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Mining disappointment

Promise of gold lures prospectors to Mount Hood in late 1800s, but ends with broken dreams


The famous gold rush of yesteryear was not unique to California and Alaska. “Gold Fever” struck here, too. Smack dab in Mount Hood’s own front yard.

The outcome, however, just wasn’t the same.

Charlie Perschall was one of the turn-of-the-century (1800 to 1900) miners who spent 15 years in the hills above Welches prospecting for gold.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: BILL WHITE - The Northern Lights Mine, located in the hills south of Welches, in 1898. August Hornecker, who dug and worked this mine with his partner Alvin Meinig, is the gent in the white shirt on the top far right. This mine, one of several that were staked and explored at the turn of the last century in this area, was part of what was called the original Bonanza Claim. In more recent times it has been renamed the Bonanza Mine.

“He was a mystery,” the late Lutie (Welch) Bailey recalled in a 1980 interview. Daughter and only child of the original mountain homesteader Billy Welch — and the very first graduate of Welches School (in 1917) — Lutie explained how Perschall “would hike back down to our store every three or four months to get beans and coffee.”

She remembered how — “after years and years of hard work” — he came down off the flanks of nearby Huckleberry Mountain with a quart jar full of what he believed were gold nuggets.

Turns out they were chalcopyrite (KAL-ko-PY-ryt), otherwise known as fool’s gold.

“He became so despondent over the disappointment,” Lutie lamented, “that he killed himself with his shotgun.”

What the heck were they digging?

Files at the Clackamas County Department of Records reveal that between 1898 and 1901 more than 10 mines — and even more prospect holes — were being dug within the Zigzag Ranger District on U.S. Forest Service land.

According to the Oregon Metal Mines Handbook by 1903 approximately 100 claims had been located in the surrounding Mount Hood area foothills. Twenty were being developed.

So, what the heck were they digging?

That 1903 Oregon Metal Mines Handbook informs — somewhat perplexingly — that records of the United States Mint for 1893 list a production of 48.38 ounces of gold (which garnered $1,000) from Mount Hood’s alleged lap. This gold was ascribed to the “Salmon Creek Chinese.”

There’s more.

A front-page headline in the 1927 Sunday Oregonian screams: “Rich Ore Found on Laurel Hill — Gold, Platinum, Tin at Portland’s Door — Deposit Known in 1850.” (Laurel Hill is the historic natural incline that rises from the Mount Hood Corridor floor up to Government Camp.)

The prospector, Sandy resident Ernest Sievers, told an Oregonian reporter: “I got some gold, but not enough to make it worthwhile.”

Instead, he explained, he was focusing on what he believed were other available minerals — including platinum and uranium.

Practically all of the old claims from this area found today in the Clackamas County records archives inform that various miners said they had discovered “a vein or lode of quartz or sand rock bearing gold, silver and lead.”CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: BILL WHITE - C.W. (Lennie) Kern digging in his Cheeney Creek Mine south of Welches in 1903.

“That reflects an ignorance on their part,” assured Paul F. Lawson, the supervisor of Mine Land Reclamation for the Oregon State Department of Geology and Minerals in a 1980 interview.

“There is no silver or lead in Clackamas County,” he affirmed. “A lot of those old-timers were downright optimists. In the Washington Cascades, I’ve seen where some old guys had tunnels dug right back into basalt. That doesn’t say too much for them — except they got some darn good exercise.”

Historic mystery and intrigue

Even so, names like the Northern Lights Mining Claim, Bonanza Claim, Yellow Kid Mine, Bohemia Claim, Gray Eagle Mining Claim, and Wild Buck Claim were grubbed out and worked during the turn of the last century from Laurel Hill on down to Huckleberry Mountain.

Why?

“They all had a weird determination to dig in that mountain,” recalled Lutie (Welch) Bailey, the longtime Welches resident who was born there in 1902 on Thanksgiving Day.

Lutie’s mother, Mamie (Kopper) Welch, died when Lutie was only 12 months old. “I was raised with a bottle on a bearskin rug,” Lutie liked to joke. “I was an only child, I ruled the roost. I was a little mountain goat.” To help bolster this status, Lutie climbed to the top of Mount Hood in 1921 when she was 19.

Lutie’s father, Billy Welch, bought 500 shares of stock certificates in the Northern Lights Mining Company.

“Dad never did dig in it,” said Lutie, who died in 1996 at age 94. “But he invested money in that mine. There were so many people that became involved in it back then.”

We need to remember that back when Lutie was a young girl, no more than 30 families lived full time up on the mountain. Her childhood memories included those days when American Indians camped on her father’s land alongside the Salmon River, where they speared and smoked their salmon beside her family’s orchard.

Never found a thing

The late Harry Abernethy, another longtime Welches resident and famous logger, also had personal insights into this area’s historic gold fever.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: BILL WHITE - The late Lutie (Welch) Bailey at 17 in 1919. Daughter and only child of original mountain homesteader Billy Welch, she recalled how so many men caught the gold fever and tried their luck at mining on the west side of Mount Hood at the turn of the last century.

“There were a good many guys who prospected around here,” Abernethy once recalled about those days near Mount Hood. But, he affirmed, none of these men ever had any success at their mining efforts.

“They never found a thing,” vouched Sandy resident Don Bodley in a 1980 interview. Bodley, then 92, vividly recalled hiking up to August Hornecker’s and Alvin Meinig’s Northern Lights Mine — located in the hills south of Welches — several times when he was a young boy. (Clackamas County records show this mine was part of what was called the original Bonanza Claim. More recently it has been renamed the Bonanza Mine.)

In 1980, Hornecker’s nephew, Zigzag resident Albert Hornecker, was interviewed about his uncle’s penchant for mining.

“When he wasn’t mining, Uncle Aug lived at the Welches Hotel,” informed Albert Hornecker. “He mined all his life and I don’t think he ever had any luck anywhere. He was never rich. He never really had anything. But he was a happy man,” the prospector’s nephew remembered with a grin.

“He mined because he enjoyed it. It was all he could talk about. Uncle Aug couldn’t wait till winter was over to get back up there to his mine. Mining was his life.”

Hornecker’s Northern Lights Mine was dug 500 blistering feet into the mountainside. What’s more, the mine boasted an additional 87-foot shaft burrowed down to help provide air into this deep tunnel. Hornecker and Meining used a steel cart on tracks to expel tons of blasted rock from the belly of their mine. (See August Hornecker perched beside his mine’s entrance in the included 1898 photo.)

Did his uncle ever think they were close to striking pay dirt?

“Oh sure,” Hornecker chuckled. “All winter long when he was thinking about it.”

Our mountains are too young

Longtime Welches resident Harry Abernethy, who died in 2007 at age 98, explained that the nearest smelter back then was located up in faraway Tacoma.

“That was the catch to it,” Abernethy said, pointing out how the inability to separate what little ore was to be found in the rock here made the process prohibitive.

“Smelters over here aren’t equipped to handle ore like this,” prospector Sievers told the Oregonian back in 1927. “Maybe I’ll have to reduce it to concentrate and ship it to Wales or Russia where they can extract the platinum and uranium.”

Sandy resident Don Bodley recalled that a “mining expert” came up to Welches one summer when Bodley was a boy.

“He looked at the Northern Lights Mine and said there wouldn’t be any gold dug out of these mountains because they’re too young.”

Lawson, the former supervisor of Mine Land Reclamation for the Oregon State Department of Geology and Minerals, agrees.

The noted geologist and mining expert, who retired from his post in 1987, explained that our Cascades are, indeed, too young.

“All the material is too well disseminated,” Lawson explained.

Local mountain lore

So it’s unanimous. It seems everyone agrees that no one hereabouts ever reaped any monetary rewards from their hard-earned mining efforts.

And, of course, prospector Charlie Perschall’s shocking suicide puts an unfortunate — yet oh-so-telling — asterisk on the dilemma of mining for gold where it just doesn’t exist.

But what about that mysterious 48.38 ounces of gold from the “Salmon Creek Chinese?”

All places need their own “claim” to historic mystery and intrigue, right? CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: BILL WHITE - The late Lutie (Welch) Bailey, 74, in 1976.

Bottom Line: While there might not be gold in these here hills, folks living in the morning shadow of Mount Hood are most definitely enriched with an abundance of interesting local mountain lore to mine.

Here’s to striking it rich with a continued quest for unearthing our unique mountain history.

Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his “Beneath Wyeast” column once a month.

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