While Oregon’s mining industry was not as lucrative as others in the West, during the period of the gold rush, the territory was a significant contributor of gold as well as other minerals. Oregon played its part in establishing the Western states and still ended up ranking 11th in gold production.
The richest gold strikes were in the Blue Mountains in the Eastern Oregon, while a few other were in the southwestern corner of the state. The following are a few of the mining towns that made a difference in the establishment of the State of Oregon.
The town of Sumpter was discovered by five men traveling through Oregon on their way to the gold mines of California. However, they discovered gold sooner than they had planned and stayed in what is now known as Sumpter, naming the town after the famous Civil War battle in South Carolina.
The town’s growth was slow but took off as soon as the railroad came to the area. By the time heavy mining machinery was available in the 1890s and the railroad in 1897, the town’s growth took off. By the turn of the century the town had thousands of residents producing millions of dollars in gold annually. Soon the town earned the title of “Queen City” due to the success of the town’s mines.
However, like other mining towns, Sumpter was hit by a fire in 1917 and was never rebuilt to its previous glory. By the time the second world war hit, mining had all but closed in the area, leaving the town to be a shell of what it once was.
Mining didn’t get started in earnest in Cornucopia until the 1880s, far later than most other mining towns in Oregon. Located on the southern flanks of the Wallowa Mountains, this was primarily a hardrock mining district. Some placer mining was also done at Pine Creek.
The ore body is one of the richest in the West. At one time there were as many as 700 men employed at the mines of Cornucopia. Mining continued here until the 1930’s. High cost of production, in combination with the Wall Street crash, was likely the reason for the shutdown of the mines.
Bourne is a small mining town located a few miles north of Sumpter. Some placer gold was mined from Cracker Creek, but the vast majority of the gold mined here was from large lode mines in the Elkhorn Mountains.
The Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge worked a short distance up Cracker Creek, stopping a few miles below Bourne.
Mining first began in Greenhorn after miners first prospected for gold in the area in the 1860s. Mining in the area was composed of placer mines as well as lode gold mines. As time went on, eventually most mining was done via lode mines. Greenhorn was then incorporated in 1903 and thrived through much of the first part of the 20th Century. However, with the onset of World War II and the legal requirements that all mining efforts go towards other minerals, gold mining fell into virtually nothing and never quite recovered after that time.
Susanville is located on Elk Creek a short distance from the Middle Fork of the John Day River. A combination of placer mining in Elk Creek and lode mining in the surrounding mountains account for most of the gold found at Susanville.
This long-abandoned mining town is well-known for one thing. The largest gold nugget ever found in Eastern Oregon was found here. The nugget was over 80 troy ounces, and is on display at the US Bank in Baker City.
Gold was first discovered in Granite on July 4, 1862. Because of the significance of this date, the town was originally named Independence. However, the town was later named Granite once the post office was established in 1878, mostly because another town named Independence existed already in Polk County, Oregon.
A. G. Tabor was the first person to stake a mining claim on Granite Creek in 1862, and he was the only merchant in town as the tow was created and served as the first postmaster.
It was estimated at one point in time that over 80 percent of the men living in Granite were miners, which was good at the time when the mining industry flourished. However, that lack of diversity in the employment in the area made it very difficult to recover when gold mining was made illegal with the start of World War II.
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7. Canyon City
Gold was first discovered in Canyon City in 1862 in the Canyon Creek which flowed directly through town.
Miners came in droves to Whiskey Gulch and other areas of the canyon between the cities, Canyon City and John Day. These individuals came to the area along a wagon road coming through the Dalles along the Columbia River, which later became the Dalles Military Road.
Canyon City was officially platted in 1862 and was established as the county seat in 1864. It was later incorporated in 1891. During the city’s peak, it was said that over 10,000 people lived in Canyon City, a population larger than Portland at the time.
During his visit to the Blue Mountains in 1900, geologist Waldemar Lindgren estimated that approximately $16 million in gold had been mined from just a short section at the lower end of Canyon Creek.
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8. Dixie Creek
A relatively small gold discovery was made at Dixie Creek, a tributary of the John Day River.
Mining didn’t last for too long at Dixie Creek, as the placers weren’t very extensive. Many of the miners did establish nearby Prairie City, and took to farming in the rich soils of the John Day Valley.
9. Malheur City
Malheur City isn’t much to look at today, but it sure has quite a history. The largest man-made ditch in Oregon was dug to supply water to the dry gulches around Malheur City. Hundreds of Chinese laborers dug the El Dorado ditch for over 134 miles that ends in Malheur City.
There were big expectations. Water was rushed down several of the dry gulches above Willow Creek, mainly Shasta Gulch and Rich Creek. The results were less than expected and mining ended rather quickly. The cost of digging the ditch was never recovered.
10. Rye Valley
Some rather large hydraulic mining operations took place at Rye Valley on Dixie Creek (different than the one mentioned above) beneath Pedro Mountain. The scars of the hydraulic workings are still visible today.
An estimated 200,000 ounces of gold was recovered from the ground at Rye Valley and the surrounding hills.
11. Burnt River
The Burnt River has good gold in it for a considerable distance. Perhaps the richest section is within the scenic Burnt River Canyon from Hereford down to Durkee. Pine Creek was also a rich tributary that produced some exceptionally large gold nuggets.
There were thousands of placer miners working along the Burnt River during the height of the gold rush.
Sparta was a small mining community near the Powder River in Eastern Oregon. Gold was found near Sparta Butte and some of the drainages that flow into Eagle Creek, but water was limited. A ditch was dug to help with placer mining efforts and the town took off.
Baker City & Auburn
Gold was discovered in Auburn in 1861 just a few miles from Baker City.
It was the Oregon Short Line Railroad that boosted growth in the 1880s and 1890s. With the advent of the rail, settlers flocked to the area, and the city eventually earned the name of the “Denver of Oregon.” The town was full of not only miners but also ranchers, cowboys and sheepherders.
By the turn of the Century, Baker City had become the trading center for the area and was the largest city between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Portland.
After the Sumpter Valley narrow gauge railroad came to the area in 1896 and the Transatlantic Railway in 1897, the mining industry continued to flourish for decades, along with the area’s growing timer industry. Once the mines were closed, logging continued the area’s economy on through the 1900s.
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