Great American Mines, Part Five: Oregon Gold Country

While Oregon’s history is full of many legends, gold mines don’t figure into many of them. But many of these stories are truly fascinating. Especially when you hear the incredible—possibly tall—tales of the lucky Oregon settlers who struck gold.

In 1851, the California Gold Rush was going strong. In order to stock the miners with supplies, pack-mule operations known as “Jackass Freight” were shipping cargo from the Willamette Valley to the Sacramento Valley. One of these jackass freights stopped in what’s now Jacksonville, Oregon, for the night. After securing and tending to the animals, a few of the passengers went off in search of water. They found a gulch south of modern Jacksonville, which is now appropriately named Rich Gulch. As they were gathering water, they noticed an abundance of loose gold flakes! Search parties were soon dispersed throughout the region, and gold was discovered in many of the surrounding rivers and streams. Substantial deposits were found at nearby Gold Hill, which would later go on to become the first fully operational mine in the region. Among these early prospectors was a band of brothers known by the name of Althouse.

There’s not much on record about the Althouse brothers. What’s known is that they were early miners from Illinois who struck it big. Despite the mystery surrounding them, their impact on Southern Oregon can still be felt to this day. The Illinois River, where much of the gold was discovered, is named after their home state. And Althouse Creek, where many of the largest gold deposits in Oregon were found, was also named in honor of the brothers. When word got out about the Althouse brothers and other prospectors’ discoveries, wannabe gold miners from all over came to Oregon hoping to get rich quick. Lucky as the Althouse brothers were, none of them found any nuggets quite as legendary as one found in the creek bearing their name.

In 1859, an Irishman named Mattie Collins found a 17-pound gold nugget at a fork in Althouse Creek. The rock took the honor of the largest gold nugget ever found in Oregon. The story goes that the small-statured Collins had to hire a bodyguard to escort him and the nugget safely out of town!

All of these discoveries occurred early in Oregon’s history, and records from that time were spotty. The exact number of gold miners, or even mines, isn’t exactly known. But, by 1860, Oregon data was a lot more reliable. The Federal Census data from 1860 suggests that there were several hundred miners and mines in the gold-producing regions of Southern Oregon. According to records, gold-mining activity there mostly petered out by the late 1860s. Despite being small, Oregon gold mining had a lasting impact on the region. The legends of Oregon gold live on in the names of towns, rivers and streams.

Did you like this? Read Great American Mines, Part Four: Weaver Mining District.

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