A Once Thriving Mining Community Becomes a Tourist Attraction

Mill Street Sumpter 1910


By Steve Lent, Crook County Historian

Sumpter is a small community located along the North Powder River in Baker County, Oregon. It was intended to be named for Fort Sumter, South Carolina at which the American Civil War began. It is reported that an early resident of the area discovered a round and smooth rock that resembled a cannon ball and since Fort Sumter was in the news at the time he recommended the name.

A post office was established first in 1874 and named Sumter but was discontinued in 1878. A new post office was established on December 13, 1883. Post office officials would not allow the name Sumter to be sued so the new post master Joseph Young used a derivative of the name and proposed Sumpter. This honored the original proposal and also the Sumpter mule which was a popular pack mule.

The community was established at a site that later became a mining boom area. Sumpter was near a set of deep mine shafts that had a combined 12 miles of tunnels. It became a main supply center for nearby mining activity. It was a typical mining town that had saloons, churches, a brewery, newspapers and an opera house. It grew to a population of nearly 2000 people. A narrow gauge rail line was built from Baker to Sumpter in 1897.

A large dredging operation was conducted on the North Powder River near Sumpter and operated for several years. However after the turn of the Twentieth Century mining declined and so did the community of Sumpter. A devastating fire in 1917 destroyed many of the buildings in the community.

The community was in decline for many years but the tourist industry revived its fortunes. Today it is a popular tourist attraction. Combined with the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Historical Area it attracts a large number of visitors each year. Many of the surviving buildings from the fire are used for shops.