John Day Fossil Beds
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Chapter Five:

Supplies to the Gold Mines

The first improvements in transportation into the remote John Day country were triggered by the discovery of gold. Gold strikes on Canyon Creek in 1862 opened the gates to settlement of the valley. In the early 1860s, prospectors had made a series of important discoveries in eastern Oregon and far-flung Washington Territory (which then included Idaho). These included the placer deposits at Orofino, Pierce City, and Florence in north-central Idaho, as well as mines in the Boise Basin. In northeastern Oregon, miners found gold along streams in the Blue Mountains at Auburn and Sumpter. Miners also struck placer gold on the western flanks of the Blue Mountains in the upper John Day watershed in 1861 (Nedry 1952: 237-243).

In June, 1862, miners from Yreka, California, were traveling through central and eastern Oregon toward the new diggings at Florence, Idaho, on the Salmon River. When the party reached Auburn and the mines of the Powder River, the men learned that others had filed on most of the claims at Florence. William C. Aldred, a member of the group, then turned back to prospect Canyon Creek in the upper John Day region. He persuaded eighteen others to join him. When they returned to the place where they had camped but a few days before, they found several miners busily exploiting the placers. Aldred's group thus took claims at what they called Prairie Diggings four miles upriver and reportedly each soon secured a return of $10,000 for his efforts. Word spread like wildfire. Miners continued to pour in, swelling the population of the region almost overnight to more than five thousand (Oliver 1961:17-20).

In a matter of weeks, newcomers rushed to claims they staked along the banks of Canyon Creek. Others spied out deposits along the North Fork of the John Day and still others tunneled into the gravels in the valley near John Day to find rich but difficult-to-reach scatters of dust and nuggets along the bedrock. They lacked a technology to help them get to these riches, but, for the moment, the rush to the easy claims was sufficient to lead to the laying out of towns.

Mining communities arose at Independence on Granite Creek; Susanville on Elk Creek; Marysville on Little Pine Creek; Dixie Creek, a mining site a dozen miles east of Prairie City; Canyon City on Canyon Creek; and John Day, or Lower Town. Canyon City was the focal point of this activity — by September of 1862 some 500 to 600 miners had reportedly converged in the narrow gulch (Nedry 1952: 243). As a result of such rapid population increase in the John Day valley, the Oregon legislature carved Grant County out of Wasco County on October 14, 1864, less than two years after the gold strikes. The new administrative region sprawled south toward Nevada and included present-day Harney as well as Wheeler counties, both later cut out of Grant (Corning 1956: 102).

Canyon City
Fig. 23. Gold-mining town of Canyon City, Oregon, modern day streetscape; F.K. Lentz, 1996 (National Park Service).

Much-needed supplies to these communities moved by difficult trail southeast from The Dalles, the head of shipping on the Columbia River. Documentation for the existence of this particular trail prior to the gold rush decade of the 1860s is scant. The route was to some degree determined by existing ferries and bridge crossings over the Deschutes River. A ferry crossing at the mouth of the Deschutes had been in operation since 1853. Cattleman John Y. Todd built a bridge in 1860 (later know as Sherar's Bridge) at the strategic military crossing identified by Major Enock Steen along Wallen's 1859 route up the Deschutes. Another bridge, situated just four miles south of the river's confluence at the Columbia, was completed in 1862 by William Nix.

From these crossings, several trails traversed the high plateau in what is now Sherman County to the east, and dropped down into the deep valley of the John Day between Pine Creek and Bridge Creek. From there the trail followed Bridge Creek south past the Painted Hills to the vicinity of present-day Mitchell, then veered east over the hills into the valley of the upper John Day, and on to Canyon City. Quickly this general route saw heavy usage by those headed for the gold fields, and became commonly known as The Dalles to Canyon City Road (Neilsen 1985: 36-37).

view of the Bridge Creek drainage
Fig. 24. General route of The Dalles to Canyon City Road through the Bridge Creek drainage, northwest of Painted Hills Unit; F.K. Lentz, 1996 (National Park Service).

By April of 1863, 150 miners left The Dalles each day headed for the diggings at Canyon City, along with 200 pack animals, and ten to twelve freight wagons loaded down with payloads of 3,000 to 5,000 pounds apiece. The business of packing boomed between 1862 to 1885. Long strings of twenty to forty mules carried all the provisions necessary to sustain the burgeoning new population of the mining districts. These packers hauled picks, shovels, clothing, food, nails, rope, bolts, and dynamite. J.J. Cozart and Joseph Sherar are two of the more colorful packers mentioned in the record (Oliver 1961: 84-85; Neilsen 1985: 36-37).

eight-horse team
Fig. 25. An eight-horse team pulling a steam boiler, stopped in front of the Fossil Hotel, ca 1900 (City of Fossil Museum).

Other enterprising men were quick to take advantage of the volume of passenger traffic headed to the mining interior. The Canyon City Stage Line began in the early 1860s, running three stages a week over the 180-mile road. Henry Wheeler, for whom Wheeler County is named, secured the mail contract in 1864 and was hired by Wells Fargo to carry out shipments of gold. Wheeler operated a four-horse stage between Canyon City and The Dalles for four years, risking life and limb in repeated confrontations with highwaymen and Indians. Stage stops became established along the route at Sherar's Bridge, Bakeoven, Cross Hollows or Shaniko, Antelope, Burnt Ranch, Bridge Creek, Antone, and Dayville, among others. Here, horses were changed, or fed and watered, and travelers could lay over to recover from the rigors of the trip. Most early stage stops consisted of a barn, corrals, and a farmhouse, where hearty, home-cooked meals were offered (Oliver 1961: 22-23, 86-87).

As The Dalles to Canyon City Road improved, pack outfits were replaced with commercial freight wagons capable of hauling larger items such as machinery, fencing, pianos, bricks, pipes, and handcarts. Freight teams consisted of from six to twelve horses, and two to four wagons. Freighting outfits continued to supply the John Day region, its ranches and towns, well into the twentieth century (Oliver 1961: 87-89).

Spray ferry crossing
Fig. 26. Site of the ca. 1900 ferry crossing at Spray; F. K. Lentz 1996 (National Park Service).

As the John Day country opened up to settlement, cattlemen and farmers filtered into the river valley. Their presence along the bottomlands led to locally-strategic river crossings. The shallow stream of the John Day could be readily forded eight months of the year. During times of normal high water in the late winter and early spring, cable ferries were operated by settlers at key locations, including the small settlements at Clarno, Twickenham, Service Creek, Spray, Kimberly, and Dayville. These ferries served as connecting links on stage and mail routes established in the 1870s and 1880s. With the advent of motorized transport after 1900, bridges were built at many of the old ferry crossings (Campbell 1976: 41-44).

Although navigable only by canoe and raft, the John Day River witnessed a brief period of colorful "steamboat" travel. The John Day Queen I was a miniature flat-bottomed sternwheeler built in 1892 by Charlie Clarno, son of pioneer Andrew Clarno of Wheeler County. Used as a pleasure craft and substitute ferry, the fifty-foot vessel operated during high water along a ten-mile stretch of the river above Clarno Rapids. In a flood of 1899, the well-loved little boat was lost, later to be rebuilt by Charlie Clarno in 1905 as the John Day Queen II (Campbell 1976: 52-61).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002