Eastern Oregon has several major river systems where gold mining has occurred since the early 1860s. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the Powder River.
Its headwaters start in the heart of Gold Country, accumulating water from numerous creeks that drain the Blue Mountains and the Elkhorn Range.
Sumpter is located at the confluence of Cracker Creek and McCully Fork. This is where you can find one of the best preserved gold dredges in the United States. The Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge is in excellent condition and is now an Oregon State Heritage site.
The dredge sits on the edge of miles and miles of old tailing piles. This wasn’t the only dredge to churn up the Powder River Valley… in fact there were as many as three dredges crisscrossing this valley back in the early to mid-20th century.
What they left behind were dredge fields of large gravel and cobble that extend for nearly 8 miles, from Phillips Reservoir up to Sumpter. Dredging even extended up the Cracker Creek for a few miles. Over a span of about 4 decades, the amount of gold pulled out of the dredge fields is estimated at around $250 million dollars (priced at current gold value of $1950 ozt.).
Before the Dredges
The Sumpter Dredge is such a prominent figure of the Upper Powder River Valley that people often forget that mining took place for 50 years before the dredging even started!
In fact, the first gold strikes in Eastern Oregon actually occurred at the town of Auburn
. The townsite is located just north of the Elkhorn Wildlife Area at the confluence of Blue Canyon and Freezeout Gulch, only about 2 miles from the Powder River.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at it today, but at one time there were thousands of men living and mining in the creeks and gulches around Auburn.
The placers were mostly depleted over the course of 10 years, and by the early 1870s there were less than 200 residents in Auburn. Yet, it was this discover that attracted so much attention to the Blue Mountains
and fueled excitement for the rich mines at Sumpter.
Gold Towns of the Upper Powder River Basin
Sumpter is the most famous of the mining towns today mostly because it is still a thriving community. While some mining is still going on today, it is more popular as a summer vacation spot. The economy is mostly based in tourism now, with several different events occurring on the weekends each summer.
Yet there were still lots of old mining towns nearby and if you are interested in finding gold then you shouldn’t be afraid to venture out and explore. One interesting site is Bourne
, an old mining town north of Sumpter. Extensive hard rock mining took place here in the shadows of the Elkhorn Mountains.
Other sites, now completely abandoned and almost forgotten include Auburn, Hanover, and McEwen.
Lower Powder River Mines
People often forget that there was a lot of other mining activity in a lot of lower stretches of the river. The river flows for 153 miles, and after it goes through the Baker Valley it enters a winding canyon on its way to the Snake River (Brownlee Reservoir).
There is very fine gold all throughout the river, but downstream of Baker City the deposits are rather sparce. However, mining activity picks up again closer to the mouth of the river. There are a few towns of note:Sparta
is an old mining town about 5 miles north of the Powder River (as the crow flies). Most of the mining occurred around Sparta Butte and Sawmill Creek. There was a lot of nice placer gold found in Sparta, but limited water created challenges for miners. Ditches were dug to provide water to many areas which improved recovery in later years.
Some very rich placers were worked on Eagle Creek
tributaries to the Powder River. Above Eagle Creek was the town of Cornucopia which was an exceptionally rich area. The ores here were extensive and very productive, but the high elevation and harsh weather conditions were challenging.Next: Hunting for Oregon's Blue Bucket Mine