The Orinoco is one of the largest and longest rivers in South America, but as far as we know, gold was never found along its banks.
So when a few flecks of gold were discovered along the Zumbro River in Oronoco, Minn., in the 1850s, the lure of the little village dwarfed that of its namesake river. None of the prospectors who flocked to Oronoco struck it rich. Most of them gave up their fruitless search in frustration. But to this day, Oronoco’s name and fame is tied to that gold rush — and to the annual antique fairs that lure modern-day treasure hunters to the village.
When Oronoco was founded in 1854, it was Hector Galloway, an early settler, who suggested naming the new town after the Orinoco River, which, to be honest, the Zumbro has never in any way, shape or form resembled.
But extravagant references to foreign places were common on the frontier. There is, after all, a local wide spot in the road named Potsdam, after the German city where Frederick the Great had his lavish Sanssouci Palace. Nearby is the town of Mazeppa, named for the hero of a romantic poem by Lord Byron. Such were the pretensions and aspirations of the pioneers who had grand hopes for their new settlements.
In the case of Oronoco, it appeared as if gold would deliver those dreams to local residents. And why not? In 1848, gold had been discovered in California, turning a once-remote region into a wealthy, bustling territory suddenly ready for statehood.
Minnesota was barely a state — it had only been admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858 — when gold was discovered that summer in the riverbed of the Zumbro near Oronoco. Within weeks, reports of gold in the river between Rochester and Oronoco were acting like a magnet, drawing crowds of get-rich-quick hopefuls to the region.
And some prospectors did become, if not rich, certainly better off than they had been. “The diggins at Oronoco are yielding two to six dollars a day, per man,” the Rochester Democrat newspaper reported.
Even a modest strike will draw in big investors. Enter the Oronoco Mining Company, which spent $1,000 to build sluices and a water wheel about five miles below Oronoco, according to a historical marker erected in 1968 in Oronoco. The plan was to use modern technology to uncover more gold than traditional panning ever could.
And for a while, it looked like the plan might work. Then Mother Nature got involved. Spring flooding in early 1859 washed away the mining machinery. The prospectors, having found just enough gold to keep their hopes elevated, rebuilt and went back to work.
That summer, though, heavy rains caused the rushing river to once again destroy the mining apparatus. Some of the frustrated prospectors labored on, but, “The boom died overnight,” the historical marker states.
These days, the boom survives in spirit. The annual Downtown Oronoco Gold Rush finds antique dealers setting up their booths along streets, in front yards, under shade trees, and anywhere else space can be found. The 2021 fair will be held Aug. 20-22. Prospectors will once again arrive by the thousands.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.