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Ill-starred gold-mining venture worked out well for Tarzan fans

Had Edgar Rice Burroughs and his brothers been successful with their Snake River gold dredge, Ed likely would never have had the time or inspiration to start writing “John Carter of Mars,” “At the Earth's Core” and “Tarzan” books.

The historic Gold Dredge No. 3 on Cracker Creek in Sumpter still sits in the shallow water in which it operated, and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Image: Doug Geisler Photography)

In 1903, in a little mining town on the Snake River just across the border from Idaho, native Chicagoans Edgar and Emma Burroughs were stepping off the freight wagon that had brought them to their new Oregon home.

The Burroughses didn’t fit the stereotype of greenhorn gold miners, but technically, that’s exactly what they were. Edgar was the younger brother of George and Harry Burroughs, prominent ranchers in the Pocatello area of southern Idaho and partners in the Sweetser-Burroughs Mining Company. And Edgar was there to manage the company’s newest venture: a gold dredge that would work the Snake River on the border between the two states.

Edgar was a bit different from his two older brothers, who were sober and successful Yale graduates. Edgar was the baby of the family, and over the years since he’d left home, he’d been a bit flighty, never seeming to be able to settle down and commit to anything.

Chances are that had a lot to do with something that had happened to him when he was just 16 years old: He'd spent the summer of 1891 working as a cowboy.

With boots, chaps, spurs and cuffs. Riding and roping, driving cattle, sleeping under the stars — the whole bit.

Edgar got this life-changing opportunity courtesy of his older brother George. George, after graduating from Yale, had gone to work in their father’s battery factory in Chicago. But soon he'd developed a chronic cough that doctors worried might be tuberculosis. He needed to move someplace dry, they said.

Edgar Rice Burroughs as he appeared around the time he and Emma lived in Oregon. (Image: tarzan.org)

So George had moved out to the Pocatello area, bought a spread, and gone into the cattle business with brother Harry, also a Yalie. And, of course, young Edgar hadn’t been doing anything else for the summer … so, off he'd gone to help.

He'd had the time of his life there. Riding and roping under the clear Northwest sky, he'd experienced a kind of freedom that, once tasted, is never forgotten: the romantic life of the young, carefree Western cowboy.

Now picture that happy, suntanned teenager, the week after summer vacation ends, bending his weary eyes by candlelight to yet another boring algebra equation. You see the problem here, right?

That short, glorious summer had pretty much ruined Edgar for school. Edgar, although quite bright and already showing the razor-sharp wit that would characterize him throughout adulthood, had not been a very diligent student even before his Western idyll. Afterward, it would take all the discipline and rigor of a military academy to get him through high school, and even that would be no easy (or brief) thing.

Consequently, Edgar hadn’t followed in his brothers’ footsteps as a Yale man. After high school, he’d joined the U.S. Cavalry, been booted out after being mistakenly diagnosed with a heart condition by a drunken Army doctor, and set himself to find his place in the world of business and commerce. That had been in 1896.

A flyer produced for the celebration of Edgar Rice Burroughs as First Citizen of Tarzana, Calif., in 1969. Tarzana is today a neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Image: tarzan.org)

Now, six years later, as he arrived in that little Oregon mining town, he could count only one true success in his life after high school: He had convinced his childhood sweetheart to take a chance on him. Most likely she was, at that particular moment, regretting doing so: Idaho was a long way from her home in upper-middle-class Chicago, and conditions were very primitive.

As for Edgar, like so many newcomers to Oregon around the turn of the 20th century, he had much to learn about the ways of Oregon’s notorious “sporting men.”

“We arrived on a freight wagon, with a collie dog and $40,” he wrote in his autobiography, years later. “Forty dollars did not seem like much to get anywhere with, so I decided to enter a poker game at a local saloon and run my capital up to several hundred dollars during the night. When I returned at midnight to the room we had rented, we still had the collie dog.”

Oh, yes, you know they saw him coming. But really, he should have known better. Burroughs had, by this time, spent enough time around his brothers’ Idaho cattle ranch to know the chances of a stranger finding an honest card game in the Snake River gold country were slim as a frog’s hair.

Edgar settled in and got busy managing the gold dredge, and it made a little money. It was a classic bucket-line dredge, similar to the one that operated in Sumpter — looking rather like a small riverboat. It floated on shallow water while the "bucket line" — a great huge boom with a conveyer chain running around it tipped with excavator buckets — scooped silt and gravel up from the bottom, screening and centrifuging out the flour gold, and spitting heaps of waste out the back.

The problem was, it kept scooping up boulders, which had to be laboriously cleared away, and there just wasn’t enough “flour gold” in the riverbed to justify its continued operations. Within about six months, the venture was abandoned.

(By the way, these bucket-line dredges were completely different from the modern suction dredges used by gold miners today. A suction dredge is like a Shop-Vac on a boat, and a diver guides the suction hose into individual cracks and crevices in the river bottom; its environmental impact, when used properly, is negligible. The old bucket-line dredges, by contrast, were basically giant floating chainsaws with backhoe scoops instead of cutting teeth. They were incredibly destructive, and the scars and tailing piles they left on the valley floors of Eastern Oregon in places like Sumpter can still be seen today.)

After their gold-mining venture failed, Frank and George went back to cattle ranching, and pulled a few strings to get their baby brother a job as a railroad bull for the Oregon Short Line Railroad at its Salt Lake City yard. Edgar and Emma went, probably happy to get back to a more civilized sort of place; they never came back to Oregon — not to live, at any rate.

Edgar Rice Burroughs would go on to try maybe a dozen different things over the following eight years, each one of which he hoped would make him a successful businessman. Nothing worked out. He bounced from venture to venture and job to job, feeling increasingly discouraged, but he never gave up. Finally, in 1911, while working for a going-nowhere pencil-sharpener manufacturer, he started writing crazy stories to submit to the fiction magazines, and a few months later he was cashing a check from Munsey’s All-Story Magazine for $400 — about a half-penny a word — for his first novel.

That novel was titled “A Princess of Mars,” and it was the first book in the long-lived and much-loved John Carter of Mars series. And, two years later, he wrote the novel that would make his name and his fortune: a little yarn about an unrecognized English lord growing up in the African jungle, titled “Tarzan of the Apes.” You have perhaps heard of it?

(Sources: Fenton, Robert W. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan. New York: McFarland, 2003; Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man who Created Tarzan. New York: Ballantine, 1975. “The Edgar Rice Burroughs Idaho connection,” ERBzine, erbzine.com, v. 3650)

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