Sumpter Oregon Ghost Town History
Sumpter is most likely one of Oregon’s most famous Ghost Towns. Located in Baker County, roughly 30 miles west of Baker City, these days it’s a small community of just over 200 residents. Part of it’s fame is no doubt to the fact that it’s the only place outside of Alaska that you can see these huge gold dredges.
There were once three of these working the Powder River, this is Dredge #3. The remains of Dredge #2 can be seen on the North side of town in a pond it made, while the remains of Dredge #1 are in a pond about six miles south at what was once McEwen. Besides the tailing piles that line the river and make it look more like a series of ponds these days, one of the first sights in town is a collection of logging and mining equipment on the right side of town.
Sumpter was settled in 1862 by five South Carolinians who found gold here. They decided to stay and named the fledgling town in honor of Fort Sumter, South Carolina who’s attack and capture by Confederate Forces the April before was still in the local newspapers. Lewis L. Mcarthur states in his Oregon Geographic Names “A news item in the Baker dDemocrat-Herald may 3, 1929, says that the immediate reason for selcting the name for the Oregon town was that a local resident found a rock, as perfectly spherical as a cannon ball, and this, along with the name of Fort Sumter in the news, suggested the use of the name. This rock was on display in Baker in 1929.” Does anyone know if this rock is still on display?
By 1874 the town site had grown big enough to need a Post Office. One was opened on June 24th of that year with Joseph D. Young as the Post Master. Unfortunately it was closed October 1st, 1878. This obviously didn’t sit well with locals, because Mr. Young was able to reopen the Post Office on December 13th, 1883. According to his grandson (also relayed by Lewis L. McArthur,) Fredrick Young, he was not allowed to reuse the Sumter spelling. To stay as close as possible to the name though, he was allowed to change it to Sumpter. As the bulk of the town’s supplies were brought in by mule trains he went with Sumpter. Sumpter means a mule or horse that carries baggage.
The Sumpter Valley Railroad was incorporated on August 18, 1890 by the owners of the Oregon Lumber Company to bring logs from the forest to a new sawmill on the south side of Baker City. It didn’t reach the town of Sumpter until October of 1896 and eventually to other nearby towns such as Whitney, Tipton, Austin and Bates. Between the new railroad and the availability of heavy mining equipment, Sumpter rapidly increased it’s population.
At the turn of the century, Sumpter was nicknamed “Queen City” as it was the hub for several other nearby towns, two of which were Bourne and Granite. There were 35 mines in the area that had produced over $9 Million dollars in gold. In addition to the red light district that no self respecting mining town in that era would be without, the town had “Seven hotels, five rooming houses, six restaurants, sixteen saloons, three livery stables, three blacksmith shops, one wagon maker, seven general stores, three newspapers, two drug stores, five cigar stores, one cigar factory, three meat markets, two churches, one brewery, two banks, five assay houses, one express office, four barber shops, two plumbing stores, six law offices, one opera house, one dance hall, one sawmill, three hardware stores, a volunteer fire department, telephone & telegraph offices, an electric light plant, public school, shooting gallery, photographic gallery, one undertaker.” (From Oregon’s Golden Years by Miles Potter)
A 1903 Census showed 3500 registered voters in the area. Note that did not include Women, Children, and the large unknown number of Chinese Laborer’s in the area. The three dredges mentioned before were brought to the area in 1913 and continued to tear up the Powder River all the way up until 1954!
August 13th, 1917 was the downfall of Sumpter. A fire started in the Capitol Hotel. Between the dry summer and the wooden buildings the fire spread quickly. By night fall over 100 buildings on twelve blocks were destroyed. 60 houses were burned down, and 250 people were left homeless. At this point many of the miners up and left as much of the mining had been winding down anyways.
In the 1920’s the railroad started loosing business due to the adoption of the automobile. The line between Prairie City and Bates was closed in 1930. Scheduled passenger service stopped totally in 1937, and the line was completely closed in 1947 except for a small section in Baker City. Luckily though, the rail road between Sumpter and the old town site of McEwen was resurrected by a non-profit. They were able to acquire several cars and two engines, and now run tours along the Powder River during the summer months.
These days Sumpter remains a small out of the way tourist destination. It’s a great place to explore on a long weekend, camp nearby, hike, ski, snow shoe, etc, in the mountains, go bird watching in the dredge ponds along the Powder River, and enjoy the museums.