The discovery of gold in Jacksonville in 1851 never yielded the mother lode of miners' dreams, but it did change the region forever, says archaeologist and historian Jeff LaLande.
LaLande, who will give a talk on the history of mining in Southern Oregon today in Ashland, says the gold rush birthed the first town, brought farmers from the Willamette Valley and prompted a lucrative merchant trade of goods overland from the coast.
LaLande's talk, "Mining in Southern Oregon: a History of Miners, Their Methods and the Mining Era's Legacy in Our Region," will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Ashland library's Gresham Room, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.
What: "Mining in Southern Oregon: a History of Miners, Their Methods and the Mining Era's Legacy in Our Region," a talk by archaeologist Jeff LaLande
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13
Where: Gresham Room of the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland
The gold rush that began with the discovery of a nugget at Sutter's Mill in 1848 in California spilled over into Oregon in 1851, when gold was discovered first in the Illinois Valley, then at Rich Gulch in Jacksonville.
Gold's promise of adventure and quick riches drew miners north from California, as that state's veins played out, and farmers south from the Willamette Valley, as free land offered in the Oregon Donation Land Act quickly got snatched up. The new residents in Southern Oregon created markets for farm produce, flour and meat.
"They came south in large numbers in the winter of 1850-51 to an area that, until then, had been considered hostile Indian country," LaLande said in an interview. "Their numbers would have been much smaller if not for gold. It was a dramatic reversal of military power of the two sides, native and white."
There were no wagon roads in those early years, so merchants, not miners, were the ones who got rich after blazing an overland trail to Jacksonville from Crescent City, where ships unloaded supplies from San Francisco.
The gold-triggered population boom resulted in the creation of Jackson County, which at first included present-day Grants Pass and stretched over 200 miles east past present-day Lakeview, LaLande says.
Miners panned for gold, then moved onto dredges and hydraulic mining, "playing havoc with salmon runs in the Applegate, Illinois and lower Rogue" and polluting farm fields, he notes. After that came hard-rock mining, where miners simply dug in the earth for gold.
"But mining in Southern Oregon never revved up to the promise you found in Northern Idaho, the Black Hills or southwestern Montana," LaLande says. "There was lots of copper here but it's difficult to mine, inaccessible. Same with gold. It's pocket gold, relatively small."
Gold mining eventually became a hobby and recreational activity that lives on to this day, picking up during economic depressions when gold prices climb.
Gold mining "was a big deal in our area, for our area, and put a fair number of people to work," LaLande says. "It's part of the romance of our history here, the sourdough and the hermit prospector looking for riches out in the Applegate and Rogue."
Its legacy lives on in the brick buildings still standing in Jacksonville, including the oldest, the 1855 Brunner Building at Oregon and Main streets.
But compared to other big mining centers of the West, "it was a pretty small blip on the radar."
LaLande's talk is part of the Ashland History and Railroad Museum's monthly lecture series, "A Train Runs Through It: Ashland History in Story and Song," held on second Fridays in the library. For more information, call 541-944-9982 or 541-261-6605 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.