City of Sumpter, Baker County, Oregon

The City of Sumpter

 Sumpter is a mountain city with a population of 140.  It is located 29 miles almost due west of Baker City, but about a thousand feet higher.  It is a city that refused to die.

   Sumpter began as a huddle of crude cabins, but, due to man’s endless search for riches, Sumpter blossomed (1898-1903) into a storybook boom town.  Then the dream bubble burst.  When the anticipated quantity of gold could not be fulfilled, population declined.  A devastating fire raged in 1917.

   But still, Sumpter never gave up.

   Although accounts vary slightly about the naming of Sumpter, researchers have attributed the early beginning to five Confederate soldiers who decided they had had enough war in 1862 and came to seek fortunes of gold.  They built a rough cabin of logs, about half a mile west of Sumpter of today.   The named it Fort Sumter after the South Carolina fort where shooting began in the Civil War.

   While some rationalize that the change in spelling might have been made by a miner who had imbibed to much, the facts may be otherwise.  Alice Warnock received a direct story from the family of Joseph Young, one of the early arrivals to the gold camp and one who became postmaster.  He was directly involved in the naming.

   The name of Fort Sumter was not acceptable to the postal department.  In 1883, the “Fort” was dropped and the “P” added.  Mr. Young was an avid reader of Shakespeare and in the play “King Lear,” he found the word “Sumpter” meaning “a horse that carries provisions for a journey – a pack animal.”

   The name seemed appropriate for a place where hills were dotted with crude mining camps where horses and mules wee a necessity and as a substitute for the “Sumter” sound alike.

   Sumpter lay pretty quiet until the Transcontinental Railroad reached Baker in 1884 and then the town and surrounding area began to “boom.”  The town of Sumpter was platted in 1886, the same year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on Bedloe’s Island.  As the town rushed ahead, like all mining towns of those early days, Sumpter became a “rip-roaring” place.  In 1896, the Sumpter Valley Railroad reached Sumpter, which added to the already growing community.

   On April 5, 1898, Sumpter filed the necessary papers with the County for incorporation and election of officers.  The vote was 132 votes for and 24 against incorporating.  The officers were: Mayor, L.N. Blower; Councilmen, William Stinson, A.W. Ellis, J.J. Horner, W.H. Gleason, W.W. Looney and E.A. Case; Recorder, F.J. Hallock;  Marshall, Peter Carpenter; Treasurer, W.R. Hawley.

   The real activity was in 1899-1903 with the opening of the numerous hard-rock mines and the extensive hydraulic placer mining.

   By now, Sumpter boasted a brick yard, sawmill, smelter, railroad, electric lights, a fine gravity flow water system with reservoir, and a street paved with planks and miles of wooden sidewalks.  There was a race track, baseball and basketball teams, undertaker, several assayers, a brewery, dairy, two cigar factories, an extensive Chinatown, hospital, 16 saloons, livery stables and blacksmith shops.  Also 5 hotels, a clothing store, 3 general stores, a public school with 200 attendance, an opera house, 2 banks, 4 churches, telephone system, newspapers and a fire department.

   By 1901, Sumpter grew to over 3000 people and 81 business establishments.  In 1905-06, the mines began to lose their yield and close down and the area and population began to decline.  The town quieted a great deal; then in 1913, the dredging of the valley commenced, and with the Columbia Mine still in operation, it began to breathe again.  The Columbia Mine stopped mining operations in 1916, leaving No. 1 and No. 2 gold dredges working the valley.

   On Sunday, August 13, 1917, the day began like any other day, but by day’s end the prosperous town was reduced to pole of rubble and ashes by a disastrous fire which consumed virtually the entire business district, plus a great number of homes in 12-block area.

   No. 1 dredge worked the valley until 1924 and No. 2 until 1923.  The Sumpter Valley Dredging Company built the dredge that lays at the edge of Sumpter and it began operation in 1935.

   Because of World War II, it ceased operation 1942 to 1945, then began once again under various ownerships until all dredging of the valley ceased in 1954.  During its heyday, it recovered more than $4.5 million in gold.

   It is said that over $10 million in gold was recovered by the dredging of Sumpter Valley alone.

   During the depression years, Sumpter witnessed the struggle of many people trying to gain the price of a loaf of bread or a few beans by panning for a few flakes of gold along Powder River.  No longer was man seeking riches, but trying to survive.
   In 1937, the Sumpter Valley Railroad terminated passenger service.  The last scheduled run from Bates to Baker was April 11, 1947.  The “Stump Dodger,” as it was called, no longer blew her whistle.

   Would Sumpter become another broken-down Ghost Town?  NEVER!!  On January 30, 1951, the city purchased from the Sumpter Power and Water Company, Inc., all the real estate, personal property, water rights and easements for the sum of $5,000.  A school was erected, using some of the old schoolhouse materials, the balance being sold to the highest bidder.  The Sumpter School at present is under the 5-J District and now stands idle.

   In 1954, the dredge stopped operating.  However, a few of the mines continued to produce, but the population continued to drop.  By 1960, the population was 96.  The two main stabilizing forces for the economy were now slipping away.

   In 1971, construction was started on a new fire station and community hall.  Later, the city office was also moved to this building.  A new charter for the city became effective June 22, 1972, but by the late 70’s the few remaining mines ceased to operate.  Now people had to look outside Sumpter for employment.  Others decided to retire in the peaceful surroundings of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

   Our eyes are now turned to tourism.  We have a lot to offer and plan to take advantage of our heritage.  You can again ride the Sumpter Valle Railroad and, when plans are completed, you will be able to come into the Sumpter Station.  On Mill Street, several of the old buildings have been restored and converted into gift antiques and a shirt shop.  There is an eating place and store.  A new restaurant, with gifts hop, was built several years ago near the city hall.  Flea markets are held three or four times a year between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Sumpter Valley Days Association has a celebration around the Fourth of July.  Crowds of snow enthusiasts and the Snowmobile Club gather for the Winter Carnival.

   Sumpter may never reach the “Queen City” status, but she will never die as long as she has citizens who care.  (Composite from: Elaine Lampro, Mayoress of Sumpter; Brooks Hawley, Historian, Sumpter; and Joe O’Connor, Historian, Baker).

More great Baker County Historic Photos

Sumpter Oregon Homepage

Sumpter Index


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