One of the great lost mine tales of pioneer America, the Lost Blue Bucket Mine has assumed an almost legendary status in the annals of the Old West. Discovered by Oregon-bound emigrants in 1845, the gold-choked canyon has been sought after for over 150 years. It has lured and enticed countless prospectors but its location still remains a mystery today.
What has been termed "Blue Bucket country" comprises more than 40,000 square mines of rugged mountains, canyons, and volcanic plateaus. The area of interest includes most of southeastern Oregon, part of northwestern Nevada, and a slice of southwestern Idaho. It is bounded on the north by the John Day River and on the south by the Black Rock country of Nevada. The rugged mountains near Silver City, Idaho form the eastern boundary while Fort Rock Valley and the Lake region of south-central Oregon make up the western border.
Like most of the great Western tales of lost gold and silver mines, the Blue Bucket story has a number of varying accounts, some of them contradictory. Based on the numerous accounts, researchers have placed the Lost Blue Bucket Mine in the Black Rock country of northwestern Nevada, on the Burnt River of Oregon, on Oregon's Powder River, on the John Day River, near the Malheur River, and just east of the Lake country of south-central Oregon. It is an immense and staggering amount of terrain to cover!
The many accounts of the Blue Bucket discovery all agree on a number of important points. Regardless of the actual location of the gold-filled canyon, all versions of the tale concur on the following details:
It turns out that the only major difference between the various accounts centers around the point of departure from the main Oregon Trail. Of course, the subsequent route used by the emigrants depended entirely on that choice of departure.
One account has the emigrant train turning northwest from the Oregon Trail into the Black Rock country of Nevada. While plodding through a deep and narrow canyon, the children in the train discovered some "pretty pebbles" in the dry stream bed. They collected a few of the samples and stashed them in the blue water buckets carried by each wagon. Only later did they find out that the "pebbles" were nuggets of pure gold.
The Oregon accounts are the most numerous, and indeed most researchers place the Lost Blue Bucket Mine somewhere in Oregon. One account has the emigrant train cutting northwest from the main trail into the Warner Valley of south-central Oregon. Somewhere in this area, the emigrants found themselves crossing a dry stream bed floored with lava. In the cavities and potholes that scored the canyon floor, the emigrants discovered numerous "yellow rocks" which they proceeded to collect. Again, only later did they discover the real nature of those rocks.
Another Oregon account has the emigrant train cutting northwest into the Malheur River country of east-central Oregon. From there, a portion of the emigrant train crossed over to the Little Malheur River, then detoured through the rugged mountains until they encountered the Malheur River, near the mouth of Crane Creek. They ascended one of the forks of Crane Creek, turned southwest, and eventually came out of the mountains near present-day Drewsey. Somewhere along the way they discovered some "pretty yellow rocks" in a dry stream bed. Other Oregon accounts place the discovery further north in the Burnt River country or on the nearby Powder River. Even the John Day River is mentioned in some accounts.
The incredible vastness of the area is simply mind-boggling. It has daunted prospectors and gold-seekers for over 150 years. But there has been no shortage of expeditions in search of the Lost Blue Bucket Mine. During the quarter century following the 1845 discovery of the Blue Bucket Mine, a number of major expeditions were mounted in search of the gold-filled canyon. In 1846, one of the original members of the emigrant train, Dr. Henry Dane, led an expedition from Yreka, California. Their search proved to be fruitless. Then, in 1849, the fabulous California gold deposits were discovered and the Lost Blue Bucket Mine was forgotten.
But interest in the lost mine revived and by the 1860's, prospectors again took up the search. In 1862, Captain Tom Turner led an expedition from the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. The Turner expedition didn't find the Lost Blue Bucket but they did discover gold on the Boise River of Idaho. They traced the gold upstream and stumbled on the fabulous Boise Basin ore deposits. The following year, Michael Jordan led 29 prospectors into the Owyhee Mountains of southwestern Idaho in search of the Lost Blue Bucket. Again, they didn't find the lost mine but did discover gold along Jordon Creek. Thus was the Silver City District born. Today the Lost Blue Bucket Mine remains one of America's great hidden treasures. It will probably always be so.
The vast expanse of mountains, canyons, and volcanic tablelands that makes up the "Blue Bucket country" includes most of southeastern Oregon, northwestern Nevada, and extreme southwestern Idaho. Although comprising nearly 40,000 square miles of area, this immense tract of land has been a backwater region for prospectors and mining activities in general. Lagging behind by nearly a decade, the plateau country north of the Great Basin began yielding its mining secrets during the 1860's.
The first official discovery of gold in what was to become "Blue Bucket country" occurred in eastern Oregon during the summer of 1861. Rich placer deposits were discovered in Griffin Gulch, located just north of present-day Baker. About the same time, placer gold was discovered on Elk Creek and the middle fork of the John Day River. The great eastern gold belt of Oregon had finally been tapped! The 1860's saw rich strikes on Desolation Creek and the north fork of the John Day River and on Dixie Creek, southwest of Greenhorn. Other rich strikes followed including the Cornucopia, Sumpter, and Cracker Creek discoveries. These three districts collectively produced nearly a million ounces of gold.
On the eastern fringe of "Blue Bucket country", the first significant discovery of gold took place in 1863 in the Owyhee Mountains of southwestern Idaho. It was during that year that gold was discovered in the gravels of Jordan Creek. A mining camp called Silver City quickly sprang up around the rich diggings. And rich they were! The district eventually produced some $60 million worth of gold during its lifetime.
On the southern fringe of "Blue Bucket country", the first significant discovery of gold took place in 1870 in the southern foothills of the Pine Forest Range of northwestern Nevada. Located on the northern edge of the Black Rock Desert, the Varyville District supported 2 five-stamp mills for nearly a decade before it succumbed. Located 45 miles southwest of Varyville, the Leadville silver deposits eluded discovery until 1909. Producing both silver and lead, the Leadville District survived until the 1940's. Smaller, more modest deposits of gold and silver were discovered in the Donnelly District and the Deephole or Granite Range District further south.
Although the northern, eastern and southern margins of "Blue Bucket country" harbor rich mineral deposits, the interior is mostly barren. The exceptions are the Mormon Basin District, located 10 miles southeast of Bridgeport and the smaller Malheur District, located 10 miles to the southwest. The Mormon Basin District produced a respectable 235,000 ounces of gold while the Malheur District yielded about 10,000 ounces. Most of this production occurred after 1900.