From Leslie's Weekly,
September, 1916 By B. C. Forbes
The cook boy in a remote
Canadian lumber camp was caught off guard.
"What are you up to?"
demanded the boss.
The boy, startled,
crumpled up a sheet of rough paper he had spread on top of a flour
"I've finished my work,"
"What were you doing?"
asked the boss.
"When I have any spare
time I like to learn." he explained, timidly.
"To figure and write."
The camp manager picked
up the rumpled paper. It was covered with figures and writing.
He said no more.
When Li Yuen Hung was
recently chosen President of China, one of the first things he did was
to send this ex-cook boy a cable expressing a desire for his friendship.
Yuan Shi Kai, his predecessor, had decorated the former lumber camp lad.
So had the last Emperor of China.
Today, the cook boy is
one of the most influential counselors of the Chinese Government and
almost an idol in the eyes of the Chinese people.
His name is Robert
Dollar, the foremost producer and exporter of lumber in the United
States, the owner of two fleets of steamers, one for coastal, the other
for overseas trade, the greatest individual creator of commerce between
the Pacific Coast and the Orient, a still greater creator and cementer
of friendship between the Orient and the Occident, and this country's
most potent worker for the establishment of a powerful American merchant
marine. Also, a philanthropist.
It was Captain Dollar who
led the unsuccessful fight against the enactment of the suicidal La
Follette Seamen's Bill which immediately swept the Stars and Stripes
from the Pacific Ocean and gave the Japanese complete control of the
commerce between the Orient and the United States.
"La Follette's name will
go down to posterity as the man who drove the last nail into the
merchant marine coffin," the veteran captain declared when, despite all
the protests of commercial and shipping authorities, the fatal measure
was passed by Congress.
The law was found to be
so impossible that Washington was obliged to announce that certain
features of it would not—because they could not—be enforced.
Even so, the conditions
brought about were so demoralizing, so subversive of all discipline, so
productive of insubordination, that shipping casualties became so
numerous on the Pacific Coast that insurance companies refused to accept
An impressive tribute to
the genius of American statesmanship!
What shipping needs
Not content to legislate
for American ships, representing about fine per cent, of the world's
shipping tonnage, the Washington wiseacres actually attempted to make
laws for the remaining 99 per cent.! Of course they had to crawl back
into their shells. If they hadn't, America would have been left without
ships to move her $6,000,000,000 of annual exports and imports.
President Wilson sent for Captain Dollar, but. unfortunately, Congress
did not follow the sound ad\ice given.
"All we shipowners want,"
Captain Dollar repeatedly told the Government, "is to be put on an equal
footing with other nations. Give us equal laws and we will give you a
merchant marine rivaling that of a century ago, when the Stars and
Stripes carried nine-tenths of the United States overseascommerce. Today
our naval vessels cannot go far from land without the support of foreign
So ridiculous did our
marine regulations become that American shipowners were compelled to fly
the British flag and employ British naval reserve men on their vessels,
thus helping to strengthen Britain's power at the expense of crippling
"You may succeed in
driving us out of the United States, but you can't drive us out of
business," Captain Dollar told Andrew Furuseth. the seamen's
professional agitator, who really was the inspirer of the measure.
Patriotic American though
Captain Dollar is, he is compelled by our absurd laws to run his
overseas fleet under an alien flag and from an alien port. Whereas his
ships used to sail from California, their headquarters is now Vancouver,
British Columbia, which levies toll, of course, on every ton entering
her harbors and gets the railroad haul of merchandise which ought to
pass over none but American lines and be handled by none but American
By what steps and by what
qualities did Robert Dollar climb from the cook's shanty to the
ownership of steamship lines and a vast timber business, honored by
election to the presidency of both the Chamber of Commerce and the
Merchants' Exchange of San Francisco, by selection as a director of the
$50,000,000 American International Corporation, by decorations from
Peking and by receiving the Freedom of the Borough and the keys of his
Scottish birthplace? Not one of America's "Fifty Greatest Business Men"
began more humbly.
The most menial job was
his—that of a "cook's boy." When the food did not come up to the
expectations of the hungry lumber jacks, the person who set it in front
of them was lucky if he encountered nothing more damaging than a volley
of oaths. Bob Dollar, however, manifestly was doing his best and most of
the rough diamonds came to have rather a warm spot for him in their
hearts—especially as he could be called in to read or write a love
letter for those who could use axes very effectively but pens not at
When the camp manager,
Hiram Robinson, caught the cook's boy struggling with addition and
subtraction and multiplication and division and caligraphy, he did not
dismiss him for using the company's time for such a purpose, but quietly
went about providing the ambitious little fellow with books and also saw
to it that leisure was provided for study.
Studied hooks and men
The lad did not confine
his studies to books or to cookery. He learned how to fell trees, how to
tell good lumber from bad and, not the least important, how to get along
with the uncouth workmen. Before he had had his first shave he was
playing the part, not of a boy. but of a man, able to hold his own when
trouble broke out.
"Take a drive down the
river Du Moines. Take 50 men with you." That was the order he received
one day from the camp manager. This was the first drive of saw logs
undertaken from the Du Moines district over the Chaudiere Falls, a route
subsequently taken by many millions of Ottawa-bound logs. Dollar, though
only 21, managed the men and the venture successfully. As a reward he
became foreman over a big gang.
Two things all Scotch
children are taught—the Bible and thrift. Lumber-jack Dollar had saved
most of his hard-won wages, though the pay was only $10 a month at the
start. Another trait is independence. The Northern Scots claim that they
are the only people the Romans failed to lick after trying. He had
enough money when 27 to buy a modest bit of timber land and started
Alas, "Wall Street" upset
all his plans and plunged him into bankruptcy. No, he had not speculated
in any "sure thing" tip; it was the panic of Black Friday which ruined
him as it ruined many stronger business men.
He had learned, however,
how to take knocks. He had no difficulty in getting a good job as
manager of an important lumber establishment. He saved every penny that
came within his reach and paid off all his debts in full within four
years—he was and is an ardent believer in the Golden Rule and its
Founder. His employer took him into partnership and this time things
moved more satisfactorily. Then product consisted chiefly of hewn board
timber for export to England.
"Captain Dollar is from
Missouri—from the heart of Missouri, one of his managers said to me. "He
must always be shown; he wants to see things for himself—even if he has
to travel one thousand or ten thousand miles to see them. He is one of
the best-traveled men in the world. He always gets at the bottom of
everything. He is intensely practical and has scant regard for untested
theories. He keeps his eyes open all the time for new opportunities. He
is the most resourceful man in America."
Perhaps this explains why
he moved first to Michigan, where larger and better timber could be had,
and later to the Pacific Coast. He began lumbering redwood in Northern
California but grudged the amount he was charged for transporting his
output. He investigated. He discovered that if he could get a ship of
his own he could cut the cost to half. So he bought a little tub, the
"Newsboy," of some 300 tons. It paid for itself in less than a year.
Starting a steamship line
This appealed to the
Scotch in him! If one "tuppeny" boat could make so much, why not get
hold of more boats? He did. And that was the birth of the now famous
Robert Dollar Steamship Company, with half-a-score vessels in the
coast-wise trade and as many more plying between the Pacific Coast and
the Orient, and with branches in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tientsin, Hankow,
Kobe. Petrograd, Manila, Vancouver, Seattle and New York.
The business did not grow
of its own accord; it had to be built up from the foundation. It called
for foresight, enterprise, energy, diplomacy, patience, perseverance and
the most scrupulous fair-dealing, for no race is more quick to resent
questionable practices than the Chinese.
When Captain Dollar first
began to ship lumber to the Orient, the demand was solely for the very
largest pieces. This left a by-product of small boards, which could not
be shipped. He knew that the Chinese did not use these enormous sizes
but that nearly all of them were cut into small pieces by hand-saws. The
resourceful Dollar began persuading his Chinese customers to take a
sprinkling of these small sizes. He took a trip to the Celestial Empire
and created a market for his by-product.
Return cargoes were then
not to be had. There was no profit in running empty steamers; therefore,
trade had to be developed. So off he went to find out what could be done
about it. When he got to the Philippines he made arrangements to import
mahogany and copra. Japan, he discovered, could supply oak, sulphur,
coke and coal. China yielded a grade of pig iron which Western mills
would snap up as fast as it could be brought over.
The Dollar steamships
were thus kept loaded, both going and coming. Since the war, freight
rates have been so high that lumber could not stand it. Outward
shipments, consequently, have consisted very largely of general
merchandise and munitions, the latter to Vladivostok. From that port the
vessels proceed to China, Japan and the Philippines for return cargoes.
Never cheat a Chinaman
While the Dollar
Steamship Company trades with India. Japan and the Philippines, its
largest business is with China, where Captain Dollar has come to be
revered to a degree not easily understood by the untraveled American.
"Never try to cheat a
Chinaman," Captain Dollar impresses upon everyone who would do business
with the Chinese. Confucius taught them that "honesty is the best
policy"—and the Chinese live strictly up to this axiom. In addressing a
meeting of the United States Chamber of Commerce last year, he said, "In
all our years of trading with the Chinese, involving many millions of
dollars, we have never lost a single cent, never had one bad debt. I
wish we could say the same of other countries, including our own."
Great as have been the
services of Captain Dollar in extending American commerce in the Orient
and in creating a fleet of high-class steamers, both passenger and
freight, as well as in striving heroically to have Congress adopt
sensible shipping legislation, he has a much stronger title to the
gratitude of the American people.
Robert Dollar has done
more to prevent strife and promote peace between America and the Orient
than any living statesman.
When war was threatened
between this country and Japan over the San Francisco school question,
Captain Dollar succeeded in getting up a party of commercial men from
different chambers of commerce to visit Japan, where he is almost as
well known and as highly regarded as in China. The Emperor himself
received the delegation. The entente cordiale was re-established. After
that the jingoes could make no headway with their militant propaganda.
Two years later Captain
Dollar organized an influential commission to visit China. Their
reception by the Emperor, by Government dignitaries, by cities and by
commercial organizations eclipsed in ceremony and display anything
before or since extended to foreign visitors. Captain Dollar's diary of
this memorable trip (he has kept diaries without a break for 59 years)
was later published for private circulation at the insistent request of
friends; it gives a better insight into the nation which comprises
one-third of the human race than any-other publication I know of. It is
sprinkled with wit and humor. Last year, it will be remembered, a
distinguished Chinese delegation, headed by Cheng Hsun Chang, visited
the United States and created nation-wide interest. This was China's
fitting way of returning the Dollar delegation's visit.
Captain Dollar, as his
photograph shows, is a patriarchal figure with his silver-white hair and
gray beard. He works prodigiously, especially before most of America's
100.000.000 people are out of bed. He spends a goodly part of his time
and his means in philanthropic and church work, being especially
interested in furthering the Young Men's Christian Association movement
throughout the world. His speeches on shipping problems have attracted
national interest during recent years.
Words of experience
I asked Captain Dollar
what his vast experience had taught him were some of the qualities
helpful to the attainment of success. I also asked him what ought to be
done to enable the United States to attain a higher place among the
commercial nations of the world.
The Grand Old Man of the
Pacific thus replied to the first question:
"1—Fear God and be just
and honest to your fellow man.
"2—Incessant hard work.
"3—Frugally and saving
"4—Drink no intoxicating
liquors. In these days of keen competition whiskey and business won't
mix—you can't do both.
"Foreign Trade is the
answer to the second question. We are legislated to death. Stop
legislating and leave our merchants alone and they will develop our
foreign trade, and provide tonnage to carry our own products to market.
Permit our shipowners to operate our ships exactly on the same terms and
conditions as other nations are doing, and then our merchants will
supply the cargoes and our shipowners will provide plenty of tonnage for
our commerce in time of peace and auxiliaries to our navy in time of
war, and except for carrying mails, it won't cost our country a cent."
A few months ago a
septuagenarian visited octogenarian Hiram Robinson, at Ottawa.
"You don't remember me?"
asked the visitor.
The old man peered at him
"Don't I?" he cried,
holding out his hand. "You are Rob Dollar, my old cook-boy."
ex-cook-boy left Hiram happy, for the aged lumberman was the boss who
caught him learning to read and write and who made the ascent of the
ladder of success a little easier.