Trail of History: North Carolina Gold


– [Announcer] This is a
production of PBS Charlotte. (upbeat music) – [Narrator] The Charlotte
skyline today glistens in the sunlight of daybreak. But as the thousands go to work, underneath their very feet
lies Charlotte’s golden past. – Charlotte began to produce
substantial amounts of gold. They were mining all up
and down Mint Street. In fact at one point, Charlotte had over
80 operating mines. – [Narrator] That’s
right, gold mines, making Charlotte a part of
the nation’s first gold rush. A rush kicked off by a
17-pound nugget found in a Cabarrus County creek. And after close to a
century of mining– – Moving into the 20th
century, most of the gold mines that were in North
Carolina ceased to operate. They were no longer economical because of the nature
of the deposits. (lively music) (water splashes) – [Narrator] But
as the saying goes, “There’s still gold
in them there hills.” – When someone offers you a
chance to run a gold mine, you take it. (laughs) – [Narrator] But people’s
fascination with gold is far from over and today, recreational gold miners
travel from all over to pan, sluice and even dredge
for gold in North Carolina. – [Randy] Let’s what we got. – [Narrator] And on this
episode of “Trail of History,” we’ll meet the people
still captivated by the search for gold and
willing to break a sweat in search of this
precious metal. – [Randy] I find gold
every time I’m up here. – [Narrator] We’ll learn
about young Conrad Reed and the 17-pound nugget
he unknowingly discovered that started the
nation’s first gold rush. – His dad used it
for a door stop. – [Narrator] Then we’ll
explore the legacy of gold mining in
North Carolina. We travel to one small town that was the epicenter
of gold mining and the envy of the region. We’ll also meet community
leaders back in the Queen City, working to add another
jewel to the crown with Charlotte’s very
own gold district. Those stories and more right
here on “Trail of History.” (upbeat music) (lively music) Panning for gold might
look easy enough. After all, all you need is
a pan, a bit of pay dirt and some water, right? But there’s technique and
here at Reed Gold Mine, visitors to this North
Carolina state historic site can try their luck. – It’s definitely fun. It takes a lot of patience. – [Narrator] For siblings,
Arielle and Levi Trent, lady luck was on their side. – I don’t know how
much it’s worth. It’s so small, I would say it’s probably
not worth that much, but it was pretty exciting because I didn’t
find any last time. – It’s two small pieces
of gold that I found. Yes, I was very exciting. – [Narrator] But to
understand the history behind North Carolina’s gold,
lets start at the beginning. Meet geologist, Dr.
Andy Bobyarchick. – I have a Ph.D in
geological sciences. Everybody knows
what gold looks like and that it’s valuable
and pretty and all that, but where does it come from? And the ultimate answer
is gold comes from stars. It’s one of the elements
produced in novas and then in solar nebulae, like that that formed
our solar system. In earth, gold gets to near
us, close to the surface, by geologic processes,
like volcanic activity. Gold is fairly common. That doesn’t mean you can go out and pick up any rock
out of your backyard and you’re gonna
find gold in it. It may be just atoms of gold, but it’s fairly widespread
in crustal rocks. – [Narrator] There are
two types of gold mining, they’re called a
placer or a lode. – A lode is one of these
vein type deposits, or sometimes a more
massive deposit that’s sort of in
place in the bedrock. Placer deposits are
usually associated with rivers or streams
where erosion has removed some of those vein deposits and concentrated
fragments of those rocks into the stream gravel. This is when people go out
and do panning in streams. What they’re really
panning is placer deposits. – [Narrator] A lode mine
might only produce one gram of gold per ton of mined rock, so you might ask yourself
why all the effort? – Platinum, it is more rare,
but gold has high value because of its use in
so many different ways. – [Narrator] Jewelry
might be the first thing that comes to mind,
but look around you, gold is everywhere
in our modern world, from your cell
phones, computers, televisions and space craft. That versatility in all uses
make gold extremely valuable. (engine roars)
(soothing music) Over in Cabarrus County,
just east of Charlotte, you’ll find the Reed Gold Mine. While it no longer
produces gold, the site now serves
as a treasure trove for those wanting
nuggets of information about North Carolina’s
rich gold history which goes back more
than two centuries. – This was John Reed’s farm. He was a Hessian
soldier that came over during the Revolutionary War. When he left the
military service, settled in this part
of North Carolina, married Sarah Kiser,
started raising a family, it turns out he had a gold
mine here without knowing it. – [Narrator] The couple’s
12-year-old son, Conrad, gets the credit for the
life-changing discovery. – Well as the story goes, one Sunday he and his siblings
went walking along the creek, bow and arrow fishing, and he saw this interesting
shiny rock down in the creek. – [Narrator] And on
that day in 1799, it was this creek where young
Conrad found that shiny rock. Though the exact location of
his discovery is lost to time, the nugget itself
remains legendary. – It was described
as about the size of a small child’s shoe. When his parents came
home he showed it to them. They didn’t know what it was, his dad used it for a door stop. – [Narrator] That’s
right, used as a door stop until three years
later when in 1802, John Reed took his 17-pound
doorstop to Fayetteville. – The jeweler there melted
it down into a gold bar and asked John Reed
to name his price. Well he thought about
it and he finally said, “I’ll take $3.50,”
because that is how much he hoped to make each
week off of his farm. So he figured a supposedly
worthless shiny rock, that’s a fair price. Well the problem is, the gold in that rock
then was worth $3,600. – [Narrator] And with that, the Reed family became part of
history and a founding family in the discovery of
gold in our nation. – This is not only
an important site for the state of North Carolina, but the entire United States because this is the first
documented discovery of gold in America. We were 50 years
before California. – [Narrator] Initially John
Reed started with placer mining, finding the gold near the
surface and the creeks. – Some of the earliest stuff
was actually just using anything that would hold water. So you’re looking at
old frying pans, plates, things that they could
just put some of the water and the dirt in to try
to sift out the gold. – [Narrator] Like many
enterprises in the South, the Reed Mine used
enslaved workers and one of those
workers is credited with a second astonishing
and legendary find. – An interesting
story is in 1802, right when they
first started mining, one of the enslaved
workers named Peter, not far from where we
are now on the property, discovered a 28-pound gold
nugget right along the banks of Little Meadow Creek. That became the largest
gold nugget ever found east of the Mississippi River. – [Narrator] After nearly
30 years of placer mining, John Reed began
underground mining. – [Larry] The underground
mining started around 1832 and continued up until the
mine shut down in 1912. – [Narrator] The
miners would chase gold-bearing veins of quartz,
hauling it to the surface then crushing it in a mill. Initially a Chilean mill, then
later years, a stamp mill, like this example made by Mecklenburg County
Iron Works in 1895. The mills would crush the
quartz to separate the gold. Mills like this operated all around the
Carolina gold fields. (lively music) The Reed Mine was added
to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Today visitors
can go underground and explore the
actual mine shafts. They can check out
the stamp mill, tour the museum and of
course pan for gold. Since it is a North
Carolina historic site, admission is free but there is
a small fee to pan for gold. – It’s always very fun
to go in the panning area and, as either an
instructor or just watching, as people are going through
and they’re thinking, “Well I’m not going to find
anything in these pans, “there’s no gold.” And then you get down to
the bottom and you’re like, “Are you sure there was
no gold in this pan?” And they kind of
look at you, “What?” I say, “Well here
it is right here.” And they just get
all big and wide-eyed and then all happy and stuff. And that’s what I like to see because it gives them
an interesting memory
of visiting here but then they start
to really realize what they’ve seen today
and the importance of gold to North Carolina and
the country as a whole. (upbeat music) – [Narrator] When gold was
discovered on the Reed farm, other prospectors
arrived looking to find their own discovery. – So this gold region ran
from up toward Greensboro, down through Charlotte
into upstate South Carolina and then west toward the
town of Rutherfordton. So they were operating and people were finding gold
throughout North Carolina. – [Narrator] One
community that thrived from all the prospecting
is just 17 miles northeast of the Reed Mine. Meet Vivian Hopkins
of Gold Hill. – I’m Vice President of
the Historic Gold Hill and Mines Foundation. Gold Hill got its name in 1843 when the town had grown so big it was in need of a post office. The first gold discovery
here at Gold Hill was 1824 on the farm of Andrew Troutman. And it wasn’t until the 1840s, when George
Barnhardt moved here, to where we really prospered
and became more famous. – [Narrator] The mines in
Gold Hill were extensive and just about
everywhere you look you’ll find equipment in
ruins of a bygone era. – This was a huge gold boom town and right now is a great
time to come and visit because you have the gold
history of other locations, but then you come
here to Gold Hill and you can actually see it. The Gold Hill Mining
District has 24 gold mines. The primary ones here at Gold
Mill proper are the Barnhardt and that gold mine is 435 feet, the Randolph is 850 feet. Before the Civil War, out of these two mines alone
here on the park property with the Barnhardt
and the Randolph, seven to $9 million in gold just out of those
two veins alone. – [Narrator] And
according to Hopkins, there might have been
some competitive energy with Charlotte. – In one of the Charlotte
archive newspapers, the mayor of Charlotte,
and this was around 1855, he made a statement that he
had high hopes for Charlotte that it would one day be as big
and prosperous as Gold Hill. Gold was one of the
largest employers in North Carolina during a century of mining
industry in North Carolina. – [Narrator] Hopkins and
the Historic Gold Hill and Mines Foundation provided
a valuable collection of historic images. – We’ve got close to 300 19th
century photos of Gold Hill. There were three
gentlemen here in 1960 who worked probably close
to a year collecting photos from families and old files. – [Narrator] One photo
stands out to Hopkins. – As a matter of fact, the
photo of all the miners sitting, getting ready to go into work, I call them men with character because there’s one miner
with a huge floppy hat on. He probably worked outside. He probably worked at the
saw mill cutting the timber to shore up underground. And then there’s another
old gentleman sitting right in the front and he’s got
a star drill in his hand. – [Narrator] But for Hopkins, the connection to Gold Hill
goes beyond her love of history. Remember the man who first
found gold in Gold Hill? – For me and my family, this really does give
us a sense of pride. That Andrew Troutman, who discovered that first gold
in 1824 here at Gold Hill, was my husband’s
third-great-grandfather. So it really does good for us to say we have that connection. We have that personal connection which made Gold Hill
what it is today. (upbeat music) (lively music) – [Narrator] To the
east of the Reed Mine and located in the
Uwharrie National Forest, you’ll find what’s left
of the Russell Mine. One University of North
Carolina at Charlotte instructor and geologist, Dr.
Andy Bobyarchick,
uses for instruction. – It started out like some
of the other mines did, as a surface mine. In the initial
operations in that mine they used hydraulic pressure, basically water under pressure, to wash the soil down
and to concentrate it in sluices and then sort of do an
advanced form of panning to separate the gold out
from the lighter minerals. And this created a big
hole on the top of a ridge and then later, in
the later 1800s, they did a little bit of
underground mining there. The unique thing about
the Russell Mine is that it’s still preserved. It’s in Uwharrie
National Forest. The Forest Service recognizes it as having a historical
significance and so they want to preserve it and then a conservation group actually purchased the mineral
rights to the Russel Mine and it’s now protected
from exploration. So it’s a great teaching
opportunity to take my students and say, “Here, look at
this big hole in the ground. “This is not natural. “There were people
working here for decades “in the 19th century
looking for gold.” (upbeat music) – [Narrator] About 20 years
after the first discovery of gold in North Carolina,
a Charlotte farmer and tavern owner made
his own discoveries. – Spring or summer of 1825, there was a guy named
Mathias Barringer. His farm was located over
near Carson Boulevard, 277 and Morehead. In the process of
working his field, he came across a rock, it
was a white quartz rock. He realized that there
was some gold in there. He started digging,
looking for other rocks that would have gold
deposits in them and over a process
of time he realized that it was not just
pockets of gold, it was actually a vein. And that became eventually
the first deep mine in Mecklenburg County,
the St. Catherine Mine. – [Narrator] And with
the St. Catherine Mine came the gold boom. – [Mike] They were mining
all up and down Mint Street. In fact at one point, Charlotte
had over 80 operating mines. – [Narrator] Mines
like the Rudisill, located here on Summit Avenue,
went down around 350 feet, made possible with new
technology and skilled workers. – The mines really took off when a gentleman
came here in 1829 named Count Vincent
de Rivafinoli. He was sent here by a
British mining company and he came with here with
a steam-powered water pump, so he was able to
get much deeper. He came with the experience of how to build construction
beams to hold back the walls so that could get deeper. He brought in with
him skilled miners who had experience in the field. A third of Charlotte’s
population was foreign born. The church downtown, St.
Peter’s Catholic Church, not that building but the
beginning of that church was because there was so many
miners coming into the area that were not Presbyterian
or Protestants, they were Catholics. – [Narrator] So much gold
was being mined in the region that in 1835, President
Andrew Jackson signed a bill to establish a U.S.
Mint in Charlotte. – For a town that small
to get something that was that premier and and that
important, it changed Charlotte. I think that it changed not
just the exterior of the place, it began to be a
place of commerce. It began to bring in a
lot of foreign investment which always was important
to any growing city or town. It eventually got the
attention of the state and when the railroads
were being planned, they put them through Charlotte as opposed to closer
into Salisbury. So the railroads took
us to the next phase which was the textile
development and growth and the manufacturing
growth, the banking growth. So I mean it was really the
catalyst that distinguished us. – [Narrator] But eventually, the gold mining boom
in Charlotte went bust. – [Mike] You make a fortune
and then you lose a fortune because as you begin to get
deeper it gets more expensive. – Most of our deposits of
gold in the Charlotte area just don’t have enough
volume in them today to be economical. Moving into the 20th century,
most of the gold mines that were in North
Carolina ceased to operate. (upbeat music) – [Narrator] The Rudisill
Mine held on until 1937. This vacant lot is
all that’s left, but today, this
neighborhood in Charlotte is re-embracing its history. It’s called The Gold District. – My name is Caren Wingate, I’m Chairwoman of The Gold
District of Charlotte. The Gold District
was traditionally an industrial neighborhood, of course started
by the gold mining. Since the late 1800s, we’ve seen so many
different businesses, industrial and otherwise,
come into The Gold District. – [Narrator] As it
did in the 1800s, Charlotte’s Gold District
continues to attract those seeking to
make it on their own. – My name’s Dan Davis, I’m the owner of Craft
Tasting Room and Growler Shop. We’re in South End Charlotte
on The Gold District. Craft is a little
creation we came up with just built kind of from
a love of craft beer. – [Narrator] Davis says
the district offered just about everything
he needed in a location. – You know when we
first moved to Charlotte and decided we wanted
to open a business, I looked at a lot
of areas around and The Gold District
just really seemed to be this up and coming neighborhood. It had this great vibe. The Gold District has been
growing leaps and bounds since we first opened over here. Probably every year
for the last five years we’ve had two or three
businesses open up. It’s kind of become this
little hot hub over here. – [Narrator] The nonprofit group
promoting The Gold District has also embraced murals
to share the history and make the district
more inviting. – Our idea was to
wake up the alleys by providing plants
and lighting and art so that people would be drawn
to walk through these spaces on their way from one great
new business to another. The murals help us to keep buildings relevant
in the neighborhood. You can take a very old,
previously unattractive building and give it a new spirit
through mural arts. We have so many
wonderful property owners in the neighborhood who have
encouraged this as well. There’s an enormous
amount of history here and the more you learn,
the more you want to learn and it belongs to everyone. (solemn music) – [Narrator] However, the
legacy of Charlotte’s gold mines isn’t always so shiny. – So when mining ceases
in some of these places, they often just leave the
subterranean cavities there. There’s no way of filing them. Over time the wood decays and if you’re close
enough to the surface, that ends up with subsidence. – [Narrator] In
the fall of 2018, Ashley Weidner and her
husband went into the basement of their West Charlotte home
and had a sinking feeling. Something was not right. – We were coming down to
get Christmas decorations and just noticed that something
looked a little bit off. You looked around and
couldn’t really figure it out and then realized that
there was a very large hole. (laughs) And it actually
had swallowed one of the structural piers,
that was one of the reasons why everything looked
a little bit different, is because it was less
crowded, so to speak. I had a lot of thoughts
running through my mind. A collapsed gold mine
was not one of them. – [Narrator] The couple
says that this time there’s no telling how deep
the shaft actually goes and no economical
solution to fill it in. – We are just
gonna wait and see. There are things
that we could do, but all of it is so expensive and there are so many
unknowns with every option that we just decided
that our best option is to throw up a prayer,
cross our fingers and just hope that it
doesn’t continue to grow and just kind of wait
and see what happens. – [Narrator] Geologists
like Bobyarchick says these cave ins are
rare but not uncommon. He adds, one of
the biggest issues, there are very few maps to
pinpoint the exact location of the old mine shafts. – [Andy] We don’t have
the data to tell someone, “Okay, yeah you’re
house is over a mine.” (lively music) – [Narrator] Mix a bit of dirt
with a bit of water in a pan and one might think
you’re making mud pie, but it’s a bit more
scientific than that. – And this just gets all
the bigger stuff out. And this is a
quarter-inch screen so anything smaller than a
quarter goes down in the pan. – [Narrator] Meet
recreational gold prospector, Randy Kimbrell, and
he’s on the hunt. – [Randy] So gold’s heavy and it’ll settle right to
the bottom of that pan. (water splashes) Then I just float
the light stuff off. – [Narrator] Kimbrell lives
in Gaffney, South Carolina, but makes the trip to the
Thermal City Gold and Gem Mine near Rutherfordton
every chance he gets. – This is worth thousands and thousand of dollars
worth of therapy. I can come up here and I leave all my
problems at home when I’m in this
little 100 acre place. That’s why I call it my
little piece of heaven. – [Narrator] A little
piece of heaven for a man that might just have gold fever. – And I came up here and
they taught me how to pan. I found three flakes
that first day. Been hooked ever since. – [Narrator] And pan after pan, something keeps him motivated. – What keeps me doin’
it, anticipation. I’ve come up here, I’ve
found 15 flakes in one pan. – [Narrator] There’s
been gold mining at Thermal City since the 1830s. Today the mine is owned and
operated by the Langford family. They offer a place
to camp and mine. To those suffering
with gold fever, a place to scratch the itch and possibly find a bit of
the coveted yellow stuff. – It’s the thrill of the hunt. I mean, you go out, you
have your pan, you shovel. You don’t know if
you’re gonna find it. – [Narrator] And
co-owner, James Langford, might also have a
bit of gold fever. – When someone offers ya a
chance to run a gold mine, you take it. – [Narrator] Today, recreational
prospectors can start with basic panning, move
up to the high bankers, large trommels and even
go for a swim in the creek in order to do some dredging. He says they’re
happy to teach you anything you need to know. – You always thought
about prospecting for gold and don’t know where to start, we’ll teach you everything
from the ground up. And that’s the best part, is
we are willing to help anyone from any walk of life trying
to learn or experience because we hate seeing
anyone have a bad day or a rough day out there. And any trick or tip we
can give, we’ll give it. (water sloshing)
(upbeat music) – [Narrator] Clinton
Carr brings his family up from Moncks
Corner, South Carolina and on this day, his
daughter, Adeline, is giving him a hand. – Oh, I love it. I get to spend
time with my kids. She loves being outdoors. We both love being outdoors,
so it just makes my day. That’s why we drive four
and a half, five hours, to come up here and right
now we’re doing high banking. Basically we bring
dirt up to it. This is out of river mining
so you bring the dirt up to it and you pump water to it and
you can just shovel into it. We also do the dredging
and everything like that, but this is great for the kids to be able to have fun
and dig in the dirt. – [Narrator] The shiny
gold might be the draw, but Carr adds there’s something
else about Thermal City. – I like the people, man,
I’ve always liked the people. We can bring our kids
up here, she’s six, my little boy’s two. We can let ’em run around. It’s like a family up here. (upbeat music) – [Narrator] And
for the Langford’s, Thermal City is
all about family. Several years ago, Ohio natives Jeff Langford
and his wife Eileen, purchase the mine and campground with a dream to own a gold mine. In 2018, Jeff Langford
passed away unexpectedly, but his wife and
family keep it going. Son, James, says while his
father is surely missed, at Thermal City there’s
something bigger than gold. – There’s just a lot
of good souls here and if it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t have
made it as far as we did after losing my
father last year. And a lot of people stepped
up and helped us out and now we’re all
just one big family. – [Narrator] As for the gold, that will always be
a motivating factor. – Man, the gold’s out there. Anybody can find it,
come give it a try. Thermal City makes it real easy. – [Narrator] The discovery
of gold forever changed North Carolina’s history. Who would have thought
a young farm boy in Cabarrus County would
find a 17-pound gold nugget and that moment would
redefine the entire state. The precious metal lured
people from around the world to seek their fortunes, created
boom towns like Gold Hill and put Charlotte on the map as a financial
center of the times. Today, there’s still
gold in North Carolina, it’s just a little
bit harder to find. But the chance to find
that precious metal still draws folks in. These are the folks who are
willing to get their hands dirty on the timeless search for gold. In doing so they’re
keeping the history and future possibilities
alive here in North Carolina. (lively music) – [Announcer] A production
of PBS Charlotte.

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