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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Is legendary Blue Bucket Mine still out there in Oregon mountains?

According to the legend, a group of kids from a lost wagon train found some strange yellow rocks in 1845, three years before the Gold Rush hit. Miners have been looking for the kids' play spot ever since.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2017 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.

Somewhere in the mountains of northeast Oregon, a huge deposit of gold is still sitting quietly, waiting to be discovered — according to a 170-year-old frontier legend.

It’s known as the “Lost Blue Bucket Mine.”

Here’s the story:

Lost and hungry in the Blue Mountains

In 1845, Stephen Meek, the brother of Oregon legend Joe Meek, convinced a bunch of Oregon Trail pioneers in Idaho that he could guide them across the Cascades without going through the dangerous rapids on the Columbia — that he could show them a “cut-off” that would take them straight across the beltline of Oregon to the Willamette Valley. They set out in high spirits, but after a month or two wandering across the High Desert they realized Meek had no idea where he was going or what he was doing. He escaped before they could lynch him, but by then, of course, they were committed and had to work their way through as best they could.

A group of them was camped by a stream or river one night, trying to find its way and trying not to starve. Meanwhile, some of the kids were playing by the river. It was autumn, so stream flows would have been low. One of the kids found an interesting yellow pebble, strangely heavy.

Funny yellow pebbles

They discovered that the river was full of these yellow pebbles — they could be removed from the riverbed with a shovel, they were so deep and plentiful. The kids filled up a blue bucket with them and brought them back to camp, where the adults puzzled over what they might be. The party’s blacksmith put one on a metal wagon tire and pounded on it; it flattened easily.

Well, of course, you know what it was. And you might think they should have known, too. But you have to remember, this was in 1845. Until 1849, virtually nobody knew the West had any gold in it at all. The idea that they were looking at a fortune in precious metal never crossed their minds.

But they did find that the strange rocks made great sinkers for fishing — the current in the river was too fast for their lines without a sinker. That night everyone in the party had a big fish dinner — the best food they’d had for a long time.

Then they moved on. “No,” the grown-ups told the kids, “you may not bring a bunch of rocks with you. The poor starving oxen have too much weight to pull as it is.”

So the “rocks” stayed behind.

Then gold was discovered

Well, as you can imagine, four years later when gold was discovered in California, those emigrants — now farming land claims in the Willamette Valley — realized what they’d found. But they had no idea where it was.

No one has ever re-discovered that spot. Many have tried — in fact, prospectors looking for it found dozens of other lucrative mines in the Blue Mountains — but the Blue Bucket Mine remains undiscovered to this day.

The Auburn swindle

As a side note, one man actually made his fortune pretending he knew where it was.This fellow’s name was J.L. Adams. He started bragging around Portland in 1861 that he’d found the mine and needed some folks to help him work it. Quickly he put together a party of 58 men and off they went. Problem was, it quickly became obvious that he wasn’t leading them anywhere in particular. Finally, faced with a hangman’s noose, he confessed: He’d wanted to prospect in the Blue Mountains with a large enough party to fend off any hostile Native Americans, and had made up the whole story as a recruiting scheme.

The volunteers decided not to kill him. Instead, they took everything but his clothes and kicked him out of camp and started for home.

On the way, they hit gold. Lots of it. Not the Blue Bucket Mine, but a big enough strike for everyone to stake a lucrative claim – even Adams, who had been following the party scavenging food from camp leftovers.

The strike became a town, and the town became Auburn.

The town of Blue Bucket has yet to be platted. Is it still out there, somewhere in the mountains of northeast Oregon, waiting for a weekend adventurer, elk hunter or fly fisherman to stumble upon? Have subsequent floodwaters covered all the yellow pebbles with silt yards deep? Or did some crazy lonely prospector find it, mine it secretly and disappear?

We’ll probably never know.

How much truth is in this story?

There are good reasons to be skeptical of this frontier Oregon legend; there are aspects of the Blue Bucket story that make it clear it's been at the very least augmented over the years.

First, if the nuggets made such great fishing sinkers, and the settlers were so hungry, would they not have brought a few as fishing tackle?

Secondly, why are there no names associated with this story? Sure, the people involved could have tried to keep quiet about it, hoping to go back and cash in; but there were two or three years in which they supposedly had no idea what they'd found, and their unusually difficult Oregon Trail experience would have been a frequent topic of conversation during that time. How is it that we don't know who they were?

Third, in an era in which people sometimes had to bite coins to make sure they weren't fakes, how likely is it that a blacksmith would not recognize the nuggets as gold, even after learning how soft they were by beating one on the wagon tire?

Then, too, the idea that none of the children of the wagon train would have snuck a rock or two into a pocket seems pretty unlikely.

There's probably something real in this story somewhere; a legend like this seldom springs from nothing. Still, though, it's been 170 years. Who knows what the real story is?

The one thing we do know is that generations of Oregonians have shared and appreciated and wondered about this story around campfires and over dinner tables throughout the years. And we know, too, that people looking for it have made history — and would not have done so had it not been for this bit of frontier folklore.

As a historical account, it's pretty sketchy. But as a piece of oral folklore, this story's place in state history is assured and well deserved.

(Sources: Friedman, Ralph. Tales Out of Oregon. Sausalito, CA: Pars Publishing, 1967; Sullivan, William L. Hiking Oregon’s History. Eugene: Navillus, 2006)