America’s first gold rush started in Western North Carolina by a lucky accident. Find out at the Colburn Earth Science Museum in downtown Asheville, that features an impressive collection of gems, minerals, precious metals, fossils and photographs documenting the rich mining history of North Carolina.
It’s gold mine for history buffs, hobbyists and tourists. The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10AM – 5PM, Sunday 1 – 5PM. Admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors, students, and children over 4.
The beginnings… (historical data and photos are from the museum exhibit)
In 1799, Conrad, his 12 years old son, spotted a shimmering yellow rock while fishing on the family farm and brought it home. His parents, not familiar with gold, used the rock as a doorstop.
In 1802, John Reed sold it to a jeweler in Fayeteville, NC for $3.50. He later found out the rock was a large gold nugget, returned to the jeweler and collected an additional $3,000.
And so the country’ first gold fever began!
The Reed farm quickly became the Reed Gold Mine. The creek where the rock was found was rich in gold for nearly a mile, and the area will later yield over 150 pounds of gold nuggets.
By 1803, there were over 600 mines and prospects in Western North Carolina. Most gold was found by panning in streams and using simple rockers. At this time North Carolina was a slave state; historical records suggest that at the height of the gold rush fever as many as 3,000 slaves could be seen working the gravel deposits along a single stream…
By 1825, most of the gold nuggets and flakes found in streams had been mined.
A Stanley County farmer, Mathias Barringer, found an outcrop of quartz with a gold vein while following a trail of nuggets upstream.
He realized the small nuggets found in rivers were eroded from the exposed gold vein.
Baringer decided to extract gold from the rock rather than the stream, and so the first subsurface gold mine in North Carolina was born.
Prospectors began looking for “color”, the whie quartz vein that indicated the loction of gold. Most were not skilled in subsurface mining; serius accidents and deaths were fairly common.
European immigrants bring in mining know-how
Immigrants from Cornwall, England and Germany brought mining expertise and technology.
Examples include stamp mills, blasting and drilling techniques, mine shafts, drifts, beam reinforced ceilings and walls, and the Cornish-designed buckets (kibbles) that hoisted miners and gold to the surface.
Underground work at the Reed Mine began in 1831.
In 1842, miners found a 20 foot wide gold vein at Gold Hill in Rowan county. Mining veterans flocked to the area sensing good fortunes. By 1848, the town boasted 15 active mines, 5 stores, 4 doctors, and 27 saloons.
The majority of gold mining towns in North Carolina (unlike th western mining towns popularized in movies), were fairly peaceful due to the strong religious background of the Cornish miners.
In the early 1800s, North Carolina was the nation’s sole native source of gold. The only U.S. Mint at the time was in Philadelphia. Because of long distance and poor transportation conditions miners looked for an easier and safe way to convert their raw gold into money.
In 1831, Christopher Bechtler, a German immigrant entrepreneur, proposed to coin the miners gold for a 2.5% fee. The miners agreed and a min opened near Rutherfordton, NC.
From 1831 to 1840 he minted $2.2 million in gold coins and melted 85,000 ounces into bars ($3 billion in today’s value!)
The Bechtler coins were so well accepted for commerce that during the Civil War the monetary obligations of the Confederacy were specified as payable in “Bechtler gold” rather than Union, Confederate or state currency.
In 1835, the U.S. Congress authorized creation of the Charlotte Mint. Soon, Charlotte became a regional banking center, a position it still holds today.
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