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MailTribune.com
  • The Big One

  • Gold miners will tell you the biggest nugget in Oregon has yet to be discovered.
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  • Gold miners will tell you the biggest nugget in Oregon has yet to be discovered.
    But it would have to be extremely large to surpass the golden leviathan discovered in the Illinois Valley in 1859. The nugget weighed in at about 17 pounds — that's right, we're talking pounds, not ounces.
    Although big nuggets long have been the stuff of legend, the find is documented in the well-regarded Bulletin 61 published in 1968 by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.
    Titled "Gold and Silver in Oregon," the booklet was written by veteran geologists Howard C. Brooks and Len Ramp. The latter spent decades studying the rich mining history of southwestern Oregon.
    "I don't remember all the details but it was very large," says Ramp, now 84 and retired in Grants Pass. "Of course, it was one of several big nuggets in Josephine County in the 1850s or so, especially out in the Illinois Valley."
    In fact, the bulletin reported that between 1850 and 1965, the state produced some 5.8 million ounces of gold and 5.4 million in silver worth about $210 million total. Much of the gold was mined before 1900 and in southwestern and northwestern Oregon, it noted.
    But keep in mind the estimated value was when gold went for about $35 an ounce or less. The price of gold has shot up since the booklet was published, and now goes for more than $1,100 an ounce.
    In other words, the value of the 5.8 million ounces of gold mined in Oregon has gone up more than 3,000 percent.
    The story of the state's biggest nugget, which has been told and retold over the decades in various publications, tells of an Irishman named Matthew "Mattie" Collins who was working a placer claim in 1859 on the east fork of Althouse Creek, a tributary to the Illinois River.
    He uncovered what would appropriately be called the "Collins Nugget," which weighed 204 ounces, according to Bulletin 61. The humongous nugget fetched $3,500 in 1859 prices, it added.
    "It should be pointed out that values of large nuggets as collector's items or museum pieces are often more than twice the value of their metal content," Brooks and Ramp noted in the bulletin.
    Unfortunately, the 17-pounder went the way of most nuggets. It was melted down and shipped out to become gold coins or made into jewelry.
    That golden band on your finger could be part of the Collins Nugget.
    As for the miner, he seems to have faded into history.
    Another huge nugget weighing more than 15 pounds was reportedly discovered near Waldo in the Illinois Valley between 1860 and 1864, Brooks and Ramp noted.
    Its value at the time? About $3,100.
    The largest Oregon nugget still in existence can be seen in the U.S. Bank in Baker City. Known as the Armstrong Nugget, it was found June 19, 1913, by miner George Armstrong.
    Weighing in at 80.4 ounces, or roughly 5 pounds, it was found in a placer mine in Buck Gulch near Susanville in Grant County.
    If the nugget was melted down, it would be worth more than $88,000. But, as Brooks and Ramp observed, the value would be substantially greater if the gold was sold in its original state.
    The nugget is secure in a glass case where you can look but can't touch. You can bet there are security measures in place that you can't see, let alone touch.
    But when it comes to bragging rights, southwestern Oregon historically has been the king of big nuggets.
    And they weren't all found in the 19th century. In August 1938, a gold nugget described as nearly as large as a hen's egg and weighing 11.75 ounces was found in a Squaw Creek placer mine in the upper Applegate River drainage by a miner named Jerry Lovel, according to an article in the Mail Tribune back in the day.
    Lovel told the paper he had mined about $375 in gold during the previous 10 days, although that nugget was the largest.
    Not too shabby, considering the Great Depression still shrouded the land.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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