By Christy Karras
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.
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.