An overconfident mountain guide and an errant wagon train in Oregon’s early pioneer days could be credited with sparking one of the greatest gold rushes in American history.
It was prospectors in search of the Blue Bucket Mine who discovered gold in Canyon, Dixie and Griffin creeks in 1862, drawing thousands of people to Canyon City, Prairie City and Auburn in search of riches.
“The Blue Bucket Mine is the most celebrated and publicized mine in the Pacific Northwest in importance,” Canyon City amateur historian Lawrence Roba wrote. “It will even outrank such famous mines as the Lost Dutchmen and Peg-Leg Smith mines of the Southwest.”
Stephen Meek was the younger brother of Joseph Meek, one of Oregon’s founding fathers and the man behind one of the state’s earliest maps. In 1845, perhaps wanting to live up to his brother’s name, Stephen Meek offered to guide 800 people in 200 wagons on a shortcut across the Eastern Oregon wilderness.
Shortly after the party sighted Fremont Peak on the North Fork of the Malheur River, now known as Castle Rock, Meek was surely lost. Members of the wagon train mistook Steens Mountain for the Cascade Range near Bend and Silvies River for Crooked River.
Several people succumbed to bad water or diseases during the trip, and as water became hard to find, lynch mobs formed twice. A few loyal members hid Meek and his wife, who finally left for their own safety.
Meek was gone when members of the wagon train found the now infamous gold nuggets. Gold wouldn’t be discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California for four more years, so not only was nobody in the wagon train expecting to find gold — they wouldn’t know what it was if they saw it.
In one version of the story, three young men went searching for their oxen and brought back 15-20 colored pebbles they had found in a stream. Several “seasoned” men said they were copper. A woman named Fisher kept one pebble but didn’t find out it was gold until after the ‘49ers hit it rich in California.
There are many versions of this discovery story. In one, children looking for berries found the gold nuggets. In another, a blacksmith put a nugget on an iron-rimmed wagon wheel and easily hammered it flat. In other stories, a tool box filled with nuggets was lost when it fell off a wagon during a river crossing.
In one account, children were asked how many pebbles they saw. They said they could easily fill their blue bucket. Each company in the large wagon train painted their buckets, axes, shovels and other tools a different color to keep track of them. The nuggets were discovered by the blue company.
Whether or not gold nuggets were found by members of the Meek Wagon Train, news about their discovery was not made public for several years. More importantly, they didn’t know where they were at the time. The train finally reached The Dalles in October 1845, and most of the settlers continued on to the Willamette Valley.
The word about the gold find was out by 1851 when a party searching for the Lost Immigrant Mine, as it was called then, found evidence of the wagon train on Wagontire Mountain. Three years later, Benjamin Herron, a member of the lost wagon train, led a search party that was driven away by Native Americans.
In 1857, James McBride, another wagon train member, left his home in Yreka, California, and led a search for the creek where the nuggets were found. He returned the next year without success.
Three years later, Nelson Cochran and 50 men reached Wagontire Mountain but were driven off by local tribes. The next year, Jacob Currier returned with 44 men and searched from the Deschutes River to the Malheur River. They reported finding only yellow rocks that “resembled” gold.
That same year, a man named J.L. Adams got into serious trouble when he bragged in Portland that he had found the Lost Immigrant Mine. He put together a party of 58 men, perhaps large enough to fend off attacks, and headed for the Blue Mountains. When it became apparent Adams didn’t know what he was doing, a lynch party formed. But the party ended up giving him the boot and started home. On the way, they hit gold at Griffin’s Gulch, setting off the gold rush near Baker City.
In 1862, Tom Turner led a group out of Willamette Valley to find the lost mine and ended up finding gold instead along the Boise River. The next year, Michael Jordan led 29 men in a search of the Owyhee Mountains in Idaho. They never found the legendary site, but they found gold along Jordan Creek and established the Silver City District.
Stephen Meek himself got gold fever in 1868, leading 30 men on what was later characterized as a “wild goose chase.”
In 1885, a letter in the Oregonian newspaper set off mass speculation. Letter after letter came in with various and new accounts of the lost gold find, which by that time had become known as the Blue Bucket Mine.
In 1890, a prospector named White found the grave of a woman from the lost wagon train who died along the South Fork of the Crooked River. But she had died before the nuggets were found, and he ended up searching in the wrong direction. That led to a gold rush at Rattlesnake Creek. No gold was found, and White disappeared.
Charlie Brown, a Canyon City celebrity and founder of the Grant County Historical Museum, joined a search party in 1897. They found relics they believed came from the lost wagon train between Immigrant and Silver creeks. Decades later, Brown claimed the Blue Bucket Mine was either in Canyon Creek or Spanish Gulch.
The search for the Blue Bucket Mine continued into the 20th century. A group of prospectors from Spokane, Washington, claimed they had discovered the site near Dale in 1936.
Charles Hoffman relied on a detailed daily diary kept by Jesse Harrit, a young cattle driver on the Meek Wagon Train, to guide him on a 1974 expedition that carefully traced the lost wagon train’s route. In his 1992 book, Hoffman said he found the lost site, but a close reading never reveals just where that site is.
Gold rush historians who philosophize about the Blue Bucket Mine have various explanations for its location. Some theories are geographical, naming actual rivers and creeks. Others believe flood waters long ago buried the site with silt, so it will never be found.
And a few suggest a reclusive miner found the site, panned it clean and never said a word to anyone about where his riches came from.