2008 GSOC President's Field Trip to Baker County

by Janet Rasmussen

The 2008 President's Field Trip took GSOC members to Baker County, Oregon, to look at mining history and other geology of the region. The trip was divided into two parts: two nights at the Chloride Mine up Rock Creek in the heart of the Elkhorn Mountains; the second part based at the Always Welcome Inn in Baker City, with day trips to nearby areas of interest. Altogether, 19 people took part: Janet Rasmussen, organizer; Doug Rasmussen, co-leader; Bev Vogt, Richard Bartels, Jan Kem, Larry Purchase, Bonnie Prange, Tara Schoffstall, Betty Lou Pratt, Anne O'Neill, Bob Strebin, Chris Carvalho, Carol Hasenberg, Dawn Juliano, Marvel Gillespie, Rosemary Kenney, Arthur Springer, Suzy Sudbrook, and Catherine Ellis. Dave Aeder, my father, was staying at the Chloride Mine and was a great resource for gold panning information and the history of mining at the Chloride.

The daily routes are highlighted on this map of NE Oregon.

For Part 1, 13 people left the Frontier Restaurant in Haines and crammed into 3 vehicles for the last rough miles into the Elkhorns. After arriving at the Chloride Mine (established 1887), everyone chose a place to stay for the next two nights. Dave stayed at the Ketchum cabin, from which he could zoom from camp to camp on his ATV. Bob, Chris, Jan and Larry stayed at the Chloride Cabin; Tara, Betty Lou, and Dawn stayed in the cabin tent below the Circle Star Lodge. Lodged within the Lodge were Suzy, Arthur, Marvel, Bonnie, Rosemary and Catherine. Doug and I camped in the back of our Pathfinder. Two elk hunters & family friends, Marty and Alan, were also staying at the Silvertip cabin on the Chloride Mine, and extended family members Mark, Debbie, Jacob and Megan were camped at Camp Lee. So it was almost a small town for those few days. The weather was a little cool, but clear and lovely for the whole trip.

The first evening at the Chloride ended with most folks chatting around the Circle Star Lodge, while Jan and Tara had KP duty. We ate all our meals in common, with everyone helping to cook or clean. I had compiled a notebook of local mine history and photos for those interested.

The next morning, Larry, Dawn, Jan, Catherine, Betty Lou, and Suzy took a walk up to the #2 mine, on to the #3 where many collected bits of ore, and down through the old clearing along the Washout Creek.

In the clearing lies this boulder which rolled down from the contact zone somewhere far above. Most of the rock is granite from the Bald Mountain batholith, and the darker part to the left is Elkhorn Ridge argillite. The contact is very sharp, but you can see some zoning in the granite.

Doug led a small group on a hike to the Upper Meadows of Rock Creek, but none of them took a camera.

A stock photo of the Upper Meadows from June, 2004. This view is nearly identical to a historic photo taken over 100 years ago. The forest is old growth mixed conifer, and in the background is the rugged eastern flank of the Elkhorn Ridge.

Most took the opportunity at some point to go into the safer portion of the #2 tunnel. Hardhats protected the skulls of the taller folks. Here Suzy and Arthur are deep within the mountain, with Jan just visible in the background.

From the inside looking out at the adit. The first part of the tunnel is in argillite.

Janet, Marvel, Dawn, Suzy, Arthur, Tara at the entrance of the tunnel.

Later, we wandered down to Rock Creek near Camp Lee where Dad was panning gravels he had collected in a sluice box just up the creek.

Many were interested in panning for gold.

Sitting around an early campfire were Jan, Tara, Bob, Dawn, Rosemary, Doug and Betty Lou.

Dawn and Bonnie wanted to know just how I made that piecrust. We had plenty more locally grown peaches, so we had an impromptu "pie clinic" and they produced this delicious peach pie. The recipe for a two-crust pie is:

2 cups flour, 2/3 cups butter, a dash of salt. These are worked very finely by hand, and then 1/3 cup of cold water is added in as few strokes as possible. The dough is squeezed together, divided into two parts, and rolled out between sheets of floured waxed paper as thinly as possible. For the filling, peel and slice 6-8 peaches, and stir in 2/3 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of minute tapioca. Puncture the crust with a fork, and make it beautiful by brushing with egg white and sprinkling raw sugar crystals over it. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 and bake another 30 minutes.

That night we feasted on roast hot dogs and grilled burgers, and ate more pie. Also, wine and other drinks were passed around. During the nights, great horned owls were heard in the forest. The next morning, we packed up and left early to get to Baker City to meet the rest of the field trip participants at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside of Baker City.

After seeing the exhibits, we gathered to hear Howard Brooks, retired geologist from Baker, give a presentation of the pictorial history of mining in the region.

We stayed at the Always Welcome Inn in Baker City, and they had kindly allowed us to check in early, as many were in want of a shower before continuing much further with the trip. Everyone had a chance to see the remarkable display of local gold nuggets in the US Bank lobby. After lunch and sightseeing on our own, we convened again at the Baker Heritage Museum. Here we saw more artifacts of early settlement of the area, more mining displays, and a great mineral collection. By 4:00, we were all back at the Inn to meet Jay Van Tassell, from Eastern Oregon University, who was there to show us how to find fossils in the outcrop behind the motel.

Jay had already set up screens, digging tools, collection bottles, a representative fossil collection, and printed materials. This important site was just discovered in 2002 by a geologist staying at the motel. Now, with the generous and enthusiastic cooperation of the motel's owners, important finds are being made by researchers from elementary to graduate students, and their teachers. Jay amazed us all by his ability to identify the specific animal parts by looking at only a tiny flake of bone.

Larry, already an experience fossil hunter with the North American Research Group (NARG), was in his element.

Catherine, Rosemary, and Marvel examine their screen for fossils.

Dawn was an enthusiastic paleontologist.

The afternoon became breezier, keeping the fine dust airborne as we sifted through the screens. The shower I had taken earlier was in vain. So again we made ourselves presentable, and all converged on the historic and elegant Geiser Grand hotel in downtown Baker City for dinner. We were joined by geologists Mark Ferns, Jay, and Howard Brooks and his wife Colleen. The staff had set great long tables for us in the main dining room below the stained glass ceiling (reminiscent of a scene from the movie "Poseidon Adventure"), the food was good and the surroundings impressive.

On Saturday, we went to Sumpter, on the western side of the Elkhorn Mountains, NW of Baker City.

We toured the well-maintained Sumpter Dredge, now a State Park, with ranger Miranda Miller to interpret. Howard Brooks joined us, and we all learned a great deal about how the dredge operated.

The buckets of the dredge dug a moving pond, while filling in behind, in which the massive machine floated and sorted through all the cobbles of the wide valley finding a great deal of gold along the way.

After the tour of the dredge, some chose more gold panning instruction. The gravels here were "salted" with flakes of gold and garnets. We were allowed to keep a few of these for a small fee.

After exploring more of Sumpter, having lunch, shopping for antiques or books, or driving nearby back roads, we all got on board the Sumpter Valley Railroad for a round trip to McEwen Station. Some rode in the open car. SVRR is the only steam-powered operating train in Oregon, and offers great opportunities for train afficianados to volunteer, and even become engineers. Of course there's endless work involved in equipment and track maintenance.

Anne, Marvel, Doug, and I took the enclosed coach to avoid the direct sun. In either case, the views were wonderful.

Countless ponds have formed within the dredge spoils, creating habitat for birds and animals. Here the western flank of the Elkhorn Mountains is in the background.

The wide flat valley is covered with heaps of cobbles and pebbles, where some shrubs are gaining a foothold in the sparse soil. Trails lead from Sumpter and McEwen stations into the dredge spoils, offering an opportunity to examine close up the array of rock types that make up these river sediments.

Doug relaxed on the platform between our car and the engine, and wondered how difficult it would be to explore the more remote areas of the tailings without a trail.

After our train ride, we gathered at Myron Woodley's tavern in Sumpter, the Miners Exchange, where you can get a full glass of red wine for $2, and signage proclaimed the pro-extraction, anti-government sentiments of the locals: "Earth First! We'll mine the other planets later..."

Back at the Inn, we decided to have dinner at the Haines Steakhouse. Before leaving, Doug and I walked over to investigate the Chinese Cemetery, just down the road.

A prayer house built of local tuff, and a red pergola mark the site of temporary graves of local Chinese workers. All bodies were eventually transported to their native land. I'm sorry to say that the prayer house contained a mound of empty beer bottles and trash.

At 9:00 on Sunday, we met with Oregon Dept. of Geology's Baker field office geologist Mark Ferns, who led us on a looping route to the Snake River. We all had a turn to ride with Mark, and he knows the story of every rock and hill in the county. What a treat! We drove down I-84 toward Huntington, and then backtracked along Hwy. 30 to a site near the abandoned cement plant at Lime.

The old cement plant.

Here we went crazy looking for feldspar crystals, many of which exhibited twinning. We all got a handful or more, and someone told me later that these fluoresce nicely under black light. They aren't of any real value, but it was so much fun to find them, I'm going to go back and get a Mason jar full someday.

After leaving Huntington heading for Snake River Road, we passed this ominous warning sign. The road is indeed narrow, winding, and has terrifying drop-offs.

At our first stop along the road, Mark encouraged us to try to interpret the dikes and faults, and thereby sort out which rock group is oldest.

Here we find flysch. The oldest rock groups of NE Oregon are composed of ancient islands and their sediments, transported to what was then the western edge of the continent by plate tectonics, then scraped off as the heavier moving plate slid underneath the edge of the continent. This all happened over several hundred million years. Now these thin flaky sediment layers (flysch) which washed down off the new landscape into the remains of an ocean basin, are exposed in the canyon walls of the Snake River.

Chris was usually found climbing precariously on a steep embankment, wrestling out a rock, or panning for gold in every small creek.

In a basalt dike, rectangular cracks and joints have allowed weathering of sections of rock into round boulders and cobbles, as the corners wear down first. This is called "spheroidal weathering".

Along the Snake River, we are back into the Elkhorn Ridge argillite. Here we find "ribbon chert", alternating layers of argillite (muddy ocean sediments) and a glassy rock (chert) formed by the silica shells of minute creatures deposited on the bottom of the sea.

A last view of the Snake River before we rise out of the canyon into the Richland valley.

Catching a last look at this rarely seen landscape.

On the way back to Baker City from Richland, we stopped at the Hole in the Wall landslide, where in 1983, a massive slide blocked the old road and the Powder River. A new road was built on the opposite side, where we stand. Remains of the old road are abandoned to the encroachment of rocks from above and plants from below.

After returning to the Inn, we borrowed the conference room for an impromptu debriefing with potluck drinks and snacks. Later, many went to El Erradero, a Mexican restaurant in Baker City for an excellent dinner.

The word got around among the group that the owners of our Inn had a great collection of gold themselves, and also, a small portion of the famous Willamette Meteorite, now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It is the largest meteorite ever found in the US, and the 6th largest in the world. We went to look at these, it was quite a treat.

On our last field trip day, we left the Inn early, after breakfast at the Inland Cafe. Another favorite breakfast stop was the Sumpter Junction Restaurant, where model trains zip past your booth as you eat. We headed past Sumpter, and on to Granite, where we were met by GSOC members Bo and Marija Janko.

Bo and Marija have had a summer house at Granite for many years, and offered to give us a tour of this tiny, but once flourishing town.

Their house was once a stage stop, and had four small rooms for rent on the second floor. Bo and Marija have restored the house, while maintaining its historic flavor.

Some of the rooms had these lovely linoleum rugs, in very good condition.

We toured the town, taking in the old buildings, many of which are occupied at least part of the year. We walked through the cemetery while our hosts explained the history of the town, which is still pretty colorful!

We drove about 10 miles west of Granite to visit the Fremont Power House. Not currently operating, it still is maintained by the State. Caretaker Mitch Fielding gave us a tour with history and ghost stories. Several old houses in the complex are for rent by the state at a very reasonable fee. The water for power came from Olive Lake.

Wood pipes that once carried water to generate power. Some of the power was used by the nearby Red Boy Mine, and some went to run the Sumpter Dredge.

Our next stop was at the Chinese Walls, or Ah Hee Diggings, just north of Granite. Here the Chinese miners sorted through the dredge spoils, finding gold that had been missed. They stacked the larger rocks in long rows. Arthur spent some time prospecting in this area back in the early 1970's. As we left to drive north, we were stopped by a road construction crew. I learned from the flagger that they were widening a spot for an interpretive kiosk for the Chinese Walls, but she said she wished she knew more about it. I gave her a copy of the Ukiah to Granite field trip brochure, which described the stop.

We stopped at this outcrop of Tower Mountain rhyolite with a wide band of obsidian in the middle. Here some found low-grade opal veins, and all found some nice looking rocks. A man driving past stopped to talk about his own rock hounding in the area, and impulsively handed out half a dozen nice specimens of petrified wood he had found nearby. Our next stop was at the Tower Mountain Caldera overlook, where I found a lovely piece of red jasper.

Our final stop was at the John Day Canyon Overlook. Here we took a group photo before Carol, Rosemary, and Marvel left us to continue their own ways.

On a streetcorner in Pendleton, the last roundup of the last field trippers stand. We are leaving dinner at the bustling Hamley's Restaurant, heading for the Rainbow Room. It's the week before Roundup, and the party is in full swing. Hamley's was a little disappointing to us, after having wonderful meals there in the past. With Roundup, they have whittled down the menu and portions but not the prices, and the surroundings were extremely noisy and crowded. We were so crowded into a booth, that Bev was forced to subduct & re-emerge.

For more pictures and a great summary of the trip with more geological detail, see Carol Hasenberg's website. She's done a spectacular job of summarizing the trip and I can't wait to see what we have in store when she leads next year's President's Field Trip. Destination yet unknown...