‘Father of Irrigation,’ M.J. Lee, Made Waves in Canby’s History

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Today, a look at one aspect of Canby’s history that’s sure to make a splash. Our town has the good fortune of being nestled on the banks of not one, but two rivers, the Willamette and the Molalla.

So, water — for drinking, bathing, washing, irrigation and, of course, epic water balloon fights — has not been the challenge in Canby that it often has been for some of our neighbors to the east and south.

Nevertheless, it is a colorful history, and one that — not surprisingly — intertwines with that of an old friend, Mr. Canby himself. M.J. Lee, the dynamic grandson of Canby pioneer and founder Philander Lee, was also instrumental in the city’s early forays into electricity, but he played an even larger role in establishing the first water system here.

In the earliest part of the 20th century, M.J. Lee was determined to accomplish something that many men older and seemingly wiser than he said could not be done: bring irrigation to the Canby prairie. It was said that Canby’s sandy soil was unsuitable for “carry[ing] water in open ditches,” according to an early newspaper article of the day.

But Lee was never one to let challenges get in the way of a good idea. It took him “large sums of money” and the entirety of his considerable energy, time and attention for the better part of four years, but he did it, and in the process earned yet another nickname (as if he needed it).

“For the first time in the history of Canby Prairie,” a July 1911 article in the Canby Tribune announced, “water has been supplied for the thirsty fields, lawns and orchards thru the medium of irrigation, and the long sought for goal and dream of the promoter and Father of Irrigation in the Willamette Valley M.J. Lee is fast taking form and realization.”

Lee started digging his ditches in Meadowbrook, down Milk Creek and into Canby Prairie, but to expedite the project and really get things flowing, he constructed a flume leading into the Molalla, which crossed under the railroad tracks at one point.

Lee, who had always believed in a bright future for the town he loved so dearly, was of the unshakable mind that irrigation was the key to unlocking the area’s potential for growth and prosperity — or as he was fond of saying, “Irrigation is King” — and the Tribune seemed to agree.

“With the completion of the flume line and the wonderful increase in productiveness of our soil fully established, we expect to see the completion of the high line canal and an even greater increase in our productiveness shown,” the newspaper said.

“Since the birth of this project, our little city has been on the gradual increase, not in the nature of a mushroom growth, but with substantial and beautiful homes and buildings, and with the backing of a wonderfully productive country assisted by a strong publicity campaign, we hope to place Canby on the map among her most conspicuous sisters as the hub and center of the most wonderfully attractive and alluring towns in the Willamette Valley.”

The “Father of Irrigation” was proud of his accomplishment, and when he started a county newspaper that same decade, he named it — what else? — the Willamette Valley Irrigator, which later merged with the Canby Tribune and a wonderful little circular in neighboring Aurora that went by the name the Aurora Borealis.

Around that same time, the city’s first water pumping station was established. Like the electric system, the water supply is owned by the city, and has been for more than a century — which is unusual for Oregon.

In the early days, drinking water was supplied from a drilled well at the northeast corner of N.W. 4th and Fir, and stored in an elevated wooden tank, which — ironically — burned to the ground in October 1919.

Evidently learning a lesson similar to the one learned by the Three Little Pigs of fairy tale lore, the City employed an engineer to design a 100,000-gallon, elevated steel storage tank to be built at the same location.

In an election which also included a proposed measure prohibiting the running of livestock through Canby streets (it passed), voters rejected a $20,000 bond to build new waterworks for the city. However, a smaller amount — $7,151 — was later overwhelmingly endorsed by property owners between Canby and Knight’s Bridge, and the new tank was built.

The City Council paid off the sum in April 1926.

The distribution system for the downtown core area was constructed between 1916 to 1922, and is still in use today, even despite an unfortunate episode in January 1921, when typhoid fever germs were found in the city’s water by the state board of health. Schools closed for the day and students were required to bring in their own water, boiled for safety.

Sometime later, and — probably — unrelated, the city had another well drilled on the same site about 700 feet deep. Among other minerals, the water contained a considerable amount of sulfur, and the well became known as “Old Stinky.”

Around 1929, the city employed a contractor to build a concrete system of collection boxes, gallery and pipelines on the Molalla River, from which water was pumped into the distribution system and storage tank at a volume of 250 gallons a minute, thanks to the wonders of electricity. A second 250-gallon-per-minute electric pump was added later.

Even more water was needed in 1944, and the city again employed a contractor to construct a concrete collection gallery approximately 18 feet in diameter and about 24 feet deep, with openings in the walls to permit water to enter from the underground aquifer. A 40 hp motor with an 800 gallon per minute pump was installed.

Between 1950 and 1951, a 30-inch diameter corrugated metal pipe, with perforations to admit the water, was installed about 18 feet below ground level and approximately 300 feet in length and connected to the gallery that had been built in 1944.

This well performed very well until the mid-60s, when the water source was deemed insufficient to supply the demand. By force account, and with the Water Department’s employees, a mechanical system of pressure pumping was installed and a contract was awarded to build a 500,000-gallon ground level storage tank.

This helped to meet the demands for the next three to four years, and then more water was required during the summer months. To meet this requirement, during the years 1968 to 1970, water was pumped directly from the Molalla River and ponded above the infiltration tube leading to the collection gallery then pumped into the distribution system.

In 1970, the city created the Canby Utility Board, or CUB, to operate, manage all facilities, services and aspects of the City’s Municipal Water Department. And, that same year, design work began on a pump station at the Molalla River that would have the capacity to pump over 3 million gallons of water per day.

Subsequent expansions in 1980, 1995, and 2006 have improved the facility’s capacity to now 8 million gallons of water per day — along with 20 million complaints during the summer months about how it tastes.

“Hello? Hello? Can you hear me now?” The history of Canby’s telephone service, next time on Canby Then.

Photo courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

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