Mining in the Sumpter Valley and beyond offers history galore

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Growing up in the Midwest, I am familiar with mining, but coal mining.  It was interesting being exposed to the gold mining history of the Sumpter Valley and surrounding area during my visit to Eastern Oregon.

After an exhilarating ride playing engineer for a day on the Sumpter Valley Railroad (http://www.sumptervalleyrailroad.org/index.htm) with, Timothy Bishop of the Baker City Tourism, we got off the train at Sumpter, to check out mining history in this historic mining town.

Our first stop was the Sumpter Valley Dredge (http://oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=parkPage.dsp_parkPage&parkId=174 . Gold was discovered in Sumpter in 1862 and while the Sumpter Valley Railroad moved gold mined from rocks and ore through the mountains, the Dredge mined gold from the water.

img_3451The Sumpter Dredge was one of three gold dredges put into service in the Sumpter Valley district between 1912 and 1934.  Built in 1935, it ran until 1954. It dug up more than four million dollars worth of gold by using a massive boom bearing 72 1-ton buckets. The buckets, moving like the chain of a chainsaw, would bore into the riverbank and carry the loose rock back into the dredge interior.  The rocks then passed through a series of steel cylinders to separate the material by size, sending the smaller material deeper into the dredge. Using water and sluices, the gold was separated from the sediment.

I was fascinated when our guide Rella who led our tour told us that the gold was removed from the sediment by using mercury. Gold sticks to mercury and they had to use a heating process that could be very dangerous to separate the gold from the mercury.

“They made $300 a day in 1935.  There are still some that remember working here,” Rella added.

When asked if there was any gold left, Rella said not really because the first two dredges recovered 19% of the gold, then later jigs recovered 92% when they went through the tailings.

The tailings from the massive dredge litter the valley and we could see several of the rock piles when we were on the Sumpter Valley Railroad.  The Sumpter Valley Dredge is one of the largest and most accessible gold dredges in the U.S.

After our tour, I had fun panning for gold at the Visitors Center.

After the dredge we traveled down the road to the Cracker Creek Mine Museum (http://www.historicsumpter.com/sumpter-oregon-ccmm.html) for a tour from John Young, a former mayor of Sumpter.  John said this was started by Neil Christiansen who collected a vast amount of mining equipment.  John has been arranging the mine artifacts and creating signage with funds from a grant from Sumpter Volunteers, to explain what the mining pieces of equipment do.

John Young poses at the Cracker Creek Mine
John Young poses at the Cracker Creek Mine

John had several pieces of equipment like a stamp mill that he is putting back together, a Monitor which is a hydraulic device and more. I was especially fascinated by a 1924 Fordson tractor with tracks.  “This was found in the Cour D’alene Idaho museum. It was used to tow and it has a cable hoist on the front.”

I had never seen a Fordson with a track operation like this.  Mike also has a 1902 Cone crusher that was built on a contrived 1950’s truck, used a Chevy engine and hydraulics from the 1930’s and had a gas tank that looked like it came off an Allis Chalmers. These were only a few of the amazing machines that were built or modified to work in the local mines.

Under a pavilion John has a great set up of mining tools. This is a freestanding display and visitors can stop and look at their leisure.

Down the street is the Sumpter Museum and Library https://sumptermuseum.wordpress.com/) which offers a mining display as well. There are a few Chinese items in the Sumpter Museum depicting a small amount of the story of the Chinese laborers that flocked to the valley to work the mines and help build the railroads in the west.

While not in Sumpter, in the somewhat nearby (as nearby as a town can be in the mountain roads) the town of John Day has the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum, also known as Kam Wah Chung Company Building (http://oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=parkPage.dsp_parkPage&parkId=5). img_3739-1

Located inside a state park this National Historic Landmark preserves early Chinese culture In John Day where over 2,000 men lived and worked in the mines in the area. They started out in nearby Canyon City where their camp was burned forcing them to move to the low lying ground in John Day. At one time this was the 3rd largest China Town in the US. When the mine operation ceased, most of the Chinese went home.

Two men though stayed on and Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On, both became locally famous:  Lung On as a general store proprietor and businessman, and “Doc” Hay as a practitioner of herbal medicine.  Together they earned to respect of the locals and were an integral part of the community.  Their story has been preserved in this museum that is almost completely intact

Not far from Sumpter is the lovely Cornucopia Lodge (http://cornucopialodge.com/web/), where I stayed and learned about the mining history of the town of Cornucopia.

Sara Artley and her husband Jeff manage the lodge and the morning before I departed, Sara took me by ATV on a tour Cornucopia, which these days is now mostly a ghost town, but was once the largest gold mine in Oregon.

Gold was first discovered in Cornucopia in 1884 by a man by the name of Lon Simmons. According to mine history, more than sixteen mines riddle the area and produced 300,000 ounces of gold. Like many mines during World War II, Cornucopia was closed down because it was deemed non-essential mining in the fight against Japan and Germany. Cornucopia in Latin means “Horn of Plenty,” but miners named the town after Cornucopia, Nevada. Some of the buildings like the old jail are under restoration.  Contact the Artley’s at Cornucopia Lodge about a visit and tour by horse or ATV.

The Pine Valley Community Museum (http://traveloregon.com/see-do/attractions/museums-interpretive-centers/pine-valley-community-museum) in the nearby town of Halfway offers a neat history of this town that was once so vital.

The Pine Valley Community Museum has history of the Corncopia Mine and town.
The Pine Valley Community Museum has history of the Corncopia Mine and town.

On my way back to the airport before heading home, I stopped by another historic site of the Eldorado Ditch (http://ortravelexperience.com/oregon-historical-markers/eldorado-ditch)   the signs told the story of the ditch which consisted of a system of irrigation ditches constructed to supply water to the Shasta Mining District in the Willow Creek Basin area of Malheur County. The Oregon Encyclopedia states, “Begun in 1863 for developer W.H. Packwood of Baker City, the ditch provided water to gold mines near Amelia and Malheur City, and for two boomtowns—Eldorado, twenty-six miles south of Baker City, abandoned in 1887, and Malheur City, 1.5 miles east of Eldorado. According to the Bedrock Democrat, the 135-mile-long main ditch and feeder ditches were the largest such system in the western United States.”

The ditch was built, an estimated 1,000 Chinese laborers who were paid half the wages of their white counterparts.  The ditch caused violence between the miners and the ranchers.  Water sales continued until 1911, but water-rights battles and adjudication made the ditch impractical and it was abandoned in 1925.

There is so much gold mining history in this beautiful place where the landscape has been changed by mining practices.  I am sure there is much more to learn, but this was enough to whet my appetite and want to know more.