Hear this edition of Canby Then in all of its audio glory on Episode 1 of the Canby Now Podcast.
Founded by some of the city’s pioneer families and serving as an early lifeline to local merchants and farmers, the Canby Ferry looms large in Canby’s history.
Not often was it said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” in the early days of Clackamas County. That’s because there weren’t very many bridges. Ferry boats were how you crossed the river in those days, and the Canby Ferry was a later addition than most.
The first ferry was purchased in Newberg in 1914 by Mayor W. H. Bair and a Canby State Bank representative (H. B. Evans), with $500 in funds raised by local businessmen. Their desire was to connect Canby with a large trading district on the other side of the Willamette, as well as to expand the reach for the annual Clackamas County Fair.
The first ferry captain was a man named Clem Dollar, who shuttled travelers back and forth for a city salary of $10 a month.
Wild, Wild Willamette
Dollar was a local real estate agent with a colorful history. In 1915, he was arrested following a raid on an illegal bar that had been secretly established inside the Oregon City Moose Lodge. Dollar and another Lodge member were arrested for “using abusive language” and were sentenced to 30 days in jail, which was later suspended, and a $10 fine. That was a month’s salary for Clem.
According to an article in The Oregonian, Dollar was also rumored to be a high-ranking officer in the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1922, Dollar reputedly moved his real estate business to new office space in Oregon City, and allowed the KKK to occupy the front room of his suite. At that time, the local Klan had approximately 250 members.
Dollar later moved to West Linn, where he served on the school board, the fair board and the City Council.
The city’s first ferry was soon replaced, as was its first ferryman.
In 1917, the second ferry was built by Frank E. Dodge, a Canby builder, at a cost of $238 dollars — $12 under budget. The ferry was 44 feet long and 12 feet wide. It was made of wood, with a gas-driven, six-horsepower engine.
Edward Kilgallen, who lost an arm in childhood, took over ferry duties from Clem Dollar, though his wages were reduced to $7.50 per month. After years of service, he was found dead in the boathouse at the ferry slip in 1932. His busiest month had been in August of that year, when he reported making 1,261 trips, carrying 1,942 passengers.
Chester Mead’s Flaming Automobile
The first automobile to cross over on the Canby Ferry was a Ford driven by “Cap” Smith on Sept. 9, 1915. Along for the ride were Wilson Evans, George Meeks and Glenn E. Brookins, the editor and soon-to-be owner of the local paper, who would rename it the Canby “Herald” the following year. “The machine was transported across the river in record time,” Brookins would later record.
A slightly stranger episode involving an automobile occurred in 1924, when a man named Chester Mead parked near the Canby Ferry. He left his vehicle by the side of the road to fetch an ax in the woods. He came back to only to find the back of his car engulfed in five feet of flames.
Apparently, driver education courses were not as robust in the 1920s as they are today, because Chester promptly got in, started his car and drove straight into the Willamette in an effort to extinguish the blaze. It worked, but it took days to fish the damage automobile from the river.
End of an Era?
Theodore Neep served as ferryman from 1933 to 1942. He and his family lived in a house on the south landing furnished by the county.
Throughout the years, the Canby Ferry was damaged during various floods and storms. But the worst would come in January 1946, when heavy rains and high waters ripped the ferry from its moorings and smashed it against the riverbank, or as one newspaper put it, “deposited it rudely on the rocks.”
The damage was deemed irreparable, and there wasn’t enough money to buy a replacement, so service at the Canby Ferry was discontinued for years. Until in 1952, a grassroots effort led by Canby business and civic leaders would begin the push to bring the ferry back.