The following history was written in 1976 by Helen Black, member of the St. Thomas
Episcopal Church, and in recognition of the church's Centennial Celebration.
Historic St. Thomas Episcopal Church is located in Canyon City, Grant County, Oregon.
It was built in 1876. Canyon City was founded on June 08, 1862. This is the seat of
the Centennial Celebration of St. Thomas 1876 - 1976.
Heading south into Canyon City is a welcoming sign featuring an old miner and bearing the
inscription - "Canyon City - GOLD Discovered June 8, 1862. Mined out twenty six million
dollars - IN GOLD."
Coming in from the south, you drive down scenic Canyon Creek. Its waters are high in
the spring and very low in the summer. It is stocked with fish and a favorite fishing
stream. You will notice remnants of the old Humboldt Ditch high on the hill sides used
for mining gold in the early days. You can also see tunnels, and the signs of mining
evidenced by the piles of rocks.
During the rush days of the gold strike, Canyon City was dominated by the many gold
miners. Practically from any viewpoint in Canyon City (originally spelled Canon) you can
still see the large piles of rocks and diggings that were dug and washed up by hydraulic
water power. It was said by many old timers that Canyon City had a population of 10,000 -
2,000 of these being Chinese. The population began to dwindle fast after the main pockets
Canyon City is nestled in the shade of Little Canyon Mountain. At the south entrance
is a large rock called Castle Rock, from its formation representing a castle, including
a small cave, and a Giant's chair. This was an excellent viewpoint for the Indians as it afforded
an unobstructed view of the City in the Canyon and the Humboldt Diggins. To the southeast,
towers the Strawberry Mountain Range and Big Canyon Mountain, one of the loftiest
peaks of the range. It has been termed "Gold Mountain" because of its invaluable wealth
of minerals believed to be hidden in its depths.
Entering the city limits, there is a sign saying "Canyon City - population 620." This street is now
Washington Street, which was the Creek's course in early days. There are many streets, buildings
and gulches retaining their original names such as Washington, Main and Clay Streets,
Chinie Alley, Whiskey Gulch, Rebel Hill and Izee Road.
Still standing are the old F.C. Sels Brewery, Lyons Store, the First National Bank building, saloon
buildings and barber shops (where one could buy a bath for 25 cents). There is the Herman Putzein
home, the photographer responsible for many of the pictures now found in the Herman & Eliza Oliver
Museum. The Museum is built on the land which was at one time known as the Mary St. Claire
property. She was one of the venturesome girls of the early Canyon City days. There are the remnants
of the old C.C. Store, as shown by the old stone wall. Then, there is St. Thomas Episcopal Church and the
old Guild Hall built by the St. Thomas Guild, now made into apartments. The old Methodist
Church still stands. On Rebel Hill there is the old School House which housed all grades
1 through 8, plus the High School, now a dwelling place. There are the homes of W.F. Chandler,
Publisher and owner of the Blue Mt. Eagle, the home of Attorney George Cattanach,
the lot where Attorney Jake Marks' house stood, the Blake home, the original Patrick Mulcare home
and the Lucas home (where the granddaughter now lives.)
On Washington and Clay Streets are homes of many well known residents of that age - Hicks, Parrish,
Hagny, Woods, Nivens, Guernseys, Cozads, Hazeltines, Kuhls, Halls, Lyons, Ambrose and many more.
Main Street was the main thoroughfare, as the Court House and Good Templar's buidling were there.
Following Main Street, you will come to a sign saying "St. Andrews Cemetery," which is the old Catholic
Cemetery. (The Catholic Church is now located in John Day.) It is a small, well kept cemetery. Many of the
stones are old, hand carved, with familiar names from old time residents - Kellys, Allens, Mulcares, etc.
Returning to Main Street road and resuming your journey, there is another sign - "Cemetery" - and rounding the
hill, and to your left are several graves, supposedly of those hanged in the early days and
not buried in the large cemetery. The large cemetery is well kept. It was picked and dedicated in 1862.
Many of the stones were from local quarries, made by hand and bearing the names of the early families. They
are too many to mention.
Looking across the Canyon, one can see the Humboldt Diggins, occupying a long length of the
top of the hill. Down in the canyon lies Canyon City, colorful, picturesque, and historic. This is a magnificent
view-point of the town nestled in the canyon between walls with a stream winding its way through the center.
What a wonderful place for a cemetery, and a setting for God's work.
On February 22, 1909, the Canyon City High School published its first issue of the high school paper called
"Joaquin Cabin." The proceeds from the sale of the first issue were to be used to apply towards payment on the
The paper sold for 10 cents a copy. The staff expressed appreciation to the Blue
Mountain Eagle for the use of the material from the plant and their many helpful suggestions, and especially to J.N. Bohner, foreman of the
office, for his ideas in form and makeup.
An article by C.G. McIntosh, teacher, tells of being with Joaquin Miller on his return to
visit Canyon City in the summer of 1907.
"If that is my cabin, I did a good job of putting on the shingles. But I should not have recognized it.
Those trees are not as I planted them. There is a shirt on the line too which I know is not mine. I never had but
one in those dear old days."
And then, Joaquin Miller, the Sweet Singer of the Sierras, took the photograph which he was examining into a stronger
light, swept the silvery lock that dangled lower over his shoulder, adjusted his eye glasses and with
his index finger, located the lines of the lowlying hills which surrounded the
cabin of his early home.
A look of intense earnestness - or was it something more - shown in his face as he continued. "Yes, it's all
changed here beyond recognition, but the contour of the hills seem the same forever more. This (pointing to the
cabin) is my work! This, (indicating the sweep of the hills) is God's." And with a supreme reverence that
thrilled speaker and hearers alike, murmured, "Holy, Holy Hills." It is given to many men to love nature, but
few could interpret her secrets as did Joaquin Miller!
"See where the eternal forces are ceaselessly at work repairing the devastation of man." He observed the large area of divided
upland placer land. "Nature abhors a wound, and even an open scar. She slowly but surely softens and hides them by some of her magical
art. The steeper edges of this cut are already smoothing out, and hardy grasses and brave blossoms are colonizing in the scant soil of
the ruins. These hills are emblems of charity."
We were on a drive over the old Marysville Camp at the foot of Canyon Mountain, and often as some beautiful or familiar scene was
brought into view, the venerable poet would bare his head in its majestic presence: "You understand" was his only comment when I brought
the team to a stand-still at such times.
Canyon City was given rise to many good men and to a few that were great, but of them all Joaquin Miller alone rose from "holy hills" to
a place of light in the world of letters.
In 1864, Joaquin Miller (Cincinnatus Hiner Miller) arrived in Canyon City from the Willamette Valley with his wife and baby. He brought with him
a small herd of cattle and some fruit trees. He planted the fruit orchard in this region. It was at this time that the cabin, now known as Joaquin Miller's
Cabin, was built. Here the man with his family lived for six years before going into the world to win fame as a "Poet of the Sierras." He served as
Grant County Judge from 1866-1870. His cabin is still preserved in Canyon City on a lot where the Herman and Eliza Oliver Museum is located. It was moved
from its original location, but still stands on historical ground, for it stands near the banks of Canyon Creek, and seems to blend in with the ancient hills
across from it.
With the new and popular name of "Joaquin" replacing Cincinnatus Hiner given him by his parents, he became famous and widely known throughout the West and California
as a poet and writer. His middle name was given in honor of the county physician who was in attendance at his birth. "Heiner" which appeared in his early books, may
or may not have been a printer's error. His first appearance in print had been a letter in defense of the Mexican bandit, Joaquin Marietta, which resulted in his friends calling
him "Joaquin." The name pleased him better than his own, and he adopted it as his pen name. The following lines by Joaquin Miller were written about 1866 on the back of the
register of a debating society organized by him, which met in the Good Templar's Hall:
Vanity has destroyed more lead than steel
In men who condem (sic) as ill there is so much of goodness still
In men who pronounce as divine there is so much of sin and blot
I hesitate to draw a line between the two, where God has not.
In 1868, Miller's first book of poetry "Specimens" was published by William D. Carter in Portland. The type was set up by George H. Himes, later founder of the Oregon Historical Society, and who
always regretted he had not saved a copy of Miller's first edition. The first book and Miller's second, "Joaquin et Al," were both
ignored by American critics, even the "Bards of San Francisco Bay" to whom Miller dedicated the second volume.
Chagrined, as well as discouraged, Miller went to England, the mother country of the poets. But the English publishers of 1870 were unimpressed and Miller was forced to print
100 copies of his "Pacific Poems" at his own expense. Success was immediate and staggering. The London literate lionized the
painstakingly crude frontiersman with the delicate writing touch. Miller captured entire drawing rooms of British intelligentsia, dazzling them with his velvet coat, hip boots
and the bear rug he threw on the floor to comfort him as he spouted his own writings.
He remained in Europe for some time, returning to America in 1883 to build a log cabin in Washington D.C. He returned to California in 1885 and died in Oakland, February 17, 1913.
His best known works are "Crossing the Plains and The Yukon." Who does not remember his poem "Columbus" with each verse ending in the ringing words
"Sail On - Sail On- And On." Those were brave words of encouragement meant to dispel any fear.
Main Street is no longer the main thoroughfare of Canyon City. A fire in August 12, 1870, destroyed the entire business section and many private residences. Damage was estimated at
$278,000 with $40,000 insurance. Having been composed almost entirely of wooden buildings, save a few bank fireproofs, and everything powder dry, it resulted in quiet destruction.
It is said the fire originated from a kitchen stovepipe in the International Hotel, owned by George Bieson. "A burst of flame from the hotel leaped from roof to roof, causing the frail
structures to disappear like leaves before a driving storm"
A few of the losses were - Grant County Court House and Jail $40,000; F.C. Sels Brewery $7,000; Haguewood & McBean Saloon $5,000;
Mr. Fleurette and lady, French Hotel, $10,000; Mary St. Claire, saloon and contents $20,000; Dr. Horseley Drug Store $8,000;
McCullough and Hellman, storehouse and goods $100,000.
Citizens went bravely to work and within a short time new and better buildings arose out of the ruins.
In 1878, was the last major Indian uprising, the Bannock War. The Bannocks were a strong race, loving warfare, and resentful of the what man's coming.
The main wagon trails to both Oregon and California crossed their territory. They attacked immigrant trains at every opportunity.
Small wonder that the residents of Canyon City were alarmed as the Bannocks were particularly vicious.
Governor Stephen F. Chadwick of Oregon sent large quantities of rifles and ammunition to Eastern Oregon. Canyon City was the center of a rich mining
district. There a company of 44 mounted volunteers, known as the Grant County Guards, was organized under the command of F.C. Sels. Word had been
received that the hostiles were headed toward the canyon of the John Day River. Indian prisoners said that a mixed band of Columbia River tribes were
waiting in the John Day Valley to join the hostiles.
The Home Guard drilled several times for the protection of Canyon City and the surrounding country and settlers from Indian depredation. On June 20, a detachment
of the company, consisting of about 15 men, was sent to act as escort for a shipment of arms and ammunition reported to be on its way to
Canyon City from Vancouver, Washington. They went down the John Day River to the South Fork, then on to Spanish Gulch where they met the stage and learned that
there were no arms or ammunition aboard. They were told, however, that a Mr. Gilenwater was on his way from The Dalles with ammunition. Sheriff John Walsh and
Henry Heppner went as far as Bridge Creek where they learned that Mr. Gilenwater had stopped at Antelope and turned back. They returned to Canyon City where the
rest of the party had already returned. On their way, they warned some of the settlers and took some of the owmen and children with them. The alarm spread until it
involved the entire valley for fifty miles.
General O.O. Howard, after determining the direction of the Indians, directed a dispatch to Canyon City requesting that 40 or 50 citizens try to check the Indians advance on the
South Fork of the John Day. About 16 men under the leadership of J.W. Allen, Captain, left Dayville at 4:00 a.m. on the 29th of June.
It was said over a hundred families left their homes and clambered
hastily up the steep cliff west of Canyon City to the tunnels. Provisions
and bedding were hastily brought up for the families. One barrel and
thirty five buckets were filled with water and carried up. Five under
ground tunnels, from 100 to 300 feet long, with side drifts, were lighted
with candles and filled with women and children. The men were in front
constructing walls and trenches for their defense. A strong guard was
posted in rifle-pits on the ridge and behind and overlooking their
position. Many of the people remained in the tunnels for three full days
The detachment encountered the Indians in the Murderers Creek area.
They suffered the loss of one young man, Oliver Aldrich, and others were
The Indians changed their course, and went through Long Creek and Fox
toward the Columbia River. Canyon City was saved. (0. P. Cresap, a Canyon
City man was a scout for General Howard during this period.) The path of
the Indians was well marked by evidences of destruction. The people of Grant
County feared that the Indians would return.
On November 11, 1898, the clang of the firebell rang out on a clear wintry
evening. It was about 10:30 p.m., when most of the residents had retired.
Way up On the second story of the Elkhorn Hotel, flames burst into the air.
Just across the street stood the old City Hotel. Without an effort, the
flames crossed the narrow street and penetrated its dry walls. The fire
spread - north and south, east and west, melting the accumulation of years
of hard work and toil. Bucket brigades were formed but early in the night
the water supply gave out. By faith and hard work, the Episcopal Church
was saved. A strong wind from up the canyon fanned the flames. It was a
dreary desolate scene the next morning with Canyon City's business center
and the greater portion of the residence section in smoldering ruins. One
half of the population was homeless; winter was close at hand and a greater
portion of a winter's supplies had been destroyed; and lumber was not to be
obtained at any price. It required brave hearts to face this prospect.
The loss was estimated at $200,000 with no insurance. Fire insurance
companies refused to carry the risk as the town was more of a hazard with the
street being 16 feet narrower than at present. There were three streets
running north and south, and in none was it possible for a team to turn
around. There were only a few stone buildings in the town, the F.C. Sels
Brewery; the Post Office and the Cunnington-Lyons Store.
No time was lost in mourning. The Court House was thrown open to the
homeless. The Grant County News, whose office had escaped the fire, made
the news known to neighboring towns. Many tents were soon utilized and
surrounding sawmills were notified that a large supply of lumber would be
Long Creek was the first to respond to the appeal, and its residents
sent $55. Baker City sent $202, besides many private contributions.
Prairie City, Heppner, John Day, Portland and other towns and mining camps
contributed over $3,000 being realized.
It was slow rebuilding and many months elapsed before the burnt,
district again resumed life and the appearance of a city. The new
Canyon City was an improvement in many ways over the old town, after
being laid low second time.
For the third time, on April 19, 1937, the old historic town of
Miller and the miners of 1862 was laid low again by fire. The fire
in the upper story of Hotel Canyon at 6:30 p.m. How it started was a
mystery, but in a few minutes after it was discovered, the hotel was
of flames. The volunteer fire department was mobilized in a few
fought the fire with five lines of hose, but to no avail. The flames spread.
It was a spectacular fire. It illuminated the sky, and the light
was seen for 25 or 30 miles in all directions. A crowd of 1,000 or
more rapidly assembled from many sections of the county as word
spread that Canyon City was burning up.
The fire departments of John Day, Prairie City and the Malheur
Service came to help. Fire equipment was brought from as far as
Had it not been for the town's new water system, installed the
it was probable that the entire town would have been left in ashes.
lateness of the spring and the fact that it was comparatively wet,
favorable. Had there been a high wind, it would have been disastrous.
It was an exciting two hours with bystanders and firemen
speculating on the possibilities of saving anything at all of
the town. There was a shaking of heads, and many were on the verge
of tears as they watched the destruction. Historic Canyon City! It
was a tragedy.
Within two hours, the fire was under control. Losses were
estimated at $75,000, with the total insurance amounting to
$25,000 (insurance rates were high, running to $4 and $5 per
hundred.) Almost everyone carried about a third or a half of full
coverage. Some had no insurance. The business district of Canyon
City was gone besides several homes and personal belongings.
Ironical that the fire started on the same spot as the fire of
1898 - in the hotel. Almost the entire files of the Blue Mountain
Eagle dating back to 1870 and containing almost the only authentic
historical records of much that had transpired in the county were
lost. Records and pictures in the Masonic and other lodges were a
regrettable loss. St. Thomas Episcopal Church was spared again,
as in the fire of 1898. The waters from the little spring in the
rear of the Church may have played an important part in both these
The descendents of the pioneer spirit, who founded the town,
took this loss standing up, and with faces forward went bravely to
work repairing the damage. In spite of all the disasters, Canyon
City was able to build back and retain the County Seat of Grant
Canyon City commemorates the discovery of gold and the founding of
Canyon City by having an annual '62 celebration, held the first
weekend in June Of
each year. There is a Pioneer Day when the oldest pioneer of a
designated community is paid homage and becomes Queen. The day
begins with a bountiful potluck luncheon followed by a program
honoring the Queen and her family and the pioneers. A reception is
held as the final event of the day.
Small and western is Canyon City. "A handful of people with deep
roots" it is said. But little do they know - that from deep roots
spring growth to the light-in all it's beauty.
Historic old St. Thomas Church, the Episcopal Church of the
John Day Valley, has been described by one writer as
"consecrated to the Lord and baptized in fire."
it is located in the beautiful land of ranching, lumbering,
purebred cattle, mining, healthful climate, and western hospitality.
Snuggled in the canyon in Canyon City, between the hills, and facing
the Humboldt Diggings is one of the quaintest buildings in the
West. It is also one of the oldest.
*This quaint, but beautiful, edifice is a living monument to
the early pioneering missionaries who came from the East to bring
the gospel of Jesus Christ to the rough and tumble mining camps and
homesteads of early Oregon. Such a man was the Rev. R. D. Nevius,
whose life was dedicated to the work of Christ, and who
designed and built St. Thomas, and was her first Rector.
We of the present day, seldom think of these men of God being
something other than Bible-carrying preachers. The tools of their
manual skill were always found beside their Bibles.
*Truly, St. Thomas has been 'baptized in fire." The building was
erected on the ashes of Canyon City's first disastrous fire of the
1870's, another fire all but leveled the town, but the Church stood
solid, as a landmark among the rubble. A third fire swept through the
community in 1937. A store next to the Church was completely
destroyed, the business district of the town disappeared, but still
with paint scorched and blackened by smoke, the Church still stood. A
few of her senior members have seen St. Thomas twice saved from
destruction while their own homes and places of business were lost.
To them, St. Thomas' is more than a Church to them St. Thomas'
symbol of God's great mercy!
©1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved
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