By George Bethune
Mines and Miners
Of Okanogan County
By George Bethune
The gold rush in Okanogan County is reported to have started in 1859 when placer deposits were found on the banks of the Similkameen River. George Bethune, the first state geologist, reports that the gold was originally found by members of the crew that was establishing the boundary between the United States and Canada. He describes it thus:
It was early in 1858 that a dispute arose between the United States government and that of Great Britain over a determination of the boundary line separating the British possessions on this continent from those of our government. In amicably arranging this difficulty a scheme was perfected by which a commission was to be sent out to definitely establish such boundary lines. All the vast area known as British Columbia, Idaho, and Washington was then looked upon as we look upon the depths of Africa. An unknown wilderness except to the hardy trappers and hunters of the Hudson Bay Company, a handful of soldiers of Uncle Sam, and the aborigine who called it his home.
This boundary commission reached a point on what is now known as the Similkameen River, just this side of the established boundary line in Okanogan County we know today, early in 1859. Its members were men of iron nerve for they had braved the dangers and trails of an almost impenetrable wilderness. They were south-bound and totally ignorant of the character of the terrain they must needs traverse, when they determined, beside the beautiful and clear Similkameen River, to camp and recuperate preparatory to commencing their long journey southwards.
This determination upon the part of these men proved to be the greatest boom Washington ever has received and, I opine will ever receive at the hands of mankind. For they had been in camp scarce a fortnight when they were electrified by the discovery of golden metal in abundance. The gold was made by one of their members who, noting the sparkle in the gravel lining the banks of the stream became speedily convinced by the investigations he made that gold lay along its shores in abundance.
Apparently the find was not large because when rumors of the great Fraser River and Caribou Stampede reached the miners in Okanogan County, they immediately left their diggings and headed north into Canada. When the Fraser and Caribou rush gave out, many of our stampeders began to drift southward, prospecting as they went, into the United States; and, as a result, the mining camps of the Okanogan area began to be repopulated once again in the early 1860s.
It was not until the opening of the Chief Moses Reservation in 1886 that the development began on the lode or ledge ore deposits that occur in the county. The first group of mining ventures in the county is noteworthy because of their failure. Men experienced in mining other parts of the United States failed to recognize the different geologic conditions that existed in the Okanogan deposits and paid for their mistakes by going broke.
Wild speculation ran rampant and many a person was fleeced of his gold stock by stock manipulators, unsound investment practices, and outright robbery. The few that were able to struggle along were wiped out by the depression of 1893 when the price of silver fell from a little over one dollar per ounce to fifty cents an ounce. In one way the depression of 1893 may have been a blessing to the country. Men who were not serious about mining or pioneering moved on to greener pastures, leaving those more fortitude and determination to build up the country.
By 1899 things were beginning to look up. The economy started to look better and the towns close to the mining operations took on a new and progressive look. In spite of this "new and progressive" look, the mines of Okanogan County never did reach the glowing proportions or the magnitude of production that was originally predicted for them. The most productive mine in the county was the Alder Mine near Twisp, which produced over a million dollars' worth gold, silver, and copper between 1937 and 1953. Other mines that have a record of production over $100,000 are the Triune, Apache, Pinnacle, Kaaba-Texas, Black Bear, Arlington, Red Shirt, and Poland China. Ten other properties produced more than $20,000 in gold, silver, copper, and zinc. They were, Silver Bluff, Sheridan, First Thought, Blue Lake, Methow, Last Chance, Ruby, Roosevelt, Little Chief, and Four Metals.
Total Metallic mineral production from Okanogan County is estimated at about $3 million. Nonmetallic mineral production has exceeded this many times; however, we have no estimate as to how much it was.
During 1969, which is the last year we have the production records for, $1,041,000 worth of sand, gravel, stone, and gypsum was produced in Okanogan County. Although the county has literally hundreds of metallic mineral prospects, only one property, the Lucky Knock antimony mine, has been brought up to production level in the last 10 years. Unfortunately, it just got going and the bottom fell out of the antimony market and the mine is currently shut down.
The discovery of valuable minerals in Okanogan County had a profound effect on the area. In the early days, when pockets of dust were first uncovered, gold dust was passed around with abandon. Many miners took little trouble to try to discover its true value. A pinch was a standard of measure, and the quantity of gold contained in a pinch varied with the size of the thumb and forefinger dispensing it. Life was cut to the same generous but reckless scale. Gambling and drinking offered escape from the realities of boredom and poor living conditions, and saloons were open 24 hours a day to offer entertainment in an attempt to keep miners in camp.
The dream of easy wealth was quickly dissipated for many miners. Stories of fabulous amounts of gold being picked up almost at random blinded the na´ve prospectors to the realities of what they might expect when they were actually on the ground, the grueling labor and the grim life of privation in the mining camps. In spite of hard lessons learned during the California and Fraser River rushes, the rumor of rich and easy digging in the Okanogan country brought a horde of prospectors out of the Fraser River goldfields, as well as from other areas of the country. I think the following part of a letter from a forty-niner to his wife sums up the gold-rush disillusionment that eventually overtook most gold seekers:
"As to gold digging, I am sorry to acknowledge, what everybody else here does, that I have been humbugged. Gold is not as plentiful as we were made to believe, and it is ten times harder work to get it than anyone could have imagined. From the most diligent inquiries of old miners, and people from all parts of the mines, I am satisfied that the average proceeds will not exceed half an ounce per day for those who labor hard and faithfully. Now and then a lucky one strikes a vein and gets out several hundred dollars in a day or two, and his case is caught up by traders and speculators and published all over the union. While of the ninety and nine who are at work around him, getting five or six dollars a day, nothing is said."
Socially, the mineral rush brought prosperity, a rapidly increasing population, and a tremendously colorful pageant of pioneering to the country. The rush's intersectional aspects, plus its overwhelming male composition and free-and-easy spending gave society glamour far out of proportion to the average frontier advancement. The influx of gold seekers, however, did bring in many of the people who would become the foundation upon which the stable pillars of responsible society would be built. About three-quarters of the biographies of important people in Okanogan County in 1900 indicate that they had arrived there in connection with mining, liked the country, and taken up their pre-mining trade and stayed on.
As a result of the influx of people brought by the rush, towns like Ruby, Conconully, Loomis, Chesaw, Loup Loup, Mazama, and many others sprang into existence. Their story is typical of most towns based on a mining economy. Mining is transitory by nature; that is, it only lasts until the deposits are worked out, and so the life of the various mining communities was somewhat short lived or drastically curtailed. As is usually the case, however, when the mines close, some people who tired of rushing from one mining camp to another stayed put and took up trades or started new ones related to a more permanent economy, such as agriculture. This established a more stable society.
Men trying to get better access into their mining properties constructed most of the early roads built in the county. Such roads as the one going up the Methow River, the one going up the Twisp River to Gilbert, the one going over Harts Pass to the Azurite Mine, the one going up the Okanogan River. And the one going in to Chesaw was all constructed in an effort to move men and material closer to the diggings. Just how many of the roads in Okanogan County were built as a result of mining activity, I have no idea. I feel it safe to say, though, that most of the roads built in the county before 1940 started as mining roads.
Mining was responsible for opening up Okanogan County and for building many of the roads that the early pioneers used to move into the country. It brought in people who could see the potential of the area and who had the fortitude to do something about it.
Were it not for the hardy gold seekers, who despite isolation from mankind, the hardships of an outdoor life, the perils of the wilderness, penetrated Okanogan, stayed there and developed its wealth and forced attention to it. It is my firm belief that Okanogan today would lie as it, was when Moses' band of warriors roamed its surface, the Africa of Washington. The development of the mineral resources of the country can be credited to no railway corporation, but must be laid at the door of the men, who, like our present chief executive (Governor Laughton), builder without aid, planned, framed and finished, unassisted and alone.
The real gold that was found by the pioneers was not the yellow metal but rather the beautiful hills, the rich fertile valleys, and the clear streams of Okanogan County.