By Jayson Jacoby
The Syfy channel probably posted massive ratings numbers Wednesday evening in little Sumpter.
The network's latest paranormal reality TV series, "Ghost Mine," which was filmed in and around Sumpter last summer, premiered Wednesday.
The Elkhorn Saloon hosted the biggest watch party, with T-shirts and live music, while other residents in this historic town, population about 200, tuned in at home.
Elkhorn Saloon owner Sharyn Epler said about 40 people attended the party.
"I thought they did a great job with the show," Epler said. "They represented this place very well. I think it's going to be popular if the other episodes are as good as the first one."
Epler said she's planning a potluck - but no live music - for the second episode, scheduled to air Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. PST (check your TV provider's listings, as some might broadcast the program at a different time).
LeAnne Woolf, a Sumpter city councilor, said she invited a couple of friends over to watch the series' debut.
Woolf said the episode - the first of six scheduled - surprised her, and in a good way.
"I watch Syfy, and knowing one of the producers (of "Ghost Mine") was involved in the "Ghost Hunters" series, I sort of knew what to expect," Woolf said.
And indeed "Ghost Mine" generally follows what's become a familiar formula for paranormal programs such as "Ghost Hunters" and Animal Planet's "Finding Bigfoot."
The ingredients include close-ups of cast members' anxious faces when they hear some unidentified sound, eerie, poorly lighted scenes shot in the dark (easy to do inside a mine, of course), and the inevitable cliffhanger preceding each commercial.
Yet although Woolf thinks the premiere slightly embellished the haunted reputation of the Crescent mine, the exaggerations were subdued compared with what she anticipated.
"They didn't play it up as badly as I thought they might," Woolf said. "I was prepared to make fun. I almost put plastic wrap over the TV so we could throw popcorn at the screen. We ended up just eating the popcorn."
Woolf said she hoped the producers would temper the show's paranormal bent with a more sober sense of history.
"The history of this area is plenty interesting all on its own," she said. "You don't need things to be made up."
Woolf said that although she's relatively well-acquainted with Sumpter's history, the notion that the Crescent mine has an especially notorious reputation for haunted activity doesn't square with the stories she's heard.
Mark Luker of Sumpter, who like Woolf watched the premiere with a group of friends, said there was a veritable traffic jam - by local standards, anyway - during the evening as residents drove to and from wherever they watched the show.
"It was really exciting," Luker said. "I thought it was tastefully done, and very respectful to Sumpter and our history. I thought they struck a nice balance between the mining and the ghost stuff."
Luker said he was particularly pleased that the premiere included an interview with local miner Bill Wells, who died Nov. 2, 2012.
"That was nice to see him included," Luker said.
"Bill was such an icon," she said.
Luker agreed with Woolf that the premiere episode "overplayed" a few things, including the story that mine owner Larry Overman's first crew of miners walked off the job after being spooked by various unexplained phenomena inside the mine.
"We did expect that there would be some drama," Luker said.
The premise of "Ghost Mine" is that Overman brings in a pair of paranormal investigators, hoping they will solve the mystery and prevent his second crew from fleeing.
The investigators are Kristen Luman, who attended Portland State University, and Patrick Doyle of Portland.
In the premiere, the pair tried to make contact with purported ghosts inside the mine.
Notwithstanding the scientific credibility of such things, the mine itself is a legitimate part of the area's history, said Leland Myers, a longtime Sumpter resident who's also Woolf's dad.
The Crescent is one of the claims that make up the Buckeye mine group, near the headwaters of Little Cracker Creek about three miles east of Bourne and seven miles north of Sumpter.
Although Myers shares his daughter's disdain for the more dramatized elements of "Ghost Mine," he appreciates that in one respect this reality TV series is, well, realistic.
"People get to see what the inside of a mine looks like," Myers said.
Woolf said she expects "Ghost Mine" will bring an influx of visitors to Sumpter, which celebrated its 150th birthday in 2012.
When that might happen, and how big the tourism boom will be, is hard to predict, she said.
"I would expect it will be more noticeable during the summer because of the better weather," Woolf said. "It's possible that a lot could happen to Sumpter as a result of this. Whether we're going to be ready for it ...
"It's going to be an interesting summer, I think."
And potentially, not just because of ghost-hunting visitors.
Both Woolf and Luker said they've heard a second season of "Ghost Mine" could be in the works.
Luker said he hopes that happens, not only because of the added exposure for Sumpter, but because he became friends with many cast members from "Ghost Mine" and its production crew.
If the series does continue, the scene could shift from the Crescent mine to a different mine in the area.
There's no shortage of those around Sumpter, which was the center of the region's hard-rock gold-mining industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Sumpter once boasted a population of about 3,000.
The town never really recovered, though, from a devastating fire in August 1917, or from the decline in the mining industry after World War One.
The Buckeye group of mines wasn't among the more productive operations.
The mines are near, but not on, the famous North Pole-Columbia lode, which includes the richest veins of gold-bearing ore ever discovered in the Cracker Creek mining district.
Other mines, including the Columbia, Eureka and Excelsior, and Tabor Fraction, produced several million dollars during an era when the price of gold was set by the federal government at $20.67 per ounce.
'LIKE ENTERING ANOTHER WORLD'
Patrick Doyle has been searching for ghosts for 15 years but he'd never been inside a mine.
Now he's been half a mile underground.
And he wants to go back.
"It was like leaving reality and entering another world," said Doyle, 42, a paranormal investigator from Portland who is one of two ghost-hunters featured in Syfy's "Ghost Mine." The series, which premiered Wednesday, was filmed in and around Sumpter last summer.
Doyle and his co-investigator, Kristen Luman, spent a considerable amount of time inside the Crescent mine. The place defied Doyle's expectations.
"It's not this clean mine you think of with rails on the floor and ore carts and ventilation," he said.
The tunnel shrinks in places to five feet high, and it's so narrow you can't extend your arms without smacking into the stone walls, Doyle said.
"You have to watch your head and your feet at the same time," he said.
And as he learned, a T-shirt isn't adequate clothing.
"It can be 90 degrees and sunny outside, and inside it's 40," he said.
Fortunately for Doyle, he isn't prone to claustrophobia.
Although he said he has heard of ghost-hunters poking around abandoned mine sites, Doyle said "Ghost Mine" is the only case he knows of in which investigators venture far inside a working mine.
He and Luman were required, by federal law, to take a course in mining safety.
And although the two investigators weren't exactly welcomed by the mining crew at the Crescent, at least initially, Doyle said he and Luman developed a relationship with the miners that will become more apparent in future episodes.
"My respect for those guys is at a level I can't compare with anyone else," he said. "Love us or hate us, they were watching out for us. They don't want anyone to get hurt on their watch."
Doyle said he would be thrilled to participate in future seasons of "Ghost Mine" if that comes to pass.
He said he enjoyed his first visit to Eastern Oregon.
"It's a gorgeous place with an incredible history," Doyle said. "The people are awesome, and I'd love to come back."
- Jayson Jacoby