, bought the steamer Varuna on Puget sound and brought her to Astoria, he turned her over to me, to run for him. She only drew nine or ten feet and was very fast. We plied between Astoria and the government forts, taking supplies to them, and also towing ships over the Columbia bar.

"'I decided that if I was ever to amount to much in a business way I must have more book knowledge, so in 1872 I went to Portland and attended a business college. I worked on the Willamette river, as well as the Columbia, and was on the Carrie, the Vancouver, the Onward, the Dixie Thompson, the Lurline, the Undine and the Bailey Gatzert. My brother-in-law, Jacob Kamm, had the controlling interest in the steamer Carrie and offered me the job of captain. Jacob Kamm was a hard worker and expected those who served him to earn their wages. He was a just man and he carried out his agreements. I worked for him many years. When his steamer, the Vancouver, took the run between Portland and Vancouver I became her captain. In 1878 I became captain of the Lurline. Jimmy Troup, who was born in Vancouver in 1855 and was three years my junior, was my chum. Captain Ainsworth wanted us to take jobs with the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. I decided to stick with my brother-in-law but Jimmy went with the navigation company. He is now manager of the water lines of the Canadian Pacific, with headquarters at Victoria, British Columbia.

"'Jacob Kamm made me secretary of his company. I took one job after another until I was serving as captain and purser of the boat. This meant that I was responsible for the management and navigation of the boat. I had to collect all fares, as well as the freight bills, and keep three sets of double-entry books. In addition to my regular trip to Vancouver and my other duties, we made two trips a week from Vancouver to the Cascades with lumber. To give you an idea of my duties. I frequently worked from twenty-four to forty-eight hours without rest or sleep. Once, while captain of the Lurline, I was on continuous duty from seven A. M. on Saturday until three A. M. on the following Friday, with only one hour's sleep. My own eyes felt as if they were fried in vinegar. My knees refused to keep up my weight, so two deckhands held me up while I remained at the wheel.

"'While I was on the Lurline we inaugurated the plan of running at night to Astoria. There were no lights and no buoys in those days and one had to be on the alert every instant. I was the first Portland harbor pilot appointed by the state board of pilot commissioners. They appointed me at the request of the marine insurance interests of Portland. In addition to making my regular daily trip to and from Vancouver, I would move from two to eleven ships in a day, so you can see I kept fairly busy.

"'If your memory goes back to the '80s, you will remember the bitterness of the fight waged between Jacob Kamm, president of the Vancouver Transportation Company, and the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company. It was a ten years' war. One of their general managers told me afterwards that we had made them lose over one million dollars in carrying on this fight. They reduced fares to the vanishing point, so the more business they did the more money they lost. They finally decided to put us off the river by hook or by crook. I don't say that the captains of their boats had instructions to run into our boats, but such accidents became altogether too common for comfort. Time and again when I beat one of their boats into the wharf they would fail to slow down and if I had not been alert I would have had my boat crushed like an eggshell.

"'Oh, yes, in spite of my utmost vigilance, at times we met with such accidents. One time in a heavy fog, while the Lurline was approaching Kalama, Washington, another steamer ran into us. I told my crew to go over the whole occurrance in their minds and tell the truth when they were examined. I said, "I will fire any man who lies in my favor. All we want brought out is the truth." The inspector before whom the case was tried had it in for me, so he decided that I had been at fault. Jacob Kamm wanted to settle the costs. I refused to allow it, for it would be a reflection on my skill as a navigator to acknowledge the fault was mine when I was not at fault in any way. It would be a black mark on my record. They brought suit against us. C. N. Dolph was our attorney. He had been retained by the opposition line on another case, and he said to appear for us against the rival company would embarrass him, so he told us to retain Judge R. S. Strahan. The case was tried before Judge C. B. Bellinger. Judge Strahan submitted an oral argument. Judge Bellinger told him to submit a written argument, so he could go over it at his leisure. Judge Strahan told me to meet him on the. following Sunday at his office. It was situated on the fourth floor and the elevator did not run on Sundays. Judge Strahan climbed the four flights and I arrived a few minutes later. The climb had been too much for him. He had collapsed and died of heart failure. I went to C. N. Dolph, who said, "Settle the matter out of court." I declined to accept blame for the accident. I hired a stenographer, and on the trip to Astoria I dictated a more than one hundred page explanation of the matter to assist Mr. Dolph in presenting the case. I made a thorough analysis of the testimony and pointed out the flaws in it. Mr. Dolph read it and said, "It is too technical. I can't make head nor tail of it. Do as I say, settle the matter out of court." I told him he would have to come with me on the following Sunday and I would take him to Kalama and show him just how it happened. I made him take the vessel and I reproduced the thing just as it occurred. He argued the case for us and not only won the lawsuit but the owners of the other boat had to pay us for the damage done to the Lurline and allow us two hundred dollars addition for legal expenses.

"'In 1898 I went to British Columbia to superintend the construction of the steamer Nahline, which was to run on the Stikine river. For many years I served as pilot and captain and later as port captain for the Seattle & Yukon Transportation Company on the Yukon and other runs in Alaska. I went to that country in 1898 and first worked for the Klondike Mining, Trading & Navigation Corporation, Ltd., of London, England. I found Alaska was a place where a man could not be judged by his dress, as I had men in greasy overalls and torn jumpers working as deckhands or firemen, who in the States were doctors, lawyers, civil engineers and members of the learned professions. The Klondike rush was a great leveler and you soon saw the real stuff that was in a man.

"'I shall never forget my trip over Chilkoot pass. I had my outfit freighted over the pass by aerial tramway and pack horse. While walking over the pass I had as my fellow mountain climbers a flock of geese, a band of turkeys and a herd of cattle which were being taken in to Dawson to furnish fresh meat for the bonanza kings of the Yukon country.

"'We built a boat on the shores of Lake Bennett. We loaded our outfit aboard the boat and started down the lake, following the edge of the ice. We were soon having all we could do to keep from having our boat crushed against the ice. The storm increased in violence. The old deep water sailor who was in the boat with me finally decided there was no show for us to weather the storm, so he took off his rubber boots and oilskins so he could swim whenever our boat should be crushed by the ice or swamped. As a matter of fact, a good many of the boats on the lake during that storm went down. I had seen equally rough weather at the mouth of the Columbia, so I believed we should weather the storm˜which we did.

"'We made our way through a series of lakes, traveling over one hundred miles on the lake before we reached White Horse, which is the head of navigation for steamers. If you want a real thrill, just shoot the White Horse Rapids and the Five Finger Rapids. From White Horse we traveled down the river four hundred and fifty miles to Dawson. The distance from White Horse to St. Michaels is two thousand and fifty miles. White Horse is situated two thousand and fifty feet above the sea level, so there is an average fall of one foot to. the mile for the two thousand and fifty miles.

"'When I reached Dawson I was offered a position as captain of the steamer Robert Kerr, owned by the Frank Waterhouse Company, and at once started down the Yukon for St. Michaels. The trip of something over fifteen hundred miles took six days. The return trip took over three weeks, as it is slow work bucking the current. The lower Yukon is several times as wide as the Columbia. Navigation on the Yukon opens usually between June 15 and July 5. There are one hundred and twenty days of open water. Of this time the boats are actually moving about sixty days. The rest of the time is accounted for by the boat being tied up on dark or stormy nights toward the end of the season or by being on sand bars. The large amount of silt necessitates laying up for from sixteen to twenty-four hours every fifth day to clean oiA the boilers. The cost of operating a steamer on the Yukon is about five times more than on the Columbia. It usually took from fourteen to eighteen days to make the trip from St. Michaels to Dawson. The fare fluctuated from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars for the trip. On the Columbia if a pilot injured a boat to the extent of a few hundred dollars he would lose his job, but up there it is so hard to get a pilot trained to know the river that except in cases of gross negligence or carelessness nothing is said to him when accidents occur. When I was with the Frank Waterhouse Company we brought out in one trip from Dawson gold dust to the value of one million, seven hundred thousand dollars. When the new diggings in the Iditarod country were discovered I was pushing a barge loaded with supplies up the country. Flour was worth forty dollars a barrel; bacon brought fifty cents a pound and the price of sugar was about the same. My two hundred tons of cargo was worth over one hundred thousand dollars. I struck a submerged snag. The barge sank and nearly pulled the steamer under also. I had to raise the barge and patch it up under water. The flour, sugar and supplies were a total loss.

"'I made two round trips in command of the Robert Kerr and then resigned, as I found conditions not as represented. I went down the river to St. Michaels and went aboard the Alliance, which had steam up, ready to pull out for Seattle. On board the Alliance I met Judge Wood, formerly mayor of Seattle, but at that time president of the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company. Knowing that I was an old-time river man and had been running on the Yukon, he told me he was up against it. He had taken the contract to transport government supplies to Fort Gibbon. The Rock Island, the vessel he had counted on using to take the freight up the river, was on the beach. The season was far advanced. All the winter supplies for the troops and animals at Fort Gibbon had been burned up when the warehouse there was destroyed by fire. He had been unable to secure a captain and it looked as if the difficulties of fulfilling his contract were insurmountable. By the time he could get to Seattle, secure a captain and get him back to St. Michaels ice would have formed on the Yukon and there could be no further trips until the ice went out the following spring. He said, "Will you tackle the job? It looks like a hopeless proposition, but if anyone can make it, you can." I accepted and had my baggage and myself put ashore, and the Alliance at once got under way for Seattle.

"'I worked night and day fitting up the Rock Island and getting the government supplies aboard. I hired a deep sea sailor, who had never been up the Yukon, and two Indian pilots. As you know, the delta of the Yukon is very wide and shallow. There are five outlets. In the entrance we used the water was only fifteen inches deep at low tide. In the fall of 1899, when we were about ready to start for Fort Gibbon, a boat of the rival company came in at high tide over the mud flat where we lay and when the tide ebbed she lay up on the mud flat near us. Her captain and some of his crew came over to visit us. He was astonished and disturbed to learn that we had the Rock Island fitted up, loaded and ready to go up the river. He thought if he could persuade my two Indian pilots to desert me I would have to abandon the trip, so when he returned to his ship he took them back with him.

"'It is how one meets and conquers difficulties that measures a man's worth. My father had met and overcome all sorts of dangers and difficulties. It had become a tradition in our family that it was better to die trying than to live denying. In other words, failure to attempt was more of a disgrace than defeat while attempting; so I let my Indians go and decided to pilot the boat up the river myself. As we should have to run night and day, this meant that I must spend twenty hours out of each twenty-four at the wheel. We got the Rock Island off at high tide and started up the river. We crowded the boat with all the steam it would stand, as we were running against time, for any day might see the winter season close down in earnest and the Yukon would be a solid sheet of ice, with the Rock Island frozen in for the winter.

"'On the way up the river I overtook the "Seattle No. 3" towing a large barge. The Seattle was one of the boats belonging to the company for which I was then working and had six hundred tons of freight billed through to Dawson. The captain of the Seattle No. 3 was unable to make it through the rocky rapids with his barge. He had tried it several times, narrowly missing the wrecking of his freight-laden barge, so he had tied up and was discharging his freight. I talked with him and he said the season was so late there was nothing to do but to land his cargo and winter there and take it the next morning. After talking the matter over with me he consented to make another try at it. I took the freight he had discharged and loaded it on my boat. He rigged up a long towline to the barge so that he could tow it after he got above the rapids. I made fast to the barge. When the Seattle had successfully negotiated the rapids the captain gave the signal, and when he put on all steam to pull the barge up stream, I did likewise to push it, and a few minutes later we were in deep, still water above the rapids. The goods aboard the Seattle No. 3 and the barge belonged to the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company, which made a big clean-up on the cargo of hams, bacon, flour and canned goods and forage that winter.

"'When we reached Fort Gibbon the channel was still clear, but the ice was reaching out from both shores. At Fort Gibbon, eight hundred miles above the mouth of the Yukon, the river is a mile wide and quite deep, and there is a strong current. As I approached the post a soldier in a small boat came along. I hailed him and said, "Where are you going?" He pointed to some butcher knives and a cleaver in the bottom of his boat and said, "I am going down to the island to butcher the mules. They are on the verge of starvation. We have no hay for them and we shall have to kill them. We are going to use their meat for beef during the coming winter. All our supplies have been burned up and we can't get any more before spring." I told him not to kill the mules, as I had enough baled hay on board to last them all winter. You can imagine how glad the officers and men were when I pulled up to their wharf and they knew I had their winter's supplies on board. We unloaded in short order, for the weather was moderating and I wanted to get to Dawson as soon as possible. By running night and day we managed to reach Dawson before the river was completely closed. The boat was laid up for the season and I made my way back to White Horse, crossing the White pass by the new railroad. I caught a boat at Skagway and came back to Portland to spend the winter.

"'The next spring I returned to Dawson as port captain for the Seattle Yukon Transportation Company. I certainly earned my salary that season. The discovery of gold at Cape Nome in 1899 caused a stampede from Dawson to Nome in the spring of 1900. I fitted up two steamers and two cargoes and sold over eleven hundred tickets at one hundred dollars each for the trip down the Yukon to St. Michaels, which, as you know, is not far from Nome. The fare included meals. I decided to feed the passengers all they could eat, but I figured that beef at seventy-five cents a pound would be too expensive, so I bought caribou meat from the Indians at eight cents a pound and fitted up the hold of one of the barges with a refrigerator plant, using natural ice from the Yukon. I rigged up a butcher shop in the icehouse, where the caribou meat was cut in readiness for the, galley stove. My receipts from passenger fare alone on that one trip were over one hundred and ten thousand dollars.

"'In 1901 there were five principal companies operating on the river. They were the Alaska Commercial Company, the North American Trading & Transportation Company, the Empire Transportation Company, the Blue Star Transportation Company and the Seattle & Yukon Transportation Company. In order to reduce operating expenses they were merged into one corporation, called the Northern Navigation Company, of which I was made assistant superintendent of transportation, with headouarters in Dawson. When the consolidation was effected the corporation had a fleet of fifty-seven steamers and sixty barges and I had charge of all river traffic below Dawson until the rivers were clear. The directors of the newly organized transportation company made a clean-up and then sold the steamers and barges for two million dollars.

"'In 1901 I built a steamer which was christened the Koyukuk, and this was probably the lightest draft steamer ever constructed. It was one hundred and twenty-four feet long, with a twenty-four-foot beam, and drew only five inches forward and nine inches aft. She plied the Koyukuk river from its mouth to Bettles, the head of river navigation, a distance of five hundred and fifty miles. She made one trip when I was aboard, drawing ten and a half inches, and the pole showed eleven inches of water, so she had only half an inch clearance.

"'There were some rich mines on the upper Koyukuk, but as the charge for freighting in goods was sixty-two cents a pound, the miners couldn't make it go. We met a lot of miners coming out. We had fifty tons of provisions aboard. The miners camped, waiting to see if we could make it to the head of navigation. If we did, they would return to their claims; if not, they would go on to Dawson. We made it. The cost of provisions dropped to less than half of what they had been. The miners went back to their claims and that season more than a thousand dollars worth of gold dust for every man, woman and child in that district was shipped out from the Koyukuk mines.

"'The Koyukuk was built at the Supple yards here in Portland and sent to White Horse in the knockdown, and I had it rebuilt and launched there. While in charge of the company's transportation interests in Alaska I built and launched the Tanana, the Koyukuk No. 2, the Washburn and the Reliance, all of which were set up and launched at St. Michaels. I also built a steamer and two barges for the Susitna river trade for the Alaska Commercial Company, and a gas boat for the Alaska engineering commission, to ply on the Matanuska river. I took a party up the Porcupine to make the boundary survey and traversed the river for a distance of two hundred and fifty miles. I left Alaska in 1917. At the present time there is practically no river traffic between Dawson and St. Michaels. There are wonderful trade opportunities in southeastern Alaska for Portland. We have only touched the fringe of that country as yet.

"'Yes, I have had some rather unusual experiences as a pilot and steamboat captain and I have also seen some rather unusual sights. One year during the big flood on the Columbia and Willamette I took Mrs. Gray for a ride in a small boat to see the sights in Portland. At that time the Ladd & Tilton Bank was located at the corner of Stark and Front streets. I rowed through the main entrance of the bank and as I traversed the room my oar touched the counter. From there I proceeded further uptown and rowed through the main entrance and down the long hall of the Chamber of Commerce building.

"'In 1861 there were two boat clubs in Portland. My cousin, Phil Schuyler, and Brooks Trevitt were members of one of the clubs. In 1895 they had a boat race on Fourth street. In those days Portland had a large Chinese population. Not to be outdone by the white boatmen, the Chinese had a boat race. It was much more exciting than that of the rival boat clubs of white men. There were twelve Chinese paddlers in each boat. The coxswain sat in the middle of the boat with a gong and timed the speed of the paddlers by striking the gong. They rowed like a well oiled piece of machinery. They held their boat race on Second street.

"'Speaking of the Chinese as boatmen makes me think of Dr. Minor. He made a pleasure trip in a small boat along the Alaskan coast. He heard of a remarkable cave on the sea entrance of the glacier at Cape Spencer. He wanted to explore this cave but the Indians, though expert boatmen, were superstitious about rowing into the glacier. He finally hired a war canoe and secured a crew of Indians by paying them a stiff price and agreeing that if they were killed he would arrange to take care of their families. This was a sort of Indian plan of life insurance. They approached the cave but the Indians would not go in head on. They backed in. He said the inside of the cave was indescribably beautiful. The ice ranged from the color of jade and malachite to the hue of sapphire and on to deepest turquoise. As he was looking at the ceiling of the cave there was a grinding crash as the mass of ice began to settle. The next thing he knew he was lying on his back in the canoe and they were riding the swell out from where the ice had crashed down. He said the Indians, like one man, thrust their paddles deep in the water and exerted all their strength. The canoe was lifted almost out of the water and went out of the cave like an arrow.' "

Captain Gray married Miss Grace Howard, a daughter of Major General O. O. Howard, and they became the parents of five children, of whom Elizabeth Howard, the first born, died at the age of sixteen. Her sister, Mary Augusta, is a teacher of history in the Washington high school at Portland and a capable educator. Grace Whitman is the wife of Dr. C. N. Perkins, a prominent dentist of Portland, and they have three sons: Oliver Dix, Norris Humphrey and James Gray. Jeanie is now Mrs. Samuel Powell and lives near Estacada, Oregon. She is the mother of four children: Samuel, Jr., Elizabeth, Grace and Cloan Perkins. Howard, who completes the family, is a resident of Portland. He married Miss Elin Johnson, by whom he has a daughter, Jeana.

Captain Gray has had an adventurous career, replete with thrilling experiences, and his life record constitutes an integral chapter in the history of the development of the Pacific northwest. He has an intimate knowledge of events that have influenced Oregon's progress and his part in the drama of civilization has been an important one. His achievements have brought additional prestige to an honored family name, and his friends are legion.

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


Updated on 14 Jun 2007.