Pioneer Profiles – September 2015

Although Cornelius Beekman may have been the wealthiest and most prominent man in pioneer Jacksonville, wealth and prominence did not guarantee popularity. In fact, when the railroad by-passed Jacksonville in favor of Medford in the 1880s, Beekman—previously a local hero—became something of a local pariah.

For years, Jacksonville had looked forward to the coming of the railroad that would link Southern Oregon with the larger population centers and markets of Portland and San Francisco. Construction of the Oregon portion of the line had begun in Portland in 1868, finally reaching Grants Pass in 1883. Local businesses and residents naturally assumed the railroad would be routed through Jacksonville, the region’s hub.

However, the railroad company asked Jacksonville for a $25,000 “bonus” towards construction expense. The town declined to provide it. Reportedly, Jacksonville officials assumed that the railroad could not survive without the town. However, survive it did, and the railroad was routed five miles to the east, bringing Medford into existence.

According to Cornelius Beekman’s son, Benjamin, the railroad never intended to route the tracks through Jacksonville. The company had surveyed two possible routes—one was the route through what became Medford, and one was two and a half miles closer to Jacksonville. The $25,000 would have secured the closer route, but it was not close enough to secure the future of the town.

In a 1939 interview, Benjamin Beekman recalled, “The citizens of Jacksonville saw it was useless to raise the money required, for the difference in a distance of two-and-a-half miles from town to the railroad, and the present distance of five miles was not enough to get fractious about. Either would have spelled doom to the town of Jacksonville, either by creating a new town, or by moving the business district of the old, two-and-a-half miles to the railroad.”

The matter was decided when Ashland was chosen as Oregon’s southern most terminus. The closer route, though shorter, would have wound up in the hills above Ashland. Per Ben Beekman, “[it] would not have permitted the building of roundhouses, workshops, and necessary appurtenances of a railroad division.”

With foresight and business acumen, Cornelius Beekman had anticipated that the railroad would bypass Jacksonville. He and three business partners had acquired large tracts of inexpensive brush land along the valley floor. On October 27, 1883, they deeded 240 acres to the Oregon and California Railroad Company including “a tract not exceeding 20 acres for a depot and other railroad purposes.” The remaining acreage consisted of “each alternate block in [a] new townsite, the railroad to receive the blocks having the even numbers.”

With the establishment of the railroad through the new town site of Medford, land values increased, as did the wealth of Beekman and his partners, leaving many Jacksonville residents feeling that Beekman had betrayed them. Bitterness burgeoned as professional men and merchants began moving their businesses to Medford, taking much of Jacksonville’s economic base with them.

The Beekmans’ social life may have experienced the brunt of local resentment, and the Beekmans never became prominent in Medford society. Prior to 1883, son Ben had already left Jacksonville for good, eventually becoming a well-known Portland lawyer. Daughter Carrie enrolled in Mills College in Oakland, California, in the fall of 1883, and spent much of the rest of her life traveling. After Cornelius’ death in 1915, Carrie and her mother Julia lived at least half the year in Portland.

However, the presence in Jacksonville of Julia Beekman’s extended and prominent family would have provided the Beekmans with some social insulation and also contributed to Cornelius’ “rehabilitation.” Her father was William Hoffman, the first elected Clerk of Jackson County and the first Mayor of Jacksonville. Her brother-in-law, David Linn, the leading contractor in town, built most of Jacksonville’s early wooden structures including the historic Presbyterian Church. The Hoffmans had been instrumental in the church’s establishment and Julia Beekman was a devoted congregant.

Beekman’s association with the Presbyterian Church would have also redeemed his reputation. As noted in “A Man in His Prime”(Jacksonville Review, August 2015), Beekman had donated land for the church, contributed half of the construction costs, purchased the steeple bell, paid the fire insurance, and frequently paid the minister’s salary.

Beekman also retained his position as Grant Master of Jacksonville’s Masonic Lodge. In 1894 Beekman was asked if he would again accept the Republican candidacy for Governor of Oregon if offered; he deferred. He was offered the presidency of the Commercial National Bank of Portland, which he declined. In 1897, he was appointed a Regent of the University of Oregon and served in that capacity for the next 15 years.

By the turn of the century, Beekman was back in the community’s good graces, and no visit to Jacksonville was deemed complete without a visit to Beekman’s bank to meet the man and hear his stories of pioneer life in Jacksonville. A 1912 interview described entering Beekman’s bank as being “carried back from the era of automobiles and aeroplanes to the days of the stage coach and the pack train.”

Although Beekman sought to close his bank shortly thereafter, many of his old customers refused to move their deposits. They placed full confidence in the man who for so many years had cared for their property.

In a 1914 Sunset magazine interview, Beekman was asked what advice he would give the present generation in light of his long life and successful business career. The aged financier replied:

“Live temperately and quietly, dealing honestly with all men. Avoid carousing and fast living. Save your money. Don’t gamble or speculate. Keep your spoon out of the other fellow’s mush and attend strictly to your own business. Credit comes from confidence, and our lives must be such as will inspire the respect and esteem of others.”

When Beekman died February 22, 1915, one can safely say he had followed his own advice.

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Featured image is Cornelius C. Beekman, Circa 1915.