Baker County, Oregon

Baker County is on the eastern border of Oregon.
Baker County was created from part of Wasco County in 1862. It was named in honor of Edward Baker, one of Oregon's first senators and a colonel in the Union Army. Colonel Baker was killed at the Battle of Balls Bluff in 1861. In 1864, Union County was created from the northern portion of the county. In 1887 Malheur County was created from the southern portion of the county. The boundaries were adjusted for the last time in 1901 when the area between the Powder River and the Wallowa Mountains, known as the Panhandle, was returned to Baker County.

The county consists of 3,089 square miles and is bounded to the north by Union and Wallowa Counties, to the west by Grant County, to the south by Malheur County, and to the east by the State of Idaho. The original county seat was established at Auburn. In 1868 an election confirmed Baker City as the new county seat.

Incredibly Rich Baker County
Baker County is one of the richest counties in the United States

Baker County Gold
USGS 1968

Gold was first discovered in eastern Oregon in 1861 in Griffin Gulch in the Baker district, Baker County. The town of Auburn was soon established as the first settlement and base for exploration. By about 1870 the richest placers were exhausted, but quartz lodes were discovered and developed, although slowly, and by 1900 were substantially productive in the Cracker Creek, Cornucopia, and Sumpter districts. As placer production decreased, Auburn declined, and Baker became the most important town in the county.

Production data for Baker County before 1880 were not found. From 1880 to 1899, the county produced $8,958,073 (about 434,850 ounces) in gold (Lindgren, 1901, p. 573). From 1904 through 1957, it produced 747,548 ounces of lode gold, 402,490 ounces of placer gold, and 11,626 ounces unidentified as to source. Total recorded gold production through 1959 was about 1,596,500 ounces produced.

Placer mining revived after 1912, and after World War II it was more productive than lode mining. Most of the county's gold production in recent years was from the Sumpter district placer mines, which were closed in 1955.

Auburn in 1861

Pine Valley, 1908
BAKER DISTRICT: Production in the Baker district has been chiefly from the placers in Griffin Gulch but this was in the early years and was unrecorded. After 1900 more than half of the gold produced in the district came from lode mines. Production of gold from 1906 through 1959 was 19,825 ounces from lode mines, 10,890 ounces from placers, and 5,437 ounces undif-ferentiated—a total of 36,152 ounces. Placers have been worked in nearly all the gulches on the south end of Elkhorn Ridge, on Marble Creek, and on Salmon Creek. The most important placers were in Blue Canyon near Auburn, where some of the early discoveries were made.
CONNOR CREEK DISTRICT: Placer mining began in this district in the 1860's along Connor Creek, and in 1871 lode gold was discovered at Connor Creek mine. After an estimated maximum production of $2 million in gold (Lindgren, 1901, p. 757), the mine was closed in 1910 and was reopened only briefly in 1915-18 (Gilluly and others, 1933, p. 50). Small amounts of placer gold were produced from the district until 1942. From that time through 1959 there was virtually no production. The district produced about 97,000 ounces of lode gold and about 6,100 ounces of placer gold through 1959.

CORNUCOPIA DISTRICT: Gold production to 1903 was valued at $1,008,000 (Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, 1939, p. 25). Production was fairly steady from 1903 through 1941, but it was only a few ounces from 1942 through 1959. Recorded production from 1907 through 1959 was 255,698 ounces.

CRACKER CREEK DISTRICT: The Cracker Creek district is north of Sumpter. The most important lode in this district and in Oregon, the North Pole-Columbia, was discovered in 1887, and it produced about $9 million in gold (Oregon Dept. Geology and Mineral Industries, 1939, p. 34). From 1907 through 1959 a total of 189,389 ounces of gold was recorded from the district.

Conner Creek, Oregon

Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek, Oregon
Photo by Janis Miglavs
EAGLE CREEK DISTRICT: The Eagle Creek district is in the southern end of the Wallowa Mountains. The boundaries of this district overlap those of the Cornucopia district, and rightly so, for the gold-bearing gravels of the Eagle Creek district were derived from the Cornucopia stock. Mining began in this district in the early 1860's when placers along Eagle Creek were worked. The Sanger mine, the largest producer in the district, yielded an estimated $1.5 million in gold from auriferous quartz veins (Lindgren, 1901, p. 738). The total early production of the district was estimated at $1,687,400 (about 82,000 ounces) in gold (Lindgren, 1901, p. 738-739). Total recorded production from 1931 through 1951 was 5,782 ounces.

GREENHORN DISTRICT: The Greenhorn district in Baker and Grant Counties. Both silver and gold veins were mined in the district before 1910. The Bonanza, the chief mine, produced $1 million in gold before 1904; it operated only sporadically from 1904 through 1916 (Parks and Swartley, 1916, p. 39). After 1930 the bulk of production was from placers. The total gold production of the district through 1959 was 89,200 ounces from lodes and 10,382 ounces from placers. Placers near Winterville, Parkerville, and McNamee Gulch were successfully worked. The value of boulders of silicified Tempskya (Cretaceous) "fern wood" in Eocene gravels exceeded the value of the gold (T. P. Thayer, written commun., 1962).
LOWER BURNT RIVER VALLEY DISTRICT: The Lower Burnt River valley district is along Burnt River in southern Baker County. The lode mines in this district were worked in the early 1880's, and the placers probably were worked earlier. Small production from the Weatherby area was maintained until 1955; however, most of the production was in early days, when no accurate records were kept. Some of the major lode mines were the Gold Ridge, Gleason, Little Bonanza, and Little Hill. Estimates of early lode production total $928,000 in gold (about 45,000 ounces) (Lindgren, 1901, p. 765; Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, 1939, p. 67-71). Total production for the district through 1959 was at least 50,000 ounces of lode gold and 3,500 ounces of placer gold. Production data for placers are reliable only for the period since 1932. Nearly all the gulches and streams that drain into the Burnt River in this district contain auriferous placers.

Burnt River, Oregon

The Mormon Basin District
MORMON BASIN DISTRICT: The Mormon Basin (Dixie Creek, Rye Valley, Malheur) district is in southern Baker County and northern Malheur County. As early as 1863 placers, were mined in the Rye Valley area and were credited with a production of $1 million in gold (Swartley, 1914, p. 228). Although quartz veins were known in the district in the early days, their gold production was not significant until after 1900; it was valued at about $2 million for the period 1906 to 1916 (Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, 1939, p. 76). About half of this was from the Rainbow, the largest gold mine in the district, and, from 1913 to 1915, the most productive in the State (Gilluly and others, 1933, p. 38). The district reported only small production from 1915 through 1948, and it was idle from 1949 through 1959. Total gold production through 1959 was about 177,500 ounces from lode mines and 56,200 ounces from placer workings. Gilluly, Reed, and Park (1933, p. 31-49) discussed in some detail the geology and mines of the Mormon Basin area. The oldest rocks exposed are quartzite, quartz schist, slate, greenstone, and chlorite schist of unknown age. A large mass of quartz diorite makes up Pedro Mountain, a prominent landmark, and there are smaller bodies of this same rock throughout the district. The lower parts of the basin are covered by Tertiary stream deposits interbedded with dacite and andesite flows. The gold deposits are in veins in pre-Tertiary rocks near the quartz diorite masses. Vein minerals are quartz, ankerite, and fuchsite as gangue and pyrite, arsenopyrite, galena, sphalerite, polybasite, hessite, tetrahedrite as ore minerals.
ROCK CREEK DISTRICT: The Rock Creek district 10-15 miles northwest of Baker. The district, discovered in the late 1880's, was a steady gold producer until 1914, after which activity declined; it was idle in 1959. The principal mine, the Baisley-Elkhorn, produced an estimated $950,000, chiefly in gold (Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, 1939, p. 85). Estimated early production of the district was $1 million, mostly in gold (Lindgren, 1901, p. 646). Production from 1934 through 1959 totaled 3,282 ounces of lode gold and 193 ounces of placer gold. A conservative total for the district would be about 51,000 ounces of gold.

SPARTA DISTRICT: Although placer deposits were known in the area at an early date, it was not until 1873, when the Sparta ditch was completed, that enough water was available to exploit the gravel-filled gulches which yielded about $157,000 in gold before 1900 (Lindgren, 1901, p. 737). Quartz veins were discovered a few years after the discovery of the placers, and from 1889 to 1892 they yielded $677,000 in gold (Lindgren, 1901, p. 736). Shortly thereafter the district declined rapidly, and from 1952 through 1959 it was idle. Total production from the district through 1959 was about 35,200 ounces of lode gold and about 7,700 ounces of placer gold.

Early advertising for Baker County

Powder River, Oregon
SUMPTER DISTRICT: The Sumpter district is predominantly a placer district, but there has been a small gold production from quartz veins that cut argillite. Placer deposits were discovered here in 1862, and production was almost continuous until 1955. Records of production before 1932 have not been found, but from 1932 through 1955 the district produced 129,004 ounces of placer gold and 2,206 ounces of lode gold. No production was reported from 1955 through 1959. Terrace gravels along the Powder River and gravels in its tributary gulches, above the town of Sumpter, contain varying amounts of gold. Damming of the Powder River by lavas of the Columbia River Basalt resulted in thick accumulations of gold-bearing gravels in the Sumpter Valley (Lindgren, 1901, p. 655-656). As the river cut through the barrier, lower terraces were created, and these also were worked extensively.

UPPER BURNT RIVER DISTRICT: The Upper Burnt River district, which includes Bridgeport, Bull Run, Unity, and Hereford, is in southern Baker County. It is a large district and includes many localities that have produced small amounts of both placer and lode gold. Early production data are scant, but apparently some placers were worked before 1900. Total gold production through 1959 was about 9,300 ounces from all sources.
VIRTUE DISTRICT: This is predominantly a lode district; placer operations consisted of small-scale diggings in some of the gulches below the veins. The Virtue mine, discovered in 1862, was one of the largest gold producers in eastern Oregon (Lindgren, 1901, p. 722). Other mines in the district that have produced significant quantities of gold are the Brazos, Flagstaff, Hidden Treasure, and White Swan. The latest production reported from the district was in 1956. Early production of the district was about $2,500,000 in gold (about 121,000 ounces); about $2,200,000 came from the Virtue mine, which had its best years before 1900 (Gilluly, 1937, p. 73). Yearly production data for the district go back only to 1935. The total for the period 1935 through 1957 was 4,837 ounces from lode mines and 288 ounces from placers. Total gold production for the district through 1959 was about 126,000 ounces.

James W. Virtue in 1869, while he was sheriff of Baker County. Courtesy Baker County Library

You can see gold from Baker County in the gold display at the U.S. National Bank in Baker City. Exhibits include gold dust, leaf gold, and the impressive 80.4 ounce Armstrong Gold Nugget, found in the area by George Armstrong in 1913. This frontier town was the hub of the Eastern Oregon gold rush in 1861, and the history of that era can still be seen in Baker City today.

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This region in Oregon is known to contain incredible gold deposits.