Between 1874 and 1877, Chinese laborers hand dug a 21-mile (34 km) long ditch to bring water from the Pipe Fork of the East Fork of Williams Creek to J.T. Layton’s hydraulic gold mines in Bamboo and Ferris Gulches. Although profitable (not something you can say for most mines around here), the gold-bearing alluvium feeding these mines eventually played-out. So, by the 1920s, this ditch (and others like it) had been abandoned and mostly forgotten. But its alignment and the ditch tender trail next to it remained. Then the restoration of the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail in the mid-2000s showed how these old ditches could become highly popular hiking and riding venues. For the Layton Ditch, the Williams Community Forest Project teamed with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to restore 13 miles of it as a hiking and riding trail. 😃
We hiked part of the restored Layton north from Panther Gap to the Chinese Wall in 2017 and then again in 2021. In 2018, I hiked the trail south from Panther Gap to what seemed like its end where the Pipe Fork turns to become the East Fork of Williams Creek. But the ditch ended well above the creek and it wasn’t clear how water got from one to the other. A little archival research revealed that Layton had invested in a 600 foot (183 m) long inverted siphon (a sag pipe), constructed with 36 inch (91 cm) iron pipe, to convey water from the Pipe Fork across the Williams Creek divide. This was a historic first for hydraulic mining in Southern Oregon. But I saw no sign of this pipe at the end of the ditch on the east side of the divide.
Layton didn’t document his sag pipe with any images, but it and its burial probably looked a lot like the sag pipe being installed at the La Grange Mine in Trinity County, California in 1915.
I went back later in 2018 to look for this pipe on the north side of Pipe Fork. Although I had a nice hike on an old forest road that was reverting to single-track, there was no sign of the pipe. I got to thinking that it had been carted off for use elsewhere (or for scrap) sometime in the last 100 years. It didn’t dawn on me then that the reason I didn’t see any pipe was maybe because Layton had buried it! Then a few days ago, Randy and Rich (from the Ashland Hiking Group) went to the end of the ditch and found a piece of pipe and more ditch – but up the slope on the south side of the Pipe Fork.
Their find made me wonder whether any of these old features would show on Lidar imagery, something Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) has now accomplished for much of the state. Lidar has been a boon to Central American archaeology because it lets you “see” features under a tree canopy. It does the same for pine forests as it does for tropical forests. So, sure enough, you can easily pick-out the Layton Ditch on both sides of the Williams Creek divide, as well as the trench where the sag pipe was placed. I think the pipe itself was removed years ago but its trench remains. The supplemental ditch going to an intermittent stream to the south was a surprise, as it’s not mentioned in any of the old mining literature. But hydraulic mines are water hogs, so Layton was obviously not going to miss an easy chance to collect more water.
Of course, I had to go see this piece of pipe for myself. The LovedOne, perhaps less enamored of old rusty pipe, elected to stay home and attach buttons to a giant pink sweater she’d just finished knitting. 🙄
You can reach the head of the Layton from the north from a gated spot on East Fork Road. But, after some map gazing, I found a BLM road that would take me to the ridge above the ditch on the east side of the divide. From there, it was relatively easy to drop down to the ditch trail and follow it south to its end above Williams Creek.
It’s much easier to find something once you know it was there and where it was there. From the end of the ditch, I followed the now obvious alignment of the old pipe down, across East Fork Road, and up the slope on the west side of the divide to the remaining piece of sag pipe.
The pipe sits at the confluence of the main ditch from the Pipe Fork and the supplemental ditch coming in from the south. I didn’t try to follow the ditch going south because it soon crosses on to private land. Instead, I followed the main ditch around and into the quite deep canyon of the Pipe Fork. This ditch is still well defined at first but soon becomes filled with eroded soil.
After 150 years, I had no expectation of finding any headworks where the ditch contacted the Pipe Fork. These may not have been all that much back in the day – just enough rocks and boards to divert water into the ditch. The Pipe Fork was peaceful today but, judging by the canyon it has dug in the flanks of Grayback Mountain, it’s probably capable of high flows during Spring runoff. So why invest in an elaborate headworks if it’s likely to be washed away every year?
On my return, I left the ditch trail at a low point along the ridge, climbed to the road, and walked it back to where I’d parked. This proved to be an easier and much less brushy way of connecting the road and the ditch.
And that was it – pipe found, headworks visited, and a little bit of local history revealed for a wrap on the Layton Ditch story. While I’m interested in the mechanics of historic mining (stamps mills, adits, sag pipes, tramways, etc.), I am also fascinated (and sometimes stunned) by the lengths to which people will go in (the often faint) hope of pulling wealth out of the ground. Too often this greed (requited or not) left wreckage and ruin in its wake – tailing piles, open pits, acid runoff, ghost towns, railroads to nowhere, exploited labor. Here, at least, we were left with a pleasant, shady trail (thanks to much volunteer effort) connecting two pieces of Southern Oregon’s mining history – the Chinese Wall to the north and the sag pipe to the south. Well worth a visit! 😁