by N.L. Barlee
In 1929, two Doukhobor firefighters lost in the Gold creek basin of Washington discovered a ledge of silver so rich it averaged over 1,000 ounces of ore per ton. For over seven decades, prospectors have failed to relocate the rich deposit of silver known as the “Lost Doukhobor Ledge”. Reproduced with permission from the pages of “Gold Creeks and Ghost Towns of Northeastern Washington” by N.L. Barlee (Washington: Old Okanogan Publishing Company, 1988).
Conservative, deliberate and cautious, he was certainly not the type of man who habitually chased after rainbows. And yet summer after summer, year after year, Roy Clark made an annual journey, a secretive and well planned trip into a little known triangle across the river from historic Northport, Washington to an area close to the Canadian border in northern Stevens County.
Clark was searching for a mine which had been discovered in 1929, a find known locally by the old timers as “The Lost Doukhobor Ledge.” Roy Clark, like so many others before and since, was unsuccessful in his long quest although he and a select handful of Northport pioneers, were convinced that it did, in fact, exist.
And their certainty was well founded and based upon more than just vague rumour. It was well documented and there were witnesses who were there at the time of discovery and saw the spectacular ore.
In the fall of 1929, after a particularly dry summer, a lightning strike started a small blaze in the Gold creek basin. Gold Creek is a minor stream that flows into Sheep creek, a tributary of the Columbia. The area is north of Flagstaff Mountain and just beyond Hubbard Ridge.
Gold Creek, Washington. The search for the “Lost Doukhobor Ledge” began here.
The fire, although initially small, rapidly began to spread. The Ranger in charge, M.R. “Buck” Hankins, hoping to contain the blaze, quickly sent in a four man firefighting crew, anticipating that they might be able to put it out before it spread any farther. Unknown to Hankins, however, his Canadian counterpart, stationed only a few miles away, in Rossland, B.C., receiving reports that the fire was starting to run out of control, sent a suppression crew of twenty-five into the fire site. Most of the Canadians were Doukhobors; a religious sect in the West Kootenay region, and many were experienced fire fighters. By the time they arrived on the scene, however, the fire was crowning and out of control. They twenty-nine men headed into the Gold creek basin, hoping to throw up a fireguard to prevent it from spreading farther to the east.
By nightfall, after working frantically, they finally managed to put in a narrow guard. But it was too narrow, barely half an hour later the now raging inferno jumped the guard and swept into the camp. The men scattered, running for their lives before the fire. Finally, safely out of reach, they rendezvoused and counted – twenty-seven men. Two of their crew were missing! A roll call revealed that the missing men were two Doukhobors from Rossland, both with years of experience in fire control. But their compatriots were worried and they had good reasons to be worried, the fire had been crowning when they fled from their first camp, with the trees literally exploding on either side of them as they ran. Other fire-fighters had been burned to death in similar conditions and they assumed the worst for their two comrades. But, considering the hazardous conditions, they had no choice, they would have to wait until the first light of morning before they sent out a search party.
At dawn, just as the search party was preparing to leave, the two missing Doukhobors suddenly appeared. At the same time a young man named Ray Wiley came into camp from the opposite direction. He had been sent in by Hankins with water for the crew. Although Wiley was still a teenager, he was surprised to find that the camp was in an uproar. Informed that two men had returned after going missing, he naturally assumed that the other Doukhobors were elated with their almost miraculous deliverance from the all consuming fire.
Then he noticed that the Doukhobors remained in a tight knot and were passing something from hand to hand, accompanied by much excited babbling in Russian, their native language. Edging closer to the group, he was that there were two objects being passed around and examined by the assembled men. The objects were pieces of ore, obviously galena. Almost six decades later Wiley remembered with clarity that “It was fine grained argentite – high grade silver ore.” It was spectacular looking ore and elicited gasps of admiration from the fire-fighters, most of whom had at least a passing knowledge of geology.
The two Doukhobors then related an astonishing story. They had become separated from the main group during the confusion the night before and had fled wildly before the fire, barely keeping ahead of the flames. Finally they managed to get far enough ahead to look for refuge. Just as they were approaching exhaustion, they spotted a rock slide. Realizing it was probably the safest place around, they decided to stay overnight in the rocks near its base; well out of the timber – aware that rocks don’t catch fire but timber does. And they stayed put all night sleeping fitfully and uncomfortably while the fire, roaring and crackling, swept on by them. At first light, they arose, gathered up their tools, and prepared to move out.
But as they picked their way slowly through the slide, working towards its base, they stumbled across a vein of galena. They paused to examine it. It was galena all right and it looked like it was high grade galena. Using their axe as a hammer, they managed to break off two pieces from the ledge and decided to take the samples with them for eventual assay (ore analysis).
The others stared at the samples, turning them over and over in their hands as they looked at them. Ray Wiley remembered that they were only about five inches by six inches and weighed perhaps seven pounds each. Finally, after the specimens had been passed around the circle of men several times, the discoverers retrieved them and put them into their packs, stating that they would have an assay run at the C.M.&S. Co. assay office in Trail, British Columbia as soon as they got back, to see if the ore was as valuable as it appeared to be.
Many days later, with the forest fire under control at last, the Doukhobors returned to Rossland. Several months elapsed but finally, in the late spring of 1930, the two Doukhobors returned to Northport accompanied by a pair of geologists.
The ore samples, it turned out, had assayed at over 1,000 ounces of silver a ton – bonanza ore! Confident that they could easily locate the rock slide and the rich ledge of galena, the ecstatic discoverers, accompanied by the geologists, headed north into the valley of Big Sheep creek. Late in the afternoon they wheeled west, into the Gold creek basin.
But it was a far different Gold creek valley than it had been a summer before. The forest fire had devastated the basin. Charred and blackened stumps, burned dead falls and a desolate valley greeted the prospectors.
Undaunted, the two Doukhobors still convinced that they could find the rock slide, picked their way through the burn. And all that afternoon and the next day, and the day after that, they crossed and re-crossed the basin, working carefully as they proceeded west up the little valley, looking vainly for the slide. They found some slides, some big, some small, but none of them proved to be the right one.
Abandoned prospector’s cabin near Gold Creek. It was in this area the “Lost Doukhobor Ledge” was found.
Finally their food ran out and they were forced to give up the search. Deeply disappointed, they returned to Northport, swearing to come back again to resume the search. And they did return, making four more trips into the Gold creek area, but each time they returned empty handed.
Eventually, the two Doukhobors gave up, but the search was taken up by other prospectors, men who were familiar with the details or who had actually seen the ore, and remained convinced that the ledge was somewhere in or near the Gold creek basin. So the search continued, through the thirties and on into the forties. But none of these men, many of them dedicated prospectors, ever found the rock slide where the two Doukhobors had discovered the galena ledge. They did find rock slides in the basin of Gold creek, but none of them was the right one, not one had a band of high grade silver ore. And finally they too gave up the quest.
But this is one of those rare and fascinating lost mine stories where the facts are difficult to dismiss. Of that initial suppression crew of twenty-nine, three of them are still living and each recalls the details of that day in 1929 with absolute clarity. They remember the two missing men coming back to camp with the high grade ore and the excitement the samples generated after they were passed around. It was one of those rare and indelible moments which the mind’s eye captures and retains, often for a lifetime.
The facts are clear. The 1929 forest fire in the basin of Gold creek is well documented and remembered. Ray Wiley, who carried the water into the crew during that fire, still lives on the north side of the Columbia on his ranch at Rattlesnake creek, just south of the Gold creek basin. Wiley, like so many other old timers in the region, is convinced that the ledge is there – he was there and he saw the ore. Over the decades, Wiley, a well known prospector, has made a number of trips into the basin in search of the lost ledge, but he, like Roy Clark and the others, failed to locate that rich deposit of silver.
So in that Gold creek region north of historic Northport, lies a rock slide, and somewhere under that slide is the ledge of galena with ore so rich that it averages over 1,000 ounces of silver in each ton. Recent slides of rock may have covered that fabulous ledge – but its there. And one day someone will find it, and that person will be fortunate indeed because the mysterious “Lost Doukhobor Ledge” has long been one of the closely guarded secrets of Stevens County.