In the middle of the 19th century, all around our newly established state, people began discovering gold. The southern Oregon gold rush in Josephine County began in the 1850s, Bohemia Johnson discovered gold in the Bohemia mines in 1863, and the town of Canyon City in eastern Oregon swelled to a population of 10,000 (larger than Portland at the time) once gold was discovered there. Further east, in the town of Sumpter, gold was discovered in 1862.
Mining for gold in Sumpter happened very differently than it did in the mountains outside of Cottage Grove. Located along the Powder River, a gold dredge fitted with 72 1-ton buckets plowed up the riverbank, pastures, and meadows. The dredge separated the rock by size, then the gold was separated from the sediment. The larger rock and other leftovers would pass through the back of the dredge and be deposited by another boom.
When we visited the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area last summer, on a beautiful June day, a light breeze rustling through the willows and the songs of birds were all we heard — much different than what it would have sounded like 70 years ago when this machine was working.
The 5-story dredge which is the centerpiece for the State Heritage Area, was the last of three dredges to operate here (working from 1935 to 1954), and it is one of the oldest surviving gold dredges in the nation. Visitors can tour both outside and inside the dredge, and like the other state heritage areas we’ve explored recently, everything is well signed and explained.
My only regret on this trip, is that we weren’t able to ride the Sumpter Railroad. I guess we’ll just need to go back again.