Sumpter Dredge State Heritage Area

August 27, 2023.

Photo album

Situated 30 miles west of Baker City, 57 miles northeast of John Day and 108 miles south of Pendleton, the Sumpter Dredge sits in a pond of its own making. Once used to sift for gold along the banks of the Powder River, it now serves as a tourist attraction and reminder of a piece of Oregon history.

I was surprised to find several other visitors there at this fairly remote and off-the-beaten-path site. Aaron found a volunteer ranger who was available to give us a tour of the dredge (you can also just walk through on your own). He shared quite a bit about how the dredge was built and used as well as some of the greater context around mining in that era. The visitor’s center and signage within the dredge echoed the details from the guided tour. It was helpful for me to see the photos and illustrations, since I am a visual learner.

The dredge essentially housed a rotating line of huge buckets that dug up the rocks and dirt, then dropped the slurry through a series of sifting devices that separated the gold from the remainder. The non-gold material, or “tailings,” got left behind in rows behind the dredge. You will notice these tall piles of tailings as you drive past Phillips Lake on Route 7. Alternatively you can see them clearly on Google satellite view, where they look like intestines!

In the process of sifting for flakes of gold, the dredge literally flipped the underground layers upside down, leaving the rocks on top and the soil on the bottom. As a result, the mining dramatically altered the naturally functioning landscape . While nature slowly takes its course, there are theoretically some habitat restoration projects happening. When I searched for more information, I found some reports dating to 1984, 2006 and 2017. Sadly I found more references to restoring the railroad than the actual habitat.

Thinking back to my bike ride around Philips Lake, I remember seeing lots of wildlife utilizing the area around the tailings. I have no idea how much more volume or diversity of wildlife would be there had it been in a more natural state. I’m also curious how the use of mercury on the dredge impacted the environment. When we asked the volunteer, he was absolutely certain that the mercury was not found in any amount in the surrounding area, which I had a really hard time believing.

The impact of resource extraction is one that we will continue to deal with as our changing technologies require more and different minerals. I’m beginning to learn about lithium and cobalt mining, as these impact us both locally in Oregon and our fellow humans abroad. I am glad that our state parks work to preserve these historical sites. I just wish they addressed all of the impacts in a more transparent way, instead of focusing on the things like “what a cool piece of technology” and “how wonderful for this local economy!” I’d rather hear a more complex and nuanced story than that.

After our tour, we walked around a few of the trails in the park. In total, there are less than two miles looping around the area, so it’s just a nice place to stretch your legs. A few steps away in town, we wandered into the Sumpter Municipal Museum, which is also worth a visit. And to top it all off, a friendly guy in a food truck across the street sold us some corn dogs to fuel us up for the rest of the afternoon. It was my first time eating a corn dog, and I must say I quite enjoyed it!

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