Near Baker City, you can try your hand at finding shiny flakes in Oregon’s Powder River.
BAKER CITY, Ore. — Back when Seattle was striking it rich by supplying fortune hunters during the Alaska Gold Rush, a smaller rush was booming closer to home. As early as the mid-1800s, prospectors were panning and digging around the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. A few even struck it rich.
Spurred by high gold prices and mankind’s ever-present thirst for treasure, a new generation of hopeful speculators is heading to the region. That includes the miners of the Discovery channel show “Gold Rush,” which was filming in the area when I went to explore it a few weeks ago.
The specific site of the “Gold Rush” set is secret, but locals have a pretty good idea — and it’s not far from a present-day state park where you can celebrate the area’s history and maybe even try a little panning for yourself.
At the US Bank building in downtown Baker City, tourists can stop in and see one of the biggest single nuggets ever found in the region. Weighing in at almost 7 pounds, the nose-shaped Armstrong nugget is on display, along with a random collection of other geologic finds, in an unassuming case in the lobby.
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Decades ago, people were finding gold in the nearby mountains the hard way: by digging for it. West of Baker City, a series of mining companies plowed out an entire river channel with a giant dredge, a combination of digger and barge. At what is now the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area, the last of three dredges still sits where it stopped for the last time in 1954.
The dredges — massive and blocky, with a digging arm out front that collected a ton of gravel at a time — left a dramatic mark on what were once untouched fields and forests along the Powder River. A seemingly endless series of rock piles is visible from the road. The scars are even more obvious in aerial photos on hand.
Visitors explore the dredge and its legacy via trails and information panels. Some of its early-20th-century interior machinery is still in place, as are some of the belts and buckets used to dig and then transport tons of rock while a series of funnels and ridges sorted out gold flakes and nuggets.
All told, the dredges dug $4.5 million worth of gold out of the river plain. Smaller operations subsequently cleaned out much of what was left, although the diligent can still find a find a flake or two.
Silvio Castello, an enthusiastic volunteer park host and longtime amateur prospector, demonstrated panning when a friend and I stopped by.
“The procedure is pretty easy once you get the basics of it,” he said. Gold is heavy, so you need to sort out all the other rocks and sand by methodically swishing water through them. For weekend visitors who pony up $2, he’ll sprinkle a few flakes into a trough out back and let folks practice there. You get to keep a vial of whatever you find.
He can tell when gold fever strikes. “The kids, especially, are tremendous to watch when we show them the gold,” he said.
The state heritage area is one of the few places where tourists can legally pan for gold.
When I made an attempt, here’s what I learned: It’s pretty hard to get the silt and stones out of the pan without losing the gold as well. Back in the old days, miners would line their pans with mercury, which attracts gold. But mercury is not only hard to get these days, it’s not exactly stuff you want on yourself or in a river.
Panning for gold also involves spending a lot of time standing in water with wet hands. Riverbanks are dirty. And bugs love the prospect of a warm-blooded mammal parking itself on the edge of a river. (Let’s just say I learned — the hard way — that tick season is in full swing.)
More problematic is the fact that almost every square inch of these mountains is already part of an active claim — and claim-jumping is as frowned on now as it was in the old days.
It’s possible to buy a claim or even stake a new one, if you’re in an unclaimed area of federal land, but you’d have to apply through the federal government and pay a few hundred bucks in fees. The Forest Service office in Baker City is a good place to ask about amateur mining or other recreation.
Just as Seattle made more money off miners than most of them did from prospecting, you’ll have more success finding ghost towns and mountain vistas around Baker City than you will in striking it rich with a gold claim. Enjoying a hike or a small-town shop is pretty much guaranteed.
Baker City’s old-fashioned brick storefronts seem to include one or two of everything a person could need. My friend and I rented the Wisdom House, originally built in 1878 and now restored and amply furnished. On Main Street, the Geiser Grand Hotel is another restored gem. Sunday mornings, be sure to stop by Sweet Wife Baking, 2080 Resort St., for mind-blowing treats.
The Baker Heritage Museum, right next to a grassy park, tells the region’s story and is an informative place to start exploring. It includes an exhibit about the movie “Paint Your Wagon,” filmed near Baker City in 1968. The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, with four miles of trails and featuring still-visible wagon-wheel ruts, is five miles east of town.
Another fun thing in the area is the Sumpter Valley Railroad. It’s a short line of old track from Sumpter to the nearby town of McEwen on which volunteers run vintage trains pulled by a steam locomotive on summer weekends. On a number of weekends, the group re-creates an Old West train robbery, in which a historic horseback-mounted shooting group uses vintage firearms to re-create the famous train robberies of the 19th century, including a successful attempt on the Sumpter Valley Railway during its historical heyday.
If you go
• Oregon State Parks (for information on the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area): oregonstateparks.org
• Baker County Tourism: 800-523-1235 or basecampbaker.com
• Bureau of Land Management, to find existing mining claims: blm.gov/or/programs/minerals/locating-mining-claims.php
• Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: 541-523-1843 or blm.gov/or/oregontrail/
• Baker Heritage Museum: 541-523-9308 or bakerheritagemuseum.com
• Sumpter Valley Railroad, including train-robbery re-enactments: 541-894-2268 or sumptervalleyrailroad.org