Page Banner
Section Divider


A Brief History of Canby

By Peggy Sigler and Myra Weston

On the high plateau, bordered by the Willamette and Molalla Rivers, Canby was once the seasonal meeting place for tribes of local Indians and was well known for its annual crop of wild strawberries. The area known as Baker Prairie was an open expanse of ground in the dense fir forest that stretched for miles.

Baker, one of the earliest white settlers in Oregon, arrived in the area in 1832 with a cattle drive from California, took an Indian wife and was soon farming.  The land he "squatted" on was what is now north Canby.  Other settlers arrived, including Philander and Anna Lee in 1848, who bought "squatter's" rights beside a spring-fed creek on what is now SE First Avenue.  The family's long-time home nearby was on the site now owned by Package Containers, Inc. 

Lee began growing apples on 80 acres of land and shipped them to the gold miners in California.  In 1850, the Lees gained title to their 647 acres through the Donation Land Claim Act which brought many more settlers over the Oregon Trail to Baker Prairie and surrounding areas.

Joseph Knight and four sons moved to Baker Prairie in 1868. They were instrumental in Canby's early development as they opened one of the first general stores, built many local buildings, served as postmaster, school clerk, sheriff, druggist, blacksmith, carpenter and more.  William Knight's 1874 home still stands at 525 SW Fourth Avenue as does the 1890 Knight Building on NW First Avenue, the original meeting place of City Council and first home of Carlton & Rosenkrans, "Clackamas County's largest department store."

Along with a meager network of dirt roads and trails, some still visible, such as Territorial Road with its tall fir trees lining the road, the Willamette River served as main transportation.  Steamboats took produce into the markets of Oregon City and Portland from the little local communities of Baker Prairie, Barlow, New Era, Riverside, Macksburg, Mundorf, Lone Elder, Mark Prairie and others. 

While pushing the Oregon and California Railroad line from east Portland to San Francisco, promoters approached Philander Lee for land in 1870.  For $2,960, he sold 111 acres for the 24-block city, 12 lots per block. The Knight family and others sold the remainder of the 300 acres to the railroad. Lee would only sell land for a town if the streets were wide enough for two span of oxen and a wagon to turn. So, Philander's son, Albert, hitched up the oxen and turned the team and wagon, measuring the diameter of the turn to be 80 feet, which became the width of Canby's original streets. The City's plat was filed in Oregon City on August 9, 1870. 

Major General Edward R.S. Canby, hero of the Civil and Indian Wars, had arrived in Oregon only one week earlier to assume command of the U.S. Army's Department of the Columbia and the new town was given this hero's name. Rails were laid in 1870 and in 1873 the depot was built near what is now NW First and Grant. Albert H. Lee, Philander's eigth child, was the first railroad agent.

The first post office and depot was in the drug store across from the depot, and druggist Charles "Doc" Knight, who came in 1870 and also built the first hotel, was the first postmaster.

Canby was incorporated on February 15, 1893, making it the second oldest city in Clackamas County. Heman A. Lee, Philander's second son, served as the first mayor. By 1890 Canby boasted three hotels and a bank, and by 1910, the population was 587. The railroad tracks were quickly lined with warehouses as the agriculture industry grew in the Canby area. Local crops included grain, hay, potatoes, dairy products, turkeys, flax, prunes, rhubarb, asparagus, berries, nuts, livestock, lumber, bulbs, flowers, and nursery stock. For many years, three covered bridges crossed the Molalla River from Canby and in 1914, local businessmen established ferry service across the Willamette River. 

Prior to 1920, the "Road of 1000 Wonders", now NW First Avenue, was the main route through Canby, running northeast to Oregon City and west to Barlow and up the valley. That year marked the arrival of the Pacific Highway (Hwy 99E) to the south of the railroad tracks, making the beginning of yet a new era of transportation and development in Canby. Canby has grown from 998 people in 1940, to 1,286 residents by 1945. Now Canby boasts a population of over 13,000, and the city covers a three-square mile area. Many of the early buildings and homes in the original 24-block town site still exist and the city is surrounded by early farmhouses and barns, reminders of Canby's early pioneer, railroad and agricultural heritage.

For more history of Canby, check out the Canby Depot Museum