As featured in the 2019 Feb/Mar Pick & Shovel Gazette
150 Years of Finds in the Beaver State
By JOHN LION
Popularly, most associate Oregon with late 2000s hipster chic, “The Oregon Trail” video game, and Voodoo Doughnuts. When furriers of European descent first arrived in the early 19th century, however, wide-brimmed hats were far less novel and there wasn’t a pink doughnut box in sight. Gold was struck more than 30 years later in what was then Oregon Territory.
The 1849 Californian Gold Rush led to a slow trickle of northbound prospectors. By 1851, rich gold veins were found at Josephine Creek, Jackson Creek, and the Illinois River of Oregon. The ensuing rush led ambitious and/or crowded prospectors to fan over the territory and establish claims throughout, particularly in Oregon’s northeast. Large-scale gold prospecting and mining, in fact, continued into the mid-20th century in Grant and Baker Counties. Many sites are now exhausted but prospectors who try their luck, and use their savvy, still have a chance at solid finds.
The GPAA lists more than a dozen registered sites within Oregon, mainly in the state’s southern and eastern areas. In geographic makeup, there are a few differences between these two stretches, but each has a reputation for dryer climates than most people associate with the state.
Lucky for modern-day prospectors, a number of historical records exist that detail the explorations and discoveries of the original Oregon Gold Rush 150 years ago. Those looking to combine their prospecting efforts with outdoorsmanship may find retracing the steps of the initial miners and panners an insightful and fun experience, as well as a successful one; many old sites still have finds that ineffective 19th-century mine filters discarded.
Western & Southern Oregon
Southern Oregon is the original area that jumpstarted the state-wide gold rush; prospectors with an interest in history will find this region of particular interest. Valleys and rivers are plentiful in this mountainous area, known for its agricultural and lumber industries. Further up Interstate 5 is Eugene, rainier than the south and home of the University of Oregon and the Ducks. Recreational hiking and other outdoor activities are considered some of the best in the country; a great incentive for those who want to mix their prospecting trips with other endeavors.
One of Oregon’s southern-most areas, Jackson County has several prospecting sites that still yield color, typically via panning. Those who visit sites in Jackson County, however, should be aware that rivers can completely dry out in the summer and fall months; digging, though, has yielded finds for some prospectors.
Gold Star 1 (20 acres)
A seasonal stream that sometimes lasts annually, Gold Star 1 has flakes in its water and river bed. Vegetation can be dense, though the immediate area may have larger deposits.
Info courtesy of Wayne Brown, William Adams, and David Davenport
Nine Mile Gold (160 acres)
Locating the site is easy and adjacent to a large campsite for extended visits. Water can be scarce, but deposits have been found in standing pools.
Info courtesy of William Adams
Immediately east of Jackson County, Josephine County is the other location that spurred the original Oregon Gold Rush. Home of Illinois Valley, the area is known for its pristine wilderness and great rafting; prospectors who want to combine the two should be aware that there are Class IV and Class IV+ rapids so only groups with advanced skills should journey down Illinois River. Prospectors haven’t commented much on these claims in the GPAA Directory; any insight would be appreciated!
Buena Vista, Little Home-Stake, Meander #1 and #2 (74 acres)
Tin Break #1, #2, and #3 (52 acres)
Home of the University of Oregon and the Ducks, Lane County is north of Jackson and Josephine counties and conveniently located on I-5. Gold was initially struck in 1858 and has been found in several locations but is less prevalent than the south. Nonetheless, the Bohemia Mining District in particular had several mines in operation up to the mid-20th century.
Little Paradise (30.9 acres)
The hike downward to the creek is steep but most prospectors find fine gold.
Info courtesy of Allen Bennett and Chris Leigh
Golden Cat (40 acres)
A free campsite nearby and a good amount of gold in the river makes this site ideal for extended visits.
Info courtesy of Ivan Starkey, Allen Bennett, and James Turner
Other Western & Southern Oregon Sites
Several counties in Oregon’s west and south also have viable sites.
He Comes on a White & Horse Play (80 acres, Douglas County)
Often a full creek, this claim is best for panning when the water is low and calm.
Info courtesy of Joe Eagan and Allen Bennett
Hallelujah Mine, River Side & Angire M (90 acres, Linn County)
These three sites have fine gold, flakes, and occasional pickers.
Info courtesy of Roy Houtz and Malinda Gunnels
Sunstone Public Collection Area (Lake County)
It would be greatly appreciated if prospectors could post in the GPAA Directory about Sunstone Public Collection Area.
Prospectors began operating in Eastern Oregon more than a decade after the original gold rush of the 1850s. In 1864 gold was struck at Olive Creek, an area that encompasses Baker and Grant counties. Later, in 1884, gold was also struck in Cornucopia of Baker County. The area became a center for prospecting and large-scale mining; over 30 miles of tunnels were dug throughout. The largest of over a dozen in the area, Cornucopia Mine employed more than 700 men and was sixth largest mining operation in the U.S. The Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge, meanwhile, operated up to the mid-20th century.
Located in the state’s Northeastern border, Baker County is immediately above Oregon’s steppe region and its dryer climate reflects such. The county seat, Baker City, takes pride in its mining past and it shows; the local US Bank, for instance, has a number of gold nuggets on display. Many prospectors focus on the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge and similar areas, as antiquated machinery would often “chuck” gold with the soil. Finds in the recent past, on occasion, have exceeded 1 ounce.
Eagle Rock #1 and #2 (40 acres)
Most prospectors find fine gold, flakes, and pickers the area.
Info courtesy of Gerold Personett, Joseph Poulson, and Matt Tripp
Impossible Dream I (40 acres)
Chance of gold but tests only indicate micro-specks.
Info courtesy of Matt Tripp
Starla #5 and #6 (80 acres)
Visitors confirm gold flakes, maybe more.
Info courtesy of Raymond Gould and Matt Tripp
Of Special Note: The Oregon Coast
Gold Beach of Curry County, Oregon’s far southwest, has its name for a reason; the black silt contains fine gold. Prospectors use a number of methods for extraction, but sluices and spiral wheels are the most popular.
Places of Interest
Near Oregon Sites
There are a number of steps to prospecting and the first is getting to a worthwhile site. Like the past, one auspicious claim often quickly led to claims in adjacent areas; long-distance travel can be common in such events. Here are a few places prospectors will find of particular interest; those looking for a road trip with friends and family, of course, should also look up attractions at local chamber of commerce websites.
Crater Lake: Crater Lake stunned visitors long before it became a national park. Those who go on prospecting excursions in Jackson and Josephine counties will want to visit this truly unique attraction at least once.
Baker City US Bank: The Baker City US Bank has a number of gold nuggets on display. They include the 80.04-ounce Armstrong Nugget, found in Susanville circa 1913, and other major finds.
Jacksonville: A center of the initial Oregon Gold Rush, Jacksonville’s original architecture remains to this day and the town center became a U.S. Historic Landmark in 1966. Prospectors and their families will find plenty of fascinating info at the Jacksonville Museum & Children’s Museum.
Eastern Oregon ghost towns: Eastern Oregon has over a dozen ghost towns left over from the gold rush; the mines themselves are closed but those interested in the Old West will be in for a treat.
Best Areas and Seasons to Prospect
Oregon’s most accessible, and perhaps richest, gold sites were depleted with the initial rush and resultant mining into the mid-20th century. However, such activities used equipment less efficient at sorting gold, redepositing the metal in accessible locations.
New prospectors should also know that mines and dredges closed because expenses related to running said operations did not pay for the yield, so there is often gold still left to be found. Spring and summertime snowmelts also redeposit gold, making these seasons ideal; many promising sites’ ground is too hard in the late fall and winter seasons.
Mike Lewis, president of the Portland GPAA chapter, emphasizes that assessing terrain is essential for locating and tracing deposits.
Oregon GPAA Chapters and Other Organizations
Oregon has two very active GPAA chapters, one in Portland and another in Brownsville, that also have independent claims. A number of independent outfits are active too; those interested in prospecting should see if there is any such community in their immediate region.
Oregon’s GPAA chapters are both tight-knit and welcoming; the Portland chapter, for instance, makes an annual trip to Baker County and emphasizes responsible cleanups after digs.
Meetings are common and both chapters offer resources and insight to prospects; those who attend three Portland chapter meetings or excursions, for instance, are automatically accepted as members and can access the chapter’s independent claims. Such congeniality also reflects their civic service; each year, for instance, prospectors visit Camp Millennium, a summer camp for kids fighting cancer, to teach about prospecting and gold panning.
Gold & Treasure Show
Oregon’s next Gold & Treasure Show at the Portland Expo Center is also coming soon — March 30-31!
Experienced prospectors and beginners alike have plenty of incentive to attend. Expect demonstrations of innovative equipment, great advice, and news of promising claims. Those considering the activity will find the gathering an excellent time to both learn about techniques and how to spot promising sites. Gold panning will also be available, and participants can keep what they find.
Talk about a deal! We hope to see you there!
John Lion is a freelance writer from Oregon with a passion for natural and social history