by Peter Murphy
In her heyday, she was known as the “Queen City of the Mines,” and many folks still consider her so today. Baker City, in Eastern Oregon, thrived back when miners were picking, sieving and sluicing thousands of dollars of gold from the nearby mines. Nearby, “Whiskey Gulch” is said to have been the best source of gold at the time and is reputed to be the richest producing source of gold in Oregon. “Rich Gulch” and “Gold Creek” are just two of the other local drainages that produced gold too.
In 1861, Henry Griffin discovered gold in Griffin’s Gulch, and the great finds of Baker County began. During the gold boom, about 1880 to 1899, the county is reported to have produced about 434,850 ounces of gold. Overall, deposits and discoveries of nearby lodes have generated over 2 million ounces of gold produced in Baker County, which is responsible for two-thirds of the gold found in Oregon.
The Queen of the Mines still holds an icon of the time when “gold fever” swept the lands. At a local bank you can see the fist-sized nugget, the Armstrong Nugget, which is said to be the largest such lump of gold pulled from the mines of Eastern Oregon. It’s 80 ounces and, at today’s prices, that’s about $150,000.
The mines near Baker City gave rise to locales like Granite, with its Bull Run Creek gold discovery in 1862. For 80 years, rowdy Granite produced riches and rascals with dirt on their hands and gold in their mind’s eye. Tales of legendary mines and times remain in local lore today. True or not, their stories give life to Granite’s abandoned buildings.
The ghost town of Whitney served as a railroad hub when as many as 150 people lived there, but when the railroad shut down in 1947, the town closed up shop.
Not far away lies Canyon City, where to hear proprietor Jim Jensen of the Oxbow Trade Company tell it, there are gold mine shafts at his building’s very core. The Oxbow Trade Company itself is a bit of a curio from the gold era with its horse drawn carriages, pianos and other artifacts, and even the building itself hails from the past. Its very roots are from the turn of the last century. But in this century Jensen set about fixing up a wall and to his shock found mine shafts just below. “We pulled up the floorboards, found another floor, pulled it up too and found the mineshaft.” He thinks there may be 3 gold mines in the murky caverns below his building.
Baker City and her people tell tales about those pioneering prospectors who came to pull riches out of the streams and mines and departed as fast as the gold went away. Or made a fortune and stayed. A few of the hardscrabble settlements remain alive today, like Sumpter and Granite, but others like Whitney have faded into ghosts of their former selves.
Today, thriving Baker City is anything but a ghost town. The Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City is a living artifact of its gold-mining days. Book a stay at the historic Geiser Grand Hotel at geisergrand.com. Learn more about visiting Baker City and its surrounding communities at travelbakercounty.com.