Local rockhounds stumble across collection from one of Oregons first rockhounds: Klondike Kate

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - In Latourell Falls, Gorge rockhound Steve Wheeler admires rock collection of early Oregon rockhound Kate Rockwell.Retired logger Chuck Rollins is holding up a huge chunk of rock in his backyard as it starts to rain in the small, almost hidden town of Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

To some it’s merely a rock, but for rockhounds like Rollins, it is 100 pounds of moss agate studded with beautiful quartz crystals, and a rare slice of Oregon history.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Chuck Rollins, president of the Columbia Gorge Rockhounds and Crown Point Historical Society.“Oregon is renown for its minerals,” said Rollins, his house an old saloon and museum of rocks he’s collected in 50 years he’s lived in the Gorge.

“Agates, jasper and petrified woods. Almost any stream or gravel bar, you can find them,” he said.

As president of the Columbia Gorge Rockhounds, a club formed in 1951 by a group of friends who relish in the search and study of rocks, Rollins is interested in keeping the hobby of rockhounding alive.

This year, the 25-member rock club, which meets every third Friday night at the Corbett Fire Hall, plans to build a “rockhound memorial wall” honoring rockhounds from the past, present and future.

Teaming up on the project with the Crown Point Historical Society, of which Rollins is also president, the organizations plan to install the rock wall on 2.7 acres of property they’ve purchased across the street from the fire hall.

“We are going to use rocks from all over the state to represent what rockhounds went out to collect,” Rollins said.

While researching some of Oregon’s earliest rockhounds, Rollins said he was surprised to learn one of the first documented was not only a woman but a young vaudeville actress and dancer who rose to fame during Alaska’s Yukon gold rush.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: MUSEUM OF HISTORY & INDUSTRY, SEATTLE - Klondike Kate as a young entertainer.The charismatic 28-year-old redhead Kate Rockwell captured the hearts of miners as a stage performer in Dawson City and earned the name “Klondike Kate,” queen of the Yukon.

But after losing her fortune in an unlucky love affair, Kate eventually found her way to central Oregon, where she could find peace of mind, Rollins said.

In 1914, Kate built a cabin in the Oregon high desert and homesteaded more than 320 acres of her land claim near Brothers.

The former darling, who humored miners as they serenaded her with songs and paid her in gold nuggets that they tossed onstage, began picking up rocks.

First on foot or horseback, then driving a beat-up old Model T around the desert, she searched for them.

“She had a passion for rock hunting and picked them up every chance she could, saying they were pieces of the earth that held secrets, wonder and knowledge,” Rollins said.

Over the years, Kate acquired a magnificent collection of petrified woods, huge agates, geodes, jasper, thunder eggs, obsidian and multi-colored semiprecious stones.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: MCMENAMINS EDGEFIELD - Kate Rockwell, or Klondike Kate, in front of her rock chimney in Bend.Eventually Kate sold her homestead and moved to Bend, where she built herself a porch and a chimney out of her rock collection. Staying active in the community, she became known as “Aunt Kate” to locals.

“Many believe she was one of Oregon’s first rockhounds,” Rollins said.

Twenty years after she died, her chimney was torn down, and the rocks were allegedly split up between three contractors.

Interestingly enough, a large portion of Klondike Kate’s chimney has found its way to Corbett to be included in the rockhound memorial wall.

Fellow Columbia Gorge rockhound Steve Wheeler tells the rest of the story.

Wheeler, a Corbett resident, said he’s been a rockhound his whole life, starting as a little kid when he would go hunting for rocks with his dad in parts of Oregon and Washingotn.

“It’s exciting to find something beautiful,” Wheeler said. “You find a big crystal or agate and nobody else has ever seen it. Then maybe you can turn it into something.”

One day in October, Wheeler was on Craigslist looking up petrified wood when he saw an ad: Klondike Kate’s chimney for sale. A man was charging $2,000 or best offer.

Wheeler told Rollins — both were familiar with Kate’s story — and the club president said he’d be thrilled to include her collection in the rockhound memorial wall.

Rollins ask a friend in Bend to go check it out. He gave the man some cash, and the rest was donated.

Soon after, three Gorge rockhounds were hauling 700 pounds of “some of the finest and most interesting rocks in Oregon” by trailer back to Latourell Falls, where it lies spread out in Rollins’ backyard.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Petrified wood, agates and jasper that Kate Rockwell found in the early 1910s in the high desert of central Oregon.The giant moss agate with crystals is one of Kate’s finds.

He picks up another. It is agate limb cast, created long ago with the help of a volcano.

“You really have to work hard to find stuff like that now,” Rollins said. “Back then you could just pick it off the ground.”

Volcanic ash burned a hollow cavity in the log, which filled with liquid rock or silica, and pressure crystallized the middle into agate and other rock forms.

“It takes millions of years,” Rollins said.

Agate colors come from different elements in the soils — green from copper, red from iron, blues, pinks and yellows. “The more colors the better (and more valuable),” Rollins said.

Searching for the most beautiful ones is part of the addiction for rockhounds.

Kate’s rocks will join those collected by Gorge rockhounds, including agates from the Columbia River and petrified woods from local creek beds, in the wall.

To fund its construction, Rollins plans to sell $100 memorial bricks to people who would like to contribute to remembering Oregon’s early rockhounds.

Rollins said it’s a hobby that’s been enjoyed by Oregon families for more than 100 years.

He also hopes to reach out to other rock clubs to include in the project.

The wall will be approximately 20 feet long, up to 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, Rollins said.

“There will be a bench at the end of the wall where you can sit and watch sunsets,” he said. “Kate loved sunsets.”

Her life motto, said Rollins, was “Smile and mush on.”

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