Oh Gilded Palace of Sin
The Glisan / Holladay house on the south west corner of Third and Stark.
buying a large home from Doctor Rodney Glisan, "he remodeled it and
immediately installed a harem of high class prostitutes."
-Wikipedia, on Ben Holladay
(click on pictures to expand)
The statement plays into the well established narrative
of Ben Holladay's sojourn in Portland, and notions of a raucous frontier
of painted ladies and soiled doves. Often repeated, the anecdote has
acquired the authority of settled fact.
A close examination of the story however reveals a
different picture; a cautionary tale of how myths perpetuate and history
was a man of splendid physique, fine address, and knew well how to
manage the average human nature. He was energetic, untiring,
unconscionable, unscrupulous, and wholly destitute of fixed principles
of honesty, morality and common decency."
-Joseph Gaston in Portland Oregon, Its History and Builders (1911).
Much of what has been passed down about Holladay's time
in Oregon has come from the works of historian Joseph Gaston, whose
poisoned penned invective was anything but impartial. The root of his
animosity dates to the situation in Portland in April 1868, when two
railroad companies, each with the name Oregon Central, began building to
reach California and the lucrative Federal land grants to be awarded to
the first company to complete twenty miles of track.
Joseph Gaston was president of the Oregon Central (West
Side). He was backed by wealthy Portland interests that included John
C. Ainsworth of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and banker William
S. Ladd. Their chosen route to the Golden State was via Hillsboro and
With an eye for the grand sweep of history, Gaston envisioned his railroad leading to the rise of a Portland, that: "...holding
the keys and being the gateway and handmaid to commerce between the
Atlantic and the Indies, shall rival Venice in its adornment and
Constantinople in its wealth."
The Oregon Central (East Side) had dubious origins in San
Francisco. It started building in East Portland and was backed largely
by down state and Salem interests who stood to gain a railroad by its
The Salem group had the easier to build alignment. They hired Chinese labor (who knew something about building railroads) "rows upon rows of them" (the
actual number at the time of the quote was around forty). The Portland
(or what Gaston would call, the Gaston) group had the route more likely
to be profitable upon completion of its first twenty miles. They
avoided hiring Chinese workers, a fact they stated with pride.
Finances and geography considered, the two camps were evenly matched - until the arrival of Ben Holladay in August 1868.
Portland at the start of the 1870s. Note the railroad on the east side of the river.
Holladay had made fortunes in the stagecoach, steamboat
and steamship businesses and was looking to make another with
railroads. He acquired the east-side company and reorganized it as the
Oregon & California Railroad. A master of Gilded Age lobbying,
he dispatched one of his steamboats to Salem for use as a veritable
pleasure barge to influence the Oregon legislature. Money, alcohol and
favors were liberally applied to the task at hand. He then rammed
through the construction of the railroad to win the offered Federal land
grants: today's O&C timber lands.
Out played, out spent and out built, the Portland group
decided to reach accommodation with Holladay, to wait, as W.S. Ladd put
it, until he hung himself financially. In an exchange of letters
between John C. Ainsworth and Ben Holladay, Joseph Gaston's dream was
sold out from under him.
Joseph Gaston, 1838-1913.
Holladay eventually "hung himself financially" in the financial panic of 1873. Thirty eight years later Gaston would write:
it is all past into history. All the actors in the drama are dead but
one. All the members of all the old companies are dead but this one.
And while he was robbed of his rights and his property by a corrupted
legislature, and corrupt judges, he still remains to enjoy in comfort a
pleasant home that looks down on the city he has helped build, with all
the necessary comforts in life; and what is better than all else, the
respect of his friends and neighbors -and lives to write this history of
those who wantonly robbed him, and gained nothing in the end by their
-Joseph Gaston, Portland Oregon, Its History and Builders (1911).
While Wikipedia quotes Gaston's assessment of Holladay,
the anecdote about a brothel at his house at Third and Stark was taken,
nearly verbatim, from E. Kimbark MacColl's labyrinthine history of
Portland plutocracy, The Shaping of a City, Business and Politics in Portland Oregon1885-1915:
"When he bought one of Portland's largest homes from
the city's most prominent physician, Dr. Rodney Glisan, he remodeled it
and immediately installed a harem of high class prostitutes."
The source MacColl referred to the diaries of Judge Matthew P. Deady, later published as Pharisee Among Philistines (1975).
The entry MacColl specifically cited was from March 8
1872, where Deady described a confrontation between James A Nesmith and
Ben Holladay, related to him by Nesmith.
James Nesmith (1820-1885) pioneer, congressman, and
raconteur. He was the originator and thus far, only source of the story
that Portland co-founder William Overton was later hanged in Texas.
The incident took place the previous fall at Nesmith's house:
"He said that H (Holladay) was bantering him
about running for Congress and advising him to keep out of politics and
threatened to put a man on his track who knew all about him if he did.
Nes asked who it was and H finally said it was O'Meara. Nes replied
that if any man set his dog on him, he would not stop to kick the dog,
but would go after his master, and if you -H set your dog on me I'll get
up on the stump and tell the people of Oregon, that Ben H keeps two
whores in Portland, O'Meara and the other one and I'll tell the name of
the other one -meaning of course Miss E.C."
"O'Meara" was James O'Meara, editor of Ben Holladay's
Portland paper, the Daily Bulletin. He had been on good terms with
Matthew Deady before falling out with him over the Wallamet / Willamette controversy. If O'Meara was one half of whom MacColl would refer to as "a harem of high class prostitutes" who then was "Miss E.C."?
Esther Lydia Campbell, later Holladay (1849-1889)
-Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, OrHi #12167.
Esther Campbell was the daughter of pioneers, Hamilton
Campbell and Harriet Biddle, who arrived in Oregon in 1840 on the ship
Lausanne to join Jason Lee's mission. They had six daughters and two
Hamilton Campbell was an artisan who was to engrave the
dies used to coin the territory's first currency, the locally minted
so-called "beaver money." He became a daguerreotypist and established a
photography business in Corvallis, and later, San Francisco. He went
to Mexico in 1862 to become the Superintendent of Mines in Guaymas,
where he was murdered the following year.
According to the Portland City Directory of 1868, the
year Holladay arrived in Portland, Harriet Biddle Campell lived on
Washington Street between Third and 4th, likely with her family which
included her nineteen year old daughter Esther.
By the time of Deady's diary entries (1872) Esther was
the constant companion of Ben Holladay. The specifics are lost but the
equation is familiar to any reader of Edith Wharton or Henry James: a
unhappily married tycoon, an absent wife, a prominent family in hard
times, a beautiful daughter, a scandal.
Ben Holladay departs Portland for San Francisco on his
steamship, the Oriflamme, in a notice from the Morning Oregonian,
January 20 1872. Miss Campbell is further down the list. Two months
later, the Morning Oregonian of March 7 1872 announced his return from
San Francisco on the Oriflamme. A Miss E. Campbell appeared on that
"...The Oriflamme came back in yesterday afternoon, bringing Holladay and Household back to Portland." - entry from Matthew Deady's diary, March 7 1872.
Hints of the scandal can be found in numerous places in Deady's diary. Buttressing his his brothel theory, MacColl (Shaping of a City pp 41) mentioned an entry from June 6 1873:
"Reed called and said the had a story at Baker City that young Ben (Holladay) went below (to San Francisco) at met his mother about to come up to Oregon, and he told her not to go, she was too old to go into a whore house."
"Young Ben" Holladay was the son of Ben Holladay and his
first wife Ann, who was visiting San Francisco from her home in upstate
New York. MacColl summarized the entry as to mean that "Holladay was running a whore house in his own home."
A more likely interpretation is that the
anecdote reflects the rocky relationship between Holladay and his
alcohol-troubled son, and the son's feeling about his fathers
relationship with another woman.
Deady was an occasional guest at Holladay's where he was to enjoy dinners and "some white wine said to have cost in New York $63 a dozen." It
is hard to imagine the upright judge would be seen entering a house he
actually suspected of being a brothel. More probable was Deady's interest in how Holladay's domestic scandal was played out publicly.
Esther Campbell Holladay and daughter, Linda Holladay.
-Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, OrHi #100106.
Ann Holladay died September 18 1873, three months
after her visit to San Francisco, at the same time Ben Holladay's
fortune was collapsing in a financial panic. A year later, Ben Holladay
and Esther Campbell married. They had two children together, a son,
Ben Campbell Holladay, and a daughter, Linda. They lived at the house
on Third and Stark as Holladay tried unsuccessfully to return to
riches. He died in 1887, Esther died two years later. They are
buried together in Portland's Mt. Calvary cemetery.
-The Sunday Oregonian, November 20 1921.
An article in the Sunday Oregonian, written forty-three
years after Ben Holladay's death, brings the house at Third and Stark
and its surroundings into sharper focus. It celebrates the eightieth
year of Maria Evangeline Campbell Smith, one of Esther's older sisters.
In it she describes her long time home on lot #2 of block #47, on Third
Street between Stark and Washington, and her years spent as the
organist at the church that neighbored her house to the south.
Third and Stark (the present site of Huber's).
The article, combined with city directories and other
sources provides a view of the house at Third and Stark, not as a high
class brothel, but as part of what was practically a
Directly behind Holladay's house, out of view in the
picture, lived his ne'er-do-well brother Joseph. The house to left of Holladay's
belonged to Maria Campbell Smith and her husband, prominent druggist
Samuel Smith. Partially visible is the Presbyterian Church where she was
To the rear the church, or directly across the street
from it on Washington, lived Harriet Biddle Campbell, Maria and Esther's
mother, likely with their youngest sister, Harriet, who would
eventually marry R.H. Towler, Ben Holladay's personal secretary.
To the photographer's back was the
Catholic Cathedral (today, the Bishop's House is a remnant) on the north
east corner of Third and Stark, to which Holladay, a Catholic, donated a
stained glass window in his and Esther's name.
Even by the fast and loose standards of his peers,
Holladay's methods and life style stood out. His brazenness was
unforgivable, once his fortunes turned. He was not to receive
the Oregonian the relatively free pass granted to the later financial
over-extensions of Henry Villard or George B. Markle.
Joseph Gaston's views, dominant now into the age of
Wikipedia, provided the fertile ground for Kimbark MacColl's erroneous
interpretation of, if not scandal, then the wrong scandal. A closer
look at history, and the circumstances of its writing, asks for a more
..more to follow in The Fall of the House of Holladay.