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History of Lebanon

Excerpts from Lebanon City Directory

Photographs courtesy of Patricia Dunn


1910 Downtown
Downtown 1910


This is the story of Lebanon, Oregon, most westerly and progressive of all the Lebanons. It is a story of a town founded by American wagon-train pioneers who searched a vast continent for a land of heart's desire where they could build their homes and sink their ploughs. They found it one morning as their wagon trains came to rest in the saving green grass of a valley floor and it has been handed down in story to the present day that on that morning men stood in the saddle stirrups and women looked out from the open ends of the Conestoga wagons to smile and weep and laugh and pray in Thanksgiving for having been guided to a new homeland so beautiful and so abundant.

But it is more than a pioneer story of log cabins and crude ploughs and seeds that had been carried across a continent for planting in a new land. It is a story of typical western American development, with all the romance, all the sorrow and all the joy, all the weal and woe and all the radiant and dimming rainbows of a community glowing across the years. And finally it becomes a story of a progressive Lebanon, finding its place in a national economy - a Lebanon of definite importance to a nation facing her greatest crisis. For almost side-by-side with the descendants of those who came to set the stakes for farming, march the modern of industry who came to make good use of the great forests behind Lebanon in the making of paper, plywood, and other commodities which America needs so desperately now.

The settlement of Lebanon was part of a dramatic national movement - the expansion of a vigorous people, the westward trek of home builders.

Adventurous young men singly and in groups came to the northwest coast with the various exploring and trading parties of the first part of the last century, many staying on and striking out for themselves. Even before the discovery of gold in California, glamorous stories were told of that Spanish colony and often these hard adventurers headed south overland. As they had to live off the country they often camped for weeks and even months at a time in places where they found sheltered spots and good hunting. Many of them in this way picked out places which they wanted for their own and later returning did take those very tracts as homesteads. Thus it was that some of the earliest settlers came to this vicinity.

When the modern town of Lebanon celebrated its Centennial in 1947, the Lebanon Express chronicled the community's beginnings well. A simple paragraph related that late in the autumn of 1847 Jeremiah Ralston halted his train of three wagons and twelve yoke of oxen at the cabin of William Hawk and Thomas Morgan. It was the end of the long arduous trek across two thousand miles of plains, mountains and deserts which Ralston had begun with his wife and four children that spring. At South Platte, a fifth child, Charles, was born. Jeremiah Ralston bought property from Hawk, Morgan and William Smith to form the nucleus for the settlement which later became the city of Lebanon.

What is now Lebanon was marked on some of the very early maps as "Peterson's Gap" because of Asa Peterson, one of the very early settlers, who pushing south from Oregon City, took land just a few miles southwest of where the town later developed. The hill still called "Peterson's Butte" was part of that claim.

As the value of the great northwest became apparent, congress passed the donation land law which allowed families to take claims to 640 acres. This was to further stimulate immigration. More than 8,000 claims were registered under this law and it is on such land that Lebanon was built.

Luther Elkins

Luther Elkins The business section and some of the residential parts of town are on land taken by Jeremiah Ralston, his wife Jemima Ralston and his son, William. As the town grew it spread over parts of the claims of John Settle, Luther Elkins, Dr. Ballard, H. B. Greer, L. T. Woodward, the Kees Brothers and the Wassom, Roberts and Bland families.

During the winter of 1845 two young men, William Hawk and William Smith spent several months near what is now the corner of Grove and Maple Streets and built a small cabin. In order to have the boundaries of his claim parallel, when the Ralston family staked out their claim, Jeremiah Ralston made a trade with these young men. Hawk left the vicinity, though he later located in another part of Linn County, but Smith crossed the river and took land still owned by his sons.

In 1848, a year before the territorial government was organized, the first election was held in what is now Lebanon, then called Kees' Precinct. At this election, held in the home of Morgan Kees, thirty-eight votes were polled. The judges were Morgan Kees, J. Ralston and William Gore - the clerks were Elmore Gallaher and Asa Peterson.

The first houses were of logs and around each cabin was a cleared spot for a garden. Within a couple of seasons food was abundant. Much of what is now Lebanon was then wheat fields and while they were small compared with the fields on the prairie, they did not have to be very large when the yield was 60 to 70 bushes to the acre. During the first few years all of the grain was taken to Oregon City or Salem to be ground, such journeys taking a week or more. Enough grain would be taken by ox teams or pack horses to provide the family with meal for a year.

But as more families came and there was more and more meal to be ground, milling facilities were a logical development. Some of the early millers were Jonathan Wassom, James Cowan, John Little, Luther Elkins and Richard Cheadle. By 1875 the Lebanon Flour Mill was grinding 160 barrels of flour a day, the power being taken from the river.

While the first houses were of logs, saw mills were soon built and after Jeremiah Ralston built the first frame house, so many other frame houses were put up that S. A. Nickerson added a sash and lumber mill to his saw mill business. But the sawmills remained smaller than the flour mill, because of the difficulty of transportation. It was harder to sling their products across the back of a horse.

With stock, gardens and plenty of meal from their own wheat, the early settlers were almost self-sustaining and the stores were few and small. When Jeremiah Ralston came west he brought a supply of staples and opened a store where the Lebanon 5 & 10 store now stands, and Luther Elkins had another store on the corner where the Irish-Warner drive-in market is located.


It was Jeremiah Ralston who first platted the town and named it. He chose the name because of the many cedar trees by the river made him think of the Biblical references to the cedars of Lebanon and because of sentiment for his birthplace - Lebanon, Tennessee.

An interesting point in connection with the naming of Lebanon is that during the forties there was another settlement in the Waldo Hills named Lebanon, a settlement with enough population to allow it a post office. The post office was discontinued before this town of Lebanon was platted in 1852.

Richmond Cheadle, who was one of the early settlers to take a donation land claim south of town, was a Baptist minister who served the Baptist churches in Oregon.

The new name did not take very well at first and for a while the little village was rather derisively called "Pinhook." Fortunately the plat with the name Lebanon was registered and when the mail service was established the post office was called Lebanon. But that was a decade later. During the first years all the mail came to Oregon City and then was carried to the more remote settlements on horseback, the carrier who brought the mail to Lebanon going on to Brownsville. The mail was usually left at the hotel, but question sometimes came up as to which log house was the hotel, for all were hospitable that every house was open to travelers.


Stories about Indians told by the early settlers had, for the most part, to do with the events on their journeys across the plains where the war-like tribes were a danger to the white man's caravans. The natives found here on the coast were neither as vigorous nor as hostile as those east of the mountains and when they approached the newcomers it was usually to beg food. While many of the young men who settled here took part in Indian wars, they were in the struggles east of the mountains: the Modoc, Cayuse, Rogue River and Klamath Indian wars.

These Coast Indians, "fisheaters" as they were called, like their more aggressive cousins, soon fell victims to the white man's diseases and fire water. Their numbers were reduced tragically soon, the remnants of the tribes retreating to the reservations. Most of those who lived here went to the Siletz country and only their name, Santiam, remains to remind us of their existence. Chiefly it designates the river so useful to the community.

Rebecca Bell
Rebecca Bell
Parents: John and Lurana Bell

A few Indians remained among the whites and led rather squalid lives. The last one in Lebanon was an old Indian called Joe, who lived with his squaw in a miserable cabin on what is now Hiatt Street. He died in 1870 and the white men buried him in the old Indian cemetery near where the nut plant now stands.

The first place that we find the name Santiam written was in the journal of the Reverend Gustavus Hines in which he kept a detailed account of a preaching mission on which he accompanied the Reverend Jason Lee from Salem to the Umpqua, in 1840. In this he tells about camping by a river which he called the "Santa Ama". He probably thought it was like the name of the Spanish mission in California.

John Minto, who was an outstanding member of the migration of 1844, wrote in his memoirs of a chief called "San-de-ham" a chief of a branch of the Calapooia Indians at that time throught to number about eight thousand. And it was Chief Papea, a descendant of Chief San-de-ham who signed the treaty with the United States government which gave the white man title to all the land in the Willamette Valley east of the river.

"Ahalapam," Mr. Minto says further, was an indian form of the same name which they applied to the cinder field north of the Three Sisters where the early settlers thought the Santiam river had its source.

When gold was first discovered in California so many of the new settlers in Oregon went south that some feared Oregon would be depopulated, but the donation land law was such an inducement to settlement here that many of the gold seekers returned and it was often said, found more gold in Oregon's fields than in California's streams.

In many parts of the Willamette valley redwood and walnut trees, grown from nuts brought back in the packs of the returning gold seekers, are memorials to these young men. While there are no redwood near Lebanon, tradition has it that some of our largest walnut trees grew from nuts planted by the young homesteaders who returned from California and took claims here.

By 1848 enough crops were being raised in Oregon so that lucrative business grew up packing flour and meat to the California camps by wagon and pack trains. Many early Lebanon residents took part in this business.



All who crossed the plains realized that the greatest problem was how to get across the mountains. The search was always for lower passes, and authorization of the construction of the Barlow wagon road was one of the first acts of the provisional legislature. But the search for lower, better routes across the mountains continued so that in the fall of 1859 when Andrew Wiley, John Brandenburg and John Gray first discovered the South Santiam Pass, they realized that it would probably be one of the most travelled passes, not only for settlers who were continuing to move into the Willamette valley, but also for the stock men who could drive their herds to the eastern Oregon range each summer.

They were so enthusiastic that they at once made an estimate of the cost of constructing a road. Their estimate was $1,522.25.

Others became interested in developing this mountain pass and effort was made to raise money for building such a road by public subscription. When that failed they formed a company to build it as a private toll road.

The first articles of incorporation for "The Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Road" were filed in 1864 by Luther Elkins, Morgan Kees, John Settle, Isaac Coryell, Jacob and James Richardson. Their enthusiasm was evidently contagious because the second and third articles of incorporation contained the names of several other Lebanon men, as well as some who lived elsewhere.

In 1861 the toll road was begun. The company received 800,000 acres of land from the state - every odd section along the right of way from Albany to Ontario to help with the cost of construction. The first toll gate was about three miles east of Sweet Home with John Gilliland appointed first gate keeper.

The tolls were not exhorbitant. Six horse teams paid a toll of $3.50, two horse teams $2.00; one horse outfits $1.00; saddle horses 75 cents, and pack horses 20 cents. Cattle were charged for at the rate of 10 cents each, while sheep and hogs were paid for at the rate of 3 cents a head.

Harriet Settle

Harriet Settle

James Settle

James Settle

When the first transcontinental motor trip was made by Dwight B. Huss, he chose to cross the Cascades by way of the South Santiam Pass, and went through Lebanon on his way to the Lewis and Clark fair in Portland. Service stations were then undreamed of and as he drove westward he wired to the towns ahead for gas. In a town the size Lebanon was then, the amount of gas required for the early Oldsmobile he drove was seldom on hand and so one of the hardware stores hurriedly sent for gasoline in order to have it when he arrived. In passing it might be of interest to note that in 1931 Huss crossed the continent again in the same car which by that time looked like a relic of the remote past to the many school children who gathered to watch him pass, and again he stopped in Lebanon.

J. L. Nye, keeper of the toll gate in 1905, noted that all animals gave the Huss car a wide berth. When Huss came to pay his toll, as there was no published tariff for automobile, Nye classifed the gasoline buggy as a "road hog" and let it pass through the gate for three cents, the toll charged for hogs on hoof.

The old toll gate was a plain, heavy wooden affair, with bars set close enough so no small animal like a pig could crawl through. The planks were set horizontally about 6 inches apart. It was hung on heavy posts which stayed a fence that extended on both sides of the road as far as one could see. Both gate and fence were of crude heavy timbers, but somewhere the first gate keeper had found a can of blue paint to "doll up" the gate itself. The key and lock of the historic toll barrier were used by Marvin Nye, who served as the last toll gate keeper, until his death.

The first forest look-out in the county was established near Lebanon by Marvin Nye, who was agent for the company which succeeded the Willamette Valley and Cascade Road Company. Nye, who sensed the dangers and losses of forest fires, nursed the idea that they could be prevented. Naturally enough he had difficulty in persuading the company he represented that such disasters which everyone had looked upon as acts of God could be controlled, but they finally gave him permission to try out his idea, so he sent his brother Bert to the highest place near the Middle Santiam River, a hill with an altitude of 3,700 feet. That was the beginning of our fire prevention work, before national forestry began in 1905.

The governor of Oregon and the state forester officially honored Nye for his part in inaugurating this work. Nye was a grandson of John Settle, one of those on whose land Lebanon was developed.

For many years the South Santiam road was a busy highway with wagon trains as much as half mile in length and herds of as many as 500 head of stock not at all uncommon. Sheep men in eastern Oregon sent their wool across the pass to the mill in Brownsville and Waterloo, and the teams returned with loads of vegetables and fruit.

1910/11 - Main & Maple St. - Joe Mayer,
Ed Kellenberger, Sr., Elmore Harden,
Albert Ziezing, Elmer R. Grones

Machine Shop

In the heyday of railroad building, Lebanon was on a line projected from Newport, Oregon, to Newport, Rhode Island. In an effort to keep a franchise, T. Eggenton Hogg, who was constructing part of such a road, hauled a box car and a section of track to Sand Mountain, where he had a short length of road bed graded and the car set up. The amount of traffic did not justify the expense and the road was never built. However, the section of track and the car stood there for many years, reminders of the early dream. The track rusted and the box car withered away until only rusty bolts and plates remain. Old timers recall that the box car containing two sacks of beans, hauled by a mule, made two round trips daily over the short section of track.

Transportation was Lebanon's first problem. Roads were poor; dusty trails in the summer - a mire of mud in the winter. But with a population so sparse the expense of building good roads was prohibitive. So great hopes were entertained for water transportation by using the rivers. This hope that some day river boats would solve Lebanon's transportation problem led to one of the most colorful episodes in the town's history.

So sure were many early settlers that some day boats would ply the Santiam that when the railroad bridge was built at Jefferson, great pressure was brought to compel the railroad to construct a drawbridge. This would have been very expensive and to prove that it would be an unnecessary expense, the railroad company sent a boat up the river. The results of the effort to send a boat to Lebanon were such that nothing further was ever said about the need of a draw in the Jefferson bridge.

Old Lebanon Area School
Lebanon Area School


Santiam Academy

[Was once located on the site of the Middle School campus.
The old Middle School building was once Lebanon High School]

Santiam Academy



In 1871, the Calliope, a small, flat bottomed steamboat ascended the South Santiam to what was then known as the Ridgeway ferry, near where the two bridges now cross the Santiam just east of town. The little steamer left Corvallis one day at noon under the command of Captain Robert Copeley and succeeded in reaching Jefferson that evening. The next day she started for Lebanon but she had to be helped by the dozens of farmers who had congregated along the river bank to watch her make the trip. The farmers were as anxious as the townspeople to have boats navigate the Santiam and they all willingly lent a hand to pull her over the shallow places in the narrow stream.

The Calliope's whistle shrieked almost constantly as she struggled upstream and the answering yells of the crowds who congregated along the river to watch her progress were encouraging, but not very helpful.

A great celebration was planned. People came from miles around to see the vessel whose trip was to be, they hoped, the beginning of a regular transportation service. A barbeque and ball were planned. But Captain Copeley who had been able to see bottom much of the way to Lebanon did not dare to stay in Lebanon overnight lest the water go down and his boat be grounded. So the return trip had to be started at once.

What was to have been an historic shipment, about 20 tons of freight, was loaded on the Calliope for her return trip, but after a few miles most of it had to be taken off to keep her afloat. A number of Lebanon people too had taken passage on the boat for the experience of helping initiate what they hoped would be regular service. But they as well as the freight had to be hauled home. Every team in town was used to bring back the passengers and the goods.

Even so, the little steamer had to wait this side of Jefferson for a heavy rain to bring the river up so it could sail back into the Willamette. Thus ended all hope of navigation of the Santiam. The railroad bridge was built without a draw and agitation for boat service ended.

But the problem of transportation remained to be solved for there were constantly increasing crops and numbers of livestock to be shipped. Then came the railroad.

Jesse W. George was a pioneer of Oregon,
having crossed the plains in 1851. He first
settled on a farm at the front of Peterson Butte,
three miles from Lebanon. He died in March
1895 in Seattle of pneumonia. His son,
Silvanus E. George, died Oct. 16, 1866 at the
age of 4 years and 8 months.

Jesse George



A branch of the Southern Pacific was built from Albany to Lebanon in 1880. To a generation to whom railroad travel means as little as it does to this generation, it is hard to picture the excitement in Lebanon when the line was built. Mrs. Jeremiah Ralston gave the Southern Pacific a right of way through a field and 13 and a half acres for a station, receiving as a mark of appreciation from the railroad company a lifetime pass.



That the donation land law and other colonization efforts of the time appealed to the homeseeker rather than to the speculator and the adventurer is seen in the early organization of churches and schools. Since most of those who first came to Lebanon were Methodists, that was the first denomination to hold regular services and when the town was platted, a ten acre tract was given to the Methodist conference by the Ralston and Kees family for church and school purposes.

The conference sent the Rev. L. T. Woodward and Mrs. Woodward to Lebanon as teachers and missionaries and thus began one of the outstanding schools of early Oregon, Santiam Academy.

The late Judge Owen Denny, who crossed the plain when a boy in 1852 and lived much of his early life on the Denny homestead west of Lebanon, became the American Consul General in several cities in China. There he saw the ringnecked pheasant and conceived the idea of shipping some to Oregon. As most of the first birds sent over in 1881 died on the way, he sent a second lot the following year to his brother who lived on the family homestead. Of this second shipment twenty-eight survived. John Denny kept them penned up until he was sure they were all well acclimated. Then he turned them loose on Peterson's Butte. The value of the gift has increased each year until now it is estimated that as food alone it is worth not less than $7,000 a year. The esthetic value is immeasurable.

In appreciation of the effort he made to introduce this valuable fowl, a venture that cost him more than $4,500 of his own money, the Oregon State Legislature empowered the game commission to pay a pension of $50 a month to Mrs. Denny after Judge Denny's death. And though an effort has been made to call the bird the Denny pheasant, the name has never come into common use.

Sportsmen of the state have reason to thank Judge Denny for the introduction of one of the most popular game bird in the West - the China Pheasant.

Lebanon Genealogical Society
© 1998 Jan Phillips
First posted January 1998

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