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Notable Oregonians: Oswald West - Governor

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Oswald West

Oswald West, 1873-1960

Oswald West was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada on May 20, 1873 to John and Sarah West. His family moved when he was four years old and West attended public schools in Salem, Oregon. In 1889 he began work at a Salem bank, becoming teller in 1892 and continuing in the job until 1899. Following a six month stint searching for gold in Alaska, West worked for three years in a bank in Astoria.

 

Governor Chamberlain appointed him to be State Land Agent in 1903, and in that capacity he was responsible for the recovery of some 900,000 acres of Oregon school lands fraudulently obtained by land speculators. In 1907 he was appointed to a four-year term on the Oregon Railroad Commission. Having gained a reputation as an effective reformer, West won the primary election and became the Democratic candidate for governor in 1910. He conducted a nonpartisan campaign defending the "Oregon System" of government, including the initiative, referendum and direct primary.

 

West won the election and pushed progressive legislation in spite of the Republican dominated legislature. He also made use of initiative and referendum to further his goals. Women's suffrage and prohibition were both achieved through the initiative. Banks, loan sharks, stock brokers, and most public service corporations were placed under tighter state regulation by the legislature. Wages, hours. pensions and working conditions were more strictly controlled. A workmen's compensation act was passed by referendum, and a state Industrial Accident Commission was set up to administer it. Prison reform was advanced and a State Board of Control, created with administrative authority over state institutions, implemented a unified purchasing system.

 

West also worked to preserve Oregon's natural resources. Under his administration the beaches bordering the Pacific Ocean were protected for public use; the office of State Forester and the Bureau of Forestry were established; and the Fish Commission and Game Commission were created.

 

An outspoken advocate of prohibition, he attracted national attention when he mobilized the state militia and sent his secretary, Miss Fern Hobbs, to close down illegal saloons and gambling establishments in Copperfield, an eastern Oregon resort town.

 

In spite of his many achievements as governor, West decided not to seek reelection in 1914. Instead, he moved to Portland in 1915 to practice law and continued to be at the center of political controversy for decades. He wrote dozens of articles for Oregon newspapers and journals on topics ranging from pioneer life in Oregon to horse racing. West died in Portland on August 22, 1960.

 

(Sources: Oregon State Library | History of Oregon-Biographical, vol. III | Dictionary of Oregon History) Revised 1/2013

 

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