Ghosts Of Dredges Past

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Rumbling, shaking, rattling, voracious, huge portable mining dredges of yesteryear played rhythmic tattoos, heard for miles in all directions!! 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 363 days a year, they only closed down for July 4th, and Christmas.  Now THAT is gold fever!
Ravenously and unsatiably famished for virgin gravels, these behemoths gobbled a quarter of a million cubic yards of material per month without stopping.  Every Wednesday, the bucketline would be slowed so that workers could scramble out on the boom and replace the cast iron "lips" --one per scoop.  Then the pitch of the incessant drone of huge electrically fed engines would rev up higher and higher informing the valley "the lips were in and the hunt was on!"  Again!
Just a handful are still visible.  Most of these giant dredges are nothing more than rotting foundations submerged in final resting place ponds.  Over 100 of these huge dredges were in operation in the western USA and Canada at the turn of the previous century.  Sometimes, all that remains are "tombstones" on current area road maps, such as the Pomeroy Walking Dredge label on roadmaps of eastern Oregon on Interstate 84, at Waverly.  All the remains of the Pomeroy is the gigantic toothy gear which turned the Pomeroy first this way, then that way as the boom operator searched for the yellow metal from his perch 10' off the ground.

The Sumpter Dredge has found a new lease on life, setting it apart from others decomposing in their watery graves.  Instead of permitting it to be raided for parts and shipped elsewhere, retired operations crew show here hatched a plan in 1994 to restore the Sumpter Dredge, and are making remarkable progress.  Already, people can walk onto and through the dredge from May to September each year, currently at no cost.


Valley gravels in the path of the always hungry Sumpter Dredge encompassed approximately 2500 acres and were 18' to 20' deep.  The bedrock was characterized as soft decomposed rock the early dredgers called "clay webfoot."  It snaked through this area as can be observed in aerial photographs.  Creating it's own 8-10 foot pond barely wider than its hull as it went, the water usages were minimal compared to the gravels consumed.  If one examines the stacker end view of the dredge, one will see what appears to be a gigantic Iron "H" configuration with a "3rd leg" inside the "H."  That is the gigantic anchor staub that was winched up to allow the dredge to float sideways 6' to 9' feet, to the edge of its then existing pond.  Then the 3rd leg was allowed to free fall into the bedrock, stabilizing the dredge so that the bucketline could continue scooping and dumping, scooping and dumping, scooping and dumping, 25 buckets per minute.



This bottomland, easily scooped up by the buckets, dumped their payloads into a gigantic internal trommel with 3/4" welded screen openings.  Then internal sluices concentrated the ore even more, before it was manually screened by the crew chief.  Therein would be found hundreds and thousands of small pieces of iron, and iron shot from the prior century's American Indian battles and hunting parties in the valley.  That magnetic junk all had to be manually sieved out and removed before the foreman would turn over the concentrates to a group of expert panners.  The final panning took place upstairs, in locked offices above, on the bucketline end of the dredge.  There are pictures in the museum archives which bear mute testimony to the amount of iron junk that had to be dealt with to get at the gold.

From October 1942 to May 1945, the War Production Board prohibited gold mining in the USA.  THAT silenced Sumpter #3.  After the WWII was won by the Allies, Sumpter #3's ancient sluices were replaced with $75,000 worth of jigs, naturally vibrating due to the incessant and constantly jarring off-loading of the 9 cubic foot buckets.  All 72 of them.  Many think, due to the small size of the gold encountered throughout Sumpter Valley's dredging history, this modernization permitted the grinding, belching, diesel soaked interior to still seine out the gold until 1954 when many other gold giants in North America had long since been silenced by their owners.

What is most astounding is the fact that most of the gold captured from this clay webfoot bedrock was only minus 8 mesh gold or smaller!!!  For those unfamiliar with how small that is, look at any "0" in a number in this article, and you'll see size "minus 8" gold size.  Hardly any sizeable nuggets were found in all the years of Sumpter #1, #2 or #3's operations. Sumpter #3 is 125' long from stacker tip to bucketline boom extension. It was originally constructed for $350,000 in 1935 dollars, when gold was $35 an ounce.  It recovered over $4.5 million dollars in $35 an ounce gold, an astounding feat when considering the small gold sizes recovered and the amount of manual hand panning done to apprehend the golden results!

by Megan Rose
Author: Thrift Store Prospecting
Copyright Pen Press, PO BOX 321, PARMA ID 83660-0321, Office: 208-722-7722
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