Prospecting buffs say Sultan Basin still a golden oldie
Times Snohomish County Bureau
JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Deep in the Sultan Basin, following a river bearing the same name, possibly lies a rich vein of gold.
Through the years, mining companies have come looking for it, extracting what they could, abandoning equipment as they've gone.
With strict environmental regulations now on the books, few mining companies would even consider that opportunity in the Sultan Basin, where the odds of striking it rich are probably worse than in a crapshoot.
But individual prospectors still trek into the woods for miles, up and over mountains and down to the banks of the Sultan River, hoping to strike gold yet rarely finding much more than they need to cover the cost of gasoline for pumps and sluices.
After efforts here going back well more than a century, no one has struck it rich — at least not rich enough to brag about. But there are still more than a dozen claims along the upper stretches of the Sultan River and the mountains that form the basin.
The majority of land stretching along the Sultan River belongs to government: the U.S. Forest Service, state Department of Natural Resources, city of Everett and Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD).
But an 1872 federal mining law still allows people to stake claims on public lands and search for valuable minerals — in this area, mostly gold, plus some silver and copper. Though some restrictions are in place to protect water quality and endangered species, most individual prospectors are left to their own devices.
"Historically, there was a lot of mining in the state of Washington, but in the last few years it's dwindled off," said Bob Derkey, a Department of Natural Resources geologist. "Part of it is that the high-grade deposits, especially those near the surface, have been depleted. Now we're down to the lower-grade stuff, and mom-and-pop miners don't go after those things anymore."
The Sultan Basin and other parts of Snohomish County were rife with mining operations around the turn of the 20th century. The Monte Cristo mines, the county's most famous, operated outside Granite Falls. An entire town was built around the mining, and hundreds of people lived there, commuting to Everett on a train built for carrying metals to the city for processing.
A fortune in gold was taken out of Monte Cristo's mines between 1893 and 1903, according to the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.
In the Sultan Basin, similar mining operations existed during that time, but never anything as lucrative. Here, operations focused on the 20-mile canyon above the Horse Shoe Bend area of the Sultan River, found less than two miles upstream from the powerhouse of the Snohomish County PUD's Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project.
Chinese prospectors searched for their fortunes then, followed by the Sultan River Mining Co., which blasted a tunnel under a hillside to move water away from the river for easier mining. Parts of the tunnel still exist.
"The area is rich in mining history," said Danny Miles, a PUD engineer.
The utility district, as part of its current process to re-license the Jackson project, is assessing many of these mining sites, determining what historical value the basin may have.
"You still find remains of engines, cots, washbowls and plates, now mostly grown over after 80 years of abandonment," Miles said.
What gives the area its potential for heavy metals such as gold is how the region came to be formed, geologist Derkey said. As drifting oceanic and continental plates collided long ago off the coast, rich mineral deposits were slowly pushed up along with the growth of the Cascades. In the Sultan Basin, a vein of gold was formed, but it spread out, which now makes it difficult to follow, Derkey said.
"That's basically the problem of looking for ore deposits in that area," he said. "The rocks in that area are too disrupted."
Early miners knew that heavy floods would wash out mineral deposits, sending them downstream to settle as the waters tailed off and slowed down. The trick was finding a deposit of gold or similar heavy metals and following it upriver, Derkey said.
If a miner passed a river tributary and the finds dried up, he'd turn around and head for the tributary, knowing that was the path the gold had taken.
"These things tend to get explored," said Rich Stearns, a Forest Service mining geologist. "Maybe one prospect in a thousand turns into a mine that would be valuable enough that someone would want to spend money on it."
As recently as the late 1980s and early '90s, companies, including the North American mineral giant Kennecott, were still giving the Sultan Basin a shot, Stearns said. Though gold was no longer the object of desire, copper was under consideration. However, exploration drilling didn't turn up enough to make the cost of extracting it worthwhile.
One of the big difficulties with large-scale mining is the amount of information needed to satisfy the public that no environmental harm is being done, Stearns said.
"That often isn't determined until after you a build a mine and go underground," he said. "It's like working through a crystal ball."
With environmental restrictions continuing to tighten on mining, the bar continually is raised for such a company to do business, Stearns said.
Individual prospectors have to follow many of the same rules, but not to the degree that large corporations must, said David Hoff, the president of the Washington Prospectors Mining Association.
"If a company finds valuable minerals, they have to do a whole series of surveys proving the minerals are there, and that costs thousands of dollars," Hoff said. "As a club, we never get to that point."
With about 350 members, the mining association holds claims in California, Oregon and Washington, including the Sultan Basin.
For most members, it's a recreational activity not much different from hunting, Hoff said.
"Maybe some people subsidize their living off of mining," Hoff said. "But others may just go for a weekend, and if they find half an ounce, they feel good about it. It's not something you'd get rich doing [in the Sultan Basin]."
Claim names along the Sultan River include Ajax Gold, Bren-Kate 70, Double D's and Windfall. The riches may not be there, but the mining spirit is.
Take Dave Eason, the mining association's claim manager, who lives in Marysville and spends summer weekends prospecting in the Sultan Basin. He and his partner drag more than 200 pounds of equipment for miles into the woods, sometimes descending more than 800 feet before reaching the river.
In more than 10 years of searching, Eason has never found any fragment of gold in the basin larger than 1.2 pennyweight, equal to about a 20th of an ounce. But he keeps coming back, hopeful that the next pan full of muddy water might make the trip worth it.
"The Sultan Basin is close, and we do get gold every time we go," Eason said. "It's not enough to pay for the gasoline it takes to get there, but it's just being out there that's more important."
Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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