Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Hidden Holes and Floating Giants: A Sumpter History Tour

Three huge machines once prowled a wide plain outside Baker City in northeastern Oregon. Floating in small ponds, they were able to move in any direction by moving their ponds as they went. Their presence dominated the landscape for many years as they tore deeply into the earth and piled great mounds of soil and rock in their wakes. These were the dredges, and their long heaps of "tailings" remain to this day. The dredges themselves are now silent, but they are still to be found where the upside-down soil bakes in the high desert sun.

The old mining town of Sumpter is a great destination for families and history lovers. Head south out of Baker on Highway 7, then swing west. Twenty-three miles out of town, watch on your left for the McEwen Station on the Sumpter Valley Railroad . This narrow-gauge train once transported lumber and supplies as well as passengers; now it is available for rides and special events during the summer season. The train is an ongoing restoration project; one of the cars was once cut in half, with one half used as a chicken coop. On your way to the railroad depot, watch for a small, swampy pond on your right. In the pond, you will notice a rough assemblage of ancient lumber: the bones of one of the dredges. All around you will see piles of its tailings. Returning to the highway, note a collection of old buildings, all that remains of the town of McEwen. Behind the old town, there is a tiny cemetery.

A few miles past McEwen, turn right off the highway toward the town of Sumpter. In its heyday, this gold mining boom town boasted three dozen saloons. Now a semi-ghost town with a few shops, Sumpter gives a glimpse into Oregon's wild-west history. Here you will find the last dredge to operate in this area, the Sumpter Valley Dredge. It ceased its digging in 1954 and fell into disrepair, but ongoing efforts have restored and preserved this massive machine. The first floor is open to the public and reasonably accessible. The long chain of buckets remains where it stopped decades ago, reaching down into the pond. Inside the dredge hull itself, dirt and rock were sifted and washed in a continual search for gold. The resulting earthy mix was then dumped out of a long boom in the rear. Much of the machinery used in this process remains inside the dredge, larger-than-life and mystifying to modern eyes. Outside the dredge there is an outdoor display of miscellaneous mining equipment and an information center/gift shop which offers more information on the area.

If you are not quite ready to head back to Baker, just past Sumpter look for a small road on the right that follows Cracker Creek to the small ghost town of Bourne. As you drive, watch on the right for a pond containing the skeleton of another dredge. Further along, look alongside the road for holes bored into the hillside. These are mines, many of them still active. Tiny, peaceful Bourne does have a few residents, so please be respectful if you stop to take photos.

For a close-up look at some sturdy and occasionally puzzling mining equipment, watch for the Cracker Creek Museum of Mining as  you drive back through Sumpter. During our recent visit we were the only people there and the exhibits seemed somewhat unmaintained, which only added to the fun of examining these old machines. If you do go, be prepared to explore at your own risk; there are no barriers and no restrictions at present.

Back in friendly Baker City, be sure to check out the many well-kept historic buildings in the downtown area. For more history, check out the Baker Heritage Museum and the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.

A Final Note:
Many ghost towns and interesting old buildings are on private property. Please respect fences and "no trespassing" signs. Everyone we met during our recent visit was pleasant and generous, and we would like to keep them that way.

In many cases, mining claims are a grey area. "Unpatented" claims are public property; the owner merely owns the mineral rights on the claim. "Patented" mines are basically private property. How do you know the difference? In short, you don't, so again, be respectful of fences and signage. Many of the mines in this area are still active, and it should go without saying that rock hounding is not appropriate in someone else's mine!

Old mines are very tempting, but we don't explore them. Here is some information on the hazards in and around mines. Visit, take pictures, and safely enjoy the history of this beautiful area. There's a lot more of Oregon left to see.

The authors would like to thank Dwight Gosen for introducing us to this beautiful area.

Remains of a dredge near Bourne

House at Bourne

Watch out for old flumes in this area. These reinforced pipes once carried water to the mines.

Are we in a Tim Burton film? Terry Gilliam? Studio Ghibli? Nope, we are in Baker City. This bizarre crane walked slowly along the nearby plains on two humongous "feet".

A contraption, perhaps a rock crusher, screams silently from its resting place at Cracker Creek.

House in McEwen

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