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Oregon’s highest, smallest city once had its jail stolen

Because of how it's chartered, the ghost town of Greenhorn remained an incorporated city even when its population was zero — but it couldn't defend its city hoosegow from the midnight raiders of Canyon City one summer night.

The main street of Greenhorn City as it appeared in the summer of 1913, close to the peak of its population. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

One clear June morning in 1963, early risers in the historic Blue Mountains town of Canyon City were startled to see that there had been an unscheduled addition to the Grant County Courthouse the previous night.

Sitting there in front of the courthouse was a jail. It was a ramshackle blockhouse jail, small and square, its roof half collapsed but its thick walls of interlocking planks still as stout as they’d been when it was first built.

It was quickly recognized. The jail was a familiar one to many Canyon City residents — deer hunters in particular. It was the old municipal jail from the nearby ghost town of Greenhorn City.

As it turned out, a small group of Canyon City residents — no one seems to know exactly who — had stealthily executed a daring and audacious heist the previous evening. They’d slipped across the county line with some heavy equipment and absconded with the jail.

Was this a joke? A drunken prank? Or was it a group of serious history buffs worried about the deteriorating condition of the historic building?

Given the larcenous nature of the act — and the fact that it involved an incursion onto the territory of the neighboring county — these questions seem destined to remain unanswered.

As a joke, it would have been a grand one — almost as good as stealing a police car. But as an act of guerilla historical preservation, if such it was, it has to be one of the most effective interventions in Oregon history. Had these anonymous jail-napping ninjas not acted, the building might well have deteriorated beyond repair or been torn down for campfire wood before it could be saved by Greenhorn City’s early-1970s rebirth.

The Greenhorn City Jail as it appeared around 1961, two years before it was snatched away in the dark of night and deposited in front of the Grant County Courthouse in Canyon City. (Image: Superior Publishing)

Actually, “rebirth” is overselling it a bit. Greenhorn City is still a ghost town. But it is a very unusual ghost town in many ways. For one thing, it’s still an incorporated municipality, even though its population held steady at zero for decades. That’s because of the unique way in which it was chartered. President Taft, in 1912, issued a patent directly to the town’s mayor and his successors, making Greenhorn City something like a tiny principality, or perhaps a 51st state, rather than a city, its mayor answerable directly to the federal government. Theoretically, the town could establish its own army and, if its residents fancied a good joke, navy. (Greenhorn City is, of course, landlocked.)

As far as I’ve been able to learn, Greenhorn City is the only U.S. municipality to have been chartered in this way. It is also both the highest (6,271 feet) and the smallest (year-round population fluctuating between zero and two) incorporated city in Oregon.

Origins of Greenhorn City

The origins of Greenhorn City, like those of many mining towns, are shrouded in a confusing cloud of fantastic campfire stories. The best of these is the one told by author Lambert Florin: Two greenhorns from back east wandered into a tent saloon in a rough, unnamed mining camp high in the Blue Mountains one day in 1890 and asked the barkeep where they could find some gold to dig up. The bartender, laughing discreetly into his sleeve, pointed to a random spot on a hillside above town (where he and his bar patrons could watch and laugh) and said, “Why not start there?”

With great enthusiasm the greenhorns did so. Meanwhile the saloon filled with regulars quaffing shots of rotgut and watching the show. Presently one of the greenhorns came out of the hole they’d dug with a big rock and lugged it down to the saloon.

It was “blossom” ore, the richest any of the drinkers had seen. The greenhorns staked their claim, and the old-timers christened it “The Greenhorn Mine.”

It’s a pretty legend, but probably completely made-up. Former Greenhorn Mayor Miles F. Potter — the man who brought the town back to life, reactivated the city charter and restored its rotting water system in 1971 — says it was named after a nearby promontory called “The Green Horn.”

Greenhorn City’s revival

Potter said he and several other property owners revived the town to get protection from land speculators, who were showing some interest in turning the picturesque and fairly accessible ghost town into a tourist attraction “with gaudy doughnut shops and hamburger stands.”

At that time, the town had been dead since the early 1920s. Like so many gold-mining boomtowns, it flourished when the mines did — peaking at a seasonal population of 500 or so in the mid-1910s, and providing mail service to another 1,500 in mining camps nearby — but as they petered out, so did the town. The post office closed in 1919.

The Greenhorn City Jail a few months after it had been purloined from the Greenhorn City townsite and deposited in front of the Grant County Courthouse. The building to the left is the Grant County Historical Museum. (Image: Salem Public Library/ Ben Maxwell)

Today, Greenhorn is a seasonal getaway spot for folks who like to spend summers in a semi-primitive wilderness community, hunting and fishing, relaxing and reading. There is no electrical or sewer service, but there is cell phone service and even a fiber-optic telecom line. During the summer, the population of the little city — with its two remaining habitable buildings — never gets much above a dozen and a half. Its mayor and city officials all live elsewhere most of each year.

As for the stolen jail, when it was found parked at the courthouse in Canyon City, it was promptly hauled to the Grant County Historical Museum, where it today serves as an exhibit. This sticks in the craw of some Greenhorn people, particularly because Greenhorn is not even in Grant County. Several years ago, a group of them sued to get the building back. Nothing came of this, however, and the jail remains today on the grounds of the museum — along with the cabin formerly occupied by Joaquin Miller during his residence in Canyon City.

(Sources: Potter, Miles F. Oregon’s Golden Years. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1976; Florin, Lambert. Oregon’s Ghost Towns. Seattle: Superior, 1970; Cockle, Richard. “Oregon’s smallest city a mile-high gold-rush town,” Portland Oregonian, 6-15-2008; Gilmand, Helen. “Old Oregon town stirs again,” Portland Oregonian, 5-02-1974)