Captain McCan and his Forest Grove dream

A century ago, Charles McCan was one of Forest Grove’s most-famous citizens, although few people even knew his real first name; most knew him simply as “Captain” McCan. “Cyclone” McCan might have been a more apt moniker, given the way he took the town by storm.

First came the roar of the crowd, drowning out the pounding hooves of harness racers. Then came an even louder form of horsepower, as Forest Grove became one of the first cities on the West Coast to host motorcycle races.

“Captain” was a title that McCan inherited from his riverboat captain father in his hometown of New Orleans. He did not follow his old man onto the water, however. He made his fortune from a distinctly land-based form of transportation: the automobile. His big break came in Buffalo, New York, during the first years of the 20th Century as he started selling cars in what was then one of America’s biggest boomtowns.

In 1910 he gave up the big city for Hood River, Oregon, to pursue his love of another land-based mode of transportation, the horse. He didn’t give up the automobile business, however, opening the first dealership in the Columbia River Gorge. The roads in the Gorge were not built to handle cars, however, so McCan had to build an oval track on which local farmers could test drive the unfamiliar contraptions. Most of the people who bought cars didn’t have garages, so he also built a large garage and rented space to motorists.

By coincidence, the same year that McCan moved to Oregon, the Washington County Fair moved to Forest Grove. Within two years these unrelated events would converge to make quiet Forest Grove one of Oregon’s hottest entertainment centers.

The Washington County Fair was a very big deal when the Agricultural and Livestock Association bought the land in Forest Grove. At the time, the county’s economy was almost entirely based on farming and even many city dwellers owned cows, horses, goats and chickens and grew their own food. But the fair lasted only a few days each year, so the association built a half-mile oval horse racing track, which drew crowds from as far away as Portland and Salem all summer.

All this success did not sit well with the city fathers of Hillsboro, who since pioneer days had battled Forest Grove for supremacy in the county. In the 1840s and ‘50s Hillsboro tried to lure away Pacific University, but Forest Grove won that battle. But then Hillsboro got the County Courthouse, and added insult to injury by snatching away the county’s only newspaper, the Independent. Forest Grove was in a bit of a losing streak, and in 1913 it lost the County Fair as well.

In 1912, Captain McCan was having a losing streak of his own in the Gorge. A blizzard hit Hood River in January, and the roof of his garage collapsed, destroying the cars of some of the town’s wealthiest citizens. Beset by lawsuits, McCan headed west to Forest Grove, arriving just in time to jump on a new opportunity.

Spurred by his love of horses, McCan had bought the Northwest’s premiere horse ranch, near Rainier, and a share of the harness racing track in Portland. He quickly snatched up the Forest Grove racetrack when the Fair moved to Hillsboro, bought out his partners in Portland and vowed to make Forest Grove the racing capital of the West Coast.

For a time it appeared his dream would come true. The Oregon Electric Railroad came to Forest Grove and built a stop at his racetrack depositing racing enthusiasts from Portland and elsewhere. Events sold out quickly. But just as quickly, the dream started to fade. McCan overextended himself financially, and was forced to sell his Rainier ranch and along with it his prized thoroughbreds. A couple of rainy years turned his track into a mud pit, and new racetracks popped up around the Northwest, draining his business.

In 1916, McCan traded his Forest Grove property for an orchard in Hood River and moved back to the Gorge. No longer quite the cyclonic self-promoter he had been, McCan lived out his life fairly quietly, although he achieved a modicum of fame after World War II, when he became one of the few orchardists in the Gorge to protect the rights of the Japanese returning from internment camps.

The new owners of the Forest Grove property had no interest in racing and turned the once raucous track into a quiet farm. The property remains a quiet farm today, except for its northern edge, where cars speed along Highway 47 where it intersects Oak Street and Porter Road. There’s no sign left of Captain McCan’s racing empire.