The Sumpter Valley gold-digging dredge, even in a rusted and immobile state, conjures up images of an earth-eating, praying-mantis-shaped monster.
Well, that’s what I thought as Nora the Schnauzer and I toured the behemoth with Oregon Parks and Recreation Department ranger Rella Browne.
And I imagined the noise it made, clanking and snorting like a oversized Sherman tank around the valley for 20 years.
Just hearing details about the machine boggled my mind: 125 feet long, 52 feet wide with 72 earth-gobbling buckets, each weighing a ton, that ripped up 10-cubic feet of soil and rock at 25 bites per minute.
And it weighed in at 1,250 tons.
Why, that dwarfs the average 35-foot-long, 8-foot-wide Blue Bird school bus.
To aid my short memory, I relied on Oregon Park and Recreation Department (OPRD) fact sheets for details that Browne mentioned (and I forgot).
The dredge ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week (except Christmas Day and the Fourth of July). It chewed up 225 cubic feet (nearly 8 1/2 cubic yards) of soil and rocks per minute, forever changing 100 acres of the grassy valley along the Powder River per year.
The dredge, powered by a 250-horse-power electric motor, grabbed gold-bearing soil and rock up to 45 feet down from the bottom of a pond — a pond it created and moved along with it.
It dragged the rock and dirt inside and processed it. About 3,000 gallons of water per minute flowed through the sluice boxes and the gold remained while the waste spewed out the back.
The miles of tailing piles spewed from the stacker in back remain visible today.
Well, the noise must have been constant and unnerving, unless you depended on the operation for your livelihood.
The dredge operation employed up to 23 men, from bookkeepers to mechanics, although only three actually operated the machine (in three shifts a day).
A fact sheet said, "The dredge was anchored in place with a spud (or counterweight) and bow and stern lines connected to deadmen (usually logs buried in the ground). Using winches aboard the dredge, it could be maneuvered to dig at any angle. With the bucket line digging ahead while the 96-foot stacker mounded the tailings behind, the dredge worked back and forth across the valley using water from the Powder River."
The dredge dug $4.5 million at $35 per troy ounce (12 ounces per pound) after 1935.
As of Saturday, Monex Precious Metals on the Internet quoted the price of gold at $992. If that’s per ounce, the dredge’s take would be worth over $100 million today.
When I asked if gold remained in the valley, Browne recalled a recent OPRD employee who panned for a couple of hours, two-to-four days a week, for three months and ended up with less than $100 in gold.
Two smaller dredges preceded this behemoth. The first was built in 1912, the second in 1915, and each crunched up about 60 acres of valley each year until 1923.
So, in an hour or so I dredged up a wealth of details about the Sumpter Valley dredges.
But I also learned other stuff. For example, OPRD ranger Miranda Miller demonstrated how to pan for gold.
It looks easy, if you’re patient. You swirl water and dirt around in a pan and slowly sift the dirt away.
In theory, heavier gold sinks to the bottom and remains in the pan when the water and dirt has been sifted away.
Panning works, because Miller repeatedly ended up with visible flecks of gold, along with tiny garnets and flecks of iron pyrite (fool’s gold).
My wife, Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I reached Sumpter by driving on portions of the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway and the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway.
The scenery alone, from Pendleton to Ukiah and from Ukiah to Granite, makes the drive worthwhile.
We stopped at the Granite store and drove around town. Granite’s population has shot up from one in 1970 to 2,800 in 2009.
Then, between Sumpter, with a population of 171 in 2000, and Phillips Lake, we stopped to photograph four ospreys in a nest and three sandhill cranes sauntering along in a field beside the highway.
After that, of course, we dined at the Steak House in Haines.
I shoveled down sumptuous baked beans and chuckwagon stew, along with cowboy bread, from the salad bar.
Then I stuffed myself with a delicate halibut slab entre (with mashed potatoes and a cool, gourmet chocolate tart dessert).
And, yes, images of 72 one-ton buckets shoveling 225 cubic feet of gold-laden earth a minute into the greedy belly of the Sumpter Valley dredge came to mind as I ate.
Contact Don Davis at email@example.com or 526-8326.
If You Go
For more Eastern Oregon Scenic Byway details, use the Google search engine for Blue Mountain Scenic Byway and Elkhorn Scennic Byway.
You may take the scenic route from Walla Walla through Pendleton and Ukiah to Granite, Sumpter, Baker City, Haines and back on the highway to Mission and Walla Walla.
Or, you can drive about 130 miles on the highway to Baker and another 30 miles to Sumpter.
Google "Haines Steak House" for a menu.