There’s gold in them there hills! In 1861, gold was discovered in Griffin Gulch near Baker City, Oregon. As with any gold discovery, the rush was on and thousands of people raced to the area to stake their claim for potential riches. Towns popped up to provide goods and services to the ever-growing population of miners. As the pickings waned, so did the towns and their residents. However, remnants of these ghost towns still remain today and make for a captivating exploration opportunity.
We started our tour in Greenhorn. Located about 7 miles north of Tipton Summit along Highway 7, Greenhorn has the unique distinction of being both the highest (elevation 6,306 feet) and smallest (0.1 square miles) incorporated city in Oregon. (wikipedia)
Few original remnants remain, having since been replaced by privately-owned cabins. However, Greenhorn’s incorporation has remained in place since 1903 and the city has an active counsel and mayor. Given its small size, a walking tour is easily done by all age groups and is a good way to encounter the resident deer population.
From Greenhorn, we traveled north on Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Road 1305 towards Granite. Road 1305 descends the Olive Creek drainage, becomes Grant County Road 24, and leads right to Granite.
A few miles prior to Granite, where the pavement begins, the road meets up with National Forest Road 10. A short detour up NF Road 10 took us to the Fremont Powerhouse. This facility used piped-in water from nearby Olive Lake to drive a turbine, which generated electricity for mines in the area as well as provided power to Granite and Sumpter.
After enjoying a picnic lunch and one-on-one tour with the site host, we continued on to Granite. Granite resides on a hillside and is composed mostly of privately-owned cabins, similar to Greenhorn. However, Granite has a higher number of residents as well as land area. A couple of old buildings remain.
From Granite, we headed southeast along the Elkhorn Scenic Byway towards Sumpter. Just prior to entering Sumpter, we turned left onto the road that leads to Bourne. Bourne sits about 7 miles up the road at the confluence of Cracker Creek and Little Cracker Creek. Little remains of the original town buildings, which were wiped out in a flood in 1937 (source). Private cabins are maintained, similar to Greenhorn and Granite.
We returned to the Elkhorn Scenic Byway and continued on to Sumpter, the last stop on our tour. Sumpter is the only place on this tour that has basic services such as a store and gas pump, so keep that in mind and take advantage. After topping off our tank, we checked out the Sumpter Museum. Particularly interesting are the pictures of the town fire from 100 years ago. On August 13, 1917, a fire destroyed most of the town in just a few hours. Coincidentally, I am writing about this on August 13, 2017, exactly 100 years later.
After taking in the museum, we headed for the gold dredge. Along the way sits the Sumpter Railroad Depot. The Sumpter Valley Railroad used to run all the way to Prairie City and still operates to this day between Sumpter and McEwen.
The final stop on our tour of the mining country was the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area. The focal point of this area is the gold dredge. This floating excavator scooped up material from the Powder River, separated it via a series of trundles and sluice boxes inside, extracted the gold, and spit the remaining rocks, called “tailings,” out the back. As you drive from Greenhorn to Granite and then on to Sumpter, you can see miles of these tailing piles next to the roads.
This was an extremely scenic, historic, and captivating drive. While the distances are relatively short between sites, I highly recommend allowing yourself at least a full day to take it all in. You won’t be disappointed!
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