Notable Oregonians: Ben Holladay - Stage and Railroad Builder

photograph of Ben Holladay
Ben Holladay, 1819-1887. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Ben Holladay was born in Kentucky in October 1819. His father led wagon trains through the Cumberland Gap and Holladay learned the business at an early age. He later lived in Weston, Missouri and got his start in business when he furnished supplies to General Stephen Kearny's Army of the West in the Mexican War. After several successful business ventures, Holladay moved to California in 1852. He made a profit in high finance and became known as the "Stagecoach King" for his operation of stage and express routes. By the spring of 1864 Holladay had acquired a dominant portion of the stage, mail, and freighting business between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City. He controlled 2670 miles of stage lines and was among the largest individual employers in the United States.
Holladay sold his routes to Wells Fargo Express in 1866 for $1.5 million and moved to Oregon. He became involved in a competition to build a railroad south along the Willamette River. In 1868 ground was broken for routes along both the east and the west sides of the river. Holladay's "Eastsiders" completed 20 miles of track before the competition, which subsequently sold out to him. He won a federal subsidy and built the Oregon and California Railroad as far south as Roseburg before the Panic of 1873 financial crisis stopped the effort. In 1876 Henry Villard took over the railroad.
At his peak he entertained lavishly and spent a great deal of money in an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate. In contrast to his youth growing up in a log cabin, by the age of 50 Holladay maintained mansions in Washington D.C., on the Hudson River in New York, and in Portland. He also kept an elaborate "cottage" at Seaside, Oregon. In spite of these efforts, Holladay was disliked by many who described him as crude and semiliterate.
He spent the last years of his life involved in a number of law suits related to his complex financial holdings and died in Portland on July 8, 1887 at the age of 68.
(Source: Dictionary of Oregon History)
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