Dredging Up the Past

A Brief History of Dredging in the Sumpter Valley

Dredging in the Sumpter Valley

Stretching for miles across the Sumpter Valley and following Cracker Creek and the Powder River are mounds and mounds of rock and debris, remnants of the dredges that once operated in this Valley.

What Is a Dredge?

Many know of dredging as a process used to maintain the depth of a river’s channel for ship navigation or as flood prevention, however, another common use for dredges would be in gold mining.  

In Late 1912,

The first Yuba-style dredge in Sumpter Valley was built just south of the city, downstream of the Sumpter Valley Railroad S-wye and below the old Smelter.  Built by the Powder River Gold Dredging Company, the hull was 100 feet long by 45 feet wide and made entirely of wood.

Powered by an electric motor, the bucket line boasted 65 nine cubic foot dredging buckets which dug at a rate of 21 buckets per minute or seven cubic yards of material per minute.  The buckets brought the gold-laden earth up to the top of the dredge where it dumped into a hopper.  


From there, water flushed it forward into a 36 ft, rotating metal drum called a trommel.   A water line ran through the trammel so that as it turned the material was “washed” and smaller particles were dropped down through ¾ inch holes that lined the trommel’s shell, while larger material continued on towards the stacker where it was carried by a conveyor belt 96 feet to the end and dropped out the back creating the piles of tailings in the dredge’s wake.

After passing through the trommel, the gold bearing sand was flushed over a series of sluice boxes lined with slats called riffles where the gold and other heavy material settled and were trapped while the remaining lighter material was deposited out the back of the dredge.

In 1915,

Three years after their first dredge began operating and digging its way south down towards McEwen, the Powder River Gold Dredge Company started up their second dredge, the No. 2 Dredge.  This dredge was built like the first dredge in size and style, the only differences being that the second dredge had flat steel gray siding and its buckets only carried 7 ½ cubic feet of material compared to the No. 1 Dredge’s 9 cubic feet.  

The No. 2 Dredge spent its life working its way north, up the McCully Fork and Cracker Creek towards the town of Bourne.  Both dredges operated simultaneously until 1923 when the Powder River Dredging Company shut down and dismantled the No. 2 Dredge shipping it all but the hull to Central Washington where it was rebuilt and renamed the Liberty Dredge.  

The hull of the No. 2 dredge can still be seen today, resting in the pond it stopped in, approximately two miles up Bourne Road.   The No.1 was shut down the following year and its hull remains where it stopped in McEwen at the current Sumpter Valley Railroad Ticket depot and shop are located.

The Valley Was Quiet

for over a decade before dredging was active again.  In 1934, influenced when President Franklin D. Roosevelt raised the price of gold from $20.00 to $35.00 an ounce, the Sumpter Valley Dredging Company began work to create a new and improved gold dredge.

This dredge, a Yuba style dredge, had several improvements to its predecessors.  It was larger, its hull being 125 feet long by 52 feet wide.  It ran 72 ten cubic foot buckets at the speed of 25 buckets per minute or 8.33 cubic yards of material per minute.  It was estimated that the dredge could work through 100 acres of material per year.

It took over twenty men to keep the operation going, including a superintendent, dredge master, bookkeeper, electrician, part-time surveyor, shop foreman, machinists, shore crew and dredge crew.  However, it only took three of those men to operate the dredge; the front oiler, the rear oiler, and the winchman .

The Dredge Operated Continuously,

24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.  Christmas and the Fourth of July were the only observed holidays.  In 1942, the dredge was shut down as all non-essential mining operations were ordered to cease production for the duration of World War II.  On July 5, 1945 the dredge was able to begin operating again.  This time it was under a new owner, the Baker Dredging Company, and its gold recovery system was upgraded from the sluice boxes to a Jig System which increased the efficiency from 70% recovery to 95% recovery of the gold.   

The Baker Dredging Company operated the dredge until 1950 when they decided to sell it to another mining company also with the name Powder Dredging Company.  With the new system there was hope of recovering the gold missed by the first two dredges, however they did not recover as much gold as they had anticipated and with the expenses of running the operation increasing after the war they found they could not make enough to make ends meet as we were still on a gold standard and gold was still $35 an ounce. The Powder Dredging Company ceased dredging in August of 1954, $100,000 in debt.

Still Want to Know More About the Dredge?

This video gives an excellent overview of what it was like to work on the dredge.  Thank you Oregon Parks and Recreation for creating this amazing resource!

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Sumpter, Oregon 97877
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