Canyonville, an historic community of Oregon, is situated at the north end of Canyon Creek Canyon, where this defile opens into the valley of the South Umpqua, about six miles east of Riddle. Hudson’s Bay Company trappers used this route to California in 1828. (Oregon Geographic Names 1992)
The first known non-Indians to visit the site of present day Canyonville was Alexander Roderick McCloud in 1828. He was on his way from Fort Vancouver to California to hunt and trap. The second known group of travelers was headed by Ewing Young in 1837. His party drove 600 cattle from California to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Reverend Jason Lee visited the Umpqua in 1838 and again in 1840.
In 1846, Jesse and Lindsey Applegate left Fort Hall on a trip south to search for a new route to Oregon from the East. In his diary Lindsey wrote they spent the night of June 24, 1846, camping at the entrance to “historic Umpqua Canyon,” now Canyonville. It took the brothers a full day to travel up the small stream and cross over the summit near Azalea. They re-explored the trail the next day.
The trail they blazed became a road as both north and south bound travelers increased in numbers. Wagon trains sometimes required two and three weeks to travel the 11 miles from Azalea to Canyonville. The Canyon was a rough passage. In many places the immigrants had to take their wagons apart and move them downstream by hand. The little settlement at the north end of the passage was a welcome sight to many a weary traveler. Both the Canyon and the flat at the north end were sometimes littered with abandoned equipment.
The first recorded passage of wagons through the Umpqua Canyon was in 1843, when Stephen Meek, a brother of the noted mountain man, Joseph Meek, guided the Lansford W. Wastings party of emigrants from the Willamette Valley to California. Another small group of wagons came north from California in the same year, passing through the canyon on their way to the Willamette Valley.
Meek followed the old trail used by the Hudson’s Bay Company fur brigades. This route had also been used by the detachment of the Wilkes’ US Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lt. George F. Emmons en route from Oregon to California in 1841. In 1846 the canyon route was used by the wagon train led over the “Southern Route,” the Scott-Applegate Trail. This party, led by Cpt. Levi Scott, consisted of about 150 persons and 42 wagons. Their stock was so exhausted from desert travel that they suffered greatly in coming down the canyon. The oxen were so weak that much of the party’s equipment was abandoned. The family of Rev. J. A. Cornwall was in the 1846 immigration; unable to proceed further, Cornwall stopped on a small stream which enters Calapooia Creek near present day Oakland. Here he built a crude cabin, and the family wintered there, obtaining a few supplies from the Hudson’s Bay Company post, Fort Umpqua. The Cornwall dwelling gave the creek its present name, Cabin Creek. A relief party from the settlements in the Willamette helped some of the hapless members of the 1846 train to reach the Willamette Valley just as winter closed in.
In 1851 Joseph Knott and Joel Perkins operated a ferry across the South Umpqua calling the settlement Kenyonville. Knott built the first store, a small log cabin with a dirt floor. His stock consisted of the staple merchandise available, overalls and tobacco–and whiskey. Later on he sold his store to Jackson Reynolds and Joseph Roberts. Roberts had taken a Donation Land Claim of 160 acres north of the settlement. The two partners later sold the store to Jesse Roberts, brother of Joseph. It was Jesse who, in 1856, built the Roberts Hotel and the grist mill. In 1858 he platted the town site and named it Canyonville. Jesse Roberts died at the age of 47 and is buried along side his wife, Mary Jane, in the old Canyonville Cemetery on the hill overlooking the town he founded.
When gold-bearing quartz was found nearby, a rush began, and in 1852, Congress appropriated $120,000 to build a military road from California to Oregon. The road through the canyon, however, was not completed until 1858. It was built under the supervision of General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker of Civil War fame.
The Hooker Survey became the overland road used by freighters and the California-Oregon Stage Company, organized in 1860, and by other north-south bound travelers until 1920. This became the main road to California until the arrival of the railroad.
The strikes brought an influx of miners and settlers to Southern Oregon, anxious to share in the gold bonanza. By 1852 pack trains were making regular trips from Scottsburg at the head of tidewater on the Lower Umpqua to the mines in Southern Oregon. Canyonville became an important way station. Rough Canyon Passage made rest stops mandatory. Supplying miners, packers, and early immigrants became good business.
In the early days Canyonville was known as North Canyonville. The post office was established July 6, 1852, with John T. Boyle first postmaster of this early pioneer office. The name was originally applied in contradistinction to South Canyonville, a community located a few miles to the south. The latter never obtained a post office, and eventually the two communities merged. Canyonville post office is located on Canyon Creek about a mile from its junction with South Umpqua River, and about six miles east of Riddle. Thomas Wilson served as first postmaster of this office which is still in operation. (Oregon Post Offices 1842-1982, pp. 21, 72)
Canyon Creek is erroneously supposed by many to be Cow Creek although it does traverse that stream through a wide valley east of Glendale. The pass at the head of Canyon Creek is 2,015 feet in elevation. Canyonville has an elevation of 747 feet. Those who have visited this part of the state will realize that Canyon Creek and Canyonville are appropriate names.
The canyon was known in pioneer days as Umpqua Canyon. The railroad finally selected ascended Cow Creek from Riddle and joined the old stage road not far from Glendale. The stage route for many years continued up Canyon Creek and today travelers over I-5 may see where there have been earlier routes through the canyon. The total descent from the pass at the head of Canyon Creek to Canyonville is nearly 1,300 feet, most of which occurs in the south part of the canyon.
Difficulties have continued here in modern times, for on January 16, 1974 nine men working in a Pacific Northwest Bell Company relay station about a mile south of Canyonville were killed when a massive earth slide swept away the building.