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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Jacksonville: Where gold was cheap and food cost plenty

Hundreds of miles from nearest farm, but just a few yards from nearest mine, Southern Oregon town had so much gold the local bank charged a storage fee instead of paying interest

A postcard image of Table Rock, the mesa after which Table Rock City --
now known as Jacksonville -- was named.

Recently, food prices have been on the rise worldwide, causing riots in third-world countries and worried frowns on the faces of American farmers who’ve invested in ethanol stills.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the experience of one Oregon town that sprang up, about 150 years ago, in the middle of a howling wilderness around a particularly appealing gold discovery.

The town of Jacksonville -- at first known as “Table Rock City” -- sprang up seemingly in seconds in 1851, after a couple freight packers on their way from the California gold fields stopped to try their luck in Jackson Creek.

Their luck, as you’ve no doubt gathered, was very good.

In fact, it was so good that gold dust quickly became Table Rock City’s least important commodity. This was chiefly because you couldn’t eat it. The nearest productive farm was about 100 rugged, craggy, heavily forested miles away, and provisions had to be brought in on ship and stagecoach all the way from San Francisco -- courtesy of, among others, Charlotte “One-Eyed Charlie” Parkhurst. This was a mighty expensive way to git yer vittles, as Charlie might have remarked. In fact, in 1852 -- the year it became the Jackson County seat -- a pound of flour was fetching $1 -- which is just north of 26 bucks in 2007 currency. Salt was trading straight across, pound for pound, with gold dust. And the town’s bank was treating gold like any other valuable commodity being entrusted for safekeeping – by charging a storage fee to deposit it. It was the only bank in the country to reverse the traditional system of paying interest on deposits and actually charge depositors for the convenience of not packing their nuggets around.

The Jacksonville museum, located in what was once the county

The town also was home to Oregon’s first Chinatown, and a couple years ago a highway construction crew digging up Main Street turned up a bunch of artifacts — bowls, teacups, opium pipes — which anthropologists are studying even now at area universities.

Like most boomtowns, Jacksonville wasn’t high on the hog for long. In 1884, after a thirty-year run as southern Oregon’s hottest hot spot, a railroad line was built through nearby Medford, leaving Jacksonville out in the cold. Businesses started migrating closer to the rail line, and the death blow came in 1927 when the county seat was moved to Medford as well.

Unlike many contemporary towns, though, Jacksonville never burned to the ground. In 1966 it was declared a national historic district, and remains a popular place to visit for folks who want to see some Oregon Gold Country history in person.

Today, Jacksonville is about the same size as it was in 1852, when it was one of Oregon’s largest cities: A little more than 2,000 people call it home, and it’s a very popular place to retire. Its glory days were phenomenal, but they’re behind it now.

Or are they? This town, founded on gold, seems to still have the Midas touch when it comes to the Oregon Lottery. Since 2001, three multi-million-dollar jackpots have been claimed by residents of this tiny town — including one whopping $340 million Powerball prize in 2005.

 (Sources: Sullivan, William L. Hiking Oregon’s History. Eugene: Navillus, 2006; www.westernmininghistory.com; www.jacksonvilleoregon.com; www.westegg.com; University of Oregon)