Lincoln Park Denizen Made His Fortune in Oregon

Alameda Musuem - Robert R. Thompson

Captain Robert R. Thompson once lived in a stately mansion in today’s Lincoln Park. Before coming to Alameda he made his fortune as a principal shareholder of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. Thompson came overland to Oregon in 1846 on an emigrant wagon train.  

His wife, Harriet, and their three daughters, Eliza, Sarah and Mary made the trip with him. Historian T.C. Eliot tells us in the Oregon Historical Society quarterly that Thompson eked out a living his first two years “doing odd jobs at blacksmithing and tinkering of all sorts.”  

In 1848 the people of Clackamas County elected Thompson to the post of justice of the peace.

The following year he headed south for the California gold fields.  He returned to Oregon with a “long purse full of gold.” He told anyone who cared to listen that he had dug all his gold “with his own hands.” People referred to this good fortune as the “Thompson luck.” 

He retuned east in 1852 and came back across the plains with a herd of sheep. When the residents of The Dalles, Ore. heard he was nearing home they rushed out to meet him. 

They couldn’t wait to tell him that the federal government had appointed him Indian agent. Historian C. F. Coan says that Thompson had his hands full with white settlers illegally settling on tribal land, Indians attacking emigrant wagon trains and whiskey salesmen “plying their trade.” 

He and Harriet moved to The Dalles in 1854. They obtained 640 acres of land under the Oregon Donation Act. Elliot writes that “part of this land later became Thompson’s Addition to the city of The Dalles.” 
Elliot says that Thompson now worked in the “triple capacity of land owner, producer of wool and mutton and salaried officer of the government. 

His role as Indian agent held Thompson in good stead, however.  His contacts at Fort Dalles, especially with the quartermaster allowed Thompson to obtain contracts for transporting government freight. Elliot writes that these contracts “made (Thompson) the controlling owner of the largest fleet of bateaux and of the first steamboat on the Upper Columbia River.” Thompson also became interested in going into the portage business with Orlando Humason, who controlled traffic on the Dalles-Celilo portage.  

The traffic on and along the Columbia was broken up into three segments: the lower river from Astoria to the Cascades; the middle river from the Cascades to The Dalles; and the upper river from above Celilo Falls to landings located nearly 250 miles from Portland. For centuries the only way to get a boat from the spot on the Columbia River where The Dalles now stands around Celilo Falls was by way of “portage,” carrying boats around obstacles like Celilo Falls. 

Whoever controlled the land at the various portages controlled traffic on the Columbia. Working with Humanson, Thompson saw the chance to control both boat and foot traffic on the upper river.
In the next segment we’ll see how Thompson did this and more.

Contact Dennis Evanosky at editor@alamedasun.com.