Cyrus Reed, 1825-1910

Oregon’s ‘Renaissance Man’

Cyrus Adams Reed

Cyrus Adams Reed, builder of “Reed‘s” Opera House in 1870, and remembered as one of Oregon’s first ‘renaissance men’, may have lived a comfortable life as a New England carriage maker were it not for the lure of the California gold fields.

Orphaned as a boy, apprenticed at 14 to a carriage maker where he acquired painting skills, the young Reed nonetheless was graduated from Union Academy in his native Grafton, NH , and began his professional life as a school teacher.

He taught for five years, then briefly re-entered the carriage trade before leaving for California February 2, 1849 with close friend William Abrams, an accomplished millwright, via Panama across the Isthmus, where they spent three months waiting for a ship to take them to Monterey. The 24-year-old Reed arrived in September, 1849, and made his way north to the mining regions, where he stayed less than two months.

After relocating to San Francisco as a sign painter, Reed teamed up with an old yankee friend, William Abrams. The two would once again be persuaded by early Portland developer Stephen Coffin to bring their skills and futures to Portland, then an almost unbroken forest inhabited by 250 white settlers and about 1000 Native Americans.

They arrived in Portland on New Year’s Day, 1850, after a perilous crossing of the Astoria bar, and almost immediately began contributing to their new state’s history.

Abrams and Reed would help Coffin build the city’s first sawmill.

Sawmill, mid-1800’s

Although William Abrams was the millwright, it was Cyrus Reed who “saved the day” when it came to building the sawmill.

The mill was to be constructed with 16-inch square timber beams, which were too heavy for Coffin’s Portland building crew to lift. Coffin set off for Oregon City with a flat boat in search of help, but even an additional complement of men could not raise the timbers.

Faced with the painful prospect of having a mill too big to be put together by all of the available men in Oregon, Reed offered to build a derrick, agreeing to forfeit $100 in wages if he failed. With the derrick, blocks and tackle, he enabled the men present to lift every timber into place.

Reed would raise $1000 from local citizens to buy books from Harper & Co. to establish Portland’s first library, agree to become the city’s first librarian, and teach its second school term.

While engaged as a teacher, Reed also kept books for Coffin’s general merchandise store, and platted most of Portland’s streets and deeds of conveyance of city lots for Coffin, one of three principal owners of the developing city’s land.

On July 7, 1850, Reed married Coffin’s daughter, Lucinda, one of Reed’s students, not yet 15, while Coffin was in the East on business. Mrs. Coffin reportedly was so upset by the union, she would not speak to her daughter or Cyrus Reed until the Reeds’ first of seven children was born a year later.

By 1852, Reed, now 27, had acquired a one-fifth interest in the Abrams-Coffin sawmill, plus several blocks and scattered lots in Portland, most of which were sold when he purchased a 640-acre farm in Salem that year.

Two years later, Reed became one of Salem’s first druggists; established a mercantile store, and was elected treasurer of the Marion County Agricultural Society. He would also participate in meetings to establish the first “Territorial Fair,” forerunner to the current Oregon State Fair.

In 1855 Reed’s sister, Anna, would migrate from New Hampshire to Salem, eventually marry George Jones, who joined Cyrus Reed and another partner in 1856 to establish Jones, Reed & Co., the first door, sash, blind and labor-saving manufactory in Oregon.

Willamette Woolen Mills

A year later, Reed, 32, would be among the founding directors and one of the builders of Willamette Woolen Mills , which would become Salem’s leading manufacturer and largest employer (100 workers), until fire destroyed the facility May 3, 1875.

In 1862, at 37, Reed was elected to the first of four 4-year terms to the Oregon State Legislature; framed the state’s militia law, and was appointed Oregon’s Civil War Adjutant General by Governor A.C. Gibbs.

The growth of Oregon’s state government and the prospects of forming a state supreme court resulted in legislators urging General Reed to create a complex that would house state offices, the legislature, the supreme court and the court library.

When a changing administration reneged on an agreement to create such a building, Gen. Reed had architect G.W. Rhodes design a structure with ground-floor retail, an opera house that shared the second and third floors, and hotel rooms where the state offices would have been.


The structure, made from 1,000,000 bricks, cost $75,000 to build, and opened on September 27, 1870 to celebrate the inauguration of Gov. LaFayette Grover, who would later play a pivotal role in the 1876 presidential race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden.

Reed’s Opera House, the center of Salem’s early social life for more than thirty years, hosted major political celebrations, traveling theatrical and minstrel shows, musicals, concerts, and fund-raising events featuring Thomas Nast and Samuel Clemens (both of who performed to pay off debts).

Gen. Reed, who painted many of the sets for the theater, was a founder of Oregon’s Republican party; first president of Oregon’s Women’s Suffrage Association, and brought Susan B. Anthony and Abigail Scott Duniway to the Opera House stage to campaign for woman’s suffrage in 1871. (He also was the only male to appear on stage with Ms. Anthony during her Portland campaign appearances.)

Shortly after the Opera House was opened, the expenses incurred during construction took their toll on Gen. Reed, and he was forced to return to painting and open an insurance and real estate office to help retire debts.

In 1873, Gen. Reed created panoramas depicting his beloved Oregon. The art was exhibited in Philadelphia and Europe. Proceeds from the fine art and real estate enabled the general to repay creditors and regain control of his landmark.

At about the same time, Gen. Reed’s marriage to Lucinda ended. In 1875, he married 20-year-old Jennie Cline, a co-worker and native Oregonian, with whom he fathered an additional six children.

In 1885, Gen. Reed sold the Opera House to E.P. McCornack, and moved his family to Portland.

In 1890, at age 65, Gen. Reed, still ‘politically connected’, was appointed government agent of the manufacturies; deputy census enumerator, and inspector of the mortgaged and encumbered homes of Multnomah County.

He lived his final days in the International Order of Oddfellows home in Portland before passing away at 85 on July 9, 1910. His remains are interred in the Riverview Cemetery, next to three of his sons and the sons’ widows.