Some folks don’t believe in miracles.
For other folks, well, they say all you have to do is open your eyes and believe.
Some say you need to look no further than a little church in the little town of Canyon City.
Built on the ashes of the town’s first catastrophic fire in the 1870s, St. Thomas Episcopal Church stood tall through not one but two more blazes that laid waste to almost every other building downtown.
The little church still stands today.
Was it the spring of water near the church? Was it the mercy of the Lord? Or was it just dumb luck?
Well, I guess you can decide.
It was gold that started it all.
During the rush, Canyon City sprouted into a booming town.
It’s said the miners preferred saloons to salvation, but that didn’t stop the Rev. R.D. Nevius, a learned man and a doctor of divinity. He held his first service at the Good Templar’s Hall on May 31, 1874, with a flock of about 15.
It didn’t take long for the congregation to muster up $130 to purchase a parcel of land nestled against the hillside. The Reverend and Bishop Morris laid the cornerstone Sept. 3, 1876.
The Reverend designed the chapel, a mix of Anglican and Gothic architecture with a steep roof and pointed window frames. He finished the interior and built the pews with hand-sawed knotty pine. The stained glass windows were sailed around the Horn to The Dalles and hauled in by wagon from there if they didn’t cross the country on the Oregon Trail.
The Reverend held the first service July 15, 1877. The Bishop consecrated the church and set it aside as a House of God on June 20, 1879 — a hair shy of a score before the rest of the town would go up in flames.
It was November of 1898 when the second fire tore through Canyon City, the first time since the church was erected.
Hard to say how it got lit, but there sure were suspicious circumstances.
It started in the room of a traveling performer, they say, just about an hour after he sang “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” in the town’s New York Theatre.
They rounded him up for trial, all right, but he didn’t hang for lack of evidence. An out-of-town newspaper, known as the East Oregonian, said an oil lamp had exploded in the room of a “morphine fiend.”
One thing is sure, not much was left of the town but the Grant County News, which now goes by the name of the Blue Mountain Eagle, and the little Episcopal Church.
It would be another 40 years before the chapel would be tested by fire again, but sure enough, it came.
Buster Cresop, who was living at the Elkhorn Hotel, sounded the alarm when he saw smoke billowing out of the attic of the old wooden building at about 7:30 p.m. on April 19, 1937.
Folks as far away as Seneca, some 25 miles to the south, could see the flames as the downtown went up in smoke. The spectacle drew hundreds, and they were quickly put to work passing buckets of water to try to douse the blaze.
Firemen from all the surrounding towns and the Forest Service came to help as the fire burned through the night. They laid extra hoses to try to save the historic buildings like the church and the former home of Joaquin Miller.
When the smoke cleared, an apartment and 15 businesses had been turned to ash. A store next to the church was completely destroyed, but the church escaped with little more than some scorched paint and its walls blackened by smoke.
Maybe it was the firemen and the bucket brigade that saved it. Certainly can’t discount their effort.
Maybe it was the spring of cool water spouting up from the back of the church they use for baptisms that kept the flames at bay.
Or maybe God himself reached down his hand to spare this little house of worship in a canyon prone to burning.
I guess we may never know, at least not till it’s our turn to meet our maker.
But I know where I’m going if Canyon City is set ablaze again.
And I’ll be praying.
EO Media Group writer Renee Struthers contributed to this report.