|Cornucopia Ghost Town|
|We thank The Caxton Printers, Ltd, in Caldwell, Idaho for permission to reprint Chapter 19 from Mile's F.Potter's Oregon's Golden Years, the chapter on the rise and demise of Cornucopia, Oregon as a gold mining center.
The famous Cornucopia Mine Group--the "horn of plenty"--started operations several years after most of the big lode mines beyond the Cascade Mountains had closed down--something of a denouement to the great rushes of eastern Oregon.
The Cornucopia Mountains are located twelve miles west of Halfway in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. A man named Lon Simmons was among the first to discover gold in the Cornucopias in the early 1880s. Almost before he drove his last stake the mountain was crawling with men. Many prospects were made and several small producers were established, but the big mines in the area were the Union- Companion, the Last Chance, Queen of the West, and the Red Jacket.
The Last Chance was known as a pocket mine. The Union-Companion was the heavy producer reported to be on the mother lode. Because of the remoteness, poor transportation, and outdated equipment, mining was slow for a number of years. As late as the 1920s, horses were still used to haul the heavy ore wagons. Before the branch railroad came to Robinette on the Snake River, it took three days for a wagon to reach Baker.
With arrival of the railroad, electricity, and the pneumatic drill, things began to pick up. The mines were electrified in 1922 when a twenty-stamp mill was installed. It crushed sixty tons of ore a day. The stamps were like great hammers. They weighed from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds and were raised mechanically and alternately dropped, crushing the rock so the pulverized ore could go to a chemical treatment plant where the gold was extracted.
In 1894 the Union-Companion sold for $800. In 1895 it sold again, this time for $60,000. In 1897 the mine produced $200,000, and in 1899 production reached $287,000. Later the mine sold for $700,000.
The Copia mines employed 700 men duri ng the early 1900s. The Union-Companion operated from 1884 to 1941 with a shutdown of only three years, 1927 to 1930. This group was rated among the six big mines in the United States, with thirty-six miles of tunn els. Early methods recovered only about sixty-five percent of the values. It was not until late years that fine grinding and a cyanide process saved up to ninety percent.
During the years the mines operated, the price of gold ranged from $20.67 to $35.00 a troy ounce. The total production has been reported as high as $20,000,000.
Old-timers tell of the so-called "high graders" who worked there and about the chunks of almost pure gold that found their way into boot tops and open shirts — a common practice in the early mines.
Men of many nationalities worked in the Copia mines; among them were a number of Cornishmen, known as “Cousin-Jacks.” They were fine miners, having learned the trade in their home country. They were full of fun and sometimes full of beer, for they preferred it to hard liquor. When it came to high-grading, the Cousin-Jacks were at the head of the class. They even dusted it into their hair and panned it out later. When they had made their stake it would be "So long, boys,” and they were on their way back home.
Cornucopia was isolated from the outside world, due to its remoteness and the bad roads. Because of this, the miners stayed at home, creating their own fun. The Saturday night dances were always popular. Chris Schneider, who has lived in Copia for eighty years, used to play the fiddle, with his sister on piano and his nephew on drums. The Cornish miners loved to dance. They also loved fancy clothes, and their Prince Alberts and swallowtails would fly as they whirled the girls to Sally Goodin or Ragtime Annie.
As in other mining camps, Christmas and the Fourth of July were the important holidays. Labor Day was not recognized in Oregon until 1887. After that, Labor Day was the holiday for miners.
A shift in the early-day mines was ten hours; it was twelve hours in the mill. move one way and then Everyone worked seven days a week, so holidays were well-earned. On Labor Day, Copia was jammed with miners, ranchers, miliworkers, and townspeople. By city ordinance, the saloons could serve nothing stronger than beer. That didn’t bother the boys at all, for from somewhere back in the hills would come a bottled elixir of pure Pine Creek water mixed with corn squeezins, known locally as "tangle leg." A few drops would turn a pine squirrel into a screaming panther. Yet for the most part it was good clean fun, settled with bare fists and an occasional pick handle.
The Labor Day picnic lasted most of the day, followed by various contests. The tug-of-war was exciting, and much betting was carried on. There were seven men on each side, standing on two planks placed end-to-end. Cleats were spiked to the planks for good footing. teams began to pull against each other on a rope. A red ribbon tied to the center of the rope was closely watched. Slowly it would the other as the contestants' faces grew red and veins stood out on their necks and forearms until one team gave out. Amusements were few in those days, but one and all made the most of it.
Cornucopia was really two towns, the old and the new, the result oftwo different mining companies operations. The old town was started around 1885 and had two general stores, a hotel, post office, two saloons, and a school with sixty-five pupils. The new town, about a quarter of a mile away, boasted the usual mixture of saloons, boardinghouses, and stores. School was held in an old saloon building.
Today Cornucopia would be a ghost town were it not for a few summer homes in the area. The population in 1940, a year before the mines closed down, was 350. By 1950 only Chris Schneider and his wife remained. They are there today. Chris served several terms as mayor--a title he still holds. They are hospitable people, and they patiently answer the endless questions put to them by vacationers in the summer season.
Both the town and its fabulous gold are on the west slope of Pine Creek Canyon, north of Halfway in Baker County. From the old town site one can see the Queen of the West and the Last Chance mines perched at an elevation of 7,000 feet on the sides of the Cornucopia Granites, where the winter snows are about seventy-five inches deep.
Dr. Waldemar Lindgren, working for the U.S. Geological Survey, stated in his report to the government in 1901:
I have never been in any mining country which I consider more promising or as having a brighter future than that of eastern Oregon. I find the mines running ten to twenty stamps which could just as well be operating fifty. They would not then be able to exhaust the ore during this or the coming generation.His report proved correct; the Cornucopia mines operated longer than any in Oregon. As late as 1938 the Oregon Mining Journal stated production had reached $750,000 up to November 1 of that year and from 1930 to 1938 totaled $3,000,000. Apparently there was no evidence of a slow down, yet during World War II our government did what time, depressions, and the elements could not do. The War Production Board’s Administrative Order L-208, designed to stop the mining of noncritical metals during the war, brought a stop to all gold mining. This act caused the downfall of the Copia mines. When the war was over, deterioration within the mines, coupled with rising costs of material and higher wages, made it unprofitable to reopen.
Today, should you take the time to climb the mountain to these great mines, you can feel the silence around the darkened tunnels with their rotting timbers--the rusty ore carts standing empty on tracks that disappear into darkness. You will find yourself with strange thoughts. Before you is the evidence of over fifty years of labor--thousands of man-hours needed to build thirty-six miles of tunnels, and shafts hundreds of feet deep, dug by men into solid rock.
A short while ago the assets of the bankrupt Cornucopia Mining Company sold under the hammer for $11,100. In 1938 experts estimated that only twenty percent of the potential ore body had been extracted from the mines. A little arithmetic points to the fact that the new owner got a real bargain. If twenty percent represents $20,000,000 the remaining eighty percent represents a big profit on an $11,000 gamble. Estimates can be deceiving, but I can't think of a safer place to keep S80,000,000--under nature’s lock and key, free from taxes, deep in underground vaults. Let’s call it "The Bank of Cornucopia"--the horn of plenty.