Council OKs Designation of Canby Depot Museum on Local Historic Register

The Canby City Council this week agreed to add the Canby Depot Museum to the local Register of Historic Resources, which includes a Historic Protection Overlay Zone designation to help preserve the more-than-a-century-old building.

The designation has been in the works since last year, when the Canby Historical Society first submitted the application and held a neighborhood meeting for property owners within a 500-foot radius.

The Canby Heritage and Landmark Commission approved the application last December and the Planning Commission signed off in January, after a brief discussion about the possibility of the Depot Museum eventually being relocated downtown to a more suitable location.

According to the Canby Historical Society, the designation will aid the organization in applying for grants and help preserve the site, which also serves as the group’s headquarters and a museum honoring the community’s history.

The depot building is more than 130 years old but was eligible for historical designation not simply because of its age. As local historian and CHS member Carol Palmer explains, one of its biggest pluses was its association with the early development of Canby as a shipping and distribution center.

Local historian Carol Palmer and city Economic Development Director Jamie Stickel present the history of the Canby Depot Museum building at the February 15, 2023, City Council meeting.

The construction of the first depot in 1870 put Canby on the map as an important destination on the Southern Pacific’s main line stretching from Portland to California.

With the arrival of the Oregon and California railroad came greater economic flexibility, access to new markets for shipping local crops and goods and new residents.

After the original structure was destroyed in a windstorm in 1891, the current depot was built the following year. Southern Pacific would operate the facility for nearly a century, adding onto and remodeling it numerous times, until it was finally retired from service in 1976.

It is one of only three SP No. 11 combination depots still standing from the 19th century.

“For almost nine decades, the depot was the focal point of the community’s commercial core and a foundational element of its agricultural-based economy,” Palmer said. “Southern Pacific Railroad was vital to the economic development of an area that extends west from Louisiana to California and north to Oregon.”

Former Canby Herald owner and editor, local historian and civic leader Myra Weston once wrote of the depot as “the heart of the city which has grown up around it.”

“Passengers for Portland, San Francisco, and points between and beyond bought tickets and boarded trains at the depot,” she wrote. “Incoming and outgoing mail was received and dispatched from there for Canby’s and rural post offices in this vicinity.

“Innumerable tons of products of the area’s productive soils were shipped out of Canby and merchandise was received there for firms in the area until the motor vehicle superseded the steam, and later the diesel, train.”

In 1978, Southern Pacific offered to donate the depot to the city, prompting then-Mayor Robert Rapp to appoint an advisory committee.

“Community activists interested in saving a site that had been central to the development of their city worked together to preserve the building, relocate it, and convert it into a museum,” Palmer said.

A portion of the warehouse had to be removed to fit the structure to its new site. It was moved in 1983 and, after repairs were made and the interior was remodeled, the museum opened to the public in 1984.

The movement included members of the Canby Area Chamber of Commerce and other community organizations, including Weston and Herman Bergman, who was the depot’s last station agent, serving from 1958 to 1976.

Bergman was a tireless advocate for saving the structure and repurposing it as a museum. After the relocation was complete, he served for two decades as museum director and was responsible for many of the additions to the document archive and the artifact collection, including the acquisition of the caboose in August 1989.

As Palmer detailed, the depot also has ties to two of the most prominent families from the city’s history: the Lees and the Knights.

It was Philander Lee who, in 1870, sold 111 acres of his donation land claim to the O&C Railroad to found the city. A shrewd negotiator, Lee insisted on including a provision in the sales agreement that required the firm to build a depot, which proved critical to the town’s development.

By 1892, when the second depot replaced the first, Canby had a thriving main street and a growing population. The following year, the city was incorporated — setting the stage for Joseph Knight and his five adult sons to transform the burgeoning community.

The Knights constructed homes, a hotel, a schoolhouse, and multiple commercial structures. William and George constructed Knight Mercantile, the town’s first general store. Charles Knight built a pharmacy on the west side of what is now Grant Street.

Joseph Knight Jr. erected a sawmill on the Molalla River, while George Knight built a grist mill and Adam Knight opened a blacksmith shop. William Knight, the namesake of today’s Knight Elementary School, became civically and politically active and was instrumental in the city’s 1893 incorporation.

The first Canby City Council meeting took place on the second floor of the Knight Building, with William Knight acting as city recorder and Heman Lee, son of Philander, serving as mayor.

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