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by Joan Fewless Quigley

A place of interest to me, that holds long-ago stories, was formed in the Oligocene Epoch, 28.7 million years ago, in our Oregon area. Zero in on the John Day Formation, where there is ample evidence that ash-flow tuffs and small basalt flows periodically covered some of the John Day Basin’s temperate landscape. Some of the Oligocene volcanic vents produced economic deposits of mercury and minor gold in the Horse Heaven Hills between Ashwood and Mitchell, in the northeast corner of Jefferson County.

Meanwhile, in 1996, before my Oligocene revelation, my son and I went on a “Mother’s Day” drive. Danny wanted to turn off road and head for Ashwood. Since it was no ordinary road, he said, “Shall we take it?” I replied, “Sounds neat; let’s do it.”

Then we found our way to this place called Horse Heaven. OH MY WORD! Is this the place that my childhood friend, Raymond Morris, was whisked off to every summer between 1938 and 1943? Apparently my son and I had found our way to the geologically rich western edge of the John Day Basin, near the point where the John Day River turns abruptly north and enters a narrow canyon cut in the young basaltic lavas of the Columbia River Plateau. At that time, I didn’t know basalt from asphalt, tuff from duff, or Oligocene from kerosene.

Ten years later, in 2006, after making arrangements with Ray Morris and Bruce Chase, I began my compelling return to the tiny town of Ashwood, where you’re right in view of the orange-brown ash flow tuffs that line the canyon of Trout Creek. We were headed for the economic deposits area where I’ll tell you a 70-years-old story about my passenger Raymond and the Horse Heaven Mine. It seems like our Oregon Oligocene age is accessible, geologically interesting, and indeed, certainly does have stories to tell.

It was important for me to be back on that gravelly road since I was traveling with the original 5th grade classmate-story-teller, Ray Morris, and my adventurous friend, Bruce Chase. As my comrades and I bounced along the road that sported miles of fencing on both sides, plus a few cattle, we passed by some old and possibly empty ranch homes by the side of the road. Ray repeated names like Ray Crowley, who lived at Kilts, and other stories as he remembered them. As we kept bumping along to higher ground, Ray started pointing out high hills with no names and some buttes with names. “On the top side of this one,” as he pointed to Hinkle Butte, “my dad and I would climb, climb, climb, find just the right rock, move it out to the edge, give a push, and watch it turn into a fast rolling machine that bounced and rolled about 2,000 feet, and left “smoke trails” (dust), too!”

I can picture both father and son high above, both doubled over with laughter. For contrast, he then told us that near the top of an adjacent hill, Horse Heaven Butte, a very lone pine stood, boldly displaying a hang-man’s rope, swinging from a strong limb. I’m sure this sight would sober their father-son glee.

Some of this land we were traveling through was staked for gold and silver as early as 1865. In order to “stake a claim,” there were four easy steps:

  1. Cut and limb a tree, place a nail in it;
  2. Bury the stake on your ground;
  3. Hang an empty Prince Albert tobacco can on the nail;
  4. Place your authorized claim in the Prince Albert can and leave the

In 1934 the important mining began in the Horse Heaven region. The ore deposits are closely related to volcanic plugs. The ore was in the rhyolite plugs, formed during the period of volcanism, that most of the sought-after cinnabar deposits were found. Cinnabar is a heavy compound of mercury and sulfur, HgS. It is usually found in bright red, earthy masses, and sometimes in crystals. From this mineral, after heat processing, flows the silver-white metallic element Hg – Mercury – alias “quicksilver.”

We finally arrived at the site of Horse Heaven Mercury mine, where the discovery of cinnabar is credited to A. J. Champion, who found the mineral while panning in Cherry Creek. (That is where Ray, Bruce, and I had our picnic lunch on this trip.) Champion then traced the float to the clay and gravelly soil in a small saddle on the divide between Muddy Creek and Cherry Creek, this just north of Horse Heaven Butte. Although Champion established the presence of cinnabar float throughout a considerable area near the saddle, he failed to find the mineral in place.

Champion’s claims were bought by R. R. Whiting. His son Ray Whiting, Jr., with his friend Harry Hoy, traced the mineral to its source in ledges of altered platy (flaky) rhyolite to the north base of a hill, locally known as “Flat Rock”. In 1933, Whiting drove the first ore discovery adit (mine entrance) into this rhyolite, and started development work. He bought and installed a Hereshoff furnace, and production began in September, 1934. In 1936, the property was acquired by Sun Oil Company, and was operated as Horse Heaven Mines, Inc. That Herreshoff furnace, known as “the retort,” was put to work heating the crushed ore. The mercury vapor produced was then passed through condensers to recover the mercury by distillation. Elemental mercury trickled down condensers; was recovered in mud pots, and was dumped onto a sloping metal table. Mercury ran down to the end where it was drained off into 76-pound mercury flasks.

Total Mercury at Horse Heaven Mine:
(This says a lot for economic deposits)
(in 76-lb flasks*)

 1934  176 1940 1,626
1935 781 1941 1,940
1936 1,781 1942 1,243
1937 2,107 1943 911
1938 2,190 1944 674
1939 1,668 Total: 15,097

  * A “flask” is a metal container, approximately 2 1/2 ft. tall by 6 inches diameter.

At one time, 150 people lived at the Horse Heaven Mine site. During summers after 1938, the Morris family stayed in very humble housing in the vicinity of the mine, but their particular building is no longer standing. During our walk through the ghost town, Ray was able to point out the dark brown-colored, rickety cook shack. It was leaning badly. An early 40’s International Harvester Tractor stood its lonely vigil on its rusting rims. Down the road “a piece” was the tin can dump. A long and narrow downhill ravine was full of all different sized reddish-brown, totally rusted cans. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner came out of those cans 60 to 70 years ago.

As we walked and talked, Ray had a final remembrance. “See that small building that’s still standing? It’s the original office building. I remember one day a powder monkey (who is a specialist in dynamiting) laid a plaster shot on a boulder in Sunshine Stope and lit the fuse. The resulting explosion from the Dupont 70% Geltex rock powder reduced the boulder to rubble. It also blew a rock the size of your fist high enough to clear the stope and it came down through the roof of that office and landed on the floor.”

Horse Heaven was all hard rock mining underground, but there are several places where the underground mining reached the surface. Sunshine Stope was one that reached the surface. Underground, the mine shafts were drifted by drilling holes with a jackhammer in the face of the tunnel. Dynamite sticks were placed in each hole and the explosion would advance the tunnel about 6 feet. Ore was loaded into mine cars and manually pushed to a hoist and brought to the surface. The mine had 1,400 ft.-long tunnels on 10 levels before mining ceased.


Lloyd Staples: Geologist for Horse Heaven Mines, Inc. He contributed freely the knowledge he had gained while directing development work. He co-authored the Geological Survey Report.

Frank Lewis: Superintendent and engineer. He provided valuable information on the
early development of the mine, its geology, and mining problems.

Al Bartel: Mining engineer. He also built and operated Blossom Ski Tow on Mt. Hood.

Ray Morris: He rang the triangle for dinner, and his memories inspired this story.


For 10 years, the stope (an excavation permitting access to a mine) stayed open.

For 10 years, the tipples (structure that pulls ore out of the ground and loads it ) hung over the shafts, dipping out, and then dumping.

For 10 years, the retort continued the heating process.

AND THEN IT WAS OVER… The mill at Horse Heaven caught fire and burned in 1945

A great silence ensued.

(Department of Environmental Quality)

This agency is charged with the responsibility to mitigate chemical and physical hazards at this historic Horse Heaven mining site.

Notes: There are no longer any operating domestic mines at this site. Nearly all of Oregon’s mercury production has been from three areas: South West Lane County and adjacent Douglas County; the Horse Heaven area in East Jefferson County; and the McDermott area (Cordero Mine, Nevada) and in the South West Malheur County. Significant amounts were produced between 1929 and 1957. In some years, these mines accounted for as much as 10 % of the U.S. production. Most of the mercury production during WW II was converted to mercury fulminate, which was used to make bomb fuses.


V E S A – “Horse Heaven”

Google search – “Cinnabar”

D E Q – “Land Quality”

In Search of Ancient Oregon, by Ellen Morris Bishop

Atlas of Oregon – University of Oregon Press

C O C C field trip – Lee Baily, Geologist

Oregon Geographic Names – “Horse Heaven”:

The name, Horse Heaven, for the Jefferson County area, was given in 1885- 1890. At that time, the springs were accessible to wandering herds, and the grass was better [than that in surrounding areas (ed.)]. Then followed a period of overgrazing, fencing off the better springs, and more line fences.  The climate became drier. There is some open country in the area and at times
one sees small bands of range horses. The grass seems to have come back.

Picnic and long car ride with Ray Morris and Bruce Chase.



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