Lebanon’s Canal System is one of our town’s most charming and unique features yet most people probably don’t give much thought to how it got there. The system started with the construction of a mill race in 1871 that required the building of a small dam on The Santiam River just north of where River Park and The Grant Street Bridge are now. This supplied water for power to several businesses, including the now famous Elkins Flour Mill.
Prior to this, over in Albany, Thomas Montieth had been planning, since 1858 on building a canal from the Santiam River to Albany, where it would flow into the Willamette. His idea was to use the canal for transportation via barges, for farm products and timber. The canal would also feature tow paths for teams of animals to haul barges upstream as well. After the canal was completed it was discovered that the water flowed too rapidly (Albany is 140 feet lower in altitude than Lebanon) to allow towing barges against the current.
Montieth started work on his canal in 1972, and it took it two years to reach completion. The people that built it included 150 Chinese laborers from Portland. (There are some historians that doubt this happened) At the Lebanon end, the canal connected to the already established millrace at the north end of town. This dam for the millrace was later washed away by a flood in 1921, and when I was a kid you could find the remains of some of it just north of river park.
The Lebanon canal became the source of all water for the Albany canal at this time and both canals were sold to the Mountain States Power company in 1923. In addition to the fact that the canal was only a one way trip, the establishment of a railroad to Lebanon in 1880 rendered the canal obsolete for transportation.
Despite the less than smashing debut of the Albany Canal, a group of prominent Lebanon citizens, including C.H. Ralson, J.L. Cowen, and W.B. Danica, invested $12,000 in the Lebanon Ditch Company to bring water power to the south end (in 1892) of Lebanon fairly close to downtown. This would require the construction of a dam across the Santiam about two miles upstream from Lebanon at Cheadle Falls and the canal ran for a total of 6 miles as it meandered through Lebanon. From main street to the point where it merged with the Albany canal/millrace, it followed the bed of an existing natural slough, which is why the canal looks like a natural stream as it wanders through town.
Industry was quick to take advantage of this and an Excelsior Factory, a lumber mill (Lebanon Lumber) a roller mill (Lebanon Roller Mills) quickly appeared about where the canal currently crosses Main Street. An electrical generation plant was installed in 1893, giving Lebanon electric street lights long before most towns of comparable size. This was also the start of “city water” for both domestic use and fire control. The plant was enlarged in 1920 and then later in 1946 when Lebanon was growing fast.
Probably the biggest boost the canal system provided to Lebanon was that the availability of water for power was one of the decisive factors (along with a $5,000 subsidy from the City of Lebanon) in the decision by the O’Neil Brothers to build a large paper mill in Lebanon in 1891. The initial 60 jobs provided a substantial boost to the economy.
As a child, I swam in the canal every summer after I was around 10 or so. Several of us rode inner tubes from the dam into town, gorging ourselves on Blackberries along the way. The canal was also a place for countless childhood adventures, fishing under bridges, catching crawdads and just exploring. I didn’t really think this was anything other than normal, for all I knew every town had a canal.