Ghost towns, like a handful of gold flakes thrown across an assay office table, are sprinkled throughout Okanogan County in North Eastern Washington. Wherever trails crossed, creeks met, gold was found, or a stockman, miner or prospector needed supplies, someone built a cabin. When a second cabin sprang up, the sagebrush between them became Main Street. Down the street rushed a speculator, heading for the county courthouse to file a plat that looked like the beginning of the city of Seattle.
Some mining towns never consisted of more than a cabin or two. Others became a roaring boomtown such as Ruby City. Most were born on gold and silver mining and many bit the dust because of it. By 1910 the Okanogan’s gold and silver boom had been choked off by freight rates and buried in low-grade ore. Its hell-raising boomtowns were abandoned and left deserted to fend off Mother Nature. Homesteaders dismantled false-fronted business places, packing off boards to build cabins of their own; fire, vandalism or Mother Nature destroying other buildings. Most were reclaimed by sagebrush and forests.
In the Okanogan Highlands east of Oroville, Meyers and Mary Ann Creeks flow through pasture and farmland. This was known as the historic Meyers Creek Mining District, which flooded with prospectors when the northern-half of the Colville Indian Reservation was opened up for mineral exploration in 1896.
Where the two creeks met, the town of Chesaw sprang up. The name of the town is unusual. Placer gold was discovered before the turn of the century in the area. The result was a stampede of miners into this mining district. When the miners arrived, to their surprise, they discovered numerous Chinese miners already in the area. One of the most-prominent of the Chinese miners was a former placer miner nicknamed “Chee Saw.” He had a small ranch and store not far from the diggings. The white miners soon began purchasing their supplies from this Chinese merchant. Before long the phrase “Chee Saw” became a byword for fair prices and honest deals, and eventually it evolved into simply “Chesaw” the name which the town bears today.
By the turn of the century the region had become a lodestone for hard rock miners and fantastic discoveries were made. Chesaw quickly developed into a substantial mining boomtown. By 1910 there were forty buildings in Chesaw.
Those were the days when Chesaw was on the rise and the sounds familiar to a mining boomtown could be heard, or the curses and shouts of the miners, the click of poker chips in the saloons where a mine was bought or sold on a handshake deal. There were also noises being made daily as the town gave birth to new buildings.
those years were short lived. The assays simply didn’t carry their values, and one-by-one, most of the mines were abandoned. The result? Chesaw, like so many other hard-luck mining towns, declined.
passing years have taken their toll on the old buildings lining Main Street. Many have slowly disappeared to the elements. The abandoned ranches and the deserted mines are a reminder of those days past when gold was king in the Okanogan Highlands.
Old Molson is eleven miles northwest of Chesaw and one-and-one-half miles from Canada. Founded in 1900, Molson was busily planning a welcome for Okanogan County’s first railroad, the Great Northern, which was being built west from Curlew, when a local farmer, J.H. McDonald, undertook to evict an entire town. He claimed Molson had been developed on his homestead. Wrangling continued for twenty years in the courts.
Unable to obtain deeds to their lots, some of the residents started a New Molson a half-mile away. Seizing up the situation, L.L. Work built a bank in Old Molson on skids. With teams of horses he moved it from place to place on a county road which ran through town, all the while conducting business as usual. Bloody fist fights attended his settling the bank on a downtown lot.
Each night McDonald strung barbed wire around the bank. Each morning Work clipped it open to admit customers. But there could be only one Molson post office. In 1920 New Molson stole it from Old Molson, bodily removing the stamps and mail sacks. This ended the fracas. The surviving Molson of today has very few inhabitants. Old Molson faded away, but its memories of those old glory days still linger on in those old, weather-worn buildings, where the ghosts still refuse to surrender.
Chesaw and Molson were of a later breed than the boomtowns west of the Okanogan River. They erupted in 1886 when Chief Moses’ reservation was opened to settlement. Thousands of miners flocked into the foothills, closely trailed and, at times, were out distanced by saloonkeepers, gamblers and womenfolk. Up went shanties and cabins, the pounding of nails lost under the sullen “thump” of dynamite blasting open mine tunnels past ill-traced deposits of silver ore.
Today, a good county road follows Salmon Creek northward from Okanogan. “Ruby,” or as it was called previous to its incorporation, “Ruby City,” came into existence in the late 1880s. Rich discoveries of silver ore were made in the Okanogan County as prospectors and miners flocked there in large numbers.
Old timers had said that there were ten-to-twenty saloons. Whiskey was a dollar per quart, and it paid to avoid the wooden boardwalk after a drinking bout. Following an uneven hillside, parts of boardwalks were six feet off the ground. Miners poured in from the First Thought, the Arlington, Fourth of July, and the Ruby mines high on Ruby Hill. Gunfights were reportedly a commonplace event in Ruby, its inhabitants, mostly miners, experienced fires, floods, and the fear of marauding Indians on the warpath.
“This is a healthy country; there has not been a natural death in the past twenty-two months,” wrote one Ruby resident, who went on to list three murders, several deaths from mine blasts, an accidental self-shooting, a death by alcohol consumption, Ruby Mill foreman shot to death by robbers, and the demise of a man who rode too long under the hot sun.
Ruby had a natural spring at the north end of town, but not caring for unadulterated water built a brewery there in a cave. Fourth of July celebrations were memorable. The festival of 1890 featured real life bullets kicking up dust among spectators as sheriff’s deputies fired at an Indian suspect trying to escape on a stolen race horse. The horse was killed and the Ruby town council staggered by a $250 bill from its owner, at a time when the municipal treasury contained $14.50.
For eleven healthy months Ruby was the temporary county seat of Okanogan County. The first county treasurer, E.C. Sherman, had more than $14.50 on hand….nearly two thousand dollars, in fact, which for lack of a vault he kept buried in a baking powder can behind his cabin.
In January of 1891 an Indian scare caused Ruby to message the state capital for “troops, arms and ammunition.” Plans were mapped for herding women and children into the Fourth of July Mine Tunnel. Nothing came of this, nor did much come out of the mine tunnel as in 1893 the price of silver collapsed during a nationwide business panic. A few years later, only three people still stood occupied in Ruby. By 1900 there were none. Ranchers dragged many of the buildings off to near by Happy Hill, while others were burned. Only a few stone foundations remain today in a lonely forested canyon.
Across Arlington Ridge from Ruby, a monstrous concentrating mill was built of granite stone. Legend has it that a single carpenter, left to complete the wooden superstructure, failed to receive a pay check from eastern investors and burned down everything that was built. The Arlington Mill, also known as the “China Wall” never operated. Its massive stonewalls stand today, like the battlements of a medieval fortress. The great granite walls are their monuments to history gone by.
Had there been no panic of 1893, the Okanogan’s silver boom still would have died to a whisper. The ores were low grade and the methods of separating country rock from precious metals had been primitive. Often, dispirited miners found more value left in the mine tailings that had been discarded, than those contained in “concentrates” shipped to smelters. And, it was a costly haul, either by wagon or by railroad to Spokane or Tacoma.
Conconully, a few miles from Ruby, mined silver until staggered by on a procession of calamities….the Panic of “93,” a roaring flood, and the usual disastrous fire. Few of its 500 citizens saw much of a future in such goings-on. Today, Conconully’s residents depend on tourists, not gold and silver in order to eke out a living. Equipped with resorts, a state park, and two fishing lakes, Conconully is far from becoming a ghost town.
In its mining days, a daily stage ran from Conconully twenty-three miles north to Loomis. Its passengers, miners, homesteaders, prospectors, gamblers, and investors might have felt that “ran” is too strong a word. Many helped push the stage through two-feet of mud past Blue Lake.
Like a swarm of fireflies, gold strikes sprawled across Palmer Mountain and Loomis roared into the limelight in the early 1900’s. The famous Black Bear Mill hummed in the center of town. The Palmer Mountain Gold Mining and Tunnel Company, which scorned half-way measures, blasted a tunnel more than a mile long into Palmer’s bowels and built a super-sized concentrating mill two-and-one-half football fields in length. This mill never turned a wheel. Eight saloons and three dance halls anchored the business district.
In the confusion, public education got lost. When county school superintendent, Virginia Grainger visited Loomis to inspect Okanogan School District No.1, she was unable to find the school. After searching in ever-widening circles, she came across the teacher and class….driven to the hills by noise, drunks, and mosquitoes.
North of Loomis, on the Similkameen River, Nighthawk became headwaters for six mining companies. Nighthawk’s permanent population of fifty served hundreds of miners and railroad workers throughout the area. By 1903 there was a general store, railroad station, Nighthawk Hotel, and saloon. Although the mining eventually subsided, Nighthawk survived and down through the decades it has remained almost exactly as it was in the early 1900’s. Today, only a handful of people dwell there in the shadows of the empty two-story Nighthawk Hotel.
Starting in the late 1800’s, much of the whiskey and other necessities required by Okanogan County boomtowns came up the Columbia River on stern-wheel riverboats, smaller replicas of those used in Klondike days on the Yukon. The passenger fare from Wenatchee to Brewster was $5.50.
During high water in springtime, the stern-wheelers proceeded up the Okanogan River to Riverside, which the steamboat men called “Republic Landing” to attract freight business consigned to the rich Republic mines in Ferry County. By July the Okanogan River usually receding fast. Sometimes, a riverboat had to unload part of its cargo along the way to keep from scraping bottom. Through a blue haze of smoke and profanity storekeepers and saloon owners would emerge with teams and wagons, heading downstream to retrieve what the captains had dumped ashore.
Despite this inconvenient delivery service, Riverside became a shirt-sleeved supply center for the fading mining camps and for homesteaders pacing off their river valley homesteading claims. Its four-to-five hundred citizens dreamed of irrigation canals, a railroad, and a county courthouse. Confidently, Riverside constructed a three-story courthouse, only to lose the county seat election. The canals never came and the railroad was too late.
There have been eighty-eight post offices in Okanogan County, which have now dwindled to twenty-four. Silver, Ventura, Gilbert, Barron, and Robinson were once exciting names in the Methow Valley. Golden and Wehesville prospered on Wannacut Lake. Bolster, Loup Loup, Kipling, and many others sprang from raucous rushes for silver and gold. Most have long since faded, leaving behind a crumbling cabin, a lifeless mill stair stepping down a hillside, or nothing at all. In some cases only the ground remains where miners with feverish dreams once stood.