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Oregon Trails: Digging for Gold

Oregon TrailsNEAR CAVE JUNCTION, Ore. — When the first miners began pouring into Southern Oregon in the early 1850’s, they flocked to the creeks and rivers of the Rogue, Illinois and Applegate Valleys armed with little more than dreams and energy and for several years, they grubbed out their fortunes or not in the stream bottoms from the coast to the Cascades.

The pile of rock along an old logging road may not look like much if you’re just driving by, but it’s actually a clue to the existence of what many authorities believe is the first hard rock gold mine in Southern Oregon, maybe in the entire state. It’s known by several names, including the “Enterprise”, the “Gold Back” or the “Cohen” Mine; and it apparently sprang to life in 1860.

“It was mostly placer mining before that time. It was a lot easier […] took a lot less investment,” explained BLM Archeologist Duane Erickson. “You could traveled from stream to stream with your park or your rocker, and make a good living back then. But as those played out, they turned to hard rock mining uh, about 1860. And that took a lot more investment. You had to have dynamite. You had to have some drilling equipment. And it was hard work.”

The Cohen mine was owned by a Jewish German immigrant store owner whose real name was Seligmann Heilner.

“He changed his name to Ed Cohen because he allegedly owed a lot of people a lot of money. One possible source of his name is there was a ship called the S.S. ED COHEN that went around from New York to California during the gold rush. And we don’t know for sure if that’s where he got his name but that’s the name he used. And he stuck with the name Cohen until he was killed in Baker City in 1886, at a gunfight, ironically he was killed by a man named George Israel,” said Erickson.

While he owned the mine, during the Civil War years, Cohen apparently turned to Chinese labor to work the mine, which was unusual, because most white miners did not allow the Chinese to work underground. A persistent story is that when Cohen got behind on the payroll, the miners gathered up the equipment and stashed it deep in the mine, then blew the entrance closed.

“It does match what we know about him leaving town, broke and owing people money. Unfortunately, we only have secondary sources saying that he owed people money and the miners, probably in anger because they weren’t getting paid, which was pretty common back then,” said Erickson. “When the mine was going belly-up, the mine owner would stop coming around, but try to keep them working as long as they could, hoping they’d find something. That is consistent with what we know.”

Erickson says the enterprise mining company, as it was originally called, put in a stamp mill down this hill on Althouse Creek, replacing an earlier Arrastra, near Browntown. This appears to be the remains of the old wagon road down to the mill site.

“In the 1860’s it was described as being–as having several tunnels and 850 feet of diggings, which would have made it the biggest mine in Oregon at the time, by far,” said Erickson. “Most of our mines are very shallow; 50 feet – 70 feet, but the newspaper article from the 1865 Jacksonville Sentinel says they are over 800 feet of tunnel and or cars. So it was a pretty modern mine and they also had a stamp mill at the time, which was the third stamp mill in the state of Oregon. It didn’t last very long, and it was shipped up to Jumpoff Joe Creek.”

There were other problems, and one of them was water in the mine. Before long, the mine was flooded. While it went through other owners and operators in later years, not much is known about its success. Illinois Valley historian Roger Brandt says one account he read was that in the 1980’s the owners drained the mine and did indeed find a lot of old equipment still sitting where it was left decades before.

“Cohen’s mine was one of the first that really, he brought in investors, sold stock, and while there’s a lot of sources out there that say he made a lot of money, his diary says he left town broke, owing a lot of people money. Just like he came to town,” said Erickson.

For more than 150 years, whether it was known as the Enterprise, the Gold Back, or the Cohen Mine, this was one of the legendary mines of Southern Oregon. The first time that miners got out of the creeks and decided to dig into the hillside.