Don’t Wait Up: Judge Wait Finds Gold, Then Love, Before Becoming State’s First Chief Justice

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Today, we’ll pick up with the second part of our series looking at the life and times of Aaron Emmons Wait, first chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court, and namesake of Canby’s beloved Wait Park.

Thank you for waiting.

When we last left our hero, he was serving as first assistant commissary under the command of Gen. Joel Palmer during the Cayuse War, and had just successfully secured provisions from the notoriously intractable Alvin “God Almighty” Smith.

After hostilities ended, Wait was asked to audit the claims of the Cayuse War, also known as “paying the bills.”

No sooner had that arduous task concluded, Judge Wait caught sick — one of the most potent illnesses of the day and, indeed, one of the most contagious plagues mankind has ever seen. “Gold fever,” they called it, and Judge Wait, like Canby founder Philander Lee and his sons, joined the gold rush of 1849, hoping to find his fortune.

The judge traveled to the California gold fields on a “little seventeen-ton schooner built by his friend Lot Whitcomb.” He tried his hand at what was known as “placer mining,” i.e., the mining of stream beds for precious metals, typically with panning.

It involves placing mined ore in, well, a pan, with a generous amount of water, then agitating the materials so the gold particles — being of higher density than the rest — settle to the bottom.

The lighter materials, such as sand, mud and gravel, are then washed to the side, leaving the gold behind.

If that sounds like tedious work to you, believe me, it is. It’s estimated that even the most expert gold prospectors of the day could process no more than about one cubic yard of material in a 10-hour work day.

When your reward at the end of that day was, at best, a tiny pinch of gold dust, you can see why most ’49ers soon found their way back home, as disappointed as…the 49ers in last week’s Super Bowl — hey-o!

It’s said that Aaron Wait did relatively well for himself in the California gold fields and on the banks of the Feather River near Sacramento.

He lasted several years — longer than Lee and a great many other prospectors — but he eventually returned home to honest work. Just kidding! He actually returned to lawyering, politics and journalism.

Happiness came to the judge in 1853 with his first marriage, to a Mary Ann Sprenger, who had arrived in Oregon City the previous year from McConnelsville, Ohio.

Their wedding was a double ceremony with Mary Ann’s sister, Maria, who was wed to a Captain Cochran. An observer of the festivities, Sarah Bird Fisher, noted that “the gentlemen came in a two-seated carriage with two fine horses.”

They married in Linn City, a community that was then at its height, after a number of its residents actually had struck gold and returned with their fortunes.

Sadly, Linn City would be destroyed a few years later. In October of 1861, a “heavy and constant rain” began to fall. And although that may sound to you like an accurate description of what winter is like in Oregon every year, this was something special, and it continued through November and December.

By Dec. 14, the Willamette River had overflowed its banks, and the great Linn City was no more. Though no perished in the great flood, the damage was so devastating that it would never be rebuilt.

Much later, the property that was once Linn City would be incorporated into the city of West Linn.

Wait’s first marriage also has a sad ending. Mary Ann gave the judge three children, only one of whom survived into adulthood: Charles Nicholas Wait, born in 1856.

Mary Ann herself would die a few years later, apparently from complications related to the birth of their 3-month-old baby girl, Mary Clare, who followed her mother in death just 12 hours later.

It was a tumultuous time for Aaron Wait, and for Oregon. 1859, of course, was also the year the Oregon Territory was granted statehood. And it was the year, Wait was named chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.

By then, the high court had existed for several years, and Wait was, technically, the fourth chief justice in its history. But he was the first to serve after Oregon’s statehood.

He married again in 1860, to a Catherine Maria Quivey, who was also a native Ohioan. They, too, had three children, and of them, only one daughter, Anna Evaline, survived to adulthood.

Chief Justice Wait held office until April 1862, when party politics called his name. A lifelong Democrat, he reluctantly accepted the party’s nomination for Congress. As the only non-“Douglas Democrat” to be put forward, “Judge Wait was to be used as a make-weight for the balance of the ticket,” according to a newspaper article of the day.

But, like Stephen A. Douglas, whose presidential campaign of 1860 was doomed to fail because of a little-known guy named “Abraham Lincoln,” Wait’s congressional bid was defeated — which is exactly what he’d expected.

Wait moved to Portland in 1862 and, in 1866, he formed the Oregon Herald Company, a weekly newspaper managed by a stock company whose membership was exclusively Democratic politicians.

The Oregon Herald’s first issue was March 17, 1866. Its final one was two years later. What? A Democratic rag failing in Portland, Oregon? Hey — it was different times.

The old judge served briefly as mayor of Portland in 1867 — an appointment made to replace Thomas J. Holmes, who died of sudden apoplexy two days after taking office.

Wait was the interim mayor until a new election could be held. He was urged to run for the office, but declined on account of ill health.

In 1870, Judge Wait’s voice began to fail, and he retired from the law, turning his attention instead to real estate.

He had previously made the savvy purchase of 596 acres of prime farmland in what is now north Canby, and he retired there to work his land until his eventual death on Dec. 12, 1898, at the age of 85.

“Judge Wait was one of the thrifty, hardy pioneers of the state,” a biographer concluded, “and although somewhat peculiar in some of his habits and ways, his life work is intimately interwoven with the early history of the state.”

Another said, simply: “The many interesting, thrilling and characteristic anecdotes of this first and one of the most honored of Oregon’s judges would fill a volume.” Indeed.

Aaron E. Wait was laid to rest at the Baker Prairie Pioneer Cemetery on Knights Bridge Road, not far from the park that bears his name. We’ll tell you more about that park next time, on Canby Then.

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