Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Medicine Lake Obsidian

Medicine Lake, California
Obsidian Galore!

Earlier this year I landed a contract to update the old book "Gem Trails of Northern California" by James Mitchell. It's time for a make-over; the current book has few color photos, no GPS coordinates, and has been overtaken by events in more than one locale. But for the purposes of this blog post, I recently visited Medicine Lake, California, and found quite a bit of obsidian there. This will be a new locale for the updated book, which won't hit the stores until 2017.

The area in question isn't really near any town - it's about 30 miles south of the Oregon-California border, a long ways from CA 139, CA 89, and US 97.
Figure 1. Medicine Lake.

Several geologists have studied the area, and I got some good help from Howard A. Powers, "The Lavas of the Modoc Lava-Bed quadrangle, California," published in July, 1932 in the American Mineralogist. Powers mapped much of the obsidian, and this gem helped guide me:

Figure 2. Geologist Howard Powers mapped much of the obsidian here in his 1932 paper.

We drove in from the north, hitting two well-known tourist spots along the way: Petroglyph Point, and Captain Jack's Stronghold.

Here are two GPS coordinates to get started:

41.84539, -121.39129   Petroglyph Point
41.82477, -121.50008   Captain Jack's Stronghold

Petroglyph Point was very interesting - I didn't see many animals or humans depicted, which was odd. Lots of cool symbols, tho, and very much worth the stop. The turn from CA 139 is easy to find.

Figure 3. Symbols at Petroglyph Point.

If you're not familiar with the history of this area, a band of about 60 Modoc Indians held off a far superior force of US Cavalry for many months. As negotiations to end the stand-off faltered, some of the warriors convinced Captain Jack (real name: Kintpuash) to slay General Canby, for which Jack was subsequently hanged. Here's a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintpuash.

It was fun to bring along fellow Recon patrol member Dirk Williams, who is a full-blooded Modoc Indian himself. Dirk seemed to easily slip into some of the foxholes and firing positions.

Figure 4. Dirk Williams explores one of the foxholes at Captain Jack's Stronghold.

From Captain Jack's we went further south and passed numerous lava tubes and caves. The basalt lava here is ropy - called pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy) in Hawaii, and the name stuck. Learn more at http://www.decadevolcano.net/photos/keywords/pahoehoe_lava.htm. We passed on the caves and went almost due south to the first big flow, but the lava here isn't attractive obsidian. So we moved further south and camped for the night at Medicine Lake Campgrounds. We chose A.H. Hogue Campground, selecting a nice spot right on the lake. The water was very low.
Figure 5. Low water at Medicine Lake in October, 2015.

Note that there are trails to the lava flow from the campgrounds, and there's decent obsidian on the south end of that flow.

The next morning we drove almost due east on 43 N 77 from the lake to Little Glass Mountain. There was decent obsidian at two spots:
41.57541, -121.69026   Little Glass E
41.57153, -121.69909   Little Glass W

There's good access from either spot, although the E site seemed to have better glass.

Figure 6. Good obsidian easily collected at Little Glass Mountain, west of Medicine Lake.

From here we headed east toward Glass Mountain. It was disappointing to see "No Collecting" signs on the southern edge of the flow. There are many more access points to the north, however, and several archaeology sources list aboriginal quarries on that side of the flow.

41.62092, -121.48708   North side of Glass Mountain

Further to the east, near Cougar Butte, there's a final addition to your obsidian collection: spherulitic obsidian. This type of rock has inclusions of gray cristobalite:

Figure 7. Tiny cristobalite spheres in bands of obsidian near Cougar Butte. 

Mindat discusses this further at http://www.mindat.org/loc-215047.htmlhttp://www.mindat.org/loc-215047.html.

Here are the GPS coordinates for this spherulitic obsidian locale:

41.65874, -121.45459   Spherulitic obsidian in bands

There are probably many more spherulitic occurrences out here. Just a couple more notes - I first came into this area from the west side, via Macdoel in late spring, but there was snow blocking me on Davis Road just a couple miles from Little Glass Mountain, and when I tried different routes, it was so early in the year that there were still many blown down trees blocking the back roads. Best wait until closer to Memorial Day...

Monday, November 12, 2012

COME on out to the Rice NW Museum of Rocks and Minerals for a rockin’ book signing!

Pick up a copy of my new must-have rock identification book ROCKS, GEMS, and MINERALS. It’s a great chance to get copies of all my books and tour the museum, where I took photos of many of the specimens included in the book.

Book signing: Rocks, Gems and Minerals
by Garret H. Romaine
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 17 from 1:00 – 2:00 pm
Cover price: just $9.95

Here is the Amazon link for more information.

We would love to see you there!

Directions to the Rice Museum.
There is no cost to visit the Museum from 1-2.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Gem Trails of Oregon - Remove Little River site!

Just got word that Site #97 of the Gem Trails of Oregon book should be pulled. This site is outside of Glide, Oregon, where Little River flows into the North Umpqua River. It will be deleted in subsequent printings because there is no safe, legal access to the gravels along the river bank. If I get a chance, I'll try up the river further. If anyone has other good information about this area, let us know.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

How To Choose The Right Gold Pan

By Garret Romaine

Any experienced gold prospector will tell you that the most important tool among all your gold mining equipment is the humble gold pan. Whether you are testing a creek, digging a crevice, or cleaning up concentrates, there is no better companion.

But, like candy, it’s hard to stop after just one pan. I like to bring a stack of four or five pans with me when I go out, just in case. I’ll bring a bigger pan for rough work, and some smaller pans to finish concentrates. The truth is that there are a lot of different pans out there, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. In this article, we’ll look at a wide variety of pans, and give you the information you need to smartly build a nice collection of your own.

Old Reliable

First, every gold panner needs a metal pan. The pan in Figure 1 has been with me for 30 years, and it’s still in good shape. I mostly use it as a safety pan, because it’s not so prone to floating away, but I’ve used it for a variety of camp duties as well. It has put in time serving as a giant ashtray and also to light charcoal. Metal pans can act as a large trowel to scoop dirt, clear holes, and dig ditches, although you’ll probably have to bend it back into shape afterwards. An old timer once told me he once used his pan to boil water and fry eggs when he found himself without his usual pots and pans.

Figure 1. "Old Reliable" 11-inch metal pan.

The truth is, I don’t use the metal pan very often to just plain pan. It makes a beautiful noise when it has ball-bearings, fishing weights, or other metal sliding across the bottom, and I’m sure if I got into some good gold nuggets they’d sound nice, too. But the lack of riffles is a non-starter for me. Some newer metal pans have riffles, although they’re more like bumps. Even with that, metal pans are heavy. The bottom line: the build-up of rust and dents just can’t compete with high-tech, purposefully engineered riffles, so let’s move on.

Big Pans

Next, let’s talk about the big boys – the 16-inch battleships that can handle a heaping shovelful of dirt at a time. I’ve got two to show you, with big differences between them.

First is a very standard black model, with a short, 7-inch bottom. It sports three decent riffles, each with a moderate “bite” to work down black sands. However, I would prefer more riffles, and the bottom has always felt too small to me. It’s a good pan for working unscreened material, because large rocks roll right out. It’s best feature is it’s size, because it holds so much material. If you’re on a good crevice and you just want to collect as much as you can before returning to your panning spot, this is a good transport vehicle, although a bucket would work just as well.

Figure 2. Big 16-inch black pan with small bottom.

I’ve always liked my big 16-inch blue pan. It’s lightweight for it’s size, and the bottom is nearly 9 inches across. That allows for a nice fanning action as you spread the final concentrates. The blue color is excellent for revealing gold and garnets, which is a big advantage over black pans that can have issues when playing with a lot of black sand. This particular pan has some real engineering going on with the riffles, which start out very aggressive, sporting a clever, sunken trap area. The second riffle also has serious bite, but the third and fourth riffles are not nearly as intense. They do have a sharp angle, so gold will trap against them while black sand is washing over the edge. All in all, the riffles are excellent. It’s hard to pan with one hand, but when you get the material going, you can feel those riffles biting, which gives you the confidence to get aggressive and really work it.
Figure 3. Big 16-inch blue pan.

The trap area also makes using a snuffer bottle easier.

Figure 4. Close-up of riffles and trap area.

The GPAA Classic

The 14-inch green GPAA pan included in your membership packet is one of my favorites – I have five of them, at last count. It’s the standard Garrett gravity trap style, and it’s been around for a long, long time. The 14-inch size is easier to use with one hand, but it still holds plenty of material. There are four riffles, each with a sharp, aggressive bite, allowing for respectable work with heavy black sands. I frequently stop using the riffles when I get down to a couple tablespoons of material, and rotate over to the smooth side. Or, I’ll transfer the whole load to a finishing pan and start a new batch.

The bottom is wide, at almost eight inches, which gives you a good view of your material when you look for that flash in the pan.

You’ll see some interesting variations on this simple design. The number of riffles can go up to six, which I always appreciate in areas with heavy black sands.

Figure 5. Classic 14-inch green GPAA pan.

Bright Ideas

In an effort to help with black sands, inventors have gone to great lengths to devise better riffles and traps. The pan in Figure 6 is very effective with heavy black sands, as the riffle system contains three small “pre-riffles” that are set at very aggressive angles. They’re followed by four standard riffles, and the last riffle is actually rounded, under the theory that anything interesting should have been trapped down below.

Figure 6. Variation on the classic gravity trap pan.

I found that the over-sized trap is a nuisance, however, especially with a snuffer bottle. Too much material collected in there when I didn’t want it to, and I never really got comfortable with the small micro-sluice leading out of the trap.

Here’s another “gimmick” pan. It’s made out of a different plastic that feels brittle and prone to breaking. The arrow trap isn’t bad – it does work – but with only two riffles, it’s hard to get good work done.

Figure 7. 12-inch black pan with "arrow" trap.

12-inch Pans – Not Just For Kids

I find that when I pan for great lengths of time, I eventually start switching to smaller pans just to save my arm. The 12-inch pan comes in handy when you’re getting worn out, but it’s also great for kids, grandparents, and moms, because it’s easier to handle. There are usually only three riffles, and the bottom is around six inches in diameter. That’s enough to pan concentrates in a tub, or to work material in a creek. You can’t process as much volume as you would with a bigger pan, but you might be able to work longer, and not fall asleep five minutes after dinner.

Figure 8. Standard 12-inch black pan with three riffles.

My new favorite 12-inch pan is a blue, six-riffle design from Keene with an almost eight-inch bottom. The riffles are sharp and trap gold easily, giving you confidence that you can work fast. Then, when you get material down far enough, there are 20 micro-riffles that really let you work through black sands. Large gold pieces show up immediately here, and it’s a nice feature. I just picked up this pan at the 2011 Gold Prospectors Show at Salem, Oregon, and I’m completely hooked.

Figure 9. 12-inch blue pan from Keene has two sets of riffles.

Figure 10. Micro-riffles on the left, and regular riffles on the right.

Finishing Pans

When you’ve got material that is screened, sorted, and concentrated, you don’t need the big pans any more – you need a smaller pan for maximum control. I used to use a small, green 10-inch pan with four riffles and a three-inch bottom for finishing work. It had a nice feel, and I was comfortable with it. For example, by using a panning tub and a safety pan, I’d processed a lot of concentrates at home. Periodically, I’d test the safety pan to see how I was doing, and I rarely found anything more than black sand in there.

Figure 11. Small green finishing pan with very limited bottom.

Again, after attending the recent gold show in my area, I’ve come home with a new favorite. It’s another blue Keene pan, only smaller. It has five regular riffles and 15 micro-riffles, and the bottom is almost six inches across. I brought home a bucket of concentrates from the Little North Fork of the Santiam River right after the Salem show, and I was really pleased testing this pan. It felt very comfortable, and I was able to work the whole bucket easily.

Figure 12. Small ten-inch finishing pan from Keene.

Square Pans

Figure 13. Le Trap is an 18-inch square pan.

Figure 14. 14-inch square pan.

I never really grew to love either of my square pans. I don’t know if they’re just too non-traditional or if I just didn’t like the feel. There isn’t any swirling with these square pans – you just work the riffles continually, pulling back to re-stratify and then back at it.

Copper Pans

Since I don’t work with mercury, I haven’t had the urge to get a nice copper pan, but I’m weakening. I have a small, four-inch copper pan that is nice for display purposes, and it’s getting a pretty cool patina to it after six years. I’ll probably add a bigger copper pan to my collection at some point, just to have one. I think they’re beautiful, but I can’t imagine they’re much good in a panning tub.


So, if the question is, “How do I choose the right gold pan?” then what’s the answer? Well, it depends on how you answer these questions:

· What’s your budget?

· Have you bought a new pan lately?

· Do you have a full assortment of pans?

· Do you like to experiment?

Whatever your next pan is, I’m sure it will be the right one. And remember – the problem isn’t too much black sand – the problem is not enough gold.

Garret Romaine writes from Portland, Oregon. He’s always looking for more friends on Facebook.

Mining the Internet – Rock and Gold Links

By Garret Romaine

The summer field season is in full swing, and many readers have contacted me recently with last-minute questions on places they plan to visit. Back when email was the main way to communicate electronically, I could usually keep up if I typed fast and kept the comments lean. Today, so many GPAA members are technologically savvy that I’m thankful there are so many forums and online communities. In this column for the Lapidary issue, we’ll take a look at some of the activity out there for gold prospectors and rock hounds alike.

Long-time readers know I’ve been enthusiastic about Facebook for some time now. I’ve been ‘friending’ people like crazy this year, and the system keeps suggesting that I add people who share 40-50 mutual friends, so it just keeps building.

Facebook Treasure

I’ve been hanging out lately with the Facebook group called “Treasure Hunting Wiki.” These aren’t just electronic friends – I’ve met several of these guys at the 2010 Jade Rendezvous in Darrington, Washington. Members Ezekiel Hughes and Kristoffer Jay are tenacious jade hunters and frequently share their finds from the creeks and rivers in Washington’s jade belt. Just seeing what they’ve slabbed lately is enough to get your juices flowing.

Figure 1. Home page for GPAA's Facebook presence.

There’s a good mix of beginners, veterans, merchants, and organizations that have formed a solid rock and gem network on Facebook. The benefit is that when Karasarlidis Minerals from Greece posts new pictures to his profile of a gorgeous, deep purple sodalite, you get to see it, comment on it, “like” it, and even share it so it shows up on your page.

Figure 2. Sample update from Karasarlidis Minerals shows how users share information and photos easily.

This is a long link that’s going to be tough for you to type in, but here goes:


Far easier would be to just type in the word “Treasure” in the Facebook search box near the top of the page. You can scan through a dozen different links within Facebook, including metal detecting clubs, rock hounds groups, and individual jewelry makers. Some forums specialize in a single quest, like jade, while others are open to any kind of loot.

Figure 3. Treasure Hunting Wiki's Facebook page.

With over 500 million active users, you can see the possibilities on Facebook are endless. No matter how small your niche, you’ll find like-minded individuals who share your passion. Use that Search box to find fossil hunters, amber collectors, meteorite men, and more.

Facebook Gold

First off, if you haven’t hooked up with the Gold Prospectors Association of America on Facebook, do that right away. Find it by typing ‘gold’ in the Search box. You can enter gold mining, gold panning, gold prospecting, gold in California, etc. Experiment and you’ll find what you want.

Figure 4. Use the Search box to locate groups you might be interested in joining.

After checking on all the updates from GPAA, you can look for local groups in your area or somewhere you hope to visit. For example, I’ve been chatting with Billy Reed, a member who is interested in exploring some of the more obscure gold districts around Mt. St. Helens in Washington, with a base camp on the GPAA claim on Copper Creek. We’ve been able to share maps easily, but you still can’t add attachments to messages, so we relied on regular email to exchange big PDFs. We think we’ve got the location of the lode mines nailed down, so now it’s just a matter of waiting for the &^%$ snow to melt.

Prospecting USA

Facebook’s “Prospecting USA” page has seen good activity lately. They have 75 members, but show good growth. It’s an open group, so anyone can join.

Northwest Rockhounds and Random Rocks of Beauty

This page was more active in the past, and may get archived if not converted to a new format. Still, the members are very knowledgeable and it’s worth getting a conversation going there if you have a question about rockhounding in that region.

Idaho Prospecting Supply

One of the many vendors using Facebook actively, this shop is building a solid online presence. In fact, this is a good example of how to do it – use lots of pictures, post actively, and start conversations. I’m planning to pick up one of Cody’s hand-cranked trommels this summer.

Idaho Gold and Gem Outfitters

Good deals, lots of activity, and friendly. Another strong vendor.

Idaho Rockhounding

I like this page because they mention my book, “Rockhounding Idaho,” all the time. Great discussions of what to find, where, and the accompanying pictures are amazing. I should drop in more often.

Let’s leave Facebook and turn now to some other websites and links I’ve been meaning to publish.

Ghost Towns of Washington


I wish every state had the bounty of ghost towns and mining camps that we have in the west. This is one of the best resources I’ve seen lately for ghost town exploration, but it’s focused on the state of Washington. That limits the appeal for many of you, but it’s a nice site and very informative.

Hunting for Gold


Good new site that just came up earlier this year. The site boasts over 1,000 members, has witnessed 25,000 posts, and has a thriving presence.



Here’s a nice site to download a good add-on for Google Earth. Once you add this tool, you’ll see little pickaxe and gold pan icons pop up throughout the mining areas. You’ll have GPS coordinates for locales that you guessed at previously. The app is a great idea, but it could use the help of dedicated and knowledgeable prospectors who’ve been out in the field and can dress up the details with pictures, first-hand reports, etc.

Here’s what Google Earth looks like for the Index area of Washington after loading Mine Cache:

Figure 5. Mine Cache adds GPA coordinates and icons into Google Earth, such as on this area near Index, Washington.

Mining Books

I recently stumbled onto this site while searching for gold panning guides for Oregon, California, and Washington authored by Tom Bohmker. I met Tom at the GPAA Gold Show in Salem in March, 2011, and was impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm. He’s written several guides that have excellent background stories and personal, onsite knowledge that makes them invaluable.

The rest of the Mining Books site contains just what the name implies, plus maps. The site is deep and wide, with all facets of mining and prospecting covered. Want to know more about the chemistry of cyanide mining? Need details on the geology of Creede, one of Colorado’s richest silver camps? It’s all here, plus more. The site is organized well and easy to use, which also helps.

Figure 6. MiningBooks.com has new publications and reprints for mining districts throughout the US.

Western Mining History


I’ve saved the best for last, so I hope you made it this far. This is a deep, elegant website with good writing, nice pictures, and lots of energy. It covers the entire western U.S., so I’d guess the vast majority of GPAA members will find something in here to help them with their research and generally raise their Prospecting IQ. The site is now linked to Facebook, and I expect they’ll start to see traffic increase quickly.

Don’t miss the Database of Mines! The database describes almost 30,000 mines, and has the coordinates and elevations. More pictures would be great, as would production information, geology, etc., but this is a nice start. The mines are divided by state and county for easy reference, or you can pick them off an interactive map.

The Happy Prospector

Prolific author serves up two more books on gold mining in the Pacific Northwest

By Garret Romaine

Author Tom Bohmker is no stranger to regular readers of Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA) magazine. We published a nice review of his book The Elusive Pocket Gold of SW Oregon, and also recommended his expanded 2005 effort entitled Gold Panner's Guide to the Black Hills of South Dakota(originally published in 1978).

Since then, he has kept up his prolific ways. In 2009 he was the contributing editor for the Gold Panner's Guide to Washington State. In 2010, Bohmker put out Gold Panner's Guide to the Oregon Cascades. As a fellow field-guide author, I eagerly seek out new publications that deal with gold prospecting in my home region of the Pacific Northwest, and I’m glad I caught up with him. I finally connected all the dots after stumbling onto the http://www.Miningbooks.com web page and ordering a book, and then hooking up at the 2011 GPAA Gold Show in Salem, Oregon.

Tom and I discussed his latest books in between gold show attendees coming up with questions. People were eyeing his extensive gold collection, and playing “stump the geologist” with a wide variety of “meteor-wrongs” and leaverite samples. Every once in a while someone would produce a hunk of quartz with shiny streaks and rusty staining or a heavy, glistening sample of fascinating ore, and Tom’s day was further enriched. He easily switched between asking and answering questions, and he seemed equally happy to do either one.

Figure 1. Part of author Tom Bohmker's gold specimen collection he's collected over the years, as seen at the 2011 Salem Gold Show.

“This is a lot of fun for me,” he said from his chair, smiling. “You never know what’s coming next. Folks collect the most amazing specimens.” An accomplished mining expert, his booth was a lively spot that stood out even in that day’s exuberant atmosphere. I got the feeling immediately that Tom would be a favorite in mining camps, talking for hours over a roaring campfire about his experiences across the west.

Bohmker explained how his newest books on Oregon and Washington continue his theme of trying to be as helpful as humanly possible to the newcomers and weekend warriors. As Bohmker explained in his book about the Klamath Mountains, he’s been asked countless times some basic questions:

1. Is it possible to still go out and find some gold?

2. Where is a spot I can do some fun panning with my friends and family?

3. Are there certain types of rocks that carry the gold?

4. I just bought a new detector, so where is a good place to look for pocket gold?

5. How can I have my own claim?

His response: “Selected spots…showed potential for more extensive mining efforts. Even though some of these areas have been extensively mined since the 1849 gold rush, and were some of the areas where suction dredging was first extensively used in the 1950’s and 60’s, our conclusion was that there is still lots of “easy” gold that can be found by 'flat-lander greenhorn tourist want-to-be gold miners,' much more so by serious miners today.”

Because I had seen Tom in action at his booth, I figured he came by his geological “chops” naturally. So I asked him via email about his education and background. In junior high and again in high school, he said that he took all the earth science courses he could sign up for, and then went on to college. “I have an associate degree in aerospace technology, and a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mechanic’s license,” he told me. My guess is that he took at least one class on rocket science, in other words. He’s not a certified engineer (his fees would go way up if he were) but he picked up extensive coursework in geology from the College of San Mateo in California. His formal education shows in his precise use of geologically correct terms, which, being a natural teacher, he takes great pride in.

Still, Bohmker’s knowledge about western mining isn’t just based on book learnin’ and taking tests. His family background is the real foundation; both his grandfather and his father were avid prospectors. “My Dad's work selling for John Deere took me to mining areas all over the west,” he explained. “A trip with him always had some stops at active operations with his friends and customers. I was able to learn at the feet of some very talented old miners and prospectors.”

During high school and college, Bohmker and his family took all available weekends and vacations to prospect for gold, silver, and other ores. From San Francisco, they methodically fanned out, covering parts of the Mother Lode country, the Clear Lake quicksilver district, then Humboldt and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, and also the Pinto Basin and Mojave Desert areas of southern California. The expeditions roamed far into the hills, and he developed an eye for abandoned mines, old workings, tailings piles, and other signs of industry. He learned to identify what the miners were after and appreciate their ambitions.

Here’s a partial list of Bohmker’s “mining vita”:

1968 - explored and tested for cinnabar at the "No Sweat Mine"

1969 - mining technician at the Hyatt Mine in ID (lode gold)

1970 - Guadalupe Mining Company, San Jose, CA (lode gold)

1972 - Eagle Creek Mine, Birch Creek AK (placer gold)

1974-82 - leased suction dredge claims near Cave Junction, OR

1976-80 - sluiced in South Dakota

1980-81 - dredged on Illinois River, OR

1982 - dredged Klamath River, CA

1984 - dredged Middle Fork John Day, OR and Black Hills, SD

That’s only a partial list, he explained, referring to himself as a “tramp miner” after college. He’s served as a millwright, technician, foreman, surveyor, resident geologist, and more. “In 1985, I reopened the Way Up Mine for underground gold near Libby, Montana, and completed a large bulk sampling program for the owner. In the 1990's, my teenaged sons and I started leasing the Gran Turk Mine, an underground pocket mine near Columbia, California. This finally ended operation in 2008, when the 90-year old owner traded the property away.”

Even when he wasn’t mining, Bohmker was prospecting new ground or sampling fresh territory. “Whenever I traveled, I tried to do some prospecting along the way. For example, on the way to my brother’s wedding in Missouri, I took a dredge with me and dredged a day or two near Salmon, Idaho, and also near Ogden Utah. My wife claims she never realized how interested I was in mining before marriage. After we got married, we toured a variety of ghost towns from Oregon to southern California, then returned through Nevada. She can give a long, wild story about visiting a whole bunch of mining camps and smiling politely at my old miner friends as I showed off my cute new bride. That was not exactly her dream of a "Harlequin Romance Honeymoon."

Figure 2. Author Tom Bohmker has spent a fascinating career in the western mining industry.

A couple years ago, Tom faced some medical issues that put him in the hospital, weakened with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a serious disorder where the immune system starts attacking the nervous system. While recovering, he daydreamed about his favorite dredging experiences, and kept coming back to a stint on the Illinois River in southern Oregon.

He eventually wrote the daydreaming episode up in a short story he calls “Snake Oil,” excerpted and lightly edited below:

“We were slowly uncovering bedrock on the Illinois River in southern Oregon …Finally a thin, flat boulder some 3 feet across was found “cemented” with hard pack gravels to the bedrock. I dredged around it and we hoisted the big boulders out of the hole. It took the whole morning to uncover an area 5 by 7 feet or so on the bedrock . We cleaned up about 3 DWT of flakes and pickers from this activity, found mostly in the reddish yellow pack that was within a couple feet of bedrock. We still had the cemented flat rock to move and dredge underneath. With the water clear, I hammered the cemented gravel around the edge and I could see dozens of little flakes of gold 1 to 3 mm in size swirl into the nozzle. I tried driving a gad bar (similar to a carpenter cat’s paw nail-puller) under the flat boulder to shake it loose…it seemed to be held tight with super glue. Again I circled the perimeter hammering the thin layer of cementing gravel. ...

For some 10 minutes I hammered and hammered; finally a little cloud of gray material rose around the boulder signaling it had finally loosened up. I was able to lever it off its perch and the hole became immersed in a cloud of gray. It took a long minute or two for the water to clear and I was anxiously hoping to see some gold. As soon as the dredge started to suck away the thin layer of sand and gravel I could see hundreds of flakes of gold like stars shining on a mountain night. Most of the flakes were large enough to stay on #20 mesh screen or 2 to 3 mm in size and there were hundreds of them. I recall thinking “If this keeps up we’ll get rich.” Of course the “hot spot” was over in just 5 minutes. We cleaned up the sluice again and were thrilled with over 9 DWT (nearly ½ oz. troy).

Still, he lingered in the hospital for several months, until a “golden cure” arrived when his friends brought in the perfect antidote to his doldrums – a full sample jar, crammed with placer gold. “Every day for months the doctor had come in and poked and held my feet hoping to see some nerve reaction or movement. Basically nothing in the feet had changed…they seemed to be immobile. However my mining friend Tom Quintal and his assistant “Professors of Universal Healing” wanted to try to revive my limp lower body. Although Tom was not wearing a dark cape and stove pipe hat, he did ceremoniously wave his bottle of newly mined Briggs Creek Gold under my nose. Wow, did it look good! With difficulty I was able to hold the bottle and examine the heavy flakes and small nuggets and hear them rattle in the bottle. I seemed to feel a wave of energy flow from the hands, into my abdomen then towards the feet. Gold Fever again was evident in my weak and wasted body. I was really excited and felt much better.”

Figure 3. Author Tom Bohmker inspecting a lode sample brought in at the gold show.

Future Plans

Bohmker was nearly half-done with a large work tentatively titled Gold Panner's Guide to California's Klamath Mts. before he had to slow down. He told me that he does have another work in progress: “Along with Eddie Humbird (a real good dredger and pocket hunter in John Day) we may come out with Gold Panner's Guide to Eastern Oregon soon.” It would be a quick, short work, but he still has many mining stories he hopes to get written down.

I asked Tom one of those Robert Service-type questions – was he happier working a single area continuously, or did he have the wanderlust that kept him searching? “In the past, I enjoyed just working a decent spot,” he admitted. “I spent eight years on one set of claims, including whole summers on a single, 150-foot section that was deep and rich, with plenty of good dredging spots. These were economic mining times, when the scale weight at end of the day or week was very important. However, at times I have done weeks on surveys of panning under every bridge...In 15 minutes, if I did not have good color I moved on. That was lots of fun! For example, I tried to pan every major gold stream in the Black Hills...Gold weight was not important. It was the adventure of finding color here and there.”

Field Testing the Book

I ‘test-drove’ the Oregon book immediately after leaving the show, dragging a couple helpers out to the Little North Fork of the Santiam River. We followed his directions precisely, and even though the water was still high in late March, we came home with extensive black sand and some decent colors. More importantly, we scouted out camping spots, bedrock, natural riffles, and giant cracks replenished each spring, and just where he said they were. Filing that one away for later in the summer, I immediately began planning a second trip to a spot in the Washington book, just northwest of Mt. St. Helens.

I’d been rockhounding up McCoy Creek several years earlier, searching for perfect little pyrite cubes in a wet clay in the banks of the creek. The bushwhack down was a chore, but I put the spot in my book on Washington locales. Later on, GPAA added a claim to their guide, and I was anxious to check it out on a modest, one-day trip. We waited for decent weather, and when the chance finally came, we followed his map all the way in. I knew the water would be far too high to do any decent sampling, so I concentrated on the lode mines he marked.

Figure 4. GPAA claim known as "Mother's Nightmare" is at the end of the arrow for Yellowjacket Creek, and is fed by the lode mines on Camp Creek.

Mining cabin and pyrite-laden drilling cores mark the lode mines that feed McCoy Creek.

Sure enough, I was able to locate the road in and track down the abandoned drilling cores behind the main building. I walked in further and located the caved-in mine entrance, and found further examples of extensive pyrite, chalcopyrite, bornite, and perhaps arsenopyrite. Needless to say, I went home happy. So based on meeting Tom, testing two pages from his books, and reading the republished information he provides for areas he hasn’t visited, I heartily recommend both books covered here.

Tom will be the first to admit he took more science than English in school. His publisher would do well to employ an editor, and some graphics help on the maps is also in order. But the charm of this book easily overcomes the complaints of an old writing teacher or a former geography student. Tom’s writing shines through when he relates stories about the camps, about lone prospectors who persevered or resilient men who overcame countless obstacles. His energy and enthusiasm burst from the pages, and if you’re lucky enough to be exploring a region Tom knows well, get your order in. It would be best if you could personally take Tom along, but having his book is a darned good substitute.

Garret Romaine is the author of Gem Trails of Oregon, Gem Trails of Washington, and Rockhounding Idaho. He has contributed as a columnist to GPAA Magazine for 15 years. You can find him on Facebook or email him at gromaine3@comcast.net.

Book Review: Massacred for Gold

By Garret Romaine

On a thoroughly misguided hike outside of Elk City, Idaho in 1997, trying to trace Nugget Creek to its confluence with Newsome Creek, my team ran into massive piles of timber across the trail and became, well, confused. We spent the better part of a night concerned that we were lost in the wilderness, but as the sun came up, we stumbled into signs of civilization. Walls of rocks were stacked neatly into cubicles and apartments, and it was quickly evident that we were walking through a very old Chinese gold mining camp. In another ten minutes we were in a clear-cut, and we easily followed the skid road to pavement, and then camp. Crisis averted.

Most modern prospectors are aware of the impact Chinese miners had in the last part of the 19th century. I’ve seen “China Diggins” on topo maps probably a half-dozen times, and in my field excursions, I’ve seen stacked rocks in neat piles. I’ve learned not to count on panning much more than black sand anywhere there were Chinese miners for extended periods of time, because they were patient and thorough. They had to be – they couldn’t legally own claims, so all they got were leftovers, and they faced discrimination wherever they had success.

All that serves as an introduction to a new book by R. Gregory Nokes, a former reporter for the Portland Oregonian. Nokes stumbled onto a detective story straight out of the wild west that should bring a bit of sadness to every gold prospector. His book, “Massacred For Gold,” is the story of a large company of Chinese miners who labored in the depths of Hells Canyon, where the Snake River cuts like a knife between Oregon and Washington. About 34 miners, divided into three teams, worked several coves and gravel bars along the Snake about 35 miles from the town of Imnaha, Oregon. Unfortunately, these canyons also housed a ruthless gang of horse thieves and cattle rustlers, and when the cowboys saw the Chinese miners, the temptation to rob and murder the foreigners was too much to resist.

“[the] crew uncovered a rich deposit of nuggets and heavy gold flakes along the river bank. Tucker speculated that, centuries earlier, the river had cut through a vein of gold-bearing quartz somewhere upstream and that the gold had lodged in the crevices of the bedrock where the miners found it. He didn’t say how he knew all this. But, if he was right, the Chinese scored a major strike, yielding more than the typical find of tiny particles, called flour gold. It would explain why the Chinese mined in the cove for the next eight months. However much they did find, it cost them their lives.” (p. 16)

Accounts of the actual massacre are sketchy, conflicting, and painful:

From a local newspaper account written 40 years later: “They left one to hold the horses and another as a lookout above the camp to warn of anyone coming down the river. Another was sent below the camp to warn of anyone approaching from below. Then the other three took a position on the hillside above the camp and with high-powered rifles began the slaughter of thirty-one innocent and defenseless Chinese whose only weapon of defense was 22-caliber rifle. The rifles barked and one by one the Chinamen were shot down like sheep killing dogs. They killed all but one until their ammunition ran out and when he started to flee in a boat, they had to run after him and finish him off with rocks.” (p. 40)

The bottom line was that several young white men used rifles to gun down the Chinese miners, one by one. There were signs of torture, too, as bodies began to pile up on downstream sand bars, or float past the town of Lewiston, Idaho, 65 miles away. But there was little outrage; massacres of Chinese laborers were somewhat common in the west.

Downtown Imnaha, Oregon, circa 2008. This is the nearest town to the massacre site.

Nokes does an excellent job of pulling together a story about western gold rushes, Chinese customs, and community values. Here’s his description of the town of Lewiston, Idaho, as it grew around the gold rushes nearby:

“Prior to the discovery of gold nearby, there was no such place as Lewiston. But when gold was found along the Clearwater River in 1860 and 1861 – near what is now Pierce, Idaho – it ignited an overnight gold rush, creating the need for a centrally located town to supply the thousands of miners pouring into the region….By mid-decade, however, the boom had run its course. Caucasian miners had scooped up most of the easily mined gold from claims along the Clearwater and its tributaries, then departed in droves for new and more promising gold strikes in southern Idaho…When the Chinese first arrived, the white miners viewed them as unwanted intruders. Even the possibility of Chinese competition alarmed Caucasians. To keep the gold for themselves, the miners organized whites-only mining districts. Typical was an edict from the Oro Fino mining district on April 14, 1861, which affirmed “the complete exclusion of the Chinese and Asiatic races and the South Pacific Ocean Islanders from the mines.” Similar bans were enacted by miners in nearby Warren, Nez Perce, and Salmon River mining districts.” (p. 30-31)

Without spoiling the ending, it’s common knowledge that the murder of a Chinese laborer was rarely punished. At the time, as Nokes documents, there were several similar attacks, including a riot in Wyoming and the rumored detonation of an entire mine by an owner who couldn’t afford to meet payroll for 130 Chinese miners. The most that could happen to a drunken cowboy for shooting a hapless Chinamen outside the local saloon was a $20 fine for discharging a firearm in public. One problem back then was an economic environment that turned quickly negative when the railroad construction boom petered out:

“Within a decade, however, circumstances changed dramatically. Tens of thousands of workers, both Chinese and Caucasian, were laid off during the financial panic of 1873 and the long recession that followed. What had been a labor shortage turned into a glut, and workers were thrown into a fierce and sometimes violent competition for scarce jobs. Whites were enraged that some employers preferred to hire Chinese, caring more about low wages and work habits than skin color.” (p. 35)

So, what could entice a band of foreign-born miners to travel so far from home, in a hostile land, to work so hard? Nokes explains the history of China at the time, and shows how economic conditions and the promise of rich finds was as powerful for poor Chinese laborers as it is today. Stories of fabulous wealth in California had trickled back to China since 1849, and over the course of four decades, there were enough success stories in America to continue pulling Chinese workers across the Pacific.

“The Chinese knew from their earlier experiences in California that after impatient Caucasians had mined the most accessible gold, they would be only too happy to sell their claims to the Chinese, or simply abandon them. That is indeed what happened. Once Chinese could move into the mining camps and work the old claims, they soon outnumbered Caucasians in mining towns throughout the region.” (p.31)

Rugged topography of the area near Hells Canyon features basalt flows and imposing cliffs.

By tirelessly tracking down court documents, interviewing surviving family members, locating cemetery and census records, and squinting at microfiche records from the time, Nokes pieced together not only the history of Chinese miners in the west, but also manages to explain, but not condone, how a community could harbor such murderers in its midst. He correlates the treatment of Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce Indians with the treatment of the Chinese, and deftly inserts himself into the story to keep it moving along. The result is an excellent book, with a kind of headlong momentum toward closure that always appears tantalizingly close, but like justice itself, never quite arrives.

I appreciated the numerous references to gold mining, buried treasure, and the history of the west. It isn’t clear to historians if the entire gold cache gleaned by the Chinese was ever completely recovered. There are all kinds of false leads, rumors, and legends surrounding what the Chinese recovered, but there are no definitive totals. Did the Chinese store all their gold in a single sack, or did each miner have his own stash? Did the robbers get a chance to split up their loot, or did the gang’s leader hide the ill-gotten gains by himself and dig it up later? Even Harland Horner’s history of Wallowa County, taken from a 1925 article of the Chieftain, which Nokes recounts, isn’t definitive:

“…Although several thousand dollars in gold dust were found by the murderers, much of the treasure was never unearthed. Each apparently had a cache of his own, and thirty hiding places are difficult to find. Twenty years after the tragedy a sheep herder found a small rusty baking powder can which had been washed out of a sand bank by the action of water. Curiosity impelled him to pick it up and he was started to find it contained gold dust. The battered can yielded more than six hundred dollars worth of dust. The little hoard had cost a life.” (p.18)

But I also appreciated the telling of a sad story, the necessary righting of a long-time wrong, and how, at long last, a public monument may come to be erected at the lonely site of the massacre. Nokes brings to life not only the misfits who committed the dirty deed, but also explores the motivations behind a luckless band of foreign miners, toiling so hard, so far from home. He exposes the community members who helped bury the truth and hide official records, and turned a murder-mystery into a detective story with ease.

It’s hard not to be angered by the entire story, and it would have been easy for Nokes to fall heavily on the side of moral outrage and advance straight to lecturing. But he repeatedly falls back on his training as an objective journalist to stay balanced. This is about as close as he comes to condemnation:

“The Chinese contribution to the development of the American West was substantial. But their efforts won them scant praise and little recognition – they didn’t fit neatly into the popular narrative of the conquest of the West by courageous white pioneers and gun-toting cowboys.” (p. 34)

In the end, it’s a tale that needed telling, and Nokes was the right man for the job.