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Memoirs of Robert Dollar
Vol. 1 - Chapter Twenty-three. Men who are Making America

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 barrel.

"I've finished my work," he apologized.

"What were you doing?" asked the boss.

"When I have any spare time I like to learn." he explained, timidly.

"Learn what?"

"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 the risk.

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 auxiliaries."

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 our own.

"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 workmen.

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 all.

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 operations.

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 your money.

"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 a moment.

"Don't I?" he cried, holding out his hand. "You are Rob Dollar, my old cook-boy."

The millionaire 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.

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