In 1862, Oregon was still a new state of just three years. Aside from a few exploration parties and trappers passing through, and some Native American tribes living in the area, life was pretty darn quiet in Grant County – which wasn’t even Grant County yet.

And then summertime came and, as the song says, “What a difference a day makes.”

That day was June 8, 1862, along the muddy banks of Whiskey Gulch – long since called Canyon Creek – just outside Canyon City.

William Allred is the one largely credited with that discovery. He was a miner traveling with a group, on their way to the gold mines of Idaho, who had stopped in the area to camp.

Soon thereafter, though the dates are not known, major gold discoveries were made along Dixie Creek north of Prairie City, and in the Susanville area.

According to the book “Eastern Oregon’s Gold Fields: Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and Union Counties,” Canyon came first, then Dixie Creek and then Susanville, then Greenhorn District, Red Boy Mining District and Granite.”

The general belief is that most miners coming into the area ventured north from California, many on the Yreka Trail and then following the John Day South Fork River into what is now Dayville, as they headed north and east toward strikes in Idaho.

One thing is for sure: With all the glittery metal that was being unearthed, prospects were good that the area would soon flourish.

And flourish it did. In just a few months’ time, many places were packed shoulder to shoulder, shovel to shovel with miners, as well as other enterprising folks looking to set up business or otherwise cash in on the rush.

By that fall, there were an estimated 4,000-6,000 people in the area. Grant County was established just two years later, on Oct. 14, 1864.

Though many places had their own discoveries and gold mines, the two most well-known ones were along Whiskey Gulch near Canyon City and Dixie Creek north of Prairie City.

Dixie Creek

The Dixie Creek discovery came in mid to late June from a group of southern sympathizers – thus the “Dixie” name. The miners, discouraged with their lack of luck in the Middle Fork area, and in search of better diggings, stopped during their journey to camp along the creek. As legend has it, it was a few women folk – doing chores no less – who saw the gold as they washed clothes in the gravel bed.

The first Dixie settlement was about 3 1/2 miles north of present-day Prairie City. As the story goes, it became difficult to keep some of the new houses upright, with miners’ diggings so close to the structures. Such was their zeal and enthusiasm.

Gradually, as the burgeoning community developed, people moved south toward the lush John Day River area and surrounding flat prairie, to establish a permanent town, Prairie City, where it sits today. J.W. King is credited with giving the town its name.

Prairie City’s first post office was established in 1870, and, like Canyon City, the town incorporated in 1891. The original business district was in the areas of North Main and East 3rd streets. After three fires in 1884, 1887 and 1901, the main business area was moved to its present Front Street location.

With good pastures and nearby timber, the community continued to prosper long after the glitter of gold fortune faded away, although miners still have staked claims along Dixie’s banks today.

Whiskey Gulch

It’s estimated that within 10 days of the Whiskey Flat discovery, 1,000 miners were camped along Canyon Creek, in the two mile stretch down to the John Day River.

At one time, much of the land between Canyon City and John Day, along what is now Brent Street, was worth $500 a square yard. At the peak of the rush, it is estimated that about 10,000 people lived in Canyon City, larger than Portland was at that time.

The town was platted that same year, made the county seat in 1864, and incorporated in 1891.

Other mining districts

Several other mining camps and districts sprang up throughout the area in the coming years, too many for an inclusive list here. However, among the names – and approximate locations, as available – were: Susanville/Galena: Greenhorn, partly in Baker County; Granite Creek, Cougar-Independence, Buffalo and Red Boy mines in the Granite area; Prairie Diggin’s, three miles east of John Day; Dixie Creek Dredge and Dixie Meadows Mine in the Prairie City area; Elk Creek; North Fork; Quartzburg; Humbol(d)t Placer, First Dutch, Lone Star and Raw Hide ditches all in the Canyon Creek area, the latter so named because the lack of lumber cause it to be flumed from raw hide.

Thanks to the Grant County Historical Museum in Canyon City, and the Sumpter Valley RR and DeWitt Museum in Prairie City for their research assistance.

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