A passing visit to Sumpter, Oregon

Journey back to a time of the gold rush; steam trains and dredgers

We decided to skip breakfast at the Dayville Café and check out what the city of John Day had to offer the hungry traveler. And the answer is ‘not a lot’. John Day is the largest city in Grant County with a total of 1700 residents. In fact the whole county has only around 7000 residents which is about as many people who might turn up to a Def Leppard concert – but they would at least be having some fun! We did manage to find a café that was open, consumed our coffee and a not so fresh lemon cake and quickly moved on.

Leaving John Day in our review mirror, without much regret, we continued to travel east along the John Day Highway. I don’t know about you but whoever was in charge of naming places back then lacked some imagination – the City of John Day, John Day River, John Day Highway – really! In England the early founders really showed a lot more creativity and aplomb with great names for their towns and villages, such as Lower Slaughter, Loose Bottom, Hellions Bumpstead and Kirkby Overblown. These names conjure a sense of civic pride and point of jocularity for their current residents. Also, what’s with calling these places with a miniscule population a ‘city’. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the definition of a city as:

“an inhabited place of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village”

These tin-pot places that raise themselves to the status of a city are simply pumping up their own self-importance. So, here is a pin-prick to their over-glorification … you guys are a town … best case … and possibly a village … not a city. GET REAL!

We pass through more barren landscape before reaching a turnoff for Highway 7, which appears to cut-off two sides of a triangle to get our destination for the day, Baker City. What a great choice we made as we soon found ourselves climbing into the higher reaches of the Malheur National Forest, a beautiful wooded and under-developed area. The towns and cities in this area are spread-out, and in seeking an escape from the natural wonders of Oregon we are tempted by the signs for Sumpter, a short detour off the highway. Tucked away in the trees and nestled in Oregon’s Elkhorn Mountain Range, located at 4.424 feet lies the historic gold mining town of Sumpter, with a year-round population of approximately 191. A far cry from its heyday when gold was being mined and the population was near 3500. Today, as you might expect with such a small population there is not much to the town and we quickly drive one way up the main street and back down in what felt like a matter of a few seconds. Luckily, we were drawn by the signs to the State Park and turned down to take a quick look. We noticed a lady next to what looked like a railway station (or more appropriately a hut) taking pictures of a steam engine puffing away, seemingly ready to head-off down the track. Anyone who knows us knows we are addicted to steam trains and have spent many years inflicting this passion on our children, dragging them to every Thomas the Tank Engine we could find back in England. I literally threw Karen out of the car with instructions to lie on the track in front of the train to stop it from heading out whilst I parked the car.

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The volunteers running the Sumpter Valley railway took pity on Karen, so she didn’t have to put her body on the line and we were able to grab the last two seats in the carriage. The conductor actually yelled, “Hold the train!”

The journey itself is only six miles down to McEwan – but just being on the train with the smell from the burning wood and the hissing sound of escaping steam bought big smiles to our faces. The train line was developed to support the gold mining operations and as you travel out from Sumpter you can see the devastating impact that the industry has had on the landscape. Mining here was not hundreds of men sitting in the river panning for gold or burying deep mines into the sides of mountains – here the mining was done through dredging. More on this later!

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Despite the barren landscape along the way we enjoyed the trip and, as is often the case, Karen got talking to an elderly gentleman who was a regular volunteer on the railway. He gave us some of the background as to what had gone in the Sumpter valley through the gold mining era. Although the journey to McEwan is only six miles the train rattles along slowly and it takes 30 minutes to arrive. It is difficult to describe McEwan as a destination as there is nothing there – literally nothing – apart from a small hut for the railway, a toilet block and some shelters. It was an extremely hot day and there was little to shade us from the sun. After a very long 30 minutes it was time to turnaround and head back to Sumpter. This time we chose to sit in the “luxury” carriage, complete with a lovely wood stove, which was nice to look at but totally unnecessary on this baking day! All too soon we were back in Sumpter and at the end of our unexpected but wonderful trip.

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Within the Sumpter State Park there is another exhibit – the gold dredge. The dredge itself is huge, mind-blowingly huge! These beasts were responsible for the ravaging of many square miles in the Sumpter valley. Water played a major role in these dredging operations, with the dredge itself floating in a pond of its own creation. A gold dredge works by having a belt of many large buckets that pull the gold-bearing earth up into its machinery to be processed, keeping the gold and spewing the waste (known as “tailings”) out the back by way of a stacker. Built on a shallow hull, these dredges did not need a lot of water to operate, as they moved their pond of water with them.

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The internal mechanics were not very sophisticated. In essence, the dirt that was dug by the large electrically powered buckets was sifted and sorted, and the remainder was washed over a series of riffles allowing the gold to settle and be trapped. The primary advantages that made the dredge more efficient than other methods were the volume of earth it could process and having its own water supply. The dredge that was built in Sumpter Valley could dig over 20 buckets per minute, consuming more than seven yards of earth each minute.

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Three dredges worked the valley from 1913 to 1954. Sumpter No. 3, the dredge on display, was built substantially from parts of the first dredge, which had been idle for 10 years. Between them, the dredges traveled more than 8 miles extracting $10 to $12 million worth of gold. Still, it cost more to run than the gold could pay for. The last dredge closed in 1954, more than $100,000 in debt. In just over 40 years these dredges had destroyed the landscape by digging up the top soil and burying it below several feet of rock. Only now is the environment starting to recover – and it will take a long time for the evidence of this mining to completely disappear. Whilst the history is interesting it is always sad to see how the greed of man can destroy nature’s beauty in such a devastating manner.

We love it when we have a detour and stumble upon something unexpected and wonderful.

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