Hear this edition of Canby Then in all of its audio glory on Episode 2 of the Canby Now Podcast.
Service at the Canby Ferry stopped in January 1946, when heavy rains and high waters ripped the ferry from its moorings and smashed it against a riverbank downstream. The damage was deemed irreparable, and there wasn’t enough money to buy a replacement, so service was simply discontinued.
But in 1952, a grassroots effort began, led by local business and civic leaders, to bring the Canby Ferry back. On July 2 of that year, Clackamas County agreed to re-establish service after a delegation of Canbyites presented a petition in favor of the ferry’s return, signed by over 800 citizens.
The Canby Herald had a colorful description of that hearing, saying Clackamas County Judge Wallace R. Telford tried to keep “strictly to the subject of the ferry, and several times interrupted speakers who seemed inclined to stray to other subjects. One opposition speaker was asked to get back on track when he announced he was going to tell ‘the story of the three drunks.’ The audience never got a chance to hear that story.”
In other words, it was pretty much your typical public meeting.
Return to Glory
The new, improved Canby Ferry was put into service in the summer of 1953, following a dedication ceremony on the river. It was christened the “M.J. Lee,” after Millard Jerome Lee, “M.J.” to everyone who knew him, and also sometimes known as “Mr. Canby.” His is a story for another time, suffice to say that he was the son of some of the town’s earliest pioneers — the “first white child born in Canby,” as was often noted in the earlier days of newspapers — and a dynamic figure in its early history.
Lee had died several years earlier, so naming the gleaming, new ferry after him seemed a fitting tribute. Ora Lee Cattley, his cousin and a noteworthy figure in her own right, christened the new vessel by smashing a bottle of champagne over its hull. Many years later, her daughter would say “she out-christened the queen of England,” referring to the fact that Elizabeth II often had to take several swings in her christening attempts, whereas her mother had done it in only one.
The decision to reinstate the ferry was a bit unusual because, by the 1950s, Oregon ferries were already becoming a thing of the past. When Boone’s Ferry was replaced by a bridge in 1954, it left only three ferries still operating on the Willamette — Wheatland, Buena Vista and Canby — which is still the case today.
But the Canby Ferrry served a purpose, not only in giving motorists a much quicker and more direct route to Portland, but also for the local economy. Newspapers noted that the Ferry trundled “many a truckload of grain” across the Willamette during harvest season each year.
The Clackamas County Navy
By the 1960s, the ferry had acquired the nickname of the Clackamas County “Navy,” as it was the only seaworthy vessel the county owned. Like any Navy ship, the first M.J. Lee was equipped with its own lifeboat — although no one ever had to use it.
One of the ferry operators during this period was Vic Hodel, who served as ferryman for 23 years. He became so well known for the pilot cap and red suspenders he wore, that one regular rider asked if she could have his suspenders when he retired. He said that she could, and he made good on that promise when he retired in 1979.
Needless to say, Hodel had some memorable experiences on the river. In 1959, he witnessed the only known drowning of a Canby Ferry passenger, when a woman’s dog jumped overboard mid-stream, and the woman went in after it. The woman was later rescued, but her dog, sadly, was lost.
Hodel himself had some close calls. The ferry lost power and stranded him during the infamous Columbus Day storm of 1962; fortunately, some tugboat operators happened along and towed him to shore. Twice, the vessel was struck by lightning while he was aboard, and he saw sparks flying off the steel deck.
The worst happened in 1979, the same year he retired, which may not have been a coincidence. A driver near the ferry mistook the gas pedal for the brake and plowed into the ferry with her pickup truck. Hodel had to dive into the river to escape injury. “It sounded like an airplane coming down on me,” he recalled.
Married on the Ferry
The only known wedding on the Canby Ferry happened on July 3, 1982, when Gresham residents Debra Schlosser and Curt Terhaar tied the knot on the M.J. Lee before a local magistrate. The couple had wanted a private ceremony — in fact, they hadn’t even told their parents yet — but word leaked, and a whole crowd of wedding crashers, including public officials and photographers, was waiting for them when they showed up in tux and gown.
The party was too large for everyone to fit aboard the ferry, so the ceremony was conducted with the boat moored. When asked about the honeymoon, the bride quipped, “We’re not telling anyone where we’re going.”
Ferry Breaks into Show Biz
The Canby Ferry was the setting of a national TV commercial for Dodge automobiles in 1987. The ad told the story of a young man driving all night in his new Dodge to see his girlfriend, who meets him at a ferry. Shooting had been set for the Puget Island Ferry near Seattle, when the producer heard about the Canby Ferry from a waiter at a Portland restaurant. He drove over to take a look and decided that the M.J. Lee was just what he’d had in mind.
The production took nine days to film and was estimated to have dropped $250,000 into the local economy.
The M.J. Lee II
After 40 years of service, the original M.J. Lee eventually fell into disrepair. In 1995, the ferry failed a Coast Guard inspection, and county officials began plans to replace it. The new M.J. Lee cost $720,000 and was put into service in 1997. Doris Cattley Martin, the daughter of Ora Lee Cattley, did the christening honors.
Canby and the surrounding community came together on Sept. 17, 2014, to celebrate the Canby Ferry’s centennial anniversary with speeches, ferry rides, fun facts, music and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque. Descendants of M.J. Lee were in attendance.
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