During the 1860s, massive deposits of gold were uncovered in eastern Oregon. Not long after this discovery came the establishment of the small town of Sumpter, founded by rough and tumble prospectors eager to unearth their fortune in the freezing, isolated landscape. As tales of gold discoveries began to spread and with improvements to transportation during the 1890s, Sumpter transformed into a quintessential boomtown.
Between 1913-1954, three traveling gold dredges worked the Powder River. In 1934, the current dredge was crafted from pieces of the first dredge and was manned by three employees. The dredge ran for 24 hours, seven days a week, only pausing for Christmas and the Fourth of July. It’s said that employees who stayed on the dredge were haunted by “Joe Bush,” a spirit they would use as a scapegoat whenever something went wrong.
The dredge finally closed in 1954. In total, it hauled in an astounding $4 million worth of gold. By today’s gold standard, the haul would have amounted to around $150 million. The last dredge sat abandoned for years, though it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It’s now a State Heritage Area, and a ranger can give you a guided tour of the restored dredge, with its hard machinery still attached, as it longs for the next gold rush.