China Ditch History
In the mid 1800s, hundreds of thousands of people were lured to the Western United States by the potential for striking it rich in the gold fields. Those arriving late were often unable to make any money. Some of these people headed north to farm; many ended up in Oregon. When gold was discovered in Douglas County in the 1860s, many reverted back to mining. Some made money, and some didn't, but the resources were there. In Douglas County alone there were hundreds of placer, hydraulic, and hard rock mines.
In the North Myrtle Creek area near Myrtle Creek Oregon, there were two hydraulic giants working around the clock. There was a downside to hydraulic mining in this area though. The two giants were only able to work three months out of the year during the winter because the availability of water was not great enough to run the "giants" during the summer. Myrtle Creek Consolidated Hydraulic Gold Mining and Manufacturing Company (MCCHGMMC) proposed to mine year round by constructing a ditch. In the North Myrtle area particularly, there was not enough water at high elevations to provide the huge hydraulic spraying nozzles with the pressure and amount of water needed. MCCHGMMC knew this, and they were also given evidence that there were rich placer reserves in the mountain gravels. The company immediately sent some surveyors to see if it was feasible to build a 33 mile long ditch that started in the headwaters of the Little River (or East Umpqua) to North Myrtle Creek on the South Umpqua Drainage. The ditch was proposed to be 5 feet deep, 3 feet wide on the bottom, and 5 feet wide at the top. It would carry water for the big hydraulic setups, and also irrigate prune orchards and move lumber to a sawmill in Myrtle Creek, Oregon. The company president, Dr. L. W. Brown, announced in May of 1890, "There is, according to the engineers report, three-hundred feet more altitude than is necessary to complete the proposed ditch... A force of four-hundred men will go to work at once." By early winter, 80 men had completed 7 miles of the ditch.
In late winter of 1891, Louis Catching, a local miner cleared $900 in nine weeks with a small sluice box (rocker) and a gold pan on his own. After mining his claim, he sold it to MCCHGMMC and signed a contract for digging the next section of the ditch.
During the next 90 days, the company spent $322,224 on mining claims and water rights. In the spring of 1891, officials reported finding $2000 worth of gold in the sluice boxes; that's around 100 ounces of gold. In Eugene, officials exhibited a jar of Myrtle Creek gold valued at $3000. Stock in MCCHGMMC boomed, and in June this money was used to hire one hundred Chinese laborers to lengthen the ditch, tap four new streams, and eventually extend it to the East Umpqua (now known as Little River).
In the path of the ditch in the Little River drainage, was Cavitt Creek. R.L. Cavitt, who owned all the property around Cavitt Creek, refused to allow the ditch to draw from the waters of his creek saying, "I have a good living stream and I pay taxes on my water rights, so I'll force them to go around my land." He mined on the creek and he wasn't about to allow the ditch to take the precious water away from him. Mr. Cavitt benefited from the building of the ditch though. He was able to sell his beef to the workers and make a handsome profit. You'll notice that the completed ditch avoided the Cavitt Creek area.
In the Summer of 1891, there were two-hundred Chinese laborers working for the company. The Chinese laborers advanced their camp as the ditch extended. In October, the company was forced to construct a tunnel 400 feet long through a ridge in the mountain to connect the new ditch with the old. As more water was added to the ditch, there was more room for hydraulic nozzles. By December of 1891, the Eugene Register announced, "some big returns and handsome dividends are looked for soon by stockholders. Three giants running day and night will soon make a big hole in the mountains."
In the spring of the next year, there was renewed activity along the ditch, hard winter storms had slowed the work down. In the April 28 Issue of the Eugene Guard, a small article appeared:
11:45, train was derailed. No deaths, but injuries. Broken legs and scalds.
The very next day an article announced:
"A partial clean up was made at the Myrtle Creek Mines the first of the week, and the dust was brought here this morning to the First National Bank. It was weighed and found to be worth $4,300. It is now on display at the bank and is attracting large crowds."
And finally, on April 30, 1892; an explanation was given for the reason of the train accident. It states:
"It is supposed by residents of Myrtle Creek that the wreck was caused by parties who thought the $4,300 of gold from the Myrtle Creek mine was aboard. The gold was sent to the companies office the day before."
The article later stated:
"when the ditch is fully completed, it will be a splendid selling piece of property."
H.W. Holden took a contract to complete a six mile section near Cavitt's claim. An Article in the Eugene Guard announced in May this heading:
Wanted: Fifty good men to work on Myrtle Creek Companies mining ditch. Apply at Myrtle Creek. Wages, $2 per day.
A flume for carrying the water around the rocky hillsides was to be constructed. To aid in the construction, a temporary sawmill was to be built for timber production. By this time, there were still three miles left before the ditch reached the headwaters of the East Umpqua (Little River). The mining reports continued to be optimistic. By April, 1893 there were four "giants" working around the clock and making good cleanups with nuggets ranging from $4-$24; as reported by James Hutson, a man who ran the boarding house near the mines.
The apparent success of MCCHGMMC began to deteriorate. On June 1, 1893, a small article in the Roseburg Review explained that a writ of attachment had been filed against the company for $4220 in unpaid wages. In addition, other attachments totaling over six-thousand dollars were filed. Judge Fish of Lane County granted a temporary injunction restraining Dr. Brown from disposing the property or stock. Deputy Sheriff Dillard was assigned to guard the claim until the case could be settled. Dillard decided that it would be better to "clean up" the gravel in the sluice boxes instead of keeping a round-the-clock guard on it. The sixteen day run which was expected to bring in seventy-five ounces of gold, only showed a clean-up of nine and two-sixteenth ounces, or $165 worth. Everything went downhill from there, and the stock holders accused Dr. Brown of "salting" the mine to sell stock. They also said that twenty-five men were hired to "look good", when five or six could have run the nozzles. On the fourth of July, a trial was held and the Circuit Court in Roseburg ruled in favor of the miners. The company was then officially out of business. On October 19, 1894 an auction was held with a sale list of, "two pair of gray blankets... one broken flask quicksilver.... one gray horse, eight years old...." and a complete inventory of pipe, flume, tools, camp outfits, and supplies. The next day, the actual property was sold to John Newson for $7691.
The Chinese laborers are now long gone from Douglas County. It was said that they went to an area with a more congenial climate; some paid passage back to their homeland with the $.25/day they earned. Modern miners who still work the small creeks along the North Myrtle area occasionally report finding small Chinese coins or relics in the riffles of their dredges. The China Ditch is the largest nineteenth century man-made landmark in Douglas County. It reminds us of a time when the West was gold country, but it also reminds us of the scandals and scams that were kept alive by the search for gold. The president, Dr. Brown, was said to survive the legal problems, went on practicing medicine in Eugene, invested in the Bohemia mines, and served as a principal in the Eugene Theater Company. Today, the China Ditch is on the National Register of Historic Places. Parts of the ditch have been heavily destroyed, and nearly obliterated by the fire of July, 1987. The biggest deteriorating factor has been of natural causes, such as mud slides.
The BLM has now put up a driving loop and walking tour on a short section of the ditch. Also included in the tour are informative signs describing the history of the China Ditch and the fire of 1987.