Sumpter (30 miles west of Baker City)
With the discovery of gold, the town of Sumpter sprang to life in 1862. By the early 1900s, numerous hard-rock mines were in operation and over 80 businesses served a population of about 3,000. Back then, the town was also known as The Queen City. After about 20 years, the mines began to lose yield, but then dredging commenced in 1913 and the town prospered greatly—recovering over $10 million in gold altogether. Finally, in 1954, when costs outweighed profits, the clattering of the dredge buckets was forever silenced. Mining operations ceased, folks moved on to find other jobs, and Sumpter became a ghost town. It’s not completely deserted today, however.
Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area
Not many gold dredges are still on public display, so take advantage of the opportunity to visit one of the largest and most accessible in the country—the 1,240-ton YUBA style dredge located on the edge of town at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area. Built at a cost of $350,000 in 1935, it produced $4.5 million in gold until 1954 (gold was then $35 an ounce), and was actually the third dredge to be used during that time period. Amazingly, this hulking machine actually floated on its own small pond. The dredge moved from place to place by digging into the soil in a sideways pattern, creating a constant pool of water that was taken from the Powder River. After a good look at the motors and machinery inside the cool depths of the dredge, walk back out into the hot sunshine and stroll along the tailings (discarded rock piles) and imagine the thrill of finding gold! Many dredge workers probably had the same dream. Earnings back then were only 90 cents an hour for oilers and $1.10 per hour for winchmen. The workmen had just two days off each year— Christmas and Independence Day. The dredge ran 24 hours a day/7 days a week in all kinds of weather, requiring three shifts of about 20 men each.
Sumpter Valley Railroad (also located in the State Heritage Area)
All aboard for Sumpter Valley Railroad! After dreaming of striking it rich on the dredge, ride the rails of the steam-powered train that originally hauled millions of dollars of gold ore and timber from the Elkhorn Mountains between 1890-1947. While fellow passengers climb aboard, watch as the crew fills the steam locomotive with water and carefully couple on antique narrow gauge cars and a caboose. The 5-mile trip between Sumpter and McEwen stations runs weekends and holidays from Memorial Day through the end of September. Back in 1901, the Sumpter Railroad also ran through nearby Whitney, originally a lumber company town with a huge sawmill. Tiny Whitney closed down in 1947, but many old homesteads are still standing and make good photo subjects.
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In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com