All that Glitters is Gold

Tom Pepiot shows off one of his latest gold finds. Small flakes aren’t worth as much as a gold nugget, but are more common in the Bohemia Mining District.

Story by Brennon Clark
Photo by Spencer Adrian & Erik Bender

There is a sickness in the Bohemia Mining District. It’s not life threatening, but you can catch it just by seeing a flash of glittering yellow in a riverbed. There is no cure for the illness, and it can make its victims want to spend the rest of their lives sifting through riverbank. It’s called “gold fever.”

In order for Pepiot to search for gold in remote locations such as Sharps Creek, Pepiot must carry his 500-lb dredge in pieces to each location.

In the Calapooya Mountains 35 miles southeast of Cottage Grove, Oregon, vast amounts of money have been yielded in the Bohemia Mining District’s underground caverns. Gold was first discovered in nearby Sharp’s Creek in the mid-1800s, and after the establishment of the Musick Mine in 1891, hundreds of mining claims were staked in the area. The Musick Mine became known as the highest yielding mine of its day, and other mines bearing names such as El Capitan and Tall Timber, sprung up around the site. The lure of gold caused mining companies to buy each other out or merge until World War II, when the government closed all mines that were not producing metal for the war effort. No new mines have been established since the closures, but that doesn’t mean the gold is gone.

Today, prospecting in the Bohemia Mining District has taken on a new look. Gold seekers no longer have to strap on a headlamp to labor with a pick and shovel in search of riches. Rather, Bohemia prospectors unearth the precious metal using placer mining methods such as panning, sluicing, and dredging in an open pit.

Tom Pepiot is a local miner who some say has a nose for gold. He began placer mining in the Bohemia District with his father when he was nine years old, and he’s been seeking gold in the area ever since. Pepiot works for the Oregon Department of Transportation Monday through Friday, but spends his weekends dredging his claim on Sharp’s Creek. “I love coming out here,” says Pepiot, standing in knee-deep water next to his dredge. “I like it much better than my job, but you have to work for the gold you are getting. It’s not easy work.” Placer mining requires water to help separate gold from the surrounding earth in the riverbank. Gold is 19 times heavier than water

and about ten times heavier than sediment. The goal of dredging, Pepiot explains, is to open a hole in the stream’s rock to reveal hidden gold deposits. A dredge consists of small engine that powers a four-inch hose to suck up raw material and shoot it through a sluice box. The sluice box is lined with a grate that allows rocks to pass over, while creating small water “riffles” that cause heavy materials, like gold, to sink into a catch basin. Pepiot’s four-foot-long sluice box rests between two steel pontoons that the dredge floats on. His method is ideal for serious gold seekers because it can process vast amounts of material, although he admits it comes with a hefty price tag. Pepiot says his equipment was paid for with $10,000 in gold he found in the Bohemia District.

Pepiot says the best place to look for gold in a stream is the inside of a curve because the metal’s weight causes it to take the shortest path downstream. He shares the Sharp’s Creek claim with five other people, and it just happens to be the same spot where he first began mining as a child. Much of the gold Pepiot seeks rests a few feet below the surface in the hardpan, which is a compact layer of soil in the riverbed.

His dredge sits on a ledge ten feet above Sharp’s Creek. Before Pepiot can begin dredging, he must lower the small steel barge over the ledge and down to the bank of the creek. When the machine is in position, Pepiot wades into the water and removes big surface rocks around his feet, creating a cavity in the creek bed.

“The water doesn’t seem cold at first, but it gets to you after a while,” he says, donning a full-body wetsuit so he can withstand the water’s temperature during the extraction process. The added protection of the suit allows him to stay in the water for more than an hour. “Even with the wetsuit you can start to see signs of hypothermia if you stay in the water too long,” he says.

Pepiot explains the large rocks around the work area must be removed first because falling rocks could trap or crush him underwater. After removing most of the rocks, he starts on the loose sediment beneath the water with the dredge’s suction hose. The dredging cavity he tears into the rock begins around his shins, but before long the break reaches his knees.

When he can’t see the bottom of the hole any longer, Pepiot grabs a diving mask and submerges himself in the stream. An air respirator attached to the dredge makes it possible for him to work underwater for long periods of time.

He stops emptying the hole when it’s about five feet deep, ready to see if the amount of gold he wants will be produced. Dripping with water, Pepiot begins taking apart the dredge’s sluice box and examines the sandy-looking silt. No big nuggets are found on this day, but those aren’t what he is looking for.

Searching for gold since he was nine, Tom Pepiot has found several different gold nuggets. At almost $1600 an ounce, a gold nugget is rare, but could be worth several hundred dollars.

“The big nuggets are nice and worth a lot of money, but that’s not where the majority of the money is made,” says Pepiot, who once found a quarter-ounce nugget worth approximately $500. “The money is made in small-size finds. It starts to add up because the odds of finding something big like I did are slim,” he says.

Ten minutes pass as Pepiot takes apart the many pieces of his sluice box. He says a woven synthetic material called a miner’s cloth, is used to catch the gold. Other synthetic fabrics line the bottom of the box to help catch the smallest pieces of the precious metal. He carefully scoops what is left in the box into a plastic tub; the sediment looks like nothing more than wet beach sand.

A gold pan is Pepiot’s final step in extracting gold. He takes his time handling the pan, careful not to lose any of the gold he may have found. Submerging the pan half way in the stream, he lets water gently wash in like waves. As each wave washes out, it removes the lighter, less valuable materials. After about ten minutes, Pepiot spots what he has been looking for. The flakes are no bigger than half a grain of rice, but Pepiot is excited and says the dredging cavity he created will work for mining more gold.

Pepiot says he collects six to eight ounces of gold each mining season and gold fever brings him back every year. The price of gold is currently around $1,600 per ounce, which could total as much as $13,000 at the year’s end. Pepiot doesn’t sell his gold, but says he is saving it for retirement. Not everyone who mines in the district is able to retire off the finds, but curious gold seekers trying to strike it rich can purchase a gold pan for around $8.

Jason Humphreys, a Wisconsin native and admitted gold fever victim, took a job as the camp host at Sharp’s Creek Recreation Area this spring. Humphreys says he heard about the gold in Sharp’s Creek and thought he might take a chance. He bought a gold pan, but became discouraged after finding almost no gold during his first attempts. Soon after, a neighboring camper offered Humphreys an opportunity to try mining with a sluice box. Since that day, Humphreys hasn’t looked back.

“It’s funny, you sit there and you pan, and pan, and pan,” says Humphreys, standing on the bank of Sharp’s Creek. “When you see that one little speck of gold it makes it all worth it.”

Panning for gold in Sharps Creek, Clayton Lockard of Cottage Grove hopes to strike it big. A heavy metal, gold panners swirl the river silt and wait for the gold to sink to the bottom of the pan.

As Humphreys moves into the water, he admits the sun is the only thing allowing him to stay in the creek for two hours at a time. As an amateur miner without a full-body wetsuit, Humphreys says the creek’s water is almost too cold to bear.

“It’s just enough to keep you entertained. You need the sun on your back because the water is so cold,” he says with slightly shaking hands. “I’m not finding a whole lot, but some big pieces are enough to keep me interested.”

Thousands of claims are staked in the Bohemia Mining District and searching for gold on a private claim can cause legal problems, but areas of Sharp’s Creek are open to the public. One option for gold seekers is to join the Bohemia Mine Owner’s Association (BMOA). Joining the BMOA for $25 per person or $30 per family each year provides access to eight of the organization’s mining claims.

The BMOA was founded in 1903 at the height of Cottage Grove’s gold rush. When the association was created, it had nearly 2,000 members and its purpose was to help exchange information between miners. More than 100 years later, the BMOA has about 50 members who mine throughout the season.

BMOA President Lyn Perkins says teaching the community about mining is one of the organization’s goals. The culmination of those efforts happens in Cottage Grove each July during a four-day mining heritage celebration known as Bohemia Mining Days.

On the final day of the celebration, a breakfast is held at the original Musick Mine site located at the top of the Bohemia Mining District. Each year droves of people make the 70-mile round-trip journey from Cottage Grove to Sharp’s Creek where Pepiot teaches gold panning lessons on his claim. “Last year we had about 150 people up here during Mining Days. We couldn’t even find parking for them all,” says Pepiot, as he once again readies his pan.

He says some of his observers have accused him of “salting” his pan when teaching them the technique. Salting is placing a mixture of pre-packaged dirt and gold in the pan. Pepiot shows critics how easy it is to find gold at Sharp’s Creek by effortlessly reducing the pan’s material to sand and small rocks one wave of water at a time.

“I know there’s gold out here and sometimes it’s easy to find, you just got to know where to look. I don’t need to salt pans; anyone can find gold in these hills. You just have to put the work in,” says Pepiot, with a smile on his face and a shimmer of gold in his pan.

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