A Brief History of Prairie City
In 1862 a group of southern sympathizers became discouraged with mining in the Middle Fork area and were on their way to better diggings. They camped along a stream, now called Dixie Creek. A gravel bed in the stream made a nice place for the women to wash clothes. As the story goes, these ladies began seeing gold in the gravel bar as they washed their clothing. Another "gold strike" in Grant County was made!
This gold discovery was about three and one half miles above the present location of the town of Prairie City, which was called Dixie.
This new gold discovery was prospected by enthusiastic miners. The story is, that as the miners diggings were adjacent to homes already built in the vicinity and it became almost impossible to keep these homes upright.
As the gold began to "play out", the town slowly began to migrate toward the "prairie". The fertile John Day River bottom drew settlers to form a permanent town and these settlers began making their livings from the surrounding abundant timber and also by ranching and farming.
The first Post Office was established in 1870 and Prairie City was incorporated in 1891. North Main Street and East Third Street was the location of the original business district.
It was many years later, after three fires (1884, 1887 and 1901) before the business district moved to its present location on Front street.
The first school house was a small building south of town where classes were held from 1876-1885, when a new school house was built in town. This school burned down in 1901. It was replaced with a large two story school where the Blue Mountain Care Center now stands. The school was used until 1910 when the present school was built.
The Sumpter Valley Railroad Company was chartered on August 15, 1890. The railway was built in order to tap the large tracts of timber lying between Baker City and Sumpter. Tracks reached McEwen, October 1, 1891, and a depot was constructed.
Trackage into Whitney was completed on the first day of June, 1901. Whitney was established as an Oregon Lumber Company camp. Heavy rock work delayed completion of the line into Tipton until June, 1904. Tipton had a full sized depot, staffed with an agent to handle the traffic from the then thriving Greenhorn, a few miles to the north.
In 1908, valley folks around Prairie City were fearful that extension of the Oregon Lumber Company railroad down the Middle Fork of the John Day River would mean that they would be left off the railroad, which would continue via Galena and Monument, reach the main river at Kimberly and continue on into Burns.
Formal passenger service came to its end at dusk, July 31, 1937, and would be passengers thereafter were accepted in the caboose up to the time the line was abandoned in 1947.
In 1909, construction was begun on the final segment of the ambitious road. This extension running to Prairie City was 20 miles long and crossed the last of three summits at Dixie and was exactly 5,280 feet above sea level and was reached by means of switchbacks and several hairpin curves. The road was completed into Prairie City the following year. The Sumpter Valley Railroad was now 80 miles long.
Prairie City had gone through many changes since that first gold strike up Dixie Creek. The presence of plentiful water, good pastures and farm land, coupled with what seemed to be an unlimited supply of timber, were the reasons that Prairie City continued to grow and prosper, at the head of the John Day Valley.