Ghosts Of The Goldrush
In January of 1852, mule-packers John Poole and James Cluggage, owners of ‘Jackass Freight,’ were carrying supplies from the Willamette Valley to Sacramento, California. They stopped to camp near what is now Jacksonville, and, while digging for water, struck gold. The men quickly staked a claim on the land in what turned out to be the biggest gold discovery in the state. When word got out, miners from all over the country headed toward southern Oregon to make their fortune. With the miners came saloons, post offices, wives and children. Towns sprang up all over the region. Their legacy lives on in places like Jacksonville and Grants Pass, but many towns weren’t so lucky. They either disappeared fast or slowly faded, leaving nothing but some broken down buildings and a few graves to mark their existence.
A visit to Southern Oregon’s two ghost towns, Golden and Buncom, and a couple of haunting side trips, were inspired by my 8 and 10-year old sons’ curiosity about this region’s rich gold-mining history. Their vision of the gold rush consisted of rangy, hard-bitten miners digging gleaming nuggets from the wall of a cave with their picks, protecting their claims with six-shooters, and riding horses into the sunset. I suggested we do some research for a little reality check.
Through the library and the Internet, we found stories about the nearby ghost towns of Golden and Buncom. When the boys saw the word “ghost” they got crazy excited, their eyes lighting up even brighter than when they heard the word “gold.” I explained that a ghost town is not the phantasmic amusement park they were imagining, but an abandoned town with a few empty buildings. They didn’t care. In short order, their backpacks were loaded with necessary ghost-busting tools such as Nerf guns, salt shakers, dream catchers, and (because we had no holy water) iced tea. Old empty buildings filled with ghosts, here we come.
We headed first to Golden, which is north of Grants Pass, a few miles east of the town of Wolf Creek. From Ashland take Interstate 5 North to exit 76, turn right onto Coyote Creek Road and follow the signs to Golden. It’s a lovely and winding 3.5 mile drive through a lush forest.
Golden is an Oregon State Heritage Site, so it’s clearly marked and the area is well-maintained. Although we visited on a sunny day, recent rains had left the air thick and piney. Rolling down the windows, we could practically taste the breeze. We were so wrapped up in the greenness of everything that we almost drove right past the town. That’s part of the beauty of ghost towns. There’s no big shift in the scenery, no sudden increase in traffic, no strip malls and no noise.
On the left-hand side of the road sit a few aged, brown, clapboard buildings. There’s a small church, a general store that also once housed the post office, and a carriage house that used to be part of a larger residence. Near the church, a sign board explains that the town was established in 1890 by the Reverend William Ruble and provides a very brief history of gold-mining activity in the area. At its high point, over 100 miners and their families called Golden home.
Visitors are free to walk around and explore. Near the back of an open field sit the carriage house and outhouse, all that is left of the Ruble home. Rusted-out wagon frames are another reminder of how very different life was a century ago. Oddly, there is still a homey feeling about the place. It’s easy to imagine miners’ children collecting flowers or playing tag in the meadow, which is a nice place for a picnic if the weather allows.
The most iconic old-West building is the general store/post office. Built in 1904, it has yet to undergo much visible restoration and it looks its age. It also has the most character. Even though the walls are sagging, its tall façade and high wooden steps leading to the door give it an imposing look relative to the other structures. While one can’t go inside, there are photos of the townspeople taped to the window: gaunt miners, tired-eyed wives, and bubbly children. There is also a photo of earlier Chinese settlers, many of whom were run out of the area by competing white miners in the late 1850’s.
Golden was famous for having two churches and no saloon, which was quite unusual for a mining town. Miners who wanted to party had to walk or ride horses about 20 miles to Placer on Grave Creek. The Reverend Ruble and his wife Ruth were fiercely religious and kept strict order in the town. When Wolf Creek opened its dance hall just 4 miles away, the devout residents of Golden were said to picket the place and “pray away the devil.”
During the day, visitors can enter the one tiny church that is still standing. At the entrance are photos of the stern-faced, grey-haired Reverend Ruble and his equally grim-looking wife, as well as their children and townspeople. While the church itself is adorable, the musty air inside and the large antique photos, taken well before folks were told to “say cheese,” give it a spooky air. My kids swore they loved the place, but ran out after a brief look at the pictures. I liked the photos. They offer a strong sense of time, place and culture, a reminder of how different and how similar family life was back then.
The boys shouted with excitement when they discovered the small cemetery next to the church. At last, maybe there’d be a ghost sighting. Unfortunately, they had no such luck. There are a few genuine grave markers, but the crumbling, wooden markers tipping into the ground, the ones that seemed truly historic and haunted, were actually, we found out later, leftover props from an old filming of the TV series “Gunsmoke.”
According to the historical society’s sign board, gold prospectors had been sluice mining (using large metal boxes to sift the gold out of the water channels) Coyote Creek as early as 1850, but many abandoned their claims during the Idaho gold rush a decade later. Chinese miners took over the claims and worked the creek. Later, the white settlers returned, ran off the Chinese and re-took the claims. The sign doesn’t go into detail, but my later research found this peaceful little area has a history of rather brutal confrontations between white and Chinese settlers.
Golden’s population started to ramp up in the 1870’s as hydraulic mining (using high pressure jets of water to remove dirt and sediment) became popular. While hydraulic mining brought fast money to the area, it was difficult to mine when water levels were low in the summer. This inspired William Ruble and his brother Schuyler to invent the Ruble Elevator in 1890. With their machine, gravel and large rocks were washed up and over a wooden “elevator.” The heavier gold fell through a screen into a sluice box while the rest was separated and stacked. Their invention was said to move twice as much material using the same amount of water as the usual method. This increased productivity for the Ruble mines and their patented elevator was a commercial success. All this left the Rubles quite well-off by local standards of the time.
The activity was so great in the late 1870’s that the Oregon-California Stage Company detoured to Golden to deliver mail, passengers and goods. By 1906, Golden had a healthy population with 36 children in the school and a busy post office. Coyote Creek was continuously mined well into the mid-1900’s. As the gold dwindled, though, so did the town’s fortunes, and it was finally abandoned sometime in the mid-20th century.
The rise of hydraulic mining also meant faster devastation of the creeks and rivers. Across the road from Golden, restoration efforts are underway for Coyote Creek, which still has not recovered from the effects of hydraulic mining. Following a short path from the road down to the creek, visitors can learn about the restoration and see the blossoming return of many plants and wildlife.
Our visit to Golden didn’t take long, but we came away with a greater sense of the hard-scrabble life of miners and their families. We hopped in the car and headed downhill. While they enjoyed their first visit to a real ghost town, the boys moaned their disappointment that nothing had frightened them. That all changed when we got to Wolf Creek and heard stories of the town’s haunted inn.
Wolf Creek/Wolf Creek Inn and Tavern
From Golden, we retraced our steps down Coyote Creek Road, crossed under the freeway, and turned right onto Old Highway 99. Within moments we arrived in the heart of the tiny town of Wolf Creek. Far from being a ghost town, Wolf Creek is home to more than 1,500 living souls. It’s a nature-loving-history-buff’s paradise, complete with a few ghosts of its own, and boasts a lively mix of rugged independence and old-timey charm.
As we roll into town, two elderly women in floral-print dresses are reading a banner for an upcoming quilt show on one side of the street, and on the other side is a group of about eight guys on Harleys standing outside the Wolf Creek General Store. One of them notices my son hanging out the car window grinning at the motorcycles and he grins back, waving. Outside, it’s pure spring time. Everything is blooming and the trees, wild flowers and tidy gardens make the town look like a colorful patchwork quilt itself.
We had planned to go into the inn first, but the boys dashed toward the Circle of Wolves gift shop next door to hunt for souvenirs. In the shop, we spoke with local Russ Johnson. Johnson has lived in Wolf Creek for 10 years, and he said he was drawn to the town because of its natural beauty and quiet. “I came for the serenity it offers. The people are fantastic. We’re a tight-knit group. We all help each other here, and it’s peaceful. At night, all you can hear is the creek.” said Johnson.
Over the tranquil music of the creek at night, it is rumored that visitors to the Wolf Creek Inn might hear footsteps from an invisible presence. Nancy Johnston, the store’s co-owner said she has heard rumors of ghosts and ghost stories for as long as she can remember. “I did a séance back in the 80’s at the inn. Some people say they saw a ghost, but I didn’t. The séance wasn’t real exciting, but the inn is a nice place,” she added. The boys wanted to hear more about the ghost, so Nancy suggested we speak to the innkeepers for details.
The Wolf Creek Inn was built in 1883 and used as a stage coach stop for those who were traveling between Sacramento and Portland. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as Wolf Creek Tavern, the place is among the best preserved and oldest inns in Oregon. Visitors may see photos of a sign in front of the inn that says “Built in 1857,” but that was a marketing gimmick dreamed up by one of the owners who knew that president Grant had traveled through the town that year. The owner remodeled a room, called it the “presidential suite,” and claimed to have hosted Ulysses S. Grant.
Now owned by the state, the inn is managed by Mark and Margaret Quist. The Quists are warm and generous with their time. They obviously adore the place and are happy to share some stories about it and the famous people who (really) stayed there. There are nine rooms, each with a private bathroom. The largest is Room 9, also known as the Clark Gable Suite. All the unoccupied rooms are open so visitors can tour the place and peek into the rooms. Each has a distinct history and at least one fascinating story about either the room itself or a famous guest who stayed in it.
Considering how tucked away the town is, the list of famous guests is impressive. Legendary Hollywood couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were regular visitors, as was Clark Gable, who liked to visit the area and fish on the Rogue River. Jack London finished his 16th novel, “Valley of the Moon,” here. Other famous visitors include President Rutherford B. Hayes, Orson Welles, Patrick Stewart, Anthony Hopkins, and Robert Redford.
These days, the visitors are often couples looking for a romantic getaway and families seeking to enjoy a unique experience. The place still has a genteel air, with its polished wood floors, beautifully laid tables in the dining room, and even a small ballroom.
Mark Quist reluctantly told me a bit about the inn’s haunted history. “Everyone asks about the ghosts,” said Quist. “I don’t like doing this, but I always get cornered.” Quist said that a number of visitors and staff have claimed to see a young woman in late 1800’s era clothing floating around Room 8; others have heard footfalls or laughter only to find that no one is there. There are also stories of a mysterious little girl seen playing in the ballroom or the gardens outside. Finally, Quist added that, in 2009, a paranormal research group out of Eugene recorded some ghostly audio of a woman’s voice.
Whether the inn is haunted by ghosts or just reminders of a bygone era, it is a gorgeous piece of living history. On our next visit, we plan to stay a little longer and eat in the restaurant, which Russ Johnson said served big portions of delicious food. Maybe we’ll even spend the night and allow time for a morning hike along the thickly wooded trails behind the inn. On this day, however, it was getting late and we had more places to visit.
Next, we went to the Sterlingville Cemetery south of Jacksonville, the only remnant of the dead mining town of Sterlingville.
From Wolf Creek head south on I-5 south toward Grants Pass. Continue on to Medford, then take exit 30 and follow the signs for Highway 238 West to Jacksonville. In downtown Jacksonville, turn right on California Street to stay on 238 toward Ruch and the Applegate valley. About 5 minutes (2.7 miles) out of Jacksonville, turn left on Cady Road. A half-mile farther, hang a right onto Sterling Creek Road and travel for 6.3 miles. You’ll see a dirt road off to your left and a rickety wooden sign with faded white letters, saying “Sterlingville Cemetery 1863.” Enter the cemetery through the metal gate.
There’s a sign inside the gate with a bit of Sterlingville’s history, telling a little of how a whole town sprang up nearby after miners James Sterling and Aaron Davis struck gold in 1854. With the gold miners came boarding houses, saloons, stores, a barbershop and blacksmith. As the gold diminished, so did the township. After the Great Depression, what little business and population were left slowly faded away and nature eventually reclaimed the buildings. Today, the cemetery is the only remaining sign of Sterlingville’s existence.
More than just names and dates, these tombstones tell haunting stories of the difficult and often short lives of the miners, their wives, and especially their children. I was struck by how many died from diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria and typhoid. In some cases entire families were wiped out in a matter of days.
There’s a stone for Pennsylvania prospector George Yaudes and his three children. On May 22, 1884, when his first child died of diphtheria, Yaudes went off to buy a casket, but before he returned home he learned the other two had also died. There’s the stone of a woman who lost 10 children all under the age of five. There are stones for miners who died rich and those who died penniless.
The town of Golden had a museum-like quality about it, and the boys happily ran in the meadow and mugged for their photo-ops. Here, they quietly read the tombstones, walking somberly from one to the next. My oldest takes my hand. There’s no way to romanticize the gold-rush era surrounded by the bones of so many who suffered.
About four miles beyond Sterlingville Cemetery, at the junction of Sterling Creek Road and Little Applegate Road, sits what is left of the town of Buncom.
After the discovery of gold in Jacksonville, hopeful prospectors spread all over the Applegate Valley. By the 1860s, Buncom was something of a Jacksonville suburb. In addition to a few homes, there was a cookhouse, a saloon, post office and general store. As with so many towns, when the gold was mined up, the town’s economy collapsed. Today, only the post office, the store and the cookhouse remain.
Though managed by the Buncom Historical Society, the property on which the buildings sit is owned by Lyn Hennion, who, with her late husband Reeve, created a Buncom Day celebration in 1993 to highlight the history of the area and bring the community together. Each May, with the help of the historical society, people who live nearby celebrate with a parade and festive activities such as a Lion’s club barbecue, lace-making demonstrations, and a chicken-splat contest (yes, that’s exactly what you think it is).
The rustic brown buildings of Buncom are picture perfect, resting among the green and gold hills of the Applegate Valley. The post office is probably in the best condition. Visitors can walk up to the little porch, and even peek inside the bare building. Next door is the country store. It’s a little tippy, but the thick wood siding still looks solid, and it is easy to imagine locals coming in for supplies. On the other side of the road, the cookhouse is shaded by pines and surrounded by wild flowers. As we explored the buildings, lambs grazed with their mothers on the nearby hills.
Little Applegate Road is fairly well-traveled, and a car startled us out of the past as it hurried by on its way toward Jacksonville and modern civilization, reminding us that it was time to head home and get ready for another week full of school and work. Though we’d have liked the quiet Sunday to last forever, it didn’t seem right to complain about math homework and meetings after learning how miners lived and died in the 1800’s.
So, we loaded ourselves into the van, waved goodbye to the lambs, and said thanks and farewell to the ghosts of the gold rush.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer and poet in Ashland, Ore. She is the mother of two constantly hungry and energetic boys. When they are asleep, she writes a literary and event column for the Ashland Daily Tidings.