RESTORED DREDGE UNEARTHS SUMPTER VALLEY'S GOLD MINING HERITAGE
- Mark Highberger
- For The Observer
Not long ago in the old Sumpter Valley, a mechanical beast the size of an apartment building spent its days plodding along the stream beds, eating the valley floor. As it dug itself ever deeper into the earth, it gobbled soil and guzzled river, and then spewed rubble out behind. But it was only doing its job, for this beast was a dredge. And its job was digging gold.
Even though this dredge's days as a gold-digger ended four decades ago, its history is still intact, for today it stands as the centerpiece of one of Oregon's newest state park Â— the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area, located near the riverside edge of the town of Sumpter. If you drive that stretch of road to the park, then you'll see what a dredge can do.
After leaving Baker City on Highway 7 and sweeping past the juniper-crowned hills standing round and brown against a blue sky, past the basalt cliff sides wedging the Powder River into its shaded canyon, past the pine-clad slopes flanking the Elkhorn Mountains Â— you'll come at last to the Sumpter Valley, humped up and spread over with piles of rock and miles of rubble that are the spewed-out remains of the gold-digging dredge.
"A dredge is simply a machine, similar to a combine used for harvesting wheat, or a potato digger working in the field," writes Stephen Alford, a dredge historian. "Similar to how one pulls the potatoes out of the ground, a gold dredge also digs and pulls the gold-bearing earth up into its belly to be digested, keeping the gold and spewing the waste out the back on a stacker."
To handle this digging and pulling, the 1,240-ton Sumpter Valley Dredge Â— which is more than 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, and which was powered by a 250 horsepower electric motor connected to a 12-mile, 23,000-volt line Â— had 72 buckets, each able to dig a quarter-yard of ground at a bite, then wash it down with 3,000 gallons of water per minute. This meant that every clanking minute of every working day the dredge could dig and dump 25 buckets, which added up to more than 9,000 cubic yards per day, or the equivalent of 1,000 dump truck loads.
Every year, the dredge dug another 100 acres of valley floor and river bed as deep as 30 feet. From the 1930s to the 1950s, with time out for World War II, this dredge's buckets ate earth, spewed rock, and found gold Â— $4.5 million worth at a time when its value was $35 per ounce. And because it was the third Â— and largest Â— dredge to work the Sumpter Valley, the results were devastating.
"[The] dredge converts lush grassland into useless rubble," reported a 1953 issue of The Oregonian. "Mountains of rubble from dredge tailings extend for miles as a result of dredging since 1913."
Although some people at the time worried about the destruction of river and farmland, the gold and the jobs it provided kept the dredges operating. One estimate puts the total value of dredge-dug gold in the valley at $10 million. The net profit, however, was much smaller; one calculation shows that the Sumpter Valley Dredge, with a daily operating cost of $700, needed to find $1,000 of gold per day to make money. But when the operation's cost finally exceeded its profits, the last dredge shut down. (The first two were dismantled for parts in the 1920s.)
Abandoned in 1954, the Sumpter Valley Dredge sank to the bottom of the shallow pond it had dug for itself. And there it sat for more than 30 years. The hull and deck soaked, the timbers and planks rotted.
Then in 1985 a group of citizens and businesses from the nearby town of Sumpter had an idea: As a way to spark tourism and boost the economy, they would resurrect the dredge as a state park. "We had bus tours coming by to look at the dredge even in her dilapidated condition," says a woman named Teri, who once ran The Gold Post store and museum in Sumpter for more than a dozen years. "So we knew it had potential."
Teri credits the late Jerry Myers, who subsequently became the town's mayor, with spearheading the effort and then coordinating the project with Oregon Parks. "He knew about Sumpter's history," she says, "and he understood what the town had to offer."
Even though the group had ideas, energy, and leadership, it had no money. So it formed Friends of the Sumpter Valley Dredge and raised $350,000 in grant money Â— the same amount required to build the dredge in 1935. In 1995, the dredge's restoration began; in 1998, 13 years after those first meetings, it opened for public tours.
The dedication ceremony marking that grand opening featured a group of former dredge workers who reminisced about the working conditions aboard the old machine: of three crews of three men each working eight hour shifts around the clock, of getting only Christmas Day and the Fourth of July off during the year, of working in temperatures as cold as 42 degrees below zero, and of earning roughly a dollar per hour in the years after World War II.
The grinding, freezing dredge of these men's working lives seems to be a world away from the one the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission calls "an important historic and cultural resource that links Oregon's pioneering past with settlement and development."
Nevertheless, when you step aboard the dredge you'll still find the smell of grease and the hulking, hovering presence of steel in the winches and cables and buckets, in the welds and bolts and rivets holding together the ladder and spud and stacker. Out behind the dredge are the signs of its work Â— the tailings piled along the Powder River.
To see these, take the Dredge Loop Trail, a half-mile gravel path that is decorated with buckets and cables, picnic tables and drive shafts. After a short stroll along the river, a fork in the path lets you take either the Ridge Trail, which climbs to a hilltop dividing two gullies that are thick with cottonwoods, willows, and pines; or the Loop Trail, which skirts the edge of town, passing the backyards of cabins before leading back to the dredge.
Even though it stands today as a state park, the Sumpter Valley Dredge needs more money and requires more work before it is completed. Yet even in its unfinished state, the dredge still serves as a monument not only to a time gone by, but also to a community that saw in its past a hope for its future.