Albany's Courthouse

By Cathy Ingalls, Albany Regional Museum board member

The Linn County Courthouse has not always been where it is today at Fourth and Broadalbin nor has Albany always been the county seat.

 

In 1847, the provisional legislature picked Brownsville, then called Kirk’s Ferry, to be the city where the county would conduct its business. Much of that business was carried on in Spalding School or at Alexander Kirk’s house.

 

But by 1851, circuit-riding judges complained about having to travel that far to hold court so they petitioned the legislature to move the county seat to Albany, and it was.

 

Information filed at the Albany Regional Museum and research conducted by Ed Loy for his book “Gem of the Willamette Valley: A History of Albany, Oregon,” indicates that the first courthouse in Albany was octagonal in shape and patterned after a house built in 1852 for the Rev. James P. Millar at the corner of Second and Washington.

 

In 1853, Jeremiah Driggs and D. H. McClure built the wood-framed building on the block west of Vine between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Some of the funds used to pay the $2,800 construction cost were raised locally, with the remainder coming from the sale of several lots on 10 acres donated by the Monteith family.

 

At the structure’s completion, Delazon Smith, a journalist and politician, referred to the new courthouse as a “seven-sided miserable buzzard roost.”

 

The building’s interior remained unfinished, probably because the county seat was moved to the Sand Ridge area following an 1855 vote.

 

A majority of voters preferred Sand Ridge, which was on the lower, west slope of Peterson’s Butte. The site was more county-central than Albany.

 

Historian Floyd Mullen in his book “The Land of Linn:” noted that “the voters had chosen to move the county seat to a spot as bare as a wind-swept desert, to a town that was in name only, which had not even been platted and upon property to which the county had no title.”

 

County government remained only briefly in Sand Ridge, partly because members of the county’s militia balked.

 

At that time, all fit men were required to join the militia led by Mexican War veteran Col. Lawrence Helm. The colonel decided to hold one annual muster at the new county seat, pushing his men to exhaustion on an exceedingly hot day. There were no trees to offer shade and no water to drink.

 

The word got out about the lack of amenities at Sand Ridge so another vote was held, and by a small margin Albany regained its title as county seat. Other cities up for consideration were again Sand Ridge along with Brownsville and Lebanon.

 

Government officials moved back into the octagonal courthouse and conducted business there until it was destroyed by fire in 1861.  Some said the fire was arson-caused, but it was never proven. Until another courthouse could be built, the county transacted operations in the rented upper floor of the Foster Block on W. First Avenue.

 

The succeeding courthouse was not completed until 1865. The two-story masonry structure was built for $35,000 on the west side of property now containing the current courthouse.

 

The courthouse boasted a central cupola and four Greek columns at the entrance. The building remained in service as it was until 1899, when the structure was enlarged, based on plans developed by Albany architect Charles Burggraf.

 

He eliminated the columns, replacing them with two towers and a third story. The building was used until the current courthouse opened in 1940.

 

In the former courthouse, a clock was placed in one of the towers and installed by F.M. French, an Albany jeweler. The clock with four 10-foot faces was made by the Seth Thomas Factory in Connecticut and shipped to Albany in 1899.

 

Before the building was demolished, the clock workings were sold at auction to Lee Rohrbough for $50. He sold the clock in 1966 to a man in Monmouth, who stored it for five years until he sold it to a man in Springfield in 1971.

 

It changed hands again until the county board of commissioners bought back the clock in 1972.

 

Today’s courthouse, built for $309,510, was dedicated in 1940 after ground was broken in 1938. The structure was built using federal and state funds with the aid of the Works Progress Administration.

 

Special features commented upon at the time by the Albany Democrat-Herald were the eight-pointed star on the main floor done in pastel shades of peach, rose and green terrazzo, and the Alaskan marble walls partially covered by 8-foot tall wainscoting.

 

The window that looks out onto Broadalbin is about 10 feet tall and eight feet wide and is trimmed in bronze.

 

County offices and courtrooms filled the first three floors, while the fourth floor reached only by a self-operating elevator contained the jail and an office for a sheriff’s deputy.

 

As the county’s population increased, the courthouse needed to be expanded so construction began on a new wing in 1964. It was dedicated in 1965 and called the Linn County Courthouse Annex.

 

Attorney L.L. Swan, 1872-1963, who was the oldest practicing attorney in Oregon and an Albany resident, left the county $500,000 to build the annex.