Monday, October 8, 2018

Jacksonville and Golden: A Tale of Two Gold Towns

Golden General Store
In 1846 a group of emigrants blazed a southern alternative to the final section of the Oregon Trail. Led by Jesse Applegate and Levi Scott, the endeavor was inspired by the loss of two members of the Applegate family in the treacherous Columbia River while on the traditional route. At the time, the only other option was a laborious and dangerous passage over the Cascade Mountains.

Later known as the Applegate Trail, the new route was meant to bypass many of the hazards of the northern trail, but the going was slow and fraught with difficulty. Travelers complained bitterly of the hardships suffered along the way. In spite of later improvements, the new trail had no great advantage over the more northerly route. And that could have been the end of it.
Jacksonville City Hall

But in the late 1840s, gold was discovered in northern California. Hopeful prospectors hurried westward over the Applegate Trail; the Gold Rush was on. In 1851, gold was found in a modest creekbed in a small, fertile valley in the hills of southern Oregon. Campsites erected by gold-seekers grew into the town of Jacksonville, which became the county seat and, at one time, the largest city in Oregon. Settlers farmed and ranched in the surrounding hills. Businesses flourished in the busy downtown area. Then, in 1884, the railroad came, but not to Jacksonville. Nearby Medford received that honor and all of the business traffic that came with it. Meanwhile, gold supplies were dwindling. Jacksonville declined, and in 1927 the county seat was moved to Medford. Over the years, more and more residents moved away. And that could have been the end of it.

Downtown Jacksonville
As it happened, Jacksonville was largely preserved due to disinterest. It remained frozen in the 1800s until the 1960s, when a group of citizens banded together in an effort to preserve the town. Now a National Historic District, modern Jacksonville is arguably busier than it was in the 1850s. Pedestrians crowd the streets and drivers vie for parking spots. Business is brisk in the old buildings with their stone foundations and brick walls. Shoppers step over worn thresholds and walk across wooden floors polished to a satin gloss by generations of shoe soles. Restaurants fill the air with delicious aromas and shop window displays tempt passers-by. Nearly 3000 people now call this town home, and visitors flock to special events such as the Britt Fest, the Haunted Trolley, and Victorian Christmas (click here for the town's website with extensive information including maps, brochures, and lodging, and here for a weekly event calendar). The gold town that could have become a wasteland of crumbling bricks has found a new life as a history and shopping destination.

Wolf Creek Inn
Gold seekers who pushed further north on the Applegate Trail forded the Rogue River and then faced the formidable climb to Sexton Summit, a task that even today slows trucks to a crawl. A small inn was established in the Wolf Creek area in 1853, and weary travelers have been pausing in that community ever since. The current Wolf Creek Inn dates from 1883. Now managed by Oregon Parks as a State Heritage Site, this inn still offers meals and rooms just off of I-5.

Golden Church
Around 1850, gold was discovered in Coyote Creek and placer mining began in the creekbed about 3.5 miles east of Wolf Creek. In 1892 the Rev. William Ruble and his wife, Ruth, built a church in the settlement that had become the town of Golden, At that time, 100-200 prospectors and their families lived on this tree-dotted hillside above the creek. The stern Campbellite minister was also an enthusiastic miner, and he was convinced that the area held much more gold, if only they could find a practical way to extract it. The result of his efforts was the award-winning Ruble Hydraulic Elevator, which lifted, sorted, and washed the creekbed soil. Coyote Creek is rather seasonal, so a two-and-a-half-mile pipeline supplied water to the "giants," huge nozzles that uncovered 1.5 million dollars' worth of gold. In its prime, Golden boasted two churches (but no saloons), and the Oregon-California Stage Company detoured to deliver passengers and goods to the town. As late as 1906, there were still 36 children attending school in the little wooden schoolhouse. Gold was dwindling, though, and with it the town's fortunes. The post office closed in 1920, and by the mid-1900s the town had been completely abandoned. And that, for Golden, was pretty much the end of it. But not quite.

Today only a few of Golden's buildings remain. Visit on a sunny day and even the laughter of children seems to be swallowed by the palpable silence that hangs over the town site; visit alone in the Oregon drizzle and you may believe the rumors of hauntings that inevitably hang over all abandoned places. Golden now belongs to Oregon State Parks and is maintained as a heritage site, and it has even been used as a movie set. The buildings are in varying states of repair; the remaining church has been restored and appears ready for parishioners to gather. At the other end of the scale, two privies sag under the influence of gravity and time. There is also a schoolhouse and a tattered store. A barn at the back of the property appears to be newer than some of the other buildings. Until recently, the one remaining residence had lost its entire back wall so that it stood cut away like a life-sized dollhouse. Now the back has been enclosed with panels, likely in the interest of safety.

Golden Coyote Wetlands
Cross narrow but well-paved Coyote Creek Road and look over the cliff at the creek bottom. Where you stand was once a long, gentle slope down to the creek. Follow a path from the east end of the parking area to descend to where miners once labored from dawn to dusk, scooping out the topsoil and washing it in search of gold. Looking back toward the town, the sheer red wall of earth shows just how drastically mining changed this little gully. Nature will heal herself, though, and she has been given a little help; ponds have been dug to collect rainwater, and native plants have been established. Birds and beavers have moved back into what is becoming a wide meadow with seasonal pools. Now known as the Golden Coyote Wetlands, this area will gradually return to being a shrubby creek bottom, albeit a wider one, and without the gold.

Both of these gold towns are easily reached from I-5. To find Jacksonville, take the Medford exit for the Crater Lake Highway (Hwy 62) but head southwest instead, following the signs to Jacksonville. For Golden, take Exit 76 (Wolf Creek) and follow the signs for Coyote Creek Road; Golden is 3.5 miles from the freeway. For camping in the area try Valley of the Rogue State Park, a riverside retreat conveniently located near I-5 between the two gold towns. Stroll beneath oak and cottonwood trees beside the Rogue River and you will truly know you are in southwestern Oregon.

Once upon a time the lure of gold led thousands of people across a continent to a remote place where it seemed that land was infinite and resources were inexhaustible. They were drawn by the idea that fortunes could be made by simply washing the dirt in a creek. Boom towns grew wherever gold was found, and they were as quickly abandoned once the supply gave out. Most of these communities are long forgotten; perhaps a place name remains, or traces of a crumpled building beneath the trees, or an abandoned graveyard grown over by brush. Every day thousands of motorists travel the asphalt of Interstate 5, unaware that they are following the route taken by weary emigrants struggling to reach their new home before the cruel winter set in. Oregon's history is all around us. It hums among the businesses in Jacksonville and it whispers in silent Golden, two towns built by the promise of a bright future and linked by the Applegates' route into a rich new land.

This article is lovingly dedicated to our dear friend Kelley Rametes and her family.

A tour of Jacksonville

United States Hotel, Jacksonville
Stone foundation on a Jacksonville building

Jacksonville Trolley

This brick-lined public well, one of two in Jacksonville, was rediscovered when California Street was rebuilt in 2004

Jacksonville Train Depot, now a public restroom (unfortunately closed when needed most!)

Nunan house, Jacksonville

A final view of Jacksonville before we head off to Golden

Buildings in Golden
Inside a Golden store
Golden Schoolhouse

Inside the schoolhouse

Golden Church

Golden Coyote Wetlands. The cliff seen behind the wetlands, now reclaimed by nature, was formed by the mining operations that took place here.

One final view, a cart used in the mining operations sits broken and sinking into the soil, yet another ghost of Golden's past.