If you had to guess the origin of the gold that adorns us, Virginia might be one of the last places that comes to mind. Fact is, however, there’s a chance–albeit a small one–your jewelry once resided deep in the bedrock of the Old Dominion.
There were once hundreds of gold mines stretching from Maryland to Alabama. Virginia produced almost 100,000 troy ounces over nearly a century-and-a-half, but California’s riches far outshined the east’s claims by manyfold and ultimately earned the Golden State that legacy.
Still, Virginia’s 250-odd mines permanently altered the landscape. A narrow band of abandoned pits and piles sweeps diagonally across the commonwealth. All but a handful of these are on private property, and owners are understandably reluctant to grant access to them, because miners dug shafts to get at veins deep underground and because modern-day explorers sometimes cart off tailings (leftover rocks) in the not-unfounded belief that there still might be small amounts of gold in the spent pay dirt.
Other foragers have been known to grab the scant relics remaining on these sites. Industrialist Henry Ford took souvenirs legally because he could afford to; he once bought an entire Virginia gold mine just so he could salvage the rusted and overgrown steam engine there.
Despite the veil of secrecy that shrouds these sites, there’s still a spot or two left where you can see what Virginia’s miners left behind.
The snaking drive to Lake Anna State Park is flecked with evidence of central Virginia’s shining past: Gold Dale Road, Mine Run Grocery Store. Before there was a state park on the banks of the lake–indeed, before there was any Lake Anna to speak of–Spottsylvania County was the heart of Virginia’s gold country.
The park’s eastern boundary is Pigeon Run, a riffle of a creek you could jump across with a running start. Around 1829, someone discovered gold here and miners worked the vein hard for almost 60 years. This was the Goodwin Gold Mine.
More than a century after this mine closed, a canopy of mature forest shades remnants of the once-thriving operation here: stone foundations nurture mats of pale lichen, heaping mounds abruptly disrupt the gently-sloping landscape, voids yawn where there should be solid earth.
My guide around these ruins was Matt Knight, a genial interpreter who knows quite a bit about the Goodwin Mine, not just what was left in dusty manuscripts and records, but what remained in the landscape, too, features laymen would miss on their own.
Knight pointed out long, narrow trenches dug for diverting the flow from Pigeon Run so that a constant stream would wash through the long sluice boxes miners devised to trap the heavy gold–so-called placer mining. There’s evidence that these earliest miners dug deep into Pigeon Run’s bed for sediment to sift. The stones that now rest on the stream are larger, less pebbly, which happens, says Knight, as one approaches bedrock.
Goodwin’s more noticeable remains, the foundations, piles and pits, are the result of the industrial workings here that supplanted the placer mining. Knight and I peered down into the mouth of a deep chasm which, a century-and-a-half ago, was a 95-foot vertical shaft dug to access a vein deep underground. Knight grabbed a handful of dirt at the lip of the hole and opened his palm. Tiny specks glinted in the sunlight–perhaps pyrite, or fool’s gold–perhaps the real thing.
Nearby are a collapsed air shaft and a caved-in horizontal tunnel, or adit. The burden removed from these holes looms in adjacent heaps long buried by leaf litter.
Beyond the visible transformations of the landscape, though, miners also made less obvious changes. Knight stopped at a tree along a snaking footpath. What looked like run-of-the-mill industrial refuse was unmistakable proof that the Goodwin Mine used mercury to tease gold from the ore that held it: wide mouths of broken glass carboys, the rusted door of some old furnace.
The gold-bearing quartz that miners took from the ground was crushed in a stamp mill–coffee can-sized pistons, powered by a steam engine, that hammered the rock to a powdery consistency. Workers then mixed the ore with water and passed it over mercury-coated plates. The quartz and other minerals washed away. The gold stuck.
Those carboys held the mercury necessary to make this happen. The furnace boiled the mercury to separate it from the gold. All the excavation, the chemicals, must have been a nightmare for the local environment.
And if Virginia’s gold mines shaped the land and the creatures who inhabit it, they toyed with human lives, too. Surely these miners–from the common laborer panning in Pigeon Run to the owners who invested fortunes in hopes of wild payouts–dreamed of easy money, of striking it rich, but few, if any, ever did.
There must have been a constant wave of second guessing, of cold distrust: if only we had blasted the adit a few feet further…dug here instead of there. In 1870 a couple Philadelphians were working the Goodwin Mine and came upon an especially rich vein. They set a trio of men to guard the find overnight, only to discover two of them raiding the deposit in the morning. The gunshots of the loyal sentry were able to run the scofflaws off.
In fact for most folks, the Goodwin Mine, indeed all of Virginia’s gold, ended in disappointment. The precious metal didn’t discriminate in shattering dreams; even owners themselves fell victim to the fickle whims of gold mining. Sometimes the gold was there, sometimes not. In 1884, the Goodwin Mine went through some legal maneuvering that indicated it wasn’t as productive as hoped, and a few years later, the site shut for good, leaving an abandoned mine for the ages.
There’s gold still left at Lake Anna State Park and, in fact, all up and down Virginia’s gold belt. You’ll not get rich with modern-day panning, but the park and several prospecting clubs (like Central Virginia Gold Prospectors) offer the chance to get a feel for the hard work Virginia’s gold demands.
There’s a reconstructed gold mining camp, too, in Fauquier County at Monroe Park in (where else?) Goldvein, Virginia. The museum houses exhibits in several reconstructed buildings–an office, bunkhouse and mess hall among them. On site, too, are several pieces of equipment, including large “hornet’s balls” for crushing ore, salvaged from the 19 industrial mines nearby. The museum is free and open to the public.
Next week: Eastern Gold, Part II. A road just outside the nation’s capital literally paved with gold.