Oregon Trails: Mining School

By Ron Brown

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Like the recession today, the Great Depression of the 1930’s challenged governments and families to find ways to develop income to pay the bills.

In Southern Oregon, where mineral resources like gold, copper and silver were long known to be plentiful, a unique program was developed to get people off welfare, and put income into state and county coffers.

For more than 20 years now, Michael Cope has been researching the development of mining and mineral resources in Southern Oregon. He says his study shows that southwest Oregon contains a vast amount of untapped mineral wealth still waiting to be recovered. During the Depression, many people with no jobs, but time on their hands, often turned to mining to keep food on the table. And Oregon Governor Charles Martin, an anti-New Deal Democrat with a distaste for welfare programs, decided to establish a mining school in Grants Pass, at the Josephine County Fairgrounds. $25,000 was allocated to launch the “Practical Mining School”.

“The money was spent to create this school to educate people to, according to the articles, to make “bean and bread” to survive during this time,” says Micheal Cope, “It taught geology, assay work, it taught practical hydraulic, which we no longer have. But hardrocking and carpentry, blacksmith – it was all part of the school.”

Governor Martin said he hoped that Grants Pass could become the Denver of Oregon and California. More than 1150 people signed up for the first school.

“Out of those 1,150 people, there was actually I think 830 that actually attended,” explains Cope, “And it was very successful, so they extended it into 1937. I think that’s when it pretty much ended. And it was basically the funding of the WPA program. Kind of like our stimulus package that we have today.”

The mining school appears to have been a state funded extension of another mining school that started locally in 1933, in the depths of the Depression. And once these novice miners had the basics of geology, and the other skills needed, they were encouraged to head out into the hills to seek their fortunes. To help them, the state then offered a 50-dollar grubstake, seed money to get these projects going. It was tied to the formation of the State Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, commonly known as “DOGAMI.”

“There was five duties of DOGAMI, and one of them was to create this grubstake act which was basically fifty dollars given to any citizen in the state of Oregon to go out and prospect to find mineral wealth to be independent in life.”

And not only did it let people have work, it also created an army of prospectors out there identifying the mineral resources of the region.

“Now we’re starting to map Josephine County and to show the wealth that’s contained within this county structure here. So the files were created about Josephine County and reference points to all these mines because of the grubstake act primarily and the Grants Pass vocational mining school,” says Cope.

Newspaper articles from the Grants Pass bulletin chronicle the development of the school and the growth of mining activity in southern Oregon during the depression. Advertisements on these yellowed pages also give an idea of how important mining was during the Depression.

“These 800 people that attended were carpenters, lawyers, doctors, according to the articles of their enrollment. Okay? So, it was a big thing here in Josephine County, number one. But the grubstake act came about because of Governor Martin’s success on having this vocational mining school here, in Josephine County. And the reason why Josephine County was because of the fact, the wealth was here,” explains Cope.

Equipment was used at some of the mines around our area, at least some of the larger mines back during the Depression. But most of them were small operations, using pick and shovel, wheelbarrow, sluice box and gold pan. Most of those mines closed up following the beginning of World War II. And many of them are still closed, holding who knows how much treasure still under the ground.

Many of the Josephine County mine claims that were abandoned at the end of the depression became county property through foreclosure. Those are now administered by the county’s Forestry Department as producing timberlands, and are now returning “green gold” to the county treasury.