Pioneer Profiles – June 2015

Cornelius C. Beekman was arguably the wealthiest and most prominent of the pioneers who settled Jacksonville in the mid-1800s. From relatively humble beginnings as a carpenter and express rider, he built a business empire of banking, mining, and real estate interests.

He was also a public servant. Beekman was repeatedly elected to Jacksonville’s Board of Trustees and served as Mayor for several terms. He was “school director” for nine years and instrumental in the construction of the Jacksonville school. He was drafted by the Republican Party as their gubernatorial candidate in 1878, and, although he did not campaign, he lost by less than 70 votes. He was a 32nd degree Mason and Grand Master of the Jacksonville Lodge for 12 years. And he was a Regent of the University of Oregon for 15 years.

The 1950 edition of The Oregonian named Beekman one of Oregon’s 100 most influential individuals of the century.

Historic Jacksonville, Inc. will be sharing the experiences of Beekman, his family, and Jacksonville residents in a series of tours, through September. “Behind the Counter” Beekman Bank tours and Victorian-themed Beekman House tours will be part of Jacksonville’s History Saturday, the 2nd Saturday of each month, in partnership with Friends of Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery. 1932 Living History tours, the 3rd Saturday of each month, will allow visitors to interact with members of the Beekman family.

Jacksonville History Saturday bank tours will offer a rare opportunity to visit the interior of the 1863 Beekman Bank, the second oldest bank in the Pacific Northwest. The bank has been preserved as a museum since it closed its doors in 1915.

Victorian-themed Beekman house tours on 2nd Saturdays explore different aspects of life in the late 1800s as experienced by the Beekman family and Jacksonville. Topics include Victorian Hobbies and Crafts, a look at how Victorians used their newly-found leisure time resulting from the Industrial Revolution; Victorian Etiquette, the “Ps and Qs” of behavior for every occasion; Victorian Medical Practices, when medicine took a major leap forward from Medieval “doctoring” to a modern understanding of health, germs, and treatments; and Travel in the Victorian Age, the rapid evolution of transportation from horseback to stagecoach to train to automobile, all in the span of 50 years. All Victorian-themed tours include related lawn activities.

During third Saturday 1932 Living History tours at the Beekman House, historic interpreters portray Cornelius Beekman’s children Ben and Carrie, along with relatives and friends, talking about current events in the Great Depression era while reminiscing about growing up as second generation Beekmans in late 1800s Jacksonville.

Since Historic Jacksonville’s summer activities might be described as “all things Beekman,” it seems appropriate to feature Cornelius Beekman in our next installments of “Pioneer Profiles.”

Cornelius Beekman came from a long line of Dutch settlers who immigrated to “New Netherlands” in the mid-1600s. He was born in New York City on January 27, 1828, to Benjamin B. and Lydia Compton Beekman, the eldest of seven children. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to the Finger Lakes district in central New York state where Cornelius grew up. His father, a successful contractor, trained him to be a carpenter.

When news of the 1849 California gold strike reached his home town of Dundee, Cornelius, like many other young men, caught “gold fever” and sought to migrate to California. His mother was strongly opposed to the quest and persuaded his father not to finance the venture. Cornelius convinced the owner of the mercantile store where he clerked to lend him the money, offering his life insurance policy as collateral. )(Note: Cornelius not only repaid the money, he subsequently lent money to his former employer when he was in financial straits.) Three companions accompanied Cornelius as far as New York City where they abandoned the venture.

For adventurers seeking gold, the overland passage via the Oregon Trail was not viable in winter. The alternatives were a three to six month voyage around Cape Horn or a Central American crossing that shaved 8,000 miles and potentially several months off the trip. The Cape Horn crossing meant rough storms, sea sickness, and a lack of fresh water, fruits, and vegetables. A Central American crossing, with the Panama isthmus becoming the favored crossing point, involved a 60 to 70 mile dangerous trek on foot, or an up-river trip by open canoe, often in driving rains, followed by a mule-back slog through dense jungle. Many forty-niners who chose this route died from poisonous snakes, malaria, yellow fever or cholera before reaching Panama City, where survivors might wait weeks, even months, for ship passage to San Francisco.

Beekman chose the Panama route, taking passage on a sailing ship to Colon by way of Havana, one of the 400 plus traveling in steerage, “huddled together like so many hogs.” He successfully crossed the isthmus to Panama City, where he found “several thousand men, most of whom had paid for through transportation to San Francisco, anxiously and impatiently waiting for steamer accommodation.”

Beekman had paid for transportation only as far as Panama City. When he learned that a British bark was in the harbor, he hired natives to row him out to the vessel where he made a desperate appeal to a gruff, stiff-necked captain, eventually securing a passage to San Francisco, the last one the captain agreed to sell. When Beekman returned to shore, he could have easily hawked his ticket for a $500 profit, but declined to do so.

And so he set sail. However, the vessel was becalmed on the way and seven weeks elapsed before Beekman arrived at San Francisco, eager and fearless, but with just enough money for a day’s board and lodging.

Next month: The Beginnings of a Business Empire.

Pioneer Profiles is a project of Historic Jacksonville, Inc., a non-profit organization whose mission is helping to preserve Jacksonville’s Historic Landmark District by bringing its buildings to life through programs and activities. Visit us at and follow us on Facebook (historicjville) for upcoming events and more Jacksonville history.