Background photo: A hand-tinted linen postcard view of Three Sisters from Scott Lake, circa 1920.
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When they reached the John Day River, the water was high and turbulent. Two members of the party started to cut down a tree to make a bridge across it; but the leader, frantic to get to Florence in time to stake a claim, shouted for everyone to follow him and drove his horse full-speed at the river, intending that the animal should plunge in and swim across. But when the horse realized what he had in mind, it slammed on the brakes right at the edge, pitching its rider headlong into the rapids; Aldred, jumping in to save the panicky idiot, nearly drowned himself.
Eventually, the party found itself at the mining town of Auburn, in the general vicinity of Baker City. There they paused at a saloon to slake the trail dust, and while they were doing that, they were told that the Florence diggings were already petering out — the strike had only been a pocket.
Golden dreams die hard, though, especially after one has invested as much money in it as the 60 miners had (both in hard costs, and in opportunity costs; after all, during a gold rush, time is money). The majority of the party was eager to press on to Florence anyway. After all, maybe the rumors were started by miners seeking to keep the competition away. Who knew?
But the rumors introduced enough doubt that Aldred was able to convince 17 members of the party to go back to that quarter-ounce-per-underwear-load creek they’d crossed, at which they’d turned up their noses a week or two earlier.
And so the party split. The main group headed on to Florence and disappointment, and the 17 rebels, led by Aldred, headed back to Canyon Creek.
What they found there must have hit Aldred like a punch in the gut. Both sides of the creek, for miles in both directions, were lined with miners working the diggings with pans. In the few weeks that they’d been racing to Florence, other miners following in their tracks had noticed the promising deposits, and unlike the greedy members of Aldred’s party, they’d stopped to work what was obviously a very rich strike.
Aldred wasn’t able to find any suitable part of the creekbed that hadn’t already been claimed. So he and his 17 fellow travelers turned and backtracked — hoping, no doubt a little desperately, that the same thing hadn’t happened with the strike they’d stumbled across on the following day, the one near John Day.
It hadn’t. When they arrived on the spot, they had it all to themselves. Staking their 18 claims, they got busy ... and got rich.
How rich? Historian Kerby Jackson, in his book The Golden Trail: More Stories from Oregon’s Mining Years, reports, “Some early stories claim that some miners made as much as $2,000 per hour, although this is probably greatly exaggerated.”
Eventually, though, the easy gold was gone, and Aldred’s 17 companions drifted off, following rumors of other strikes around Eastern Oregon and Idaho.
Aldred, though, stuck around. He was still striking color, and he was not, as you will have gathered, the kind of guy who goes chasing after utopian rumors when he’s got his hands on a pretty good thing already. He continued diligently working his claim ... and then one day he found a vein of decomposed quartz, either on his claim or nearby.
Now, decomposed quartz is what miners dream of finding. It’s often full of gold, and because it’s decomposed, it’s easy to crush to retrieve the color. It also often appears in very large veins running across country.
This was a massive vein, running deep into a hillside.
Aldred claimed it, then went around and raised some capital to build a stamp mill to exploit it. This became the famous Prairie Diggins mine; at its height, the mine and mill employed 80 men.