Northeast Oregon’s Powder River is a small cool, quiet and refreshing stream, but not so long ago, it was a river under siege.
It’s a landscape where monstrous gold-dredging machines ravaged the river valley floor.
Square-bowed and built of steel and wood and iron, three giant dredges lifted and sifted the terrain, reaping a golden harvest worth $12 million during the peak of the depression era.
Today, it is a park that holds on to history and takes visitors aboard to see and touch the past at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area in Sumpter, Oregon.
I hope you will be as awestruck as I when you come face to face with the Sumpter dredge, whose massive boom bears seventy-two 1-ton buckets.
Rella Pfleeger-Browne is the Assistant Park Ranger and guides visitors aboard the dredge. She pointed out how the buckets moved like the chain links of a chainsaw, bored into the riverbank, and carried loose rock back into the dredge’s hulking interior.
“When you stroll into the heart of the dredge – it’s as big as a barn and filled with gears and belts, winches and pumps – where the rock passed through steel cylinders, separating rocks by size.”
Water and sluices separated the gold from the sediment and the spoils from this process were discharged behind the behemoth as it moved across the valley.
Nine tons of gold in nineteen years!
If you are lucky, you may meet some of the men who lived the history; like brothers Wes and Paul Dickison – they grew up in nearby Baker City.
In 1947, the two teens worked on the dredge for highest wages around: $1.35 an hour.
“OSHA would have shut this thing down the very first day they stepped on it,” noted Paul. “There were all kinds of hazards; cables, open gears that weren’t guarded. And if the power went out – watch out!”
Wes recalled that happened twice. When the electric power that ran the dredge failed and everything stopped on the night shift:
“We didn’t have lights,” said Paul. “We didn’t have nothing and it was the spookiest place you’d ever been in your life. All these pumps running, pipes running, water running, mud everywhere and boom - power went off and it was coal black. You’d hear a splash over here, splash over there – something there – real spooky.”
But the lure of golden profit (the dredge made more than $4 million in profit) was strong and repairs were made quickly so operations could continue.
It’s the noise they remember most. The dredge operations were so loud you couldn’t talk, so a bell system was the only way to communicate.
Signals were written on the wall – long and short rings – that helped the three-men crew communicate across the massive floating machine.
Jerry Howard’s father was a winch-man in the 1930s who operated the dredge from three stories up in the winch room.
He had a commanding view of the entire operation.
Inside the room, handles moved cables that moved the buckets down below that gouged out the ground.
“I can still hear the rocks hitting the tailings,” noted Howard. He recalled bringing lunch to his father and said it was a real boyhood adventure to go aboard the dredge.
“The digging of the bucket line was something – 72 buckets going round and round 24 hours a day. It dug up a lot of land.”
The Sumpter Dredge ravaged the Powder River Valley for miles around and all these decades later, the tailings undulate like snakes across the valley.
They are lasting reminders of a bygone era for sure, yet time has a way of healing the land: trees and other vegetation are slowly coming back along the river.
Ranger Rella Browne added that it remains an important Oregon story that she enjoys sharing with park visitors.
“The telling of Oregon history is an important mission for Oregon State Parks. By virtue of the dredge’s presence in the valley, many visitors ask those questions and then you can teach them about that time. It really does provide the opportunity to share that chapter of Oregon’s past – and it’s really fun – it’s really fun.”