Name: Canemah, Oregon
GPS: 45.347178, -122.622699
Directions: From Oregon City head south on 99E. Canemah is now a neighborhood of Oregon City directly on the Willamette River.
Canemah, Oregon is one of the most important towns in Oregon’s early history and development. Which makes it’s fall into obscurity sort of depressing.
Canemah, or “Canoe Place,” was a location directly above Willamette Falls on the Willamette River in Oregon City, that was used by Native Americans to portage around the falls. Canemah was either the name of an Indian Chief, or the name of the Calapooya tribe that lived here. Either way, they extracted a heavy toll for other natives to use the passage. Other tribes bonded together and killed the Canemah. By the time white settlers were in the area in the 1840’s, only one Canemah was still alive.
The first White Settler in the area was Absalom F. Hedges. He came over the Oregon Trail in the 1844 Wagon Train. He found Oregon City already too crowded and set forth slightly south. Coming upon the Canoe Landing just above the river, he immediately took out a donation land claim and built a cabin. In 1846 he married sixteen year old Elizabeth Jane Barlow, daughter of Barlow Trail Builder, Samuel Barlow. He also opened a tannery at this location the same year.
In 1849 he saw that his land claim was a perfect location for a townsite. He platted the town of Falls City (the name never became commonly used,) sold a number of lots, and opened a store and sawmill with his brother in law William Barlow. The Spectator reports in it’s December 13, 1849 issue that the town had attracted several new homes and would be a place of considerable business in the future. A boardwalk connected the town to Oregon City, and it’s reported that several hotels, stores and a couple of warehouses were at this location.
Oregon City business concerns, headed by Asa Lovejoy, D.P. Thompson and William and John Dement built a mule power wooden railway between the two cities in 1854. Shipment to Canemah from the upper Willamette River was handled by a number of sternwheelers, about ten of which were built in the town. The first was the Canemah, built in 1851 by Hedges. It proved to be a capable and profitable boat, it’s low draft enabled it to easy carry grain from Corvallis to the Falls.
Unfortunately this led to tragedy. Twenty-Four people were killed on April 8th, 1854 in the explosion of the Gazelle which had just been built the month before. The engineer put too much steam into the system in preparation to leave dock quickly, causing a failure in the steam engine. The explosion damaged the Wallamet, which had also been built in Canemah.
The town of Canemah reached it’s peak in 1861. Like many other towns along the Willamette River it was almost completely devastated during the Flood of 1861. The town was rebuilt, but never quite recovered economically. The final nail was the opening of the locks on the west side of Willamette Falls in 1872. Canemah gradually became part of Oregon City and is now one of it’s historic neighborhoods.