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 Hoods own front yard.
The outcome, however, just wasnt 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.
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 fools 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 Hoods alleged lap. This gold was ascribed to the Salmon Creek Chinese.
A front-page headline in the 1927 Sunday Oregonian screams: Rich Ore Found on Laurel Hill Gold, Platinum, Tin at Portlands 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.
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, Ive seen where some old guys had tunnels dug right back into basalt. That doesnt 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.
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.
Luties 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.
Luties 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 fathers land alongside the Salmon River, where they speared and smoked their salmon beside her familys orchard.
Never found a thing
The late Harry Abernethy, another longtime Welches resident and famous logger, also had personal insights into this areas historic gold fever.
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 Horneckers and Alvin Meinigs 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, Horneckers nephew, Zigzag resident Albert Hornecker, was interviewed about his uncles penchant for mining.
When he wasnt mining, Uncle Aug lived at the Welches Hotel, informed Albert Hornecker. He mined all his life and I dont think he ever had any luck anywhere. He was never rich. He never really had anything. But he was a happy man, the prospectors nephew remembered with a grin.
He mined because he enjoyed it. It was all he could talk about. Uncle Aug couldnt wait till winter was over to get back up there to his mine. Mining was his life.
Horneckers Northern Lights Mine was dug 500 blistering feet into the mountainside. Whats 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 mines 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 arent equipped to handle ore like this, prospector Sievers told the Oregonian back in 1927. Maybe Ill 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 wouldnt be any gold dug out of these mountains because theyre 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 its 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 Perschalls shocking suicide puts an unfortunate yet oh-so-telling asterisk on the dilemma of mining for gold where it just doesnt 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?
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.
Heres 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.JW_DISQUS_ADD_A_COMMENT