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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

The rowdy-but-golden past of almost-ghost-town Granite

Not long ago, the former gold-mining Blue Mountain boomtown was an incorporated city of one; it's grown 2,800 percent since.

Grand Hotel in Granite, Ore.
The Grand Hotel in downtown Granite during its heyday; the exact date is
unknown. (Photo: Baker County Public Library)

When mayors of incorporated cities start talking about growth, it's hard to beat the story of Steve Smith, mayor of the historic mining town of Granite, Ore. Granite's population has shot up 2,800 percent since 1970.

Of course, in 1970, Granite's population was 1. The population's name was Ote Ford. The mayor's name was Ote Ford. The City Council president's name was -- well, you get the idea.

Ford liked to joke that Granite had a Republican administration. But if Granite's founder could have heard that back when the town was new, he likely would have run down Main Street shooting into the air.

The town’s founder was prospector Jack Long, and he founded the town because his mule got stuck in the mud while packing a big load of whiskey on July 4, 1862. Long pulled the mule out of the mud and found gold dust mixed with the mud on its feet.

Immediately he staked a mining claim there. Within a week, he had company -- a lot of company. And the town sprang up in shockingly short order.

Long wanted to name the town Independence, because it was founded on July 4. It's not clear why this date was special to Long, because the Civil War was on and he, like everyone else in the town, was a Southern Democrat. In fact, there's a story about that, passed on in a 1939 WPA Oregon Folklore Studies interview with old-time Granite resident Mrs. Neil Niven:

In 1864, Long learned from government records that someone in his town had voted for Abraham Lincoln. Suitably fortified with liquor, he stormed through town with a pistol and a knife, accosting everyone he saw. "Did you dare vote for Abraham Lincoln?"

Everyone answered "no," until a man riding by on a horse reined in. "I dared to vote for Lincoln. What are you going to do about it?"

Dead silence fell. A crowd started to gather. Finally Long broke the silence:  "Well, that makes one.  Where's another?"

"I thought you were going to shoot the first black Republican you met, Jack!" yelled someone from in the crowd.

"Well," Long said, "you can't shoot a man on his horse."

Like a lot of old mining towns in the Blue Mountains, Granite was a rough, tough, hard-drinking, hard-fisted kind of place. At its peak, it boasted nearly 5,000 residents, almost all male, almost all miners.
Roughly 3,000 of the residents were Chinese. The Chinese would buy played-out mines and work the tailings over; because they had more skill and patience than the European and American miners, they'd get quite a bit of "color" out of what the Westerners thought was worthless slag. Many a miner, chortling over the money a Chinese man had paid him for a "worthless slag heap," later found that the joke was on him.

When one of the miners would hit a big strike, he sometimes would treat the whole town to a big drunken party. "I remember one time a miner had just made a big strike,"  Niven said in her 1939 interview. "When he brought his bag of (gold) dust in he walked up to the saloon and, while standing at the door, he threw his bag of gold dust across the room and it lit on the bar, breaking the bag and making a big dent in the bar. He yelled ... 'Come on, you mud sluckers, the drink is on me.' It was one of the wildest, wooliest nights Granite ever had."

The party had cooled off quite a bit by World War II, but in 1942 the War Labor Act outlawed gold mining and the town screeched to a demographic stop. The men went off to war or to some home-front effort elsewhere, possibly in the Portland shipyards. After the war was over, few if any came back.

Today, though, Granite is growing. It's a gorgeous mountain town, a little more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Vacationers and elk hunters from elsewhere come and see it, and fall in love with it.

During the summer, hundreds of people crowd the town. But winters are harsh and amenities are few; year-round residence is still just 28.

And it's no longer the smallest incorporated city in Oregon. That honor now goes to nearby Greenhorn -- whose population is zero.

(Sources: Haight, William. Occupational and Social Life of Granite. WPA Federal Writers Project: 1939; Weis, Norman. Ghost Towns of the Northwest. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1971; phone call, Mayor Steve Smith, 2009)