By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Going for gold

In Eastern Oregon, during the Depression, we kids had little chance to earn money. Babysitting was not an option. Families took children with them everywhere. Monument had no fast-food restaurants for part-time jobs. Boys could work as hay hands, but gals didn’t often work in the fields.

During those hard times, ranchers did not lack for food and were largely self-sufficient in that respect. They had wood for heat and cooking, a roof over their head, and clothing — hand-me-downs though they might have been. Cash was what they lacked.

As a kid, not yet in high school, I sometimes overheard my parents discussing this lack of money. And I greatly wished I could help. True, I helped in many ways. I brought in the cows. I helped mother with canning, washing the clothes and dishes, shelling peas, digging potatoes, churning butter. But I wanted badly to be a heroine and bring in money to help them through hard times. I spent considerable time thinking about how I could come by money.

After much thought, I conceived a plan. I would look to our land. I believed in our land. It raised crops. It provided feed for our cattle. It gave us a home site. I had hiked about every acre of its rims, flats, steep canyons, pine forests and banks along the John Day. I knew it well. It was cattle country, horse country — but it was also gold country. And I was sure that not only gold but other precious metals and stones were on our land.

My stepfather, who knew Eastern Oregon well, told us about the “opals” we found imbedded in rocks on the ranch. They were “soft” opals, he said, not suitable for jewelry. But I reasoned that if our ranch had soft opals, it might well have the valuable kind. Assuredly, I knew nothing about geology, but I could keep my eyes open. And, after all, the kids who discovered the Blue Bucket Mine had had no knowledge of geology, either.

Then, too, on our ranch, we found thunder eggs — big, almost perfectly round cannonball rocks. I had never heard of thunder eggs before, nor had my mother, but the dictionary explained that these thunder eggs were “chalcedony in rounded concretionary nodules.” And that chalcedony was “a precious stone: a translucent quartz that is commonly pale blue or gray with nearly waxlike luster.”

When these thunder eggs were cut in half — I did not know how this was done, the hope was that the translucent quartz in its center would depict perhaps a beautiful sunset, a forest scene or some other definable object. Such thunder eggs, my mother had been told, were often quite valuable.

Although I knew of no market for such financial return, in my youthful enthusiasm, I reasoned that I must first find marketable eggs.

Despite hiking our land looking for such, I found few.

Then I had another thought as to how I could remedy my family’s lack of cash. Evidence of gold was everywhere in Grant County. It was rumored, too, to be site of the elusive Blue Bucket Mine.

Gold was discovered in Canyon City in 1862, and a lucrative strike it was. We celebrated that discovery annually with the “’62” and its much-anticipated dance that drew attendees from far-away Spray, Antelope, Hardman and Monument. It lasted until early dawn, when dance hall dust was so thick that brunettes went home with gray hair.

Diggings left by gold dredges along the banks of the John Day reminded us of gold every time we drove to the city of John Day.

Then, too, our back country was dotted with many little ghost gold towns: Sumpter, in adjacent Baker County, with its big gold dredge still attracting tourists; Auburn, which had drawn thousands of prospectors; Granite, settled in 1862 and home to a 30-room Grand Hotel; Susanville, where tourists today still hunt mining artifacts; and Greenhorn, still incorporated in 2007, with a population of two.

The Middle Fork of the John Day had been a hot spot for gold, and it was in our backyard. We often drove up the dirt road along the North Fork to its confluence and, on one occasion, we saw there a lone prospector hard at work with jerry-built sluice-box and gold pan.

He told us he hadn’t yet had much color.

In Canyon City, where I worked in the county agent’s office before college, we kids hiked up the adjacent sagebrush hills where there was much evidence of long ago Canyon City mines. “Oregon for the Curious” tells the story of how this strike came to be: “Some tired prospectors, in weary search of the Blue Bucket Mine, were stretched out on Whiskey Flat. … Billy Aldred, spotting some interesting-looking dirt across Canyon Creek, waded over. Having no sluice pan, he stripped, knotted the sleeves and legs of his underwear, filled the longjohns with dirt, recrossed the creek, and fell to washing dirt. Within hours, Canyon City, first town in Grant County, was born.”

But college, marriage and our move to McMinnville left scant time to think of searching for gold — until I read of a Chemeketa gold-panning class. Gold fever flared up again. I enrolled. My parents still lived on the ranch and when I went to visit them, I could resume the search.

True, the Depression was long gone, but I wanted to prove that our land indeed harbored that kind of wealth.

Our class was a one-day Saturday session. We met in Salem at a little store where we bought gold pans and how-to books about mining. We headed east from Salem, to the Santiam River. Our instructor, an experienced miner, found each of us a likely spot for panning, supplied us with tiny vial in which we would keep our “poke” and into the river we headed with pans.

I panned until my back felt as if it was broken and my arms ached. And, I found gold: some 10 tiny particles about the size of a pinhead. My instructor helped me carefully transfer them to my vial, and I made sure I tightly closed the lid. At the time, I asked our instructor how much that gold was worth. Apparently, the answer was not an astounding amount or I would have remembered his answer.

Every time we visited Monument thereafter, I took along my gold pan. But there, on the John Day, I had no significant strikes. Nor did I find the Blue Bucket Mine. I never discovered gold on our ranch. I sold my gold pan at our garage sale,

Today, on a shelf above my office desk, there is a little vial containing tiny gold particles.

I keep it there as a reminder. I have no doubt that if I had persevered, I would have found gold on our ranch. I shall never be dissuaded but that there is “gold in them thar hills.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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