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Female Miners in Southern Oregon?

From the archives of Kerby Jackson

When one thinks of the old timers who worked the rivers, creeks, gulches and hills of Oregon in search of illusive riches, we think of the iconic old grizzled prospector. Red shirted and bearded, with a pick over his shoulder, a .45 slung low on his hip and accompanied only by his trusty mule whose back is heaped high with gear, he is the traditional icon of the gold rush era. That image is so powerful and so well known that today, it adorns anything having to do with the word “gold” and like his cousin the cowboy, everyone recognizes him just by his outline. Yet contrary to that traditional image, he wasn’t the only fella who was out there breaking his back for a few bits of color. The patience and hard work of the Chinese and their contribution to the Southern Oregon Gold Rush are legendary, but even lesser known today were the efforts of Pacific Islanders (so-called “Kanakas”), Mexicans, Free Blacks and other groups of men who came to toil in Oregon’s creeks and gulches hoping to strike it rich. And as the following article, originally published over a century ago attests, not every person working in the gold fields of Oregon was necessarily “one of the boys”.

Grants Pass, Oregon. May 1904.

The gold fields of Southern Oregon mineral zone appear to be particularly attractive to women; at least this section has its fair share of women miners, and there is no gainsaying that it has profited thereby. A visitor to the Forest Queen hydraulic mine, near Grants Pass, will find a handsome woman busily engaged about the diggings, operating a giant, retorting gold or even “bucking” the boulders on the bedrock. This woman is Mrs. Wisenbacher, but she was formerly Miss Pipes and was one of the stunning “Sadie Girls” with the popular Anna Held company in “The Little Duchess”. Last year, Mrs. Wisenbacher quit the stage and became a full “partner” with her father and brother in the operation of the Forest Queen Mine. With a woman about to assist, the season has been a successful one at the Forest Queen.

“Though I had become fascinated with the life behind the footlights,” said Mrs. Wisenbacher to a Mining Review correspondent, “I am equally so with the life of a gold digger in Southern Oregon. There are few spots anywhere prettier than that where the Forest Queen is located.”

Mrs. Wisenbacher, being a “Sadie Girl” is, of course, handsome. She would have this season been a “La Mode” girl in the same popular company, but she was induced by her father, who is a prominent Colorado and Idaho miner, to give up the stage and live a life of greater ease and freedom in the Southern Oregon Mountains.

The Mining Review correspondent also came unexpectedly upon another woman miner, a woman “piper”, if you please, in a Southern Oregon mine. She is Mrs. M.E. Moore, and this lady, like the other mentioned is a full “partner” in a placer mine. Mrs. Moore is a piper, an expert piper – not the kind the Scotch Highlanders know so much about – but a hydraulic mining piper – the operater of a hydraulic giant. Every day this woman is at her post beside the giant, long before the sun is up, and she remains there throughout her shift. None know better than she how best to swerve the big nozzle to drive an avalanche of boulders down the gulch ahead of the giant’s stream, scattering them like a handfull of bullets shot from a catapult, or how to bring that long and deep growl to the monster as its cuts and gnaws deep at the base of the towering red clay bank till a great slab of a thousand tons topples and falls with a crash from the mountainside.

Mrs. Moore has been a “partner” of her husband in the mining business for nearly twenty years. She has followed the trails through the mining regions of Colorado, Montana, Arizona, California and Oregon, prospecting, pocket-hunting, digging, always on the lookout for a color, a strike, a bonanza. She has traveled hundreds of miles on pack pony and burro, through the snow and over the burning sands. Those twenty years, spent altogether out of doors, have been days of perfect health for her. “Yes,” said she, “mining is the life for me. I love it. I love the freedom of the mountains and the ozone of the pines. There is no other life like it; none as enjoyable for me, at least.”

The Mining Review, 5/18/1904
Ellen Jack, a female prospector from Colorado at the turn of the 19th century. Courtesy: Kerby Jackson archives

Ellen Jack in 1910

One of the best known female prospectors was Ellen Elliot Jack of Colorado, who is pictured at the left in a photo dated about 1910. Ellen was born in England, but came to the Far West in 1872 after the tragic death of her husband and children. In addition to mining, she was also an early woman business owner. Like her male counterparts who worked the gold fields, Ellen was one tough cookie. Everywhere she went, Ellen carried a pick axe and a six gun in her belt and she knew how to use both of them. She was also said to bear a severe scar that was the result of a tomahawk wound she received during one of the Gunnison Indian Uprisings. At the time this photo was taken, she had just written a semi-autobioghraphical novel entitled “The Fate of A Fairy” which was about a woman who loses her husband and becomes a female prospector.

Another lady prospector was Ferminia Sarras, who was a major mine owner in Nevada and was widely known as the “Nevada Copper Queen”. Ferminia’s story would have been lost to history had it not been for the research of historian Sally Zanjani, the author of “A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950″

The article above is thought to have been written by Dennis Stovall who was an early author living in Josephine County. Stovall is best known for his novel “Suzanne of Kerbyville” which he wrote the same year as this article. His novel, though fictional, is one of the best sources for information on the early settlement of Kerby, Oregon, as well as the mining that went on in the vicinity of that early gold rush town. Though the novel really focuses on the exploits of a young woman named Suzanne , it is mentioned that Suzanne’s father was a “pocket hunter” and there is quite a good description of his methods.

The Forest Queen Placer, mentioned in this article, was located on Louse Creek, a few miles east of Merlin, Oregon. At the time, it was owned by J.P. Pipes and T. Weisenbacher (or Wisenbacher). The property was originally known as the Lance Placer and at the time of this article it consisted of 212 acres of ground that was worked with the assistance of two miles worth of ditch, 2500 feet of pipe with a pressure of 200 feet, three giants and a Ruble Rock Elevator.

~ Kerby Jackson, Josephine County, Oregon

Southern Oregon Gold

Oregon has produced almost six million ounces of gold.  A lot of gold that was produced by Oregon was claimed by the State of California because of a lack of boundaries at the time of the original gold rush.

In 1849, the vast country lying between the Siskiyou and the Calappoia hills was comparatively unknown to white men. Along the solitary trail that led to the interior of Oregon from California a lonely traveling train now and then made its way, or a solitary hunter or trapper journeyed to or from Vancouver in search of furs.

Southern Oregon Gold

The Gold Rush that began in the Sierra foothills of California in 1848, soon spread to other sites in northern California and southern Oregon. Extensive gold mines were worked in southern Oregon in 1849. The placer mines of the Rogue river had yielded tens of millions of dollars of the precious metals, and many of them were profitably worked.

Gold was first discovered in Josephine County May 2nd of 1851 on Josephine Creek. Gold was found next on the Canyon Creek the same year. Both of these streams are tributaries of the Illinois River. Sailors crossing overland from the coast found gold at what we now known as Waldo (no sign of a town exists today), which was along the Illinois River. These discoveries soon brought gold seekers by the hundreds establishing such well known camps as “Sailors Diggings” and “Browntown.”

Some of Josephine’s pockets were very rich indeed. The best known pocket digging was the Briggs Mine near the California line, where masses of gold totaling 2,000 ounces were taken out in 1904 alone. Slabs of gold up to three feet in length were reportedly recovered.

A number of gold nuggets the size of chicken eggs have been found in placer gravels and pocket deposits. The largest nugget was found in 1859 on the East Fork of Althouse Creek, below the Brigg’s pocket. It weighed  17 pounds. Another nugget weighing 15 pounds was found in the gravels near the Esterly hydraulic Mine cut in the early 1860’s.

Esterly Mine

Esterly Mine

Josephine Creek running into the Illinois River

Josephine Creek running into the Illinois River

Records of the United States Mint show production  in dollars of $16,816,275.39 for the entire State of Oregon during the years 1848 to 1882. It is estimated that nearly half of that amount was mined in Southern Oregon. The correct true value can never be accurately ascertained as many miners hoarded their gold and much of the gold that was mined by the Chinese was shipped back to China.

From 1906 to 1934 there was a steady decline in gold production in Southwestern Oregon, except for a small increase right after World War I.

In January of 1934 the price of gold was raised from $29 per ounce to $35. This was a definite boon to the mining fortunes of Josephine County. With improved quartz mining methods and more efficient dredges plus a higher price for gold, southwestern Oregon’s gold production steadily increased until reaching a final peak of $1,053,395 for a single year in 1940.

The War Production Board Order L-208

World War II created a major setback for gold mining. During 1942, the War Production Board passed an order titled L-208 which stopped all non-essential mining; gold mining was included as none essential. This order was not revoked until July 1, 1945. This order caused the shutdown of the Benton Mine on Whiskey Creek, Josephine Counties largest mining operation at the time with over 26 miners employed.

The gold production from 1852 to 1966 was approximately $134,000,000. In 1959, Oregon produced only $15,000 in gold. During the 1970’s and 1980’s when gold reached it maximum peek, there was a brief upswing in prospecting. Many prospectors purchased small dredges and took to the hills and streams once more hoping to cash in on the Yellow metal. Some have done very well.

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