St. Thomas'
Episcopal Church

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 were mined.

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 school piano.

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 and nights.

The detachment encountered the Indians in the Murderers Creek area. They suffered the loss of one young man, Oliver Aldrich, and others were injured.

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 needed immediately.

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 Joaquin Miller and the miners of 1862 was laid low again by fire. The fire started 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 a mass of flames. The volunteer fire department was mobilized in a few minutes, and 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 Forest Service came to help. Fire equipment was brought from as far as Dayville. Had it not been for the town's new water system, installed the previous year, it was probable that the entire town would have been left in ashes. The lateness of the spring and the fact that it was comparatively wet, was also 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 fires.

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 County.

A -A 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 A 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' is,a symbol of God's great mercy!

�1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved

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