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Gold-field bandits’ stolen loot still hasn’t been found

The Triskett Gang underestimated the citizens of Sailors’ Diggins, which became a fatal error when they went on a shooting spree downtown. But the $75,000 they stole has never been recovered.

By Finn J.D. John — Posted with permission from the Author. The Author has a very interesting website at www.offbeatoregon.com

Colt

The amount of shooting done in Sailors’ Diggins by the Triskett Gang
suggests they likely were using the then-new cap-and-ball Colt revolvers
such as this 1848 Dragoon model. Remember, this incident happened
well before brass cartridges were invented; each shot had to be loaded
by hand with a ramrod. (Image: Hmaag/Wikimedia)

After a former Oregon farmer found gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, people from Oregon raced southward to start grubbing it out of the ground. The next year, people from the East Coast raced westward with the same idea.

By the year after that, it was getting to be hard to find a good patch of “pay dirt” that didn’t already have a miner or two working it. New prospectors might spend years poking around little mountain creeks before finding one worth working, and prospecting was hard work.

Increasingly, people started to realize there were actually several different ways a fellow could work the diggin’s:

One could look for gold the old-fashioned way, of course. But one could also go into business selling stuff, at inflated prices, to prospectors; many Oregon farmers got very rich this way.

There was another way, too. One could simply make a five-dollar investment in one of those new-fangled .44-caliber Colt Dragoon revolvers, then go find a successful miner and rob him.

Meet the Triskett Gang

There was one particular group of frontier rowdies who opted to follow this path. They were known as the Triskett Gang. This name sounds a bit like a Disney movie from the late 1960s — maybe as a sequel to The Apple Dumpling Gang? — but in reality, these guys were anything but lovable. They were named not after a yet-to-be-invented Nabisco snack cracker, but rather after brothers Jack and Henry Triskett. In their little band were three other thugs: Fred Cooper, Miles Hearn and Chris Slover.

The story of the Triskett Gang’s last day is a bit fuzzy. I haven’t been able to track down a solid source for the details. A visit to the Josephine County Historical Society in Grants Pass would probably be very helpful in firming up the details. But here’s the gist of the story:

Desperados on the run

Waldo, Oregon

The town of Waldo, f.k.a. Sailors’ Diggins, in the 1890s. This image was
made well after the town’s Gold Rush heyday, when the Triskett Gang
came through town and shot it up . (Image: www.oregongold.net)

In early August of 1852, the Trisketteros were on the run. They’d robbed a few people in California, as guys like them are wont to do, and were heading north with some armed, angry citizens on their tails, trying to lose themselves in the wilderness for a while.

They arrived one afternoon in a little town called Sailors’ Diggins, which today is a ghost town known as Waldo. About five miles north of the border with California near the present-day town of Cave Junction, Sailors’ Diggins was essentially an overgrown mining camp, but it was booming; at a time when the entire state of Oregon had fewer than 10,000 occupants, Sailors’ Diggins was home to several thousand. The mountains nearby were especially rich, and on that particular day, almost every able-bodied man was out working them.

Waldo, Oregon 1950's Ghost town

When photographer Ben Maxwell visited Waldo (Sailors’ Diggins) in
1954, he found not much remaining of the ghost town that once was one
of Oregon’s largest towns . (Image: Salem Public Library, Ben Maxwell
collection)

The five bandits quickly found the saloon, went inside and started drinking their stolen gold. After a time, nicely sozzled, they wandered out onto the street. Probably they were contemplating the need to get out of Sailors’ Diggins immediately; a town that size would be the first place the posse would check when trying to get a fix on them.

Maybe it was this thought that made Fred Cooper snap. Bandits aren’t known for self-discipline. Maybe he wanted, more than anything, to hang around that saloon all afternoon, leisurely drinking and flirting and maybe hiring some female companionship for the evening — all those things that bad guys dream about doing with their ill-gotten gains. Maybe he was standing there outside that nice little saloon just getting madder and madder at having to leave, plunge into the woods and start poking around for a tree to sleep under.

Maybe. Nobody knows, really. What is known is that instead of heaving a heavy sigh and heading for the city limits, he pulled his pistol and, without a word, gunned down a random citizen who was walking down the street minding his own business.

Gunning down innocent bystanders

Barn in Waldo, Oregon 1950's Ghost Town

One of the few buildings still standing in 1954 when Ben Maxwell visited
the ghost town of Waldo. (Image: Salem Public Library, Ben Maxwell
collection )

The rest of the gang leaped into action, if that’s the right word. The five of them stormed down the street simply killing everyone they saw. At least two women were raped as well.

Then, as they were leaving town, they paused, hustled down to the assaying depot and cleaned it out — roughly $75,000 worth of freshly mined gold. This they loaded onto two stolen horses and left town.

A mob of angry citizens takes up the chase

Now, Sailors Diggins was right in the middle of the mining action. Many of the miners could hear the gunfire and knew something was very wrong. By the time the Triskett Gang was leaving town, they were starting to arrive, probably with loaded weapons in hand. The 17 dead bodies still bleeding in the streets were their wives, children and aged relatives. You can imagine how they reacted.

All it took was one well-hidden survivor to yell, “They went that-a-way!” and the posse was off.

Weighed down with almost 250 pounds of gold, the bandits weren’t moving very fast, and the posse soon caught them up. The gang members must have been surprised by how quickly the angry citizens got on their trail. After a short pursuit, the bad guys turned at bay on the top of a little hill just outside O’Brien.

Gunfight to the death; but where was the gold?

I haven’t been able to learn much about the ensuing firefight. Presumably at least a few of the miners were killed; after all, the Triskett Gang were professional gunmen, and were able to pick the place where they made their final stand. I also don’t know if the bad guys tried to surrender. It’s certainly possible they didn’t; all they had to look forward to was humiliation and hanging.

In any case, when the shooting stopped, four gang members were dead, one was dying — and there was no sign anywhere of the 250 pounds of gold dust they’d hijacked from the depot.

To this day, that gold has never been recovered — or, rather, if it has, whoever found it was remarkably discreet about it. Treasure hunters still come to the O’Brien area to look for it. Most of them assume the gang hid it somewhere on the hill where they made their stand.

But it’s far more likely they squirreled it away earlier, when they first realized they were being pursued. It’s a lot harder to run from an angry posse when you’re leading a pack horse.

If that’s the case, it could be almost anywhere in the woods between Waldo and O’Brien, probably within a few dozen yards of the road. The stash would be worth about $5.5 million today.

(Sources: http://www.gwizit.com/treasures/oregon.php; http://www.josephinehistorical.org; Marsh, Carole. Oregon’s Unsolved Mysteries (and their “Solutions”). Peachtree City, GA: Carole Marsh Books, 1994; Friedman, Ralph. In Search of Western Oregon. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1990)

Great Gobs of Gold Abound in Southern Oregon

The largest gold nugget ever found in Oregon was discovered on the East Fork of Althouse Creek in the Illinois Valley in 1859. Its discover, a small Irish miner by the name of Mattie Collins found the whopper in the face of the stream bank under a large stump located about twelve feet about the normal waterline. Dubbed the “Collins Nugget”, it weighed in at a whopping seventeen pounds!

After Mattie Collins found the nugget, he lived in constant fear of being killed and robbed until he hired a fellow countryman of his by the name of Dorsey to help him transport the nugget out of the Althouse. With the nugget hidden in a sack on Dorsey’s back and Collins taking up the rear armed with a double barreled shotgun, the two men trekked down the old Althouse Trail (which still exists in places to this day, and upon which this writer has walked) and spirited the hunk of yellow metal out of the district under the cover of night. Every twenty or so feet, the two men would stop and peer into the darkness, mistaking every other stump or some other object for a highwayman, until finally, certain that it was a trick of the eye, Collins would tell Dorsey to go forward. Local legend has it that after selling the big yellow marvel to the smelter at Jacksonville for $3500, that awash in wealth, Mattie Collins celebrated his discovery until he drank himself to death.

Today, the Collins Nugget would be valued at about $375,000, though a gold nugget of this size and notoriety would certainly carry a hearty premium.

Other notable large nuggets found in Southern Oregon include:

The Vaun Nugget which was discovered on Slug Bar, near Browntown, also on Althouse Creek. Weight: Approximately 40 ounces.

The Oscar Creek Nugget, discovered in 1892 by Boardman Darneille. It weighed over 18 ounces. Three additional large nuggets were discovered on Oscar Creek around the same time, weighing respectively 12 ounces, 6.25 ounces and 5.75 ounces.

The Klippel Nugget, found in 1904 on McDowell Gulch, weighing approximately 25 ounces.

The Burns Nugget, discovered on Brimstone Gulch at the Stovepipe mine near the site of Leland in 1934, weighed 34.47 ounces.

Also in 1934, Ed Prefontaine discovered a piece of quartz float on Foots Creek that contained 13.63 ounces of gold.

Several large nuggets, one weighing almost 15 pounds were also taken from Sucker Creek which is due east of Althouse.

Bunker Hill

The crew at the famous Bunker Hill Mine on Silver Creek show off a two week clean up. The man at far right is pioneer Galice area miner, John Robertson. Photo courtesy of Sharon Crawford, who is the grand daughter of Orval Robertson, who discovered the Bunker Hill with his partner Ted McQueen in 1926.

Numerous discoveries of rich gold “pockets” which Southern Oregon is famous for have dotted the mining maps of this area, not limited to the fabulous Gold Hill Pocket discovered in 1860 by Thomas Chavner and partners which some say contained over 250,000 ounces of gold, the famous Revenue Pocket (2500 ounces) discovered on Kane Creek by Enos Rhoten, the SteamBoat Pocket in the Upper Applegate drainage and the famous Briggs Strike of 1904, as well as a rich discovery by Orval Robertson and Ted McQueen at the Bunker Hill Mine on Silver Creek exceeding some 5000 ounces in 1926. One piece of nearly solid gold ore from the Bunker Hill was so heavy that when it fell from the side of the tunnel, it broke the leg of a miner named Bill Mitchell who was operating a drill. The piece of ore was only a foot long, 6 inches wide and 3 inches thick, but it contained nearly 20 pounds of free milling gold. There was so much gold in this vein of ore that Mitchell called it the “Ham and Eggs Vein”, because of the amount of ham and egg breakfasts he had been able to buy with his share of the gold.

As recently as a half decade ago, a couple of pound sized nuggets were taken from a small tributary of the Applegate River, proof that the “big ones” are still out there if you are willing to work hard to find them.

~ Kerby Jackson

Josephine County, Oregon

Coyote Creek, Golden Oregon

Near the town of Wolf Creek (a town so-named for the creek that runs through it, also known for gold) is a small ghost town known as Golden, Oregon. It is easy to find and not far from I-5 in northern Josephine County. I recently took a trip to see for myself  this historical mining site on December 20, 2010.

Coyote Creek

Coyote Creek

Coyote Creek was first settled and mined around the 1840’s by white prospectors. The gold was very fine and made it hard for the men who worked the area to make a decent salary. When news of other strikes reached those working the  diggings, the area was abandoned for other areas including new strikes in Idaho. When white men left there were around thirty primitive cabins perched on upper Coyote Creek. Most miners did not stay long because it was a hard living.

Golden Oregon

Edwin Waters at Golden, Oregon

For ten years, from 1862-1872, Chinese worked the area.  Five Hundred Chinese men had moved into the area under the supervision of a contractor who had possession of the claims. The Chinese laborers made ten cents per day plus rice. Don’t feel too sad for the Chinese. This was actually a decent living at the time. A lot of gold was reported to be recovered by the Chinese, until they were driven out by white men who returned to the area in 1872.

Golden, Oregon

Golden Oregon

Merchantile at Golden

White men returned to the area and started using hydraulic means to recover the fine gold. William Ruble was struck at how efficient the process was and bought up most of the land around Coyote Creek. In 1879, large parcels of land was sold to William Ruble, both a minister and a miner. His family was struggling, so he decided to build a town. Golden was first called Goldville. The first post office was established in 1896 with Schuyler Ruble as the first postmaster. William Ruble is known to have stated “You know there is gold right under your feet , but without a more powerful way to extract it your dream will die.”

The Ruble’s could not move soil fast enough to make a profit and during the summer when the water levels dropped they could not work at all. Rather than giving up William and Schuyler Ruble invented and patented an invention known as the Ruble Rock Elevator, which increased gold production.

Golden is reported to have been a town with a population of as many as two hundred souls and there was no drinking allowed. It was a close knit and religious community. In 1900 the Bennett store was erected and in 1915 a stamp mill was built. The post office closed in 1920.

The town of Golden is now owned and managed by the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation. The former mining area has been transformed into a natural wetland and is owned by Josephine County. I do not know if you are allowed to mine at Coyote Creek. The town itself is registered as a historic site.

Golden Oregon Church

Mining Relics At Gold Hill, Oregon

Mining Relics

The Beeman-Martin House, home of the Gold Hill Historical Society’s museum. The museum is located at 504 1st Avenue in Gold Hill, Oregon and is open Thursday – Saturday, from Noon til 4 PM. For more information, please contact the society at: P.O. Box 26, Gold Hill, OR 97525, Phone: 541-855-1182

The Gold Hill Historical Society has done an excellent job preserving the mining history of the famous Gold Hill Mining District through their museum which is located in the Beeman-Martin House on First Avenue in downtown Gold Hill, Oregon. The house was originally built in 1901 by Josiah Beeman who leased and later purchased the well known Lucky Bart Mine which was located on nearby Sardine Creek. The Lucky Bart was first discovered in 1890 by Bartholomew Signorritti and Joe Cox. Beeman obtained the mine in 1892 and did well enough that he was able to build a fine two story home (which had the first indoor plumbing in Gold Hill), and was to stay in his family until 1993 when his descendants offered it to the Gold Hill Historical Society for the purpose of establishing a local museum. According to the society’s official history, the old building is presumed to be haunted after several members of their staff reported hearing heavy footsteps upstairs and there were numerous instances of the opening and closing of doors, objects being moved and pictures being “thrown” off the walls. The society affectionately refers to their ghost as “Willie”, but he did not introduce himself to me.

In addition to the usual things we see in local history displays, the Gold Hill Historical Society, has devoted a more than usual amount of space to local mining history. Though this is not only fitting and probably to be expected of such a famous gold mining district, it is not by any means typical of local historical societies here in Southern Oregon, many of which seem to regard mining as little more than a novel curiousity, if not a dirty little secret. Yet even in a town where some residents have actually began to organize against what little small scale mining does take place within their community, the volunteers here seem to take great pride in explaining how Josiah Beeman built this house with the gold he took out of the hills above Sardine Creek and how much gold was actually recovered from the nearby streams and hills. In Gold Hill, mining history finally takes center stage and although the displays
and efforts of these volunteers is still very much a work in progress, in no other place open to the public in Southern Oregon will you see as many local mining relics gathered together in one place. Admission is free, but I’m sure they appreciate donations.

Starting on the first floor of the Beeman House, we are gradually given a taste of local mining history with a set of pocket scales from the 1860’s here, an old vial of gold there and a photo here and there, but once we reach the gift shop, we are instantly confronted by all sorts of trinkets pertaining to local mining, ranging from gold panning concentrates to old photos of mines, from post cards to refrigerator magnets and right up to square nails that were saved from some old ore carts that must have rotted away on a nearby hillside somewhere. A look on the gift store book shelf and what we actually find is that the majority of their offerings have something to do with mining. For example, you can buy copies of Tom Bohmkers books on gold mining in Oregon here in the shop, booklets on panning gold and mining history, as well as copies of the Diary of Charles Anderson who was a placer miner on Foots Creek in the 1880’s.

In the stairwell (which Willie is said to frequent), we can find a number of revolving kiosks that are stuffed with local information hand outs that visitors are free to take home to study. Included are maps of the old Gold Hill Mining District, handouts on gold panning, a brief overview of local mining history, tidbits about old mining camps and much more.

From here, we head downstairs into the basement and are met with a large mining display that looks more like an old timers basement than it does a historical display. Unlike other museums, you can actually touch a lot of this stuff. Included are old mining tools, rusty gold pans, framed location notices, mining claim maps, mineral samples, miners lights and helmets, old photos, gold dust bags, a reproduction of a gold brick which was found locally and more. In one display case, there’s even a pretty nice mounted nugget that was taken from a local creek.

From here, we can go outside onto the back porch and get to the really good stuff, including the ore cars, the chilean mill, an ore crusher, several monitors, rocker boxes and of course, the 5 stamp mill from the famous Lucky Bart Mine. A brief tour follows.

Chilean Mill Trapiche

Chilean Mill

The Chilean Mill or “Trapiche”, was an improvement of the arrastre. This one was manufactured in California around 1910 and was used at the Brush Creek Mine near Downieville, California. The Rue Family brought it to their mine on Butte Creek near Eagle Point, but never used it. It is powered by electric engine and belt, seen at lower left. This machine may be the only one of its kind in Oregon. A look inside the Chilean Mill. Heavy weights were attached to the chains which were drug across the ore and slowly ground the mineralized quartz into a fine powder so that the gold could be easily separated by washing. These machines were not very efficient and worked very slow, making them suitable only for small operations.

ore crusher

This ore crusher was a big improvement on the arrastre and far more portable than a stamp mill.

rocker box

Rocker Box. The hopper appears to have originally been a fruit box.

ore car

The builder of this homemade ore car ingeniously used rounds of wood (possibly cedar) for wheels. The body looks to have been hand-hewn with a from from local timber.

Pack rat Mine Ore Car

The ore car from the Pack Rat Mine is a little more modern.

ore bucket

Ore buckets were lowered into mine shafts, filled with ore and then hoisted up top where the material could be processed. These served the same purposes as ore cars which were used to transport ore from an adit or tunnel.

5 stamp mill

This 5 Stamp Mill from Josiah Beeman's Lucky Bart Mine may be the only surviving and intact stamp mill in Southern Oregon. This one was manufactured by Union Ironworks of San Francisco in 1892 and was shipped to Oregon that same year. Built of heavy timbers that are about one foot thick, the mill is a truly imposing structure nearly 20 feet tall.

View of the mill battery. The round rods are called “stems”, while the spool shaped pieces are called “tappets”. The curved “fins” beneath the tappets are the “cams”. The bar with the horse-shoe shaped tip that is at an odd angle appears to be a “latch finger” (four more are laying at the base of the mill, uninstalled). The latch fingers, also called “lifters”, “latch bars” or “finger bars”, are used to “hang up” the tappets into place when the millman wished to stop the machine. To accomplish this, he would take a “cam stick”, which was a wooden wedge with a piece of belt on its upper side (to prevent slipping) and grease on its underside, and he would place this on top of the cam. This forced the cam to rotate at the top, which would raise the tappet higher. Once the tappet reached its peak, he would push the latch finger into place underneath tappet. This stopped the stamp from dropping without shutting the engine down and he would then repeat this process with the remaining stamps. (Note that the tappets are in the down position). As you might imagine, millmen could often be easily identified among mining crews just by counting their fingers, because if he wasn’t careful it was very easy to get his fingers or an entire hand pinched off while locking the tappets into place!

stamp mill

Stamps that crushed the ore to release the gold.

Unlike other stamp mills, this one did not rely on amalgamation plates and mercury was apparently not used at the Lucky Bart. (This is supported by DEQ reports on the site of the Lucky Bart, which have yet to turn up any mercury in the soils). Once the ore was crushed to powder, it was washed down the metal slickplate and then onto what appears to have been an early shaker table which was powered by a belt and pulley. A set of belts and wheels (which are really pulleys) make the stamps rise. Gravity makes them fall, crushing the ore.

Though this stamp mill was probably originally powered by a waterwheel, later on, this John Deere tractor engine provided the power. This engine was manufactured in 1936, so long after Josiah Beeman gave up his interest in the Lucky Bart in 1916, this stamp mill was still hard at work. When you consider that this is a tractor engine and that the top of its smokestack is about 5 feet high, it gives you a little bit of an idea of the size of this stamp mill.

All in all, a visit to the Gold Hill Historical Society is well worth the trip and a fine way to spend part of your day.

Kerby Jackson

Josephine County, Oregon

Browntown and Hogtown

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

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