SUMPTER — Jim Delgado has visited the wreck of the Titanic, so you might expect that he would scarcely bother even to ponder the significance of the Sumpter Dredge, which has never been within 200 miles of an ocean and most probably will never be the subject of an Oscar-winning film.
This is patently not so.
As Delgado stood inside the hulking gold-mining machine Thursday morning he spoke with emotion and eloquence about why he believes this contraption is truly a treasure.
He rapped his knuckle on a steel rivet and marveled at the workmanship.
He drew a finger along a Douglas-fir beam on which a worker scrawled words more than half a century ago.
He paused occasionally, as if to search for the words to express why this vessel — and indeed it is a boat, albeit a most unusual one — affects him so deeply, a man who in his 47-year career has traveled the globe and inspected the remnants of some of the world’s most famous ships.
Delgado, who is one of America’s more renowned maritime archaeologists, answers the question in multiple ways, but they can be distilled to a single word.
“When I walk through I get a sense of the people working here,” Delgado said. “Even though it’s silent now.”
He has found, while wandering through the Dredge’s shadowy, chilly interior, many poignant examples of the human presence he feels so powerfully.
The spot where a worker stored his oil can, and the rags he used to wipe machinery.
The fir deck planks worn smooth by the passage of so many boots.
“The guy who ran this dredge probably operated this machine like a virtuoso violinist,” Delgado said. “I think history is more than just big names and magnificent tall ships. It’s working vessels like this that I think speak to the everyday experiences of so many people.”
But this is not merely a matter of speculation — and that’s one aspect of his visit to the Dredge, and to Sumpter, that’s so different from Delgado’s experiences at vastly better known sites such as the Titanic, or a Roman ship from the third century A.D. that he dived to years ago off Albania.
The Dredge, Delgado concedes, might seem more ancient than it actually is.
The Dredge was sifting gold from the Powder River’s gravels as recently as 1954. That means there are still people around who either worked on the Dredge, or who have relatives who did.
Delgado, who spent much of last week in Sumpter, met several.
“That’s one of the best parts of it — talking to people,” he said.
As an archaeologist who frequently inspects ships and other items vastly older than the Dredge, Delgado said those personal conversations are rarely an option.
“Usually the people associated with the ships I look at are long gone,” he said.
The Titanic, for instance, which Delgado saw in 2000 from inside the Russian Mir-2 submersible, famously went down in the North Atlantic in 1912.
That happens to be one year after the Sumpter Valley Dredge No. 1 was built. It and the No. 2 Dredge were cannabilized in 1935, with many of their parts used to create the last in the series, the No. 3 Dredge that today is the centerpiece of the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Park.
The park was started 26 years ago. And although the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars since then to stabilize, preserve and renovate parts of the Dredge, the job for which Delgado and two of his co-workers traveled across the country from Jacksonville, Florida, is one that had never been done.
Their task was to examine the Dredge’s hull, something that would be considerably simpler if the vessel wasn’t sitting in a 10-foot-deep pond of water that hovers around the freezing mark.
“We don’t have park personnel that can dive, much less take underwater video,” said Brian McBeth, historic architecture project manager for the state Parks Department. “That’s a missing skill set.”
So last summer, just after McBeth joined the Parks Department, he started looking around for a contractor with the necessary expertise.
A colleague at the National Parks Service recommended SEARCH Inc., based in Jacksonville.
Delgado, who had his first paid archaeology job at age 14, is senior vice president of the company, which specializes in a variety of archaeology disciplines, including maritime.
He traveled to Sumpter with two of SEARCH’s other maritime archaeologists, Deborah Marx and Kyle Lent.
“We brought in some of the best marine archaeologists in the country,” McBeth said. “They know what they’re looking at, and what it means.”
On Thursday morning Marx donned a dry suit and flippers and slipped into the icy pond. She was holding an apparatus that included a pair of flexible arms tipped with lights, and a holder for a GoPro camera. As she swam along the Dredge, Marx examined the hull, taking video as she went.
Lent, meanwhile, paddled a kayak, staying close to Marx to offer assistance if needed.
That’s a standard safety protocol for what Lent called “in-water operations.”
Because the Dredge’s 9-foot-deep hull is a complex and potentially confusing menagerie of beams and bulkheads and steel tie-rods, it’s too dangerous to have a diver try to examine some sections, Delgado said.
In some places there’s only 1 foot of clearance. And although the pond water is usually crystalline, movement tends to stir up silt and a rust from steel parts, creating an impenetrable cloud.
“Not a place to put a person,” Delgado said.
But perfectly suitable for the remote-controlled submersible, with on-board camera and lights, that the SEARCH team brought.
Delgado and his colleagues, on their return to Florida, will sift through the data they collected and write a report — “with lots of illustrations,” Delgado said — for the Parks Department.
McBeth said that document will serve as the basis for agency officials’ decisions about how best to maintain the Dredge in future decades.
On Thursday, though the archaeologists weren’t finished inspecting the dredge, Delgado was ready to offer a preliminary assessment — one that greatly pleased McBeth.
“I think she’s in pretty good shape,” Delgado said. “This hull was very solidly built. The folks back then didn’t have computer-aided drafting and computers, but they knew what they were doing in a number of ways.”
That’s a relief, McBeth said.
The Parks Department doesn’t want to spend public money on more cosmetic issues at the Dredge if its very bones need attention.
That’s why the agency approved a $48,380 contract with SEARCH Inc. for the hull assessment.
“This is a high-priority project,” McBeth said. “We want to make sure we’re not fixing windows on a boat that’s just going to collapse into that water.”
That water, it turns out, is one reason the Dredge remains so solid decades after it was assembled.
Delgado said wood lasts much longer when it’s submerged — and the colder the water, the slower the wood degrades.
Parks Departm ent officials had to deal with this issue in the mid 1990s. After a $250,000 project in 1995 that raised the dredge and built a sand pedestal on which it still sits, some sections of the hull that had been submerged, on being exposed to the air, dried and rapidly deteriorated.
Workers had to replace some of those sections.
Water and metal generally don’t have such a symbiotic relationship, of course.
But Delgado said corrosion of metal parts, both above and below the water, is mainly superficial and is not compromising the Dredge’s structural integrity.
The Parks Department’s efforts to stem leaks from the Dredge’s roof have also paid dividends, Delgado said.
“Leaking water is your biggest threat inside, but I’ve seen very little of that,” he said.
Although last week was Delgado’s first visit to the Dredge, he’s known about the mining machine for more than 30 years.
See more in the May 6, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.