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Preston Carter Smith (1857-1897)

"Portland, Oregon, Its History and Builders." Vol. 2, p. 486.

There are few men who attach themselves so closely through the bonds of loyal and progressive citizenship and the ties of enduring friendship to a community as did Preston Carter Smith. His life record covered but thirty-nine years and yet Portland came to know him in that time as a high type of the progressive business man and one who in every relation of life worked toward high ideals. His memory, therefore, is enshrined in the hearts of all who knew him and his life record deserves a prominent place on the pages of Portland's history.

He was born in this city, June 19, 1857, his parents, Joseph S. and Julia (Carter) Smith, being pioneer residents of Oregon. The state had entered upon an era of progress during the period of his youth and yet there were still many evidences of frontier life. From boyhood he evinced a deep interest in everything that pertained to the welfare and upbuilding of city and state. He manifested a special aptitude in his studies and, therefore, readily mastered the branches of learning taught in the public and private schools of Portland, which he attended preliminary to entering Santa Clara College of California. To benefit by further instruction in the east he went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and matriculated in Dickinson College, from which he was graduated in due course of time. He was popular with the students there, for his unfeigned cordiality and unfaltering courtesy won him many friends. He was interested in all athletics and manly outdoor sports and especially excelled as a member of the ball team. He was also active in the Chi Phi fraternity, which was the only society that ever claimed him as a member. At the same time he made rapid progress in his studies and thus was well equipped by liberal education for life's practical and responsible duties.

Following his graduation Mr. Smith spent several months in travel throughout the United States and then went to Alabama. While in that state he was united in marriage to Miss Jeannie Williamson, a representative of a prominent old family of the south, of Scotch and English ancestry. They became the parents of two children, Preston Williamson and Madeleine Searcy.

About a year after his marriage Mr. Smith established his home in Portland, being called to his native city to assume the management of business interests for which his father was incapacitated by ill health. In this connection Mr. Smith displayed marked business ability, keen discernment and executive force, carefully controlling the estate until his father's death, which left each of his three children in financial independence. In the control of business affairs he found his knowledge of law of marked value to him. He had previously given some time to reading law, but his eyesight would not permit him to continue preparation for the profession and a delicate organization also prevented him from engaging unreservedly in business ventures. An undaunted will and strong determination, however, enabled him to accomplish what he undertook and to bring his projects to a successful termination if they lay within the bounds of human possibility. He bent his energies to constructive effort, administrative direction and executive control and left the impress of his life upon the business records of Portland and upon the minds of his colleagues and associates, who looked upon him as one of the foremost factors in business circles in this city. Receiving as his inheritance a goodly capital, he turned his attention to investments, which he believed would bring a large and ready return, and his real estate holdings in 1891 were valued at over a half million dollars. He also became one of the foremost lumber merchants of the city and was part owner of the largest sawmill in Portland, giving to its operation and management his personal attention. Into the field of finance he likewise directed his efforts, becoming one of the organizers and incorporaters of the Ainsworth National Bank. He invested largely in its stock, was elected one of its directors and served on the board of management until failing health compelled his retirement. In 1891 he disposed of his interest in the bank and gradually released his active hold upon the important business enterprises which were at one time stimulated by his cooperation. He was one of the promoters of the cable road of Portland, a business venture which had engaged the attention of others but was regarded as a poor investment. In this connection a contemporary biographer has said: "With the same courage and determination which had always distinguished his efforts, he fought his way against opposition and brought the work to a successful termination. He had won, but success was quickly followed by failure, for the financial crisis of 1894 interrupted commercial and industrial activity all over the country and no place more than in the growing west, and when electricity succeeded cable power he lost heavily in the transactions."

Mr. Smith met loss with the same courage and fortitude that marked his constructive efforts in the field of business. He ever maintained an unassailable reputation for the integrity of his methods and the honesty of his transactions, and nothing could swerve him from a course which his judgment sanctioned as right. In his last days he was compelled to withdraw entirely from the field of business and he made every available effort to promote his health but it was not to be, and the 13th of February, 1897, witnessed his passing.

"The Oregonian" 1 Jun 1885

About 11 o'clock yesterday forenoon Mrs. Preston C. Smith, residing at No. 201 Eleventh street was accidentally shot and instantly killed. She was sitting in a low rocking chair in her bedroom, about midway between the foot of her bed and the grate at the other side of the room, with her youngest child, about eighteen months old, on her lap. Her maid, Walburg Berg, came into the room and began to make up the bed. The baby sat laughing and crowing in its mother's lap and reaching out its little arms to attract the attention of "Wally," as the girl is called. She stopped to notice the little one and whistled to it, and the mother was trying to get it to imitate the whistle. This pretty playing went on for a few moments and Mrs. Smith was preparing to nurse the child when "Wally" took up a pistol, which is always kept under the pillow of the bed, and started to place it on the mantel over the grate where it would be safe while she made the bed. In passing the foot of the bed the pistol accidentally struck against the foot rail of the bedstead and was discharged, the bullet passing through her left hand and entering Mrs. Smith's head just back of and a little below here ear. Her head fell back on the back of her chair and the girl supposing she had fainted ran down to the kitchen and told the cook to send for a doctor and taking a glass of water ran back up to assist her mistress. As soon as she entered the room she saw that Mrs. Smith was dead, the child still clasped to her breast. A physician was summoned and the house was soon thronged with sad and horror stricken friends, but naught could be done except to grieve and to prepare the body for burial.

The unfortunate girl who had been the innocent cause of the sad accident was almost frantic with grief, and apparently unmindful of the painful wound in her hand was moaning and crying as if her heart would break. She could not explain just how she was standing when the pistol went off. She could only repent: "We were playing with the baby and I was whistling to it and its mother was trying to get it to whistle, when the pistol struck against the bedstead," and then her tears would break out afresh. Mrs. Smith's oldest child, a boy about 4 years old, pulled at his mother's dress, trying to get her to speak to him, but in vain.

The pistol, which is a 32-caliber revolver, has been kept under the pillow every night since the late series of burglaries around town was commenced, and the girl has always taken it out and placed it on the mantel while making the bed, and so had become used to handling it.

Mr. Smith was away from home at the time, having started at 9 o'clock to drive down to his farm on Sauvie's island. A messenger was at once dispatched to carry the sad news to him. He is a son of the late Joseph S. Smith. Mrs. Smith was a native of Huntsville, Alabama, where she was married to Mr. Smith some five or six years ago. Her maiden name was Jessie Williamson. The news of the sad event spread rapidly, and the peculiarly distressing circumstances filled all who heard it with sorrow.

"Huntsville Gazette," 13 Jun 1885

The remains of Mrs. Preston Smith, nee Williamson, whose shocking death by accident out in Oregon aroused general sympathy, arrived here Tuesday. The funeral services were largely attended from the Episcopal church.

"The Oregonian," 12 Jul 1889, page 5

The "Daily Mercury" of Huntsville, Ala., June 6, has the following:

At 9:30 last night, at the church of the Nativity, Mr. Preston C. Smith, of Portland, Or., led to the altar Miss Susie Williamson, of this city, Rev. Dr. Banister officiating.

The church was filled with friends of the lovely bride at the hour appointed, and the altar was beautifully decorated with flowers.

The bride dressed in a beautiful white silk en train, with the regulation veil and orange blossoms, entered leaning on the arm of her mother, and preceded by the ushers, advanced to the altar where the groom on the arm of his best man, Mr. W. W. Gordon, awaited her. The rector in a clear voice, read the impressive ceremony of the church, binding the happy couple together for life. After the ceremony a reception was given at the residence of the bride's mother, which was largely attended by the friends of the contracting parties.

Twelve years before Mr. Smith had been called upon to mourn the loss of his first wife, who died in May, 1885. Her mother and sister, Susan, then came to Portland to take charge of the household and care for the children of Mr. Smith, and in June, 1889, he wedded the sister of his first wife. A native of Alabama, she pursued her education in the select schools of that state and reached a cultured and talented womanhood. She belongs to one of the oldest American families, founded on American soil when the English settlers first made their way to Virginia in the early part of the seventeenth century. Later representatives of the name went to Carolina, where the family was known for many generations. There were those in different branches who became prominent in public life, who were active in business, attained wealth in the conduct of important individual interests and gained prominence by reason of active service for the community. John P. Williamson was a large slave owner and at one time lost five hundred of his slaves through cholera. He owned extensive rice plantations and was one of the wealthy men of the south. He was married twice and had fourteen children. By his marriage to Miss McQueen a Scotch strain was introduced into the blood. His second wife was a Miss Denis, a daughter of Richard Denis, whose mother was Mary Jacques, a descendant of a Huguenot refugee, who came to this country at an early day. In the maternal line Mrs. Smith traces her ancestry back to Colonel Robert Searcy, an officer of the war of 1812. Courage and loyalty won him distinction. That he was eminent in Masonic circles is indicated in the fact that in 1800 the thirty-third degree was conferred upon him. The original parchment diploma, with one issued to her maternal grandfather, who was a Turner and a prominent Mason in Alabama, is now in the possession of Mrs. Smith and both are greatly prized heirlooms. The names of Searcy and Williamson have long been associated with the history of Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina and Alabama. Unto Preston C. and Susan (Williamson) Smith there were born a daughter and son, Susie Aubrey and Henry A., who have been liberally educated in the private schools of Portland.

As previously stated, Mr. Smith lost heavily through his connection with the establishment of the cable railway system and at his death left an indebtedness of one hundred thousand dollars. His property holdings, however, were sufficient to cover this when an advance in real estate should be brought about, Mrs. Smith was appointed executrix and in that position proved that womanly qualities with liberal culture are not antagonistic to executive force and ability. Assuming the management of business affairs, she displayed remarkable insight, combined with most capable management. Her husband had often discussed with her his business affairs, so that, although never active in their control before, she was now sufficiently familiar with conditions to direct the management of the estate and plan for the future. In course of time advancement in property values enabled her to discharge all indebtedness and at the same time so conserve her own interests as to lay the foundation for a successful fortune for herself and children.

In all those relations which connect the individual with the community in which he lived Mr. Smith was recognized as a foremost factor along lines of progress and improvement. While he had no political aspirations for himself, he gave unfaltering support to the democratic party because of his belief that its principles would best conserve the interests of good government. He could have attained to high political honors had he so desired and, in fact, was tendered the nomination for governor by the state convention, which met in Astoria. He was not present at the convention, but a telegram reached him, offering him the candidacy. This he declined, although the convention delayed three hours endeavoring to secure his final consent. At that time the leaders of the republican party declared that had he become a candidate he would have met with no opposition.

Mr. Smith was a charter member of the Arlington Club and for one term served as its president. He was a lover of music and was himself an accomplished musician. He displayed particular skill at billiards and had notable command of the English language, being recognized as an eloquent speaker and writer. Clement C. Clay, himself a distinguished scholar, commented upon a letter written by Mr. Smith in the following words: "He ought to be an author, as he combines the humor of an Irving with the diction of a DeQuincey, and should be prevailed upon to turn his attention to literary work." He was a man of generous impulses and no good work done in the name of charity or religion sought his aid in vain. He was ever ready to extend a helping hand to those in need and his private charities were almost innumerable. He was entirely free from ostentation in his giving, however, preferring that no one but the recipient should know of his beneficence. His strongly marked characteristics were those of an upright, honorable manhood, a manhood that makes for personal popularity and at the same time commands the unqualified respect of all. He was a man of large intellectual liberty, who found his greatest pleasure in the wider world of thought and knowledge.

Oregonian, 14 Feb 1897

Preston C. Smith, one of the best-known citizens of Portland, died at the Portland sanitarium, corner First and Montgomery streets, shortly before 8 o'clock yesterday morning. A complication of spinal troubles was the cause of death. Although Mr. Smith had been in poor health for six months, during the last three of which he was confined to the house, it was not thought that his condition was serious and his death was in a measure unexpected. A sudden change for the worse yesterday morning, however, alarmed the nurse who as attending the sick man, but before help could be secured he was dead.

His wife and two children are in Huntsville, Ala., where the remains will be sent for burial.

Mr. Smith was born in Portland, and has spent most of his life here. He was a man of exceptionally fine abilities and attainments, and was prominently connected with several business enterprises of this city. His firm character, strict integrity and many noble qualities endeared him to every one who knew him. His loss will be widely mourned.

Preston Carter Smith was born in the old Carter residence, at the foot of what is now Portland Heights, June 18, 1857.

His father was Hon. Joseph S. Smith, formerly congressman from Oregon, and one of the early pioneers of the state.

The family lived in Salem for the first 10 years of young Smith's life. The family afterward went to Europe and spent several years in travel. Returning to this county, the head of the family was elected to congress, and took up his residence with his family in Washington.

Mr. Smith was educated at Dickinson college, at Carlyle, Pa. He returned to Portland in 1877, and, with the exception of several years spent in the South, has lived in Portland ever since.

He was the first president of the cable road, and one of the organizers of the Ainsworth National Bank. He was a prominent member of the Arlington Club, and has served as its president. Mr. Smith always was a man of means, and of late years was engaged actively in no business pursuit. He was, however, interested in several business enterprises, among them being the extensive lumber business of Smith Bros. & Co.

In the early '80s, Mr. Smith married Miss Jennie Williamson, by whom he had the two children who now survive him. His wife was accidentally shot several years later, and Mr. Smith after married her sister, Miss Susie Williamson.

He leaves a brother, Mr. Walter V. Smith of Smith Bros. & Co., and a sister Miss Anna B. Thompson, both of whom reside in Portland.

He was a nephew of Mr. W. K. Smith, Mr. Albert T. Smith and Mrs. L. F. Grover.

Beyond the determination to send the body to Alabama, for interment, no funeral arrangements have been made.

Oregonian, 16 May 1897

Walter V. Smith, brother of Preston C. Smith, deceased, yesterday petitioned the county court to be appointed administrator of the estate in conjunction with Susie W. Smith, the widow. He states that the estate consists principally of real property, both improved and unimproved, and the claims consist largely of notes secured by mortgages, and amount to about $100,000. The bulk of the realty is owned by the petitioner, and the estate of deceased, as tenants in common, and much of the property is mortgaged to secure joint debts. It is also stated that deceased was a member with the petitioner of the firm of Smith Bros. & Co., and the estate is indebted to the petitioner in the sum of $10,000. The petitioner gives as a reason for his appointment his familiarity with the affairs of the estate.

Oregonian, 7 Jul 1897

The inventory of the estate of Preston C. Smith was filed yesterday in the county court. The appraised valuation is $140,585.36. A large number of shares of stock in numerous Portland enterprises are stated to be of no value. These were once worth a large sum.

Oregonian, 2 Dec 1897

Walter V. Smith yesterday filed a claim of $10,000 against the estate of Preston C. Smith, on a note executed in 1890. He also presents for the consideration of the court a mortgage transaction which he explains as follows:

October 3, 1893, Preston C. Smith and Walter V. Smith and their respective wives delivered to Balfour, Guthrie & Co. a mortgage for $30,000. January 29, 1897, Walter V. Smith paid $15,000 on the mortgage, which is all he was compelled to pay as between him and Preston C. Smith, but so far as the mortgagees are concerned he is responsible for the balance, and in February, 1897, Preston C. Smith entered into a written agreement to hold Walter V. Smith harmless from said unpaid portion of the $30,000, wherefore petitioner asks that his claim be allowed.

A petition was also filed by Walter V. Smith, who is the administrator of the estate, and Susie W. Smith, the administratrix, stating that the claims against the estate to about $100,000, and $555.90 is all the money on hand. They recite that it is necessary to sell the personal poperty to raise funds to liquidate, and that they have disposed of six shares of stock of the Arlington Building Association for $200. The court approved the sale.