Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Last Chinese Miner in Southern Oregon

You Wong's eldest son stands at the giant hoist of their dragline placer mine at Finley Bend in 1937.

At one time, Chinese miners could be counted by the hundreds in South Western Oregon and worked on most of the well known gold bearing creeks in the area. The earliest of these followed Euro-American miners as they came north out of the Sacramento River Basin, gradually making their way through the so-called “Northern Camps”. Once they reached Yreka, they began to cross over into Oregon's gold fields and settled into the vicinity of Jacksonville, Sterlingville and the Upper Applegate. So many Chinese miners were working on Jackson Creek and Sterling Creek that in the mid 1850's, both Jacksonville and Sterlingville sported “China Towns”. According to local legend, Chinese Mine Boss Gin Lin is actually accredited with founding the old mining community of Buncom on the lower portion of Sterling Creek to house his mining crew.

Despite the important impact of the Chinese in Southern Oregon, today, very little evidence of their being here actually remains. Unlike the American miners who came up from California who still very much believed in the popular ideology of Manifest Destiny which was popularized by magazine editor John L. O'Sullivan in the Summer of 1845, the Chinese, as a rule, had no interest in putting down roots in the Far West. Instead, they merely wished to come to what they referred to as Gum Shan (literally translated as “The Gold Mountain”) and return to China with their bags bulging with gold nuggets. This was true even to the extent that Chinese miners who died in Southern Oregon were only interred here temporarily and had their remains dug up and transported back to their homeland.

The late Orval Robertson, in his unpublished biography “The Gold Miner” which was co-written with the late James Megmer of Oregon newspaper fame, recalled that when he was a child living at the Old Channel Mine in Galice that “a Chinaman came from China for the bones of one of his ancestors. His Chinese relative had been killed up on the North Fork of Galice Creek during the building of the high-water ditch when Alexander & Brent owned the Old Channel. There had been an accident of some kind – I never heard exactly what – but I knew the man had been buried in the ripsaw pit where the lumber had been cut with the big saw for building the flume. I took the stranger up to the site and watched while he dug up the bones and put them in a little black bag. His English wasn’t very good, was kind of sing-song, but he explained to me that he was taking the bones back home to China. “Chinese do not rest well in world beyond until their bones are buried in their own country,” he said.”

Robertson also recalled that a crew of eight Chinese miners were employed by J.R. Harvey at the Old Channel Mine near Galice just after 1900. This included a gang boss by the name of Yang, a blacksmith and a cook. As the Chinese were renowned for their patience, most of the crew was employed to clean the cracks in the bedrock. It is generally recognized that this was the last crew of Chinese miners in Southern Oregon and that these men later returned to China.

The Chinese left little behind after leaving Southern Oregon. The only indication that they were even here are some sturdy walls of rocks they built by stacking tailings, the occasional medicine bottle, opium tin and pieces of broken dishes that are sometimes found on old mining sites and of course, place names such as China Gulch, China Garden, China Ditch and the Gin Lin Mining Trail.

However, after the Chinese crew left the Old Channel Mine, one Chinese miner did mine in Southern Oregon. His name was Wong You and he was born near Yreka, California where his family owned Kee Hong Mining Company and operated what was formerly known as the G. Knichts Placer Mine at the mouth of Humbug Creek on the Klamath River in the 1890's.

Wong moved to Grants Pass in 1918 and soon opened two restaurants, The Mocha on “G” Street, and the Panama on 6th Street. In his spare time, he prospected the area looking for a mine of his own, but had no luck. In 1925, he sold his businesses and returned to California.

In early 1936, Wong was able to purchase a mining property on the Rogue River and by March of that year moved his family back to Grants Pass where one of his two daughters had been born.

Located on a gravel bar just downstream of Finley Bend, which is about nine miles downstream of Grants Pass, Wong immediately went to work on getting his mine in shape. Assisted by two of his sons, Benson and Frank, Wong went to work installing what was referred to as a “patch-work dragline” operation. Wong's wife and his youngest children remained at Dixie, California in Lassen County. Within a short time, Wong had the mine running at a profit.

The dragline was powered by a large 8 cylinder automobile engine which worked a huge winch. Attached to the winch was a “V” shaped bucket which scooped up the gravel from the river bar and carried it 200 feet away and up a steep incline. Here the gravel was dumped into the sluices where the larger rocks were separated. From here, the smaller gravel was washed through the sluice in a usual manner, except, as the Grants Pass Daily Courier reported, “Wong You has some ideas of his own in sluices”.

Giving the impression of something more like modern mining equipment than something from the mid 1930's, for the first ten feet of sluice, Wong employed steel plates in the bottom of his sluice to stratify the material. The material was then classified into different sizes through six layers of screen mesh for another 25 feet of sluice. Under each screen was a layer of burlap sitting on a tight canvas deck. After the screens, the material cut into yet another series of sluices that were designed especially for fine gold and black sand recovery that incorporated three more additional sizes of screen mesh that were layered between steel wool.

Water was taken from the Rogue River by a six inch centrifugal pump that was powered by six cylinder engine. The pump was placed on a dock built into the river bank, but rising water soon threatened to wash the pump into the river. In January of 1937, Wong installed a sump style pump in the river to remedy this.

In addition to his dragline plant, Wong also added a shop to house such necessary equipment as a buzz saw, a blacksmith forge and assorted other tools.

Employing six men in addition to his two sons, the mine was able to move over 200 yards of pay-dirt per day that averaged 25 to 30 cents per yard (at $35 an ounce), placing his production at about 1.4 ounces of gold on the average day. Between late April and November of 1936, Wong's mine performed flawlessly until an equipment failure forced him to shut down for three months.

By 1940, Wong You was back in California and living in San Francisco according to recently released U.S. Census records. It remains unclear if his mine ever operated again after the breakdown or if it was a casualty of the Galice Mud Mining War, but I'd like to think that he found his Gum Shan and simply retired.

Copyright 2012 by Kerby Jackson

You Wong's Dragline Plant at Finley Bend. Wong is in front, while his eldest son stands at the top.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Josephine County Mining Roots

Despite the gold pan that has always graced our county seal and the large mining mural that can be seen in the main staircase of the county courthouse, for the first time in decades, Josephine County has finally officially recognized its mining roots.

The Josephine County Board of County Commissioners issued a proclamation declaring June 15th, 2011 as “Mining Recognition Day” in honor of the 160th anniversary of the first recorded discovery of gold in Oregon. Also recognized was the influence of early miners in the Illinois Valley on the drafting of the first written mining law in the Far Western States, as well as the role of local miners in not only the creation of Josephine County in 1856, but also their large impact on the economy of the State of Oregon.

The first recorded discovery of gold in the State of Oregon took place in the late Spring of 1851. The discovery was made by the Lloyd Rollins party who had left the Willamette Valley for the California gold fields earlier that spring. Upon entering the Rogue Valley, the prospectors met a group of friendly Indians who told them that the shiny yellow metal they sought could be found at the mouth of a large creek some thirty miles to the west. The natives led them along what is now roughly the same route as Redwood Highway to the confluence of what is now Josephine Creek and the Illinois River. Here, Rollins and his companions “found color” and also made a second discovery on what is now Canyon Creek, which is a major tributary of Josephine Creek. Traveling with the group was also Lloyd Rollins' sixteen year old daughter Josephine, who's name was later given to not only that creek by later miners, but also to the county which they later formed. While Josephine Rollins is often referred to as “the first white female settler” in this area, the Rollins party actually continued on their way to California and it was not until many years later that Josephine Rollins was aware that her name had been given to this area.

After the Rollins party left Southern Oregon, other gold discoveries were made in this area, most notably at what came to be known as Sailor's Diggings or Waldo and also on Althouse and Sucker Creeks (both named for Philip Althouse, a native of Illinois – the “Sucker State”). Within less than a year after the Rollins discovery, conditions were such that the miners of the Illinois Valley decided that they needed some form of organization. On April 1st, 1852, over fifty miners from Waldo and Althouse met in a small clearing on the banks of Canyon Creek and drafted a mining code after the same tradition of early European miners. This was not only the first written mining law in Oregon, but also the roots of our own local government. Four years later, these same miners successfully petitioned for the creation of Josephine County.

The county proclamation coincides with the beginning of the summer mining season on local rivers and was accepted on behalf of the local mining community by Robert Stumbo and is on display at Armadillo Mining Shop on NW Vine Street in Grants Pass.

This article was originally published in Apple Rogue Times; July, 2011
Copyright 2011 by Kerby Jackson