First things first, his name was Cornelius Beekman, and he opened the very first bank in the Pacific Northwest in the 1860s. It’s still standing in downtown Jacksonville, but unfortunately, a lot of people seem to walk by without paying it much attention.
Local historian Ben Truwe spends a lot of time behind the counter of the Beekman Bank, full of information on why the building should pique your interest. Even if you were to enter the bank without a guide, you’d find plenty relics keep you occupied.
“He ran his bank here for 50 years and when he died everything was left in place,” Truwe said. “This is a national treasure. The board you’re standing on is 150 years old.”
Much of what you’ll find in the bank is authentic. Some of the items are so outdated, visitors play a guessing game with Truwe trying to figure out what the devices were used for. Everything from check presses and cutters, to envelope seals and vaults. Antique, dust-covered books line the floor-to-wall bookshelf, and Truwe says many of them are original to the bank. Though, he admits others are “imposters.” Actually, Truwe is brutally honest about any modification made to the bank to lure in tourists, including the “phony” back room.
Truwe said it’s one of Beekman’s original items that draws the most attention; a giant vault that you can walk inside. Inside the safe you can see what Truwe says is “50 years of soot and cigar smoke on the walls,” as well as a tin of marshmallows.
“Yeah, Beekman liked marshmallows,” Truwe said with a laugh.
While the vault appears quite impressive to anyone who sees it, Truwe said it would not have been hard to rob the Beekman Bank back in the 1860s.
“It was a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Truwe said. He went on to explain that the walls of the big safe were thick and sturdy, but a quick tap on the roof and door is proof that the safe was —well—not so safe.
“Pretty much put together with a bunch of junk,” Truwe said. “It was to impress the miners that this was the place to do business.”
So, Beekman’s safe may not have been the safest place to store gold or cash, but that’s not exactly how he operated.
“When you sold your gold either that would give you an account on Beekman’s bank that you could draw on, or he would give you a Wells Fargo check,” Truwe explained. “A Wells Fargo check you could cash anywhere in the world. So it was better than money.”
Back to where we started, who exactly is Beekman? Like many men in the 1850s, Beekman came out west with the Gold Rush, arriving in Jacksonville in 1853.
“5,000 young, single… testosterone-fueled men digging in the dirt trying to make their fortune,” Truwe said. He went on to explain that Beekman would travel back and forth to Yreka (about a 20 hour round trip at the time) several times a week.
“Well, he was in his 20s he was superman he could tolerate that,” Truwe added.
When the company Beekman rode for went bankrupt, he decided to buy it. Then, “Beekman’s Express” became a Wells Fargo agency and, in 1862, it became a bank.
“[Beekman Bank] was actually the first bank in Oregon territory. There were no banks north of California when this bank began,” Truwe said.
It’s a place where southern Oregon’s history is still intact, and yet, Truwe says too many people just walk on buy without taking so much as a glance.
“People will come in and look at the brochures… Stick their head in and then they’ll leave,” Truwe said. “Who knows they could come in and I could sell them a timeshare. It could be that bad!”
It’s far from a timeshare, but if you visit the Beekman Bank, you will take a trip through time.
“There’s a national treasure here that you really shouldn’t miss.”