History and Settlements of the Blue Mountains Gold Belt, Oregon 1900

Source: United States Geological Survey Twenty Second Annual Report 1900-1901 Part 2 Ore Deposits.

While the gold fields in the southwestern part of Oregon were discovered about 1852, those of the Blue Mountains remained unknown until about ten years later. In the fall of 1861 a prospector named Griffin, with a party of men, discovered what is known as Griffin Gulch, a tributary of Powder River, a few miles southwest of Baker City.

At that time the only settlement in the Blue Mountains was that of some cattle raisers in Grande Ronde Valley, Early in the spring of 1862 D. Littlefield and a party of four or five men were prospecting in the same neighborhood and discovered the rich placers of Auburn. In a very short time miners came pouring in from all directions, and the town of Auburn, laid out in June, 1862, grew rapidly, until in less than a year it contained 5,000 inhabitants.

In those days the Blue Mountains were difficult of access, supplies having to be brought in from The Dalles, a distance of 300 miles. The mines of Auburn were found to be extremely rich, and from this center exploring parties penetrated the surrounding region in all directions.

Prospectors from Auburn discovered the Boise Basin and the Owyhee mines in Idaho. The placers of Sumpter, Canyon. Mormon Basin, and Rye Valley were also discovered by men from the same camp, so that by 1864 practically all of the mining districts of the Blue Mountains were known. The yield per man was at least eight dollars per day, and any gravels containing less than this were not considered by the early prospectors.

It was soon seen, however, that profitable mining was dependent upon water supply, and in the next few years much capital and labor were devoted to the construction of ditches. In 1863 the Auburn canal, talking its water from Pine Creek and other gulches in the Elkhorn Range, was completed.

The Rye Valley ditch was constructed in 1864. The Sparta ditch, carrying the waters of Eagle Creek down to the dry hills of Sparta, a distance of 22 miles, was completed in 1873. About the same time a project was carried out supplying the Malheur diggings with water from the head of Burnt River. This canal, called the Eldorado ditch, was finished in 1873. Its total length is over 100 miles.

By means of these ditches much ground which formerly was inaccessible or too poor to work became available. About 1870 the richest placers were exhausted and a gradual decline in the production began, which may be said to have continued until the present time. From an output of several million dollars in 1870 the product of the placer mines has gradually diminished to something like $200,000 in 1889.

During the last years the decline has been very gradual, and it is likely that a production of $200,000 may he kept up for many years to come, as low-grade gravels are beginning to be worked by modern processes of dredging.

While the placer mines declined, another industry, that of quartz mining, gradually developed. We find records of quartz mines being worked in Susanville and at Mormon Basin in 1865 and 1868. One of the first mills was built at Susanville in 1869 and the process used was pan amalgamation.

The Virtue mine was discovered soon after 1862, and the Connor Creek mine in 1872, when the first prospecting in the vicinity of Cable Cove was begun and La Belleview and Monumental mines were worked. The ore was shipped on horseback for several hundred miles. Under such conditions the development of quartz mining was necessarily slow.

Its active development dates from 1885, when the country was made accessible by the construction of the transcontinental railroad now traversing it. About 1886 valuable discoveries were made in the Eagle Creek Mountains near Cornucopia. From 1889 a rapid increase in the production was noticed. Quartz mines were worked in various parts of the country and some of them produced heavily.

A number of mines in the Cracker Creek district were then, for the first time, considered worthy of exploitation and soon began to add to the annual production. This quiet development continued until 1899, when public attention was drawn to the extremely gratifying results obtained from the quartz mines in the Sumpter, Granite, and Bonanza districts.

The west seemed suddenly to become aware that the long-neglected gold fields of the Blue Mountains had far greater value than was commonly attributed to them. In 1899 and 1900 a strong influx of prospectors and miners from all parts of the West took place, and under the stimulus of this new immigration and the introduction of modern methods of mining the country has rapidly developed.

Prospectors have penetrated the whole region, searching for gold and silver veins. While this "boom" has probably induced over speculation, and in some cases an exaggerated notion of values, it has served to make the country better known and many valuable mines have been opened as a consequence of it.

The supply point for the largest part of the mining region is Baker City, a flourishing town in the Powder River Valley, having a population estimated at 7,000. The dormant camp of Sumpter was revived during the boom of 1899 and is now a prosperous mining town. Auburn, once flourishing, is now practically deserted. Canyon, in the John Day Valley, still remains a mining town of some importance.

Other settlements of note are Union, located 30 miles north of Baker City, from which the camps of Eagle Creek Range largely receive their supplies, and Huntington, 40 miles southeast of Baker City, which is the supply point for the mining camps of Rye Valley, Malheur, Connor Creek, and Mineral. According to the last published census (1890) the population of the three counties, Baker, Union, and Grant, numbered 23,900.

Although the larger part of the area consists either of mountains and forests or dry foothills, there are several agricultural districts of great value. South of the Eagle Creek Mountains are the beautiful Valleys of Pine and Eagle, which have a mild climate. Along the lower Powder River a belt of fertile bottom lands extends for a distance of 20 miles.

The largest agricultural area is that of Baker Valley, 18 miles long by 10 miles wide. This has a somewhat higher elevation and its climate is a little colder than that of the valleys previously mentioned. West of Baker City extends a vast area of mountains and canyons, the only agricultural areas of importance being Sumpter and Clifford valleys, which, however, are at elevations over 4,000 feet, and are chiefly used for pastures and hay lands.

Very little agricultural land is found on the North and Middle forks of John Day River. On the South Fork of the same river, however, extends the fertile John Day Valley, having a length east to west of about 20 miles and a width up to 10 miles. The John Day Valley is justly celebrated for its excellent fruit and beautiful alfalfa fields. It has an elevation of about 3,200 feet, and is one of the oldest agricultural settlements in eastern Oregon.

Practically all of the agricultural lands of the Blue Mountain must be irrigated if heavy and profitable yield is desired. On certain rich bottom lands it is possible to raise a crop of hay or cereals without irrigation, but this is exceptional. In the Baker Valley are large areas which could be cultivated if water were available, and a project is now on foot to obtain it by storing the flood water of Powder River during the winter and gradually distributing it through the summer.

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