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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Retired geologist mining Eastern Oregon history

Retired geologist mining Eastern Oregon history

Howard Brooks wrote the book on Oregon mining districts. Now he's interested in the people who made those districts work. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Howard Brooks wrote the book on Oregon mining districts. Now he's interested in the people who made those districts work. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

His fingers gliding as deftly as a poker dealer's, Howard Brooks shuffles through 150 million years of geologic history in half a minute.

His right hand halts for a few seconds at one milestone, then leaps ahead a few pages — and a few thousand millennia — to the next.

First Brooks attends the birth of gold.

He describes the bubbling mixture that bore the precious metal, a percolating mineral soup boiled by masses of magma that cooled and became the granitic cores of the Elkhorn and Wallowa mountains.

He talks of the men who came eons later to vie for their share of the valuable dust and flakes and nuggets, first by dipping pans into the gravelly beds of chilly streams, then by blasting and gouging holes through slopes of bedrock.

These miners, the pioneers of Northeastern Oregon, lived in crude and cramped cabins that reeked of the sharp scent of fresh sap still trickling from axe wounds.

Eventually they built real towns, places where you could buy a wool shirt or worship with a congregation or gulp down a glass of whiskey — all on the same street.

Brooks tells his tale with the precise and practiced cadence of a professor who has given the identical lecture a hundred times and more.

Call it Geology 101: The History of Gold Mining in Northeastern Oregon.

The condensed version.

Brooks, who worked as a professional geologist for almost half his 75 years, shuns the exotic scientific words that could spawn an impenetrable syllabic fog for the amateur.

There will be no talk of plutons today, nor a single reference to ultramafic rocks.

Just the basics — gold, granite, heat.

"It's possible to explain the geology of gold to laypeople," said Brooks, who has lived in Baker City since 1956. "You just have to leave out the technical jargon."

And throw in a passel of photographs.

Most people, Brooks figures, don't care a whit about plate tectonics, nor are they much interested in how metamorphism messes around with the minerals that make up rocks.

"People like to look at pictures of people doing things," he said.

Pictures of 19th-century gold miners clutching pick-axes, for example, their mustached faces illuminated by the flickering glow of candles that provided the only light inside the intestine-like tunnels where the men sought their fortunes.

And pictures of miners wearing felt hats they had dipped in hot wax, a precaution which they apparently considered sufficient for protecting their skulls in those days before hard hats and OSHA.

Brooks thinks this story of the miners, and of their quest for riches in the Northeastern Oregon wilderness, is a compelling one.

Compelling enough to warrant a book, the manuscript of which he has been compiling for several years.

But Brooks said his goal never has been to persuade a publisher to print the thing.

He just wants to preserve history.

"My main objective is to make sure that we don't forget our heritage," Brooks said. "The settlement of this area was started by gold miners and prospectors who flocked in here after Henry Griffin found gold (on Oct. 23, 1861, several miles southwest of present-day Baker City).

"About all we have left to remind us of that heritage is pictures and words, scattered mine dumps and dredge tailings, and old tumbled-down buildings that are just about gone. If we lose the words and pictures we're going to lose it all, and in a couple generations people will be saying, ‘I didn't know there was ever any mining around here.'

"I don't want that to happen."

Brooks' interest in what he calls "people" history was kindled relatively recently.

For 40 years he was immersed in the technical aspects of geology.

He studied the rocks, but not the people who dug them from the earth.

He memorized those tongue-twisting words, the ones with long series of syllables that even Webster's won't wade through.

As a teen-ager growing up in Hazelton, Idaho, near Twin Falls, Brooks decided he would be an electrical engineer, not a scientist.

That didn't happen.

Brooks blames two things: advanced mathematics and his uncle.

During his first year at Idaho State University in Pocatello, a disappointed Brooks discovered that universities don't award electrical engineering degrees to people who struggle with math.

Brooks struggled with math.

"I found out I would never be able to take the math," he said.

His uncle, who was a prospector, suggested Brooks sign up for a geology course.

Lots of rocks, but not so many equations.

Except Brooks knew even less about geology than he did about math.

He later learned, for example, that basalt is the predominant rock on the Snake River Plain where he grew up.

But when he walked into that geology class he couldn't have picked basalt out of a lineup.

"I didn't even know that word," Brooks said.

Four years later he knew basalt the way a cardiologist knows the heart.

Brooks earned a bachelor's degree in geology from Idaho State.

"I just became very interested in how the earth was put together," he said. "And I had two very good professors who opened my eyes."

After working for a mining company for a year and a half, Brooks enrolled in the Mackay School of Mines at the University of Nevada in Reno.

There he earned a master's degree in geology, and also worked in an assay lab where he analyzed rock samples that prospectors brought in.

"That was one of the best parts of my education," Brooks said.

He began to understand that the story of geology involves people as well as rocks and minerals.

Then, not long before he graduated in 1956, Brooks saw a job notice thumb-tacked to a bulletin board.

The position was with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI), at the agency's Baker City office.

"I applied for the job, I got it, and I never looked back," Brooks said.

Not for 35 years.

After he retired in 1991, Brooks got to thinking about a job he had worked on for a couple of years early in his career.

Back about the mid 1960s, Brooks' bosses assigned him to collaborate with Len Ramp, a geologist at DOGAMI's Grants Pass office, to write a history of mining in Oregon.

DOGAMI published the volume in 1968.

By then Brooks probably knew as much as anyone about the gold rush that engulfed Northeastern Oregon after Griffin found those first flakes in 1861.

He could list the mines from memory, could tell you the ones with the longest and richest veins.

"I visited a good many of those old mines, although most had been closed by then," Brooks said.

The federal government ordered most mines closed during World War II.

And although officials rescinded that closure after 1945, by then the expense of extracting ore had exceeded the value of gold, Brooks said.

Back then (and until 1973, in fact), the price of gold was fixed.

After the war, with gold worth the same $35 per ounce it went for before the war, few mines produced ore of sufficient quality or quantity to make mining profitable, Brooks said.

And many of the mines had caved in during the wartime closure, which further inflated the cost to resume mining.

For Brooks, writing the book for DOGAMI had whetted, but not satisfied, his curiosity about those distant decades when mining dominated Baker County's economy.

Sure, he could recite from memory the assay tables from dozens of mines.

But still he knew so little about the people whose blistered hands actually pried those metals from the bowels of the earth.

"That book contains very little people history," Brooks said. "I decided that when I retired I wanted to look into that."

More than a decade later, he's still looking.

Before gold lured people to Baker County, the Oregon Trail did.

Many of the miners who settled here had first seen this country years before, when their covered wagons bumped down the sagebrush slopes of Flagstaff Hill and into the lush grasslands of the Baker Valley.

In the mid-1990s Brooks started spending a fair number of hours at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, the visitors center the Bureau of Land Management opened in May 1992 on Flagstaff Hill, about five miles east of Baker City.

"It turned out to be a really good place for me to work," he said. "They just let me have at the mining history."

Brooks was impressed by the center — and in particular by BLM's generous use of Oregon Trail emigrants' own photographs and words to tell the tale of the trail.

This, he decided, was people history.

He worked with Sarah LeCompte, then the Trail Center's historian and now its director, to copy photographs from several sources, including the McCord Collection at the Baker County Library, and from the late Brooks Hawley, a longtime Sumpter Valley historian.

During the past decade Brooks has written the text for several pamphlets on gold-mining history.

He has authored newspaper articles.

And he has entertained hundreds of people, both at the Trail Center and in Baker City, with his computer-generated Power Point presentation.

"I've been accused of being an historian," Brooks said. "I do enjoy it a lot."

So much, in fact, that in 2003 he donated 489 hours of work at the Trail Center.

The center's staff chose Brooks as Volunteer of the Year.

"This was an easy decision," LeCompte said. "Howard's enthusiasm, supportive attitude and willingness to help made him the obvious choice."

Although Brooks has only been accused of being an historian, as a geologist he's guilty beyond any reasonable doubt.

He confesses to this readily.

"When I can find a geologist I can talk with about the mineral deposits in this area, I'm in my glory," he said. "I'm still very much interested in that."

And even in his decidedly non-scientific slide shows, Brooks can't help but salt his speech with a few dashes of geologic jargon.

"It's hard to talk about the geology of gold-mining without having your audience's eyes' glaze over, but sneakily I try to get in as much geology as I can," he said.

He would, he allows, demonstrate a few simple principles with some real stones but his den, though well-equipped with both desktop and laptop computer, seems curiously rock-free at the moment.

"I should have some around here," Brooks said. "I have some out in the yard, but they're buried in the snow and I wouldn't know where to dig."

 
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