canyon city cemetery
Canyon City is one of the fabled cities in Western history, not to mention Oregon’s. Gold was discovered here in 1862 and for the next few decades it was a wide open town. If there was any law, it didn’t show up on Friday nights. Besides miners, the town attracted gunslingers, card sharks, saloon keepers, “ladies of the night” (cf. Boot Hill), and a surprising number of Chinese. By 1879 there were two-and-a-half Chinese miners for every white one.

Not more than a five-iron wide, Canyon City is a couple miles long, trailing up a narrow canyon at the foot of the gold fields. Two fires destroyed most of the old buildings, but there are enough left to give the town character; and its rambling streets were, evidently, not so much laid out but rather grown. There’s no other town in the state remotely like it; and anyone with a yen for seeing the “Old West” should come see it before the tourists hit. They will. Canyon City is Oregon’s Deadwood, South Dakota. Go check it out if you want to see the potential future of Canyon City. And I’m not knocking Deadwood; I think they’ve done a commendable job. Closer to home you might check out Jacksonville, another town transformed into a timepiece. I like Jacksonville, too.

The Canyon City Cemetery seemingly serves as the primary cemetery for John Day, the town at the bottom of the canyon. John Day, the mountain man who lent his moniker to the town, never saw his namesake. John Day, the town originally known as Tiger Town, was where the—shall we say—“service” section of the economy lived, including the Chinese; wherein lies the other great reason (besides the cemetery and the architecture) to visit Canyon City/John Day. Not, unfortunately, because there’s an enclave of great Chinese restaurants here; rather because there’s the Kam Wah Chung Museum, about which you likely know, but if you don’t, you should. Kam Wah Chung is roughly as important as if the original Fort Clatsop still existed. It is a Chinese general store, pharmacy, medical office, social hall, and opium den all crammed into a dark tiny building that operated until 1948 and was sealed in 1955, a few years after the good Doctor Ing Hay’s demise, along with all of its contents, to be reopened in 1978. Amazingly, no vandals, no transients, no teenagers ever broke in and ransacked the place, so that when it was reopened, it was as if nothing had happened in the intervening years. Under Hay’s tiny bed they found $23,000 in uncashed checks dating back to 1909. He never caught on to the necessity of cashing the checks. He never had any immediate need for the cash, so he never turned them in. It was a considerable gift to his neighbors. One can see why he did such a good business, long after most of the Chinese had left.

In any event, while John Day sports a modest cemetery of its own, Rest Lawn (q.v.), it’s Canyon City that has the space, upkeep, stones, and view. The day we visited it also had deer, perhaps a dozen of them in clumps here and there around the cemetery, that drifted slightly in front of our own peregrinations: grand dame, yearlings, children, and a young buck that all lined up behind the matriarch when she finally led them out of the grounds.

The 1978 ODOT gives a date for the cemetery as “1880s,” without pinning it down further, although I ran across a grave for James Daulby, “Born in Baltimore MD./ Killed by Indians in/ Grant Co. Or. during the/ Raid of the Bannock/ and Piute tribes/ in June 1878/ Age 23 years.” Furthermore, Boot Hill next door claims an earliest date of 1863 of persons buried there because they were unworthy of burial in the common graveyard, implying that the Canyon City Cemetery already existed. It’s hard to imagine that people weren’t dying in Canyon City within a year after the 1862 strike, so one can probably assume that the cemetery, graves marked or not, dates back to roughly that age. The community has long recognized the importance of their cemetery and, consequently, it’s well maintained, without excessive evidence of vandalism, so common in other pioneer cemeteries. An irrigation system was installed in both this and St. Andrew’s (q.v.) Cemetery in 1956.

In a way-too-short visit we found many markers that reflected the community and its history, ones that moaned “Old West.” Any cemetery adjoining another called Boot Hill is aiming for romance, and Canyon City is happy to slip on an image. Its mining persona is best represented by a modern, hand-carved wooden slap marker for “Milt 1914-1982.” The West is fond of its first-name-only markers, usually wooden. We know Milt was a miner because a pick and shovel have been carved into the marker’s face.

Walter Reed Hospital is a loaded subject in America. It was poignant to run across the grave of “Pvt. Wm. Baier [1895-1918]/ Co. D, 110th Bn. 20th Eng./ Camp American University,” who died at Walter Reed. Camp American University was the wartime name for that portion of American University (a private university in Washington, D.C.) that was used by the government. In 1917 it became the incubator for the United Stated chemical weapons program, employing some 100,000 soldiers and 2000 chemists. It might be of interest to investigate from what Mr. Baier died.


Take Main St. east up the hill and follow the second cemetery sign (the 1st leads to St. Andrew). It shares a parking lot with the tiny Boot Hill Cemetery.
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