Browntown Oregon

The site where Browntown once stood.

Today nothing remains of the early Southern Oregon mining camp once known as Browntown, but in its time, this early town, which along with its suburb of Hogtown, once sat along the banks of Althouse Creek and was described as “the most colorful mining camp in the West”.

Recently, I was able to finally tour the site of this once booming and important mining camp in the Althouse Country, due only to the generosity of local miner Tom Kitchar. In addition to being the President of the Waldo Mining District and possessing a wealth of knowledge about the early mining history of Althouse Creek, this historic mining location also happens to be located within Mr. Kitchar’s network of mining claims in that area.

Located roughly two miles south of the old community of Holland, Browntown was first established in 1853, almost immediately after the discovery of gold in the area by the Althouse Brothers, to serve the needs of miners who were working the rich placers which had been located along this creek, as well as nearby Sucker Creek and Bolan Creek.

The camp itself was named for “Webfoot” Brown, an early miner in the area, who established a store near the mouth of Walker Gulch. Some sources suggest that Webfoot also owned a butcher shop at this location. Though little is actually known of Brown’s background, his nickname “Webfoot” indicates that he had been in Oregon from an early date, as the term “webfoot” was a slang name used by early Californians to refer to Oregonians in a somewhat derogatory fashion. It is however known, that by 1858, Brown had relocated to Yreka, California, where along with J. Tyson, he became the publisher of the Yreka Weekly Union. One of his associates, Herman F. Reinhart, writing in his memoirs, “The Golden Frontier”, remarked that Brown was: “one of the spiciest, most sentimental and humorous writers we ever picked type for”.

In his manuscript, Reinhart mistakenly refers to Browntown as “Brownsville”, only adding to the routine confusion between Browntown, the old settlement of Brown City (which was due south of Takilma, located on the Illinois River somewhat upstream the mouth of Page Creek) and Brownsboro (near Eagle Point, in Jackson County).

There appears to also be some confusion about Webfoot’s background. Reinhart refers to him as Henry H. “Webfoot” Brown. The Library of Congress, in reporting on the early publication of the Yreka Weekly Union, lists the editors and publishers as H.H. Brown and J. Tyson in 1858. However, in his monumental work, “The Centennial History of Oregon: 1811-1912”, Joseph Gaston gives a detailed history of a Brown family living in Jackson County who had been in Oregon since 1852. In particular, Gaston details two brothers, J. Frank and R. Henry Brown, who immigrated to Southern Oregon from England via Wisconsin, as well as several of Frank’s sons. Gaston writes that this R. Henry Brown came to Jacksonville in 1853, which certainly puts him in the area when Browntown was established. It’s also important to mention that Frank Brown, who came to the area in 1860, like Webfoot, was a merchant and butcher by trade and co-owned a store with his brother R. H. Brown at Eagle Point and a butcher shop at Jacksonville. Meanwhile, Frank’s son, Royal H. Brown, later worked as the editor of the Yreka Union, just as Webfoot had once done. Gaston goes on to remark that the community of Brownsboro, Oregon (near Eagle Point) was named for R. Henry Brown. Obviously, the similarities between R. Henry Brown and Henry H. “Webfoot” Brown are relatively startling, especially when one considers the relatively small population of Southern Oregon in those days. It seems likely that if Webfoot and R. Henry were not one and the same, that there was likely to be a relation in some way.

By 1858, over 500 miners were said to live in or near Browntown, while another smaller population lived at nearby Hogtown, which was located somewhat upstream of this location. At the time, hundreds of miners traversed the famous Althouse Trail which once connected this area to Happy Camp, California. As these men roamed the area in search of golden prospects, they frequented the varying mining camps which were located along the trail, including Browntown, Althouse, Grass Flat, Frenchtown Bar, California Bar, Allentown, All Hours and others, not to mention others on the California side. Of these camps, Browntown was likely the largest.

As early as 1853, Browntown was said to include “ten to twelve stores, several saloons, and a good hotel”. By the following year, it had grown to “two bakeries, ten stores, four hotels, a bowling alley, seven saloons, three blacksmith shops and two dance or fancy houses”. One of these two “fancy houses”, may very well have been Browntown’s “Opera House” which was considered a rarity in such a place. Browntown was also home to Belt Lodge #26 of the Order of Free Masons, which was later consolidated with the Western Star Lodge #18 in 1864 to create the current lodge still standing in Kerby, Oregon today. Over a hundred cabins existed up and down the creek nearby, signs of which, very little to anything remains today.

It is also known that some sort of fort was constructed at Browntown following an Indian attack on several miners who were prospecting what is now known as Deadman Gulch. The miners (some say two, others say, there were three of them) had set their guns down while they worked the creek. Several Indians silently crept up behind the group, stole their weapons and shot and killed the group of miners with their own guns. As this gulch is located close to Browntown, the miners felt it necessary to establish some type of fortifications in their community to repel a major attack, which during the mid 1850’s was a very real threat.

It is possible that the majority of Browntown may have been constructed in a way that was somewhat less than permanent and may have been little more than a tent or shanty town, for even as late November of 1858, a Father Croke wrote of his journey through the area in an effort to raise money for a Catholic church. He said little of Browntown, merely mentioning that he left his horse there and went on to Grass Flat on foot. While he describes Grass Flat as a “trading post”, he uses the word “town” in regards to Browntown rather loosely, as if to indicate that it had very little resemblance to a civilization.

In addition to many Euro-American miners, quite a large number of Chinese also made their way into Browntown. Living in terrible, cramped cabins and existing frugally on mainly tea, rice, Skunk Cabbage and Miner’s Lettuce, the Chinese were very patient, methodical miners who often uncovered large deposits on claims previously thought to have been worked out.

If there were ever any peaceful times at Browntown, they have long been over shadowed by its rougher element, which often punctuated the dullness of day to day life with drunken brawls, shootings, less than harmless practical jokes and other types of skull-duggery. Located miles from county government, the miners themselves were their own law and though they tolerated the likes of brawls, pistol duels and things of that nature, one thing they did not tolerate much was high-grading. Theft of gold from unattended sluice boxes was a particular problem in the vicinity of Browntown and did much to raise the ire of miner’s courts in the area, though there is no clear indication if they ever located the perpetrators or how they were dealt with if they did catch up to them.

Among its many establishments, Browntown had one of the only “Opera Houses” in Oregon at that time, which occasionally hosted traveling stage acts. Among those who performed at Browntown was child starlet Lotta Crabtree who starting in 1853 began touring the mining camps of the Siskiyous. This tiny, six year old girl with red hair had been professionally trained to dance, sing and play music in San Francisco and was as famous during her time as Shirley Temple would be decades later. At Browntown, the girl sang and danced jigs as the miners clapped and stomped out a beat for her. The men were so appreciative that they promptly showered Lotta with gold coins and nuggets, which her mother Mary Ann would pick up off the stage and tuck into her apron. A decade later, at the age of sixteen, Lotta played Browntown for a second time in 1863, and was not so well received when she began to belt out patriotic songs declaring her loyalty to the Union. Giving some insight into the political mood of the camp during the Civil War, the crowd of local miners hissed at her and treated her in such a way, that even years later, her manager remarked that Browntown had been “cold and relentless” and that not a single person there had clapped for her.

On another occasion, a local miner left Browntown and married a mail order bride who he had picked up in San Francisco. So woman starved was the camp in its early days, that when their compatriot returned to Browntown, miners from miles away decided to honor the bride’s arrival by amassing at the stage station where they greeted her by firing their revolvers into the air and hooting and hollering like Indians. Terrified, the woman hid inside of the stagecoach, not realizing that the miners were paying tribute to her.

Even the Chinese, who were so noted for their patience, tended to run on the ornery side at Browntown. Webfoot Brown kept the largest store in town and often made deliveries to the more distant camps by way of pack train along the Althouse Trail. On one occasion, he had a delivery so large that he was forced to leave the store in the care of his young daughter for the day. As the day wore on, the store began to grow so busy that the girl became so tired from waiting on customers that she decided to close the store and take a rest. Soon, a large group of Chinese miners looking to purchase supplies appeared at the door and began to mill about while they waited for the store to open. Several hours went by and now the ordinary patient Celestials, began to grow agitated. When one of them peered through a window and saw the girl inside, they began to bang on the doors and the windows for her to open the store. Now terror-stricken, the girl’s unwillingness to open the front door only made the Chinese grow even more irate and well into dark, the group continued to mill about, shouting and swearing, until they finally dispersed and returned to their diggings well after dark.

Like other mining camps, Browntown also had more than its fair share of viscous brawls and killings.

A miner by the name of Tom Ryan was considered to be the terror of Browntown in that he was somewhat famous throughout Southern Oregon for his sour attitude and his enjoyment of brawling. On one evening, an Irish miner by the name of Maxwell was entertaining “the boys” with song as they drank at the bar. This was something that Maxwell often did and having little other entertainment, his singing was much revered by the miners of Browntown. While Maxwell was entertaining those who had bellied up to the bar, Tom Ryan soon grew moody. Awash with drink, the bully picked up a bar stool and then smashed a young miner over the head with it for reason’s still unknown. Seeing this injustice, Maxwell intervened on the teenager’s behalf and he and Tom Ryan took to fighting, proceeding to beat each other bloody until the miners in the room decided to separate them. Seizing this opportunity, Ryan bolted for the door and as he reached it, he looked back over his shoulder and said something particularly tasteless to Maxwell. In a rage, the Irishman promptly picked up a hot lid off the wood-stove that he was standing next to and despite the heat, threw it at Ryan’s head. The hot disc gashed Tom Ryan’s face rather badly and split the man’s lip, nearly killing him. Once again, the miners intervened, taking both away to tend to their injuries – in separate cabins, of course.

On another occasion, a Waldo gambler by the name of Bill Nicholas was challenged to a duel by a gambler from Browntown who’s name has now been lost to antiquity. The two men promptly met in the middle of the street carrying their weapons of choice. The gambler from Browntown carried a revolver, while Bill Nicholas chose a Bowie knife. At that, the two men each grabbed one end of a handkerchief or small scarf with their left hands and with their weapons in their right hands, the duel began. The gambler from Browntown promptly leveled his pistol and fired, only for Bill Nicholas to somehow dodge the pistol ball and to then drive his knife into the shoulder of his opponent. Those who had gathered to watch, promptly separated the two men and declared that the duel was over.

However, the Browntown gambler, the much larger of the two men, was not satisfied with the outcome of the duel and promptly announced that he would beat the living hell out Bill Nicholas the next time he saw him and then turned to leave. Soon after, the Browntown man watched Nicholas walk into a store, where upon he followed him and attempted to pick a fight with the smaller man. Calmly, Bill Nicholas grabbed up a ten pound weight off the store counter and flung it at the man’s head. Dodging the weight, the larger of the two continued to taunt Nicholas, only to be pelted in the stomach by a second weight, which temporarily incapacitated him. Needless to say, he did not bother Bill Nicholas again.

Despite the fact that Browntown was large, its population did fluctuate dramatically. In particular, the number of miners working the area plummeted during late 1857 when word of the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in British Columbia had reached the area. Hundreds of miners working in Southern Oregon left during “the Fraser River Excitement” as it was often referred to. A large number of miners from the vicinity of Browntown ventured to British Columbia only to return to the Althouse broke. As Father Croke noted during his visit to the Althouse in November of 1858, “There are a great deal more miners here than in Allen Gulch (near Waldo), but very many of them are just returned from Fraser River, and are scarcely making their board.”

Still, despite their poverty, they were certainly better off than the many thousands of miners who stayed in the Fraser that winter, many of whom perished from the abject poverty and poor conditions.

As was often done with other mining camps, when a location “played out”, the miners disassembled their camp and moved on to the next rich area they could find. Typically, gulches were mined out for about the first half a mile above their mouth, a process that was sped up with the growing popularity of hydraulic mining in the 1860’s. Browntown was no different, in that by 1876, Walker Gulch had been so thoroughly mined that Browntown was moved upstream to the mouth of Number Seven Gulch, where the new camp was sometimes referred to as “Tigertown”. At this location, hydraulic mining resulted in the construction of eight miles worth of ditch and eighteen miles worth of trails, most of which were built by the Chinese. These improvements allowed for the mining of fourteen “stream miles” worth of ground and even today, contrary to the popular idea that this area is “a pristine wilderness”, extensive tailing piles are very much in evidence throughout the area to illustrate just how much work was done in the vicinity. Having visited most of Southern Oregon’s historic gold mining districts, I must say that of all the areas I have had the opportunity to explore, the signs of past mining in the vicinity of Browntown are the most extensive and much of the ground appears to have been re-worked by several generations of miners since the early days.

Over time, most of the easy gold was mined out of the area and as such, Browntown gradually fell into decline. Though still in existence after 1900, by 1915, the population of Browntown and its surrounding area (possibly including the community of Holland) had dropped to less than 75 people. A few operations continued to mine in the area. In particular, a large drag line dredge was brought in during the 1930’s and worked out a 20 acre bench into the 1940’s. According to local legend, this bench included the town site of Browntown and it is generally believed that any remains of the settlement literally went down the sluice and were gone forever.

However, it is important to point out, that although the site of Browntown today is little more than a long grassy flat dotted with some tailing piles, there are no signs of a drag line dredge having worked this site. When Muriel Wolle, the author of numerous books on early mining camps and ghost towns in the West, most notably her famous work, “The Bonanza Trail”, visited this area in 1950 or 1951 and attempted to locate the site of Browntown, she indicated that she had “noticed a mine dump … on a gravelly meadow” which she believed was the town site. Based on her descriptions, the actual site appears to have changed very little during the last 60 years and she makes no reference to signs of a large dredge working the location. It therefore seems more likely that the ravages of time, not a drag line dredge, had eliminated any signs of Browntown.

By the 1960’s, for a nominal fee, local booster, Elwood Hussey offered gold mining excursions to the site of Browntown. Hussey would provide a pick and a pan and several local old timers would teach the customers how to pan. These excursions were so popular that they were mentioned in many travel and auto club books of the period. Elwood Hussey is perhaps best known for once being the owner of the tract of land which is now Cave Junction, Oregon which he donated to the local community. He was, more or less, the founding father of the above mentioned town.

It is is generally acknowledged that even into the early 1960’s, although nothing remained of Browntown proper, there were extensive remnants of old mining cabins and mining relics scattered throughout the surrounding area. In 1967, a “hippie” commune known as Sunny Ridge was established on an old mining claim on Blind Sam Gulch, which is somewhat near Browntown. At one time, nearly 100 people were said to have lived on the commune (enough so that about half of the native population of the Illinois Valley claims to have been born at Sunny Ridge – a few of them probably were) until they were evicted from the claim by BLM in the late 1970’s or so. It is generally believed that during that decade, many of the original mining structures and relics in the vicinity were recycled by the residents of Sunny Ridge in an effort to put “junk” to some sort of practical use for their social experiment.

Today, nothing much remains of Browntown but a few piles of loose cobbles which appear to have been turned over by successive generations of miners again and again and again in an ever-continuing search for gold. Unlike other areas, apart from the tailing piles, there are no real signs that hundreds of miners once lived there. There are no old tin cans, square nails, rusty hinges, broken pieces of colored glass bottles or other such more-than-a-century-old-garbage lying around in plain site to indicate that anything remotely resembling civilization ever existed in the area. There are no real signs of the amount of wealth that was gleaned from the gravels of this area – an estimated quarter of a million ounces of placer gold alone between 1852 and 1959, roughly equaling better than a quarter of a billion dollars at today’s current spot price. But there is something that remains left from those days and that is the sensation or feeling that something did once go on in that place and that it was something extraordinary.

~ Kerby Jackson, Josephine County, Oregon