The History Of Sumpter Oregon
The Queen City
The year was 1862. While the Civil War was still in it's infancy, five men (Hugh Asbury, John Reel, Fletch Henderson, Bill Flanagan, and Dick Johnson) from South Carolina were traveling on their way to the California gold fields. They camped near what is now known as Cracker Creek.
They made the first gold discovery while panning the gravels along the creek. It was decided they would stay and work in this area rather than continuing on to California. They built a primitive small cabin, between McCully Creek and Cracker Creek, naming it Fort Sumter after the South Carolina fort of Civil War fame. Remnants of that first cabin can be seen today.
The first Post Office was established in 1874, with Joseph D. Young as the first postmaster. It was discontinued in 1878. In December 1883 the Post Office was re-established and the spelling Sumter was changed to Sumpter to avoid confusion and repetition of names for mail delivery.
Growth came slowly to Sumpter; its only connection to the outside world was the wagon road winding over and through the hills to Baker City, nearly thirty miles away. This wagon road became the early stage route that connected all the boom-towns and mines in the area. During that time Placer Mining was going strong. The placer miners discovered most of the gold-bearing quartz ledges in the area and hard rock mining began in the Sumpter Valley and the surrounding mountains.
About 1895 Sumpter began to grow due to the invention of the pneumatic drill, stamp mills for crushing ore and new methods to chemically extract the gold from its alloys. In 1897 the Sumpter Valley Railway extended track into Sumpter, population 300, and the boom was on! The US Census of 1903 counted over 3500 registered voters. They did not, however, count the women, children or the Chinese! The population was most likely considerably larger.
In 1899, the first of many brick buildings were appearing. Two blocks of Granite Street were paved with planks and Sumpter soon took on the title of The Queen City. The Sumpter Valley Railway delivered as much as six carloads of mining machinery each day and hauled six hundred car loads of timber each month to its mills in Sumpter and Baker City. There were seven daily stage lines, located in Sumpter, connecting the surrounding mining camps and towns. Millions of dollars in gold were extracted from the mines around the Queen City, with the going wage for miners at $4.00 per day for a twelve-hour shift. The peak came in 1900 with an output of $8,943,486 from thirty-five mines.
The first of three dredges to mine the gravels of the Powder River began in 1913. What is left of Dredge #1 can be seen near the Sumpter Valley Railway depot in McEwen, where its last bucket turned up the rich farmland of the Sumpter Valley.
Dredging continued in the Sumpter Valley using Dredge #2, and the largest of the three, the Sumpter Valley Dredge, which peacefully resides in a pond of its own-making at the edge of town. Dredging continued, reworking the old tailings and churning up new farmland until 1953 when the clatter of the bucket line and the roar of the huge trommel were silenced forever. It has been said that the noise of the dredging could be heard for miles. The Dredge operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with only two holidays, Christmas and the Fourth of July!
The Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge mined $4,500,000 in gold at the price of $35 per ounce. The irony is that most of the gold is still here. All of the gold, which was collecting on the bedrock of the Sumpter Valley, is still there waiting! River gravels deeper than the dredges ability to dig were undisturbed and if and when the bucket line came into contact with bedrock, it could not break it down to catch the gold. The gold the dredges obtained was in the gravels, percolating down to bedrock. The Sumpter Valley Railway began its decline in 1933 and passenger service was discontinued around 1937. The last run was in April of 1947.
August 13, 1917 was a typical hot summer day until the dreaded sound of the fire bell echoed throughout Sumpter. A fire of an unknown cause erupted in the cooks quarters of the Capital Hotel. Upon discovery, the room was totally engulfed in flames and in no time spread to the adjacent buildings. All effort to contain the fire was futile. In no time several proud structures were totally aflame, even the streets were on fire, breaching the fire hoses and spreading the destruction.
Three hours later, Golden Sumpter lay in almost total ruin. Nearly one hundred buildings in twelve city blocks were completely destroyed. There were no loss of lives, but it was the end of the Queen City. Hard rock mining was winding down and the saloons were closed as the State of Oregon had instituted prohibition. Despite efforts to keep things going, the miners moved on to other strikes in their quest for the Mother Lode.
The following quote and list is taken nearly verbatim from Oregon's Golden Years, by Miles Potter:
"In 1900, the Blue Mountain American and the Sumpter News mentioned the following among the business houses of Sumpter: Seven hotels, five rooming houses, six restaurants, sixteen saloons, three livery stables, three blacksmith shops, one wagon maker, seven general stores, three newspapers, two drug stores, five cigar stores, one cigar factory, three meat markets, two churches, one brewery, two banks, five assay houses, one express office, four barber shops, two plumbing stores, six law offices, one opera house, one dance hall, one sawmill, three hardware stores, a volunteer fire department, telephone & telegraph offices, an electric light plant, public school, shooting gallery, photographic gallery, one undertaker and last but not least... a red light district!"