Baker City has been called the Queen City of the Mines and the Queen City of the Inland Empire because of the gold flowing freely through the nearby streams.
The Gold Rush to Eastern Oregon
Following that initial discovery of gold in the Blue Mountains, the small town of Baker City began to grow, starting with a hotel, blacksmith shop, and saloon, later to be followed by a quartz mill in 1864.
A toll road was built between Baker City and Bridgeport in 1868, later opening up even more trade and travelers to the area.
Baker City succeeded the nearby mining town of Auburn as the official county seat of Baker County. Just a few miles southwest of Baker City, Auburn was considered to be the “Ground Zero” in the Great Eastern Oregon Gold Rush.
Auburn was a massive mining camp founded in 1861, but it was primarily a placer mining district and its lifespan was short as the town’s glory faded away by 1864.
Growing off of population left from Auburn, Baker City’s own population increased and the city was officially incorporated in 1874. The city continued to grow as the Oregon Short Line Railroad came to Baker City in 1884 as more settlers came in search of the riches promised in the mines in Baker County. The town flourished so well that Baker City eventually gained a reputation in the 1890s as the “Denver of Oregon.”
During this time, Baker City was one of the more populated and unique towns in the Pacific Northwest. This reputation came from the number of miners, ranchers, cowboys and sheepherders who lived and worked in Baker City, alongside the city’s colorful characters, including gamblers and dance hall girls.
New Gold Deposits are found near Baker City
Although the mines of Auburn were mined out within just a few short years, there were many other rich gold strikes make in the land surrounding Baker City. Rye Valley, Mormon Basin, Sparta, Cornucopia, Malheur City, and Sumpter were all in locations abounding in gold just to name a few.
Placer mining is specifically used for precious metal deposits, like gold, found in alluvial deposits, which are deposits of sand and gravel in stream beds or glacial deposits. Many rich placers are located throughout Eastern Oregon, ranging from the Snake River all the way to Canyon City and John Day.
Problems arose later with the lack of water resources. Gold was abounding in the area, but there was simply not enough water. Many ditches were built to help supply water to the goldfields. The Eldorado Ditch stretched over 100 miles and supplied water to Malheur City. This was built primarily by Chinese immigrants.
Smaller ditches were constructed that supplied water to Sparta. Another was built to wash the rich gravels found near Greenhorn.
Chinese in Eastern Oregon
Baker City has a cultural history that lasted for over seven decades. With the initial influx of settlers to the area came many Chinese laborers and businessmen who built and lived in a compact area of town, a block from the town’s main business district. It quickly became known as Chinatown.
By 1870, 29 of the 307 residents of Baker City were Chinese. Ten years later, the Chinese population doubled, including merchants, butchers, physicians, cooks, woodcutters, gardeners, gamblers, and more.
Most residents in Baker City worked peacefully alongside their Chinese neighbors. However, newspapers in the area regularly would use derogatory terms to refer to the Chinese, and in 1893, the Baker City Mayor, Charles palmer said “The Chinese quarters [need to be] thoroughly overhauled both as to sanitary and moral conditions, especially as to opium and their bawdy houses to which the youth of our town is admitted.” He considered the Chinese “a class to be pitied but one that a community cannot afford to harbor or tolerate.”
Also Read: The Mystery of the Lost Blue Bucket Mine
And: Oregon’s Biggest Gold Nuggets
Baker City Establishes itself as a lasting Community
The construction of the narrow gauge Sumpter Valley Railroad in 1896 as well as the Transatlantic Railway in 1897 helped boost the mining and timber industries in the area for decades. In addition to gold mines, saw mills began to pop up and were humming and providing employment for hundreds in the area.
The Virtue Mine, located a few miles southeast of Baker City, still retains the title of being the richest gold mine in the entire state of Oregon. This mine provided employment long after the placers were worked out.
By 1900, Baker City had become a trading center for the region, and it was the largest city between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Portland, Oregon.
However, as time went by, the mining eventually gave way to ranching.
As the town’s infrastructure began to wear and fade, developers in the city worked hard to update the cityscape through the erection of aluminum storefronts. While these did protect the building themselves, they were far from attractive and hid the history of the buildings beneath their façade.
Today in Downtown Baker City
Since that time, massive efforts were made to revive the beauty of the Baker City downtown. Aluminum facades were removed and buildings refurbished.
Now, more than 100 buildings in Baker City are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the town is a tourist hub in the area, bringing visitors back to the past. Seven miles west of Baker City is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and visitors to the area can walk on the same path as the settlers of the Pacific Northwest.
Another thing that you should definitely check out when you are in Baker City is the spectacular gold nugget collection on display at the US Bank (next to the famous Geiser Grand Hotel). This display houses some absolutely amazing nuggets and specimens, including the 80-ounce “Armstrong Nugget.”
There are still a few active mines scattered throughout the Blue Mountains, and small-scale prospectors are still finding gold in the creeks and rivers surrounding Baker City.
Next: 12 Eastern Oregon Mining Towns (Map)