Family-Friendly Gold Rush Town: Canyon City, Oregon

by Barbara Lee \ Photo ©  Gary Halvorsen, Oregon State Archives

Two miles south of the eastern Oregon community of John Day, you’ll find family-friendly Canyon City—a historic gold rush town with a museum full of quirky, kid-pleasing exhibits, an old jail, and a genuine Boot Hill Cemetery. Canyon City has a relaxed feel that invites you to poke around, walk the back streets, and take a look at the once gold-rich creek that brought thousands of fortune seekers here in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Consider starting at the Grant County Historical Museum, where frontier artifacts and photos share space with manikins dressed as famous figures of the era, a hangman’s hemp rope, and—believe it or not—the skulls of the first two men who were legally hanged in the county. The building is open seasonally and otherwise by appointment, so be sure to check the schedule and hours in advance.

Outside the museum stands the cabin of Joaquin Miller, who was known as the “Poet of the Sierras” and also served as one of Grant County’s first judges. Nearby is an old, one-room jail—many children (and a lot of adults, too) will want to get the full effect by walking inside and hearing the wooden door shut behind them.

On the outskirts of town, a historic cemetery contains the graves of some of the community’s earliest residents, and the short drive offers good views of the surrounding countryside. Gold was discovered in Canyon Creek in 1862, and over the next few years, up to 10,000 miners poured into the area.  As the yield dwindled, the fortune hunters moved on, and Canyon City has had fewer than 1,000 residents for many decades. Visitors are welcome to try their hand panning for gold in the now-deserted creek that drew crowds of miners long ago.

Before leaving Canyon City, don’t miss the large murals in the center of town, where you’ll see images from local history: settlers, horse-drawn wagons and the men who pursued the dream of gold.

Visiting Canyon City 
Canyon City is located on Highway 395 about two miles south of John Day. See the Grant County Museum website at ortelco.net/~museum. For directions and information concerning Boot Hill Cemetery, check with museum staff. You’ll find additional traveler information about the area at cityofjohnday.com and visiteasternoregon.com.