Cooper: Dredging up the past

At first glance it looked like a Mississippi paddle wheeler that beached itself on the river bank like a dying whale. On closer inspection, it took on the look of an enormous mechanical replica of a prehistoric insect with a protruding tongue equipped with a conveyor belt of buckets capable of non-stop scooping of earth into its stomach. A piece of wood and metal fanned out of the back of the vessel like a bird’s tail at rest.

We drove a short distance from Baker City, Ore., to Sumpter that day to see the final resting place of the “Dredge” on the edge of the Powder River. Sumpter is a small town located in Sumpter Valley at the base of the Elkhorn Mountains.

Our road trips usually are planned by well-read husband who stores details of our country’s history in his mind like some people store copies of National Geographic on shelves for ready access. As always, I am the beneficiary of his interests which had taken us to places on this trip like Weis Rock Shelter known to have been inhabited by humans 8,000 years ago.

The shelter turned out to be a niche in the side of a rock hill but we stood in among the bushes next to a small sign offering some sort of homage to the land’s ancestors.

The best

But among all the points of history we touched on that recent trip, it was the “Dredge” that captured my imagination. The “Dredge” represented, at least to me, everything mankind can do at its best and at its worst. This remarkable feat of engineering could separate minute particles of gold from acres of dirt and rocks.

I can just imagine the challenge and fun the men — yes, men — had in designing a gigantic machine to pan for gold. They built the apparatus around the knowledge that gold weighs more than anything in that 12 ounces of gold equals 16 ounces of anything else. Voila! Gold falls or sifts to the bottom.

One of those very personable park rangers toured and talked us through the mechanics of the marvelous “Dredge.” She explained that those buckets each weighed about a ton and were powerful enough to pull enormous chunks of river bed up into a large cylinder in the body of the vessel as it moved down the river.

The cylinders turned and through a process that involved strategically placed pipes removed more and more dirt and rocks, all those things lighter than gold until only gold remained.

The waste or tons of earth and rocks was then deposited through a metal channel and released behind the boat under the fan like tail not unlike what our bodies organically do when we eat an apple.

The worst

Except, this miracle of man’s invention was not organic nor natural. The “Dredge,” turned the river upside down. The monster gold panning machine left a trail of piles of gravel. The river and surrounds were displaced without hope of nature ever restoring the river, the river bed and the natural riversides.

All for a few pieces of gold! The “Dredge” was proving itself the teller of many stories as old as time or dirt. Another story involves the men that operated the “Dredge.”

The “Dredge” was so mechanized that its operation only required three men — one who was the pilot, one who was the observer of the internal workings and one whose job it was to dislodge any large boulders that got stuck in the waste channel. He had to run up into the channel as quickly as possible and the observer would shout to the pilot to stop the machinery and flow of gravel.

The machine and men worked long hours with brief breaks, each necessary to the other. The same disruption of man and machine happened if any one of the three men had to use the toilet facility which appeared to be a hole in a board in an enclosed platform that hung over the water. The interdependence and parallels in danger lent a certain symmetry to the workings of both.

The human connection

I understood from the ranger that the work was stable and fairly well paid. Men who worked below, especially those dislodging boulders at their peril, worked to become the pilot, a safer and more pleasant position.

The ranger pointed to a low door opening with a protruding piece of iron and the danger to the men hurrying through in an emergency. She commented, “There was no OSHA (Occupation Safety and Health Administration) then.”

I was surprised to hear a middle-aged woman in the group say, “Yes, people used common sense then.”

A young man with two very young sons agreed, saying, “The good old days. No one told us how to live then.”

The comments broke my reverie about the achievement, the drama, the poignancy and exploitations in the quest for gold. How was it that these two people one or two generations apart would have a world view that suggested workers should fend for themselves and not expect an employer to provide a common sense safe environment?

Silent I would remain even in the last part of our tour when the ranger asked us all, especially the two young boys to step back. She wanted us to hear a small sample of what the three men and the town for that matter heard all day into the night. She turned a small cylinder full of rocks over several times.

We all winced at the loud grinding and clanging and the small boys covered their ears. My husband said as a matter of fact, perhaps common sense, “They went deaf.” The ranger reminded us that there was no OSHA then and told us most of the “Dredge” men were deaf by their 50s if not earlier.

The “Dredge” dug its last in 1954 after 41 years of service. The cost of labor, new technology, OSHA, environmental regulations, and who knows what else put the majestic machine created by men to rest.

RIP “Dredge.” You are part of the good old days.

Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at