Sumpter Oregon Ghost Town History

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.

Sumpter Oregon Ghost Town History

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 Oregon Ghost Town History

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!

Sumpter Oregon Ghost Town History

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.

Sumpter Oregon Ghost Town History

Pictures were taken over three different trips to Sumpter in the past two years.

5 Responses to “Sumpter Oregon Ghost Town History

  • Very nice blog, thanks for sharing with us! Very nice photos too!

  • i was pretty much raised in sumpter my mom and dad grew up there and met there and have been together every sinse my grandparents (Wayne and Ardis Rogers) had the store for a time and then had a backhoe and dump truck business I remember helping him put the new water lines in replacing the old wooden ones with plastic. Those were the best years of years growing up there.

    • Robert Rogers, I had taken a picture of this building,( brick bldg Souvenirs, Gifts, Trade – with vine growing up the front. ) Was this the General Store? What was this building called?

      • This was originally Basche Co. Hardware. The bldg. with their name can be seen in many of the old photos of Sumpter. I don’t know what all it has been through the years. The south side of the bldg. had a distinct color change in the bricks showing where the fire destroyed a major portion of the bldg in 1917 and then it was rebuilt. When I moved to Sumpter in 1944, It had an old sign painted on it saying, “McPherson” I think it was a butcher shop/grocery store(?). At that time, the interior was set up as a butcher shop with display counter and a cold storage room. In back of the bldg. there was a smoke house for smoking meats. The McPherson family lived there in the 1940’s. Later, the upstairs portion of the bldg was used for dances. In the 40’s, we used it for kids’ parties. In the late 40’s, it was determined that the second floor was unsafe for dances so from then on, dances were held downstairs. The front upper rooms were used as a city hall for several years. Currently, there is some activity with a second- hand store on the bottom floor and a private residence in the front upper portion. In the picture, the wooden stairs on the north side of the bldg contained the stairs to the second floor. Kids used to carve their initials along the board the held up the railing . Many years ago, during a visit to Sumpter, I broke off a section of the board showing my initials and a date of 1947. I still have the board. At some point, the wooden section collapsed and a new structure was built to protect the stairs.

  • “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.” Not exactly true, as there is a huge dredge up on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. It’s pretty much restored and is open to the public. At least it was when i was last there in about 2010. I’ve been through both dredges, they’re similar in size and condition. I love what you’ve got going with this blog, very well done.

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