Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Historic mining town incinerated for third time

With the cry of “Fire!” at 7:30 p.m. on April 19, 1937, the historic business district of Canyon City in Grant County burned for the third time since its founding in 1862.

Buster Cresop, who lived in the old Elkhorn Hotel, looked out his window and saw smoke billowing up from the attic of the old wooden frame building and sounded the alarm. Some 25 guests were evacuated from the hotel, which was soon reduced to ruins. The flames, pushed by a stiff south breeze, rushed northward and soon most of the wood-framed buildings in downtown Canyon City were ablaze. The fire burned through the night, and when the smoke cleared, 15 businesses and an apartment building had been destroyed. Cause of the fire was reported a carelessly discarded cigarette in the Elkhorn Hotel. Damages were estimated at around $150,000.

The town of 350 was left with its homes, a service station, a Pastime house (bar and card room), the post office, a relief station, the theater and a barber shop. Neighboring John Day sent emergency food supplies to hungry Canyon City residents, and other area cities, including Pendleton, sent relief supplies or cash donations to help the town get back on its feet.

One boy almost lost his life when he attempted to plunge into a burning building in search of his mother. A guard restrained him, and he was later reunited with his equally distraught parent. Two John Day volunteer firefighters were temporarily overcome by smoke, but recovered. And a woman fainted after being evacuated from her home. Otherwise, the townspeople emerged from the fire unscathed.

The tinderbox-dry buildings threw flames so high that they could be seen 25 miles away in Seneca, and within a few hours more than a thousand people had gathered around the fire zone; the city promptly put the gawkers to work in a bucket brigade. In all, more than 500 volunteers pitched in to fight the blaze. In addition to the Canyon City firemen, John Day, Prairie City, Mt. Vernon and U.S. Forest Service crews laid extra hoses to keep the flames from historic buildings like the former home of poet Joaquin Miller and the Episcopal Church, which had survived two earlier fires as well.

Last to leave the downtown inferno was Mrs. Hilda Valade, a telephone operator who stood by the switchboard to call for help through the Mt. Vernon exchange, 10 miles away. She escaped through a rear exit only after the telephone offices had started to collapse.

A view of downtown Canyon City after the devastating 1937 fire. In the foreground, a mangled press was all that remained of the Blue Mountain Eagle offices. (photo courtesy Grant County Historical Society)

At the Blue Mountain Eagle offices in John Day, editor Clint Haight busily put out a special edition of the paper, but his Canyon City building burned as well, destroying all the newspaper’s files and archives. The Eagle (then the Grant County News) had been the only downtown survivor of the 1898 Canyon City fire that started, mysteriously, in the room of a traveling performer about an hour after he sang “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” in the town’s New York Theatre. He was arrested and put on trial, but acquitted for lack of evidence. An 1898 East Oregonian story reported an oil lamp exploded in the room of a “morphine fiend.”

Canyon City first burned to the ground in August of 1870, when the town was a much larger, bustling gold mining town. Because the town was built in a narrow valley, and the main street was originally so narrow, no insurance companies would insure the businesses, and in the first and second fires the town was a total loss.

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