No telling how many would-be immigrants to the United States actually believed the mantra that the streets of this prosperous land were paved with gold. What few people realize, however, is that there’s a spot just outside Washington D.C. where that spellbinding dream–a golden road–was literally the case.
Maryland is the northern tip of a belt of gold and pyrite (fool’s gold) that stretches all the way down to Alabama. Last week I wrote of a couple accessible sites in Virginia that give you a good sense for the steep toll miners exacted on the land and people of the Old Dominion in their frenzied search for gold. As it turns out, gold fever struck Maryland just as bad, and the land around Washington D.C. likewise holds the remains of significant efforts to coax gold from the ground.
“A great many people are flocking to the [gold] fields thinking they can take up claims just as they do out West,” reported The Washington Post in December 1889. Those people found themselves “considerably disappointed” when they discovered that’s not how prospecting worked in Maryland.
One can imagine why gold drew would-be miners to Maryland in droves. Promises of riches were everywhere. “There are about twelve mining camps in active operation in Montgomery county [sic], Maryland, and the residents of that county still have the gold fever very bad,” the Post article claimed.
The reason all those ordinary prospectors were turned away from these prosperous gold fields (one mine produced a nugget of four ounces) is that moneyed interests largely owned the rights to the richest veins in Maryland. Firms from Chicago and Philadelphia, for instance, shelled out princely sums for the choicest parcels. And included among the principals of many of these investment companies were the esteemed legislators who graced the halls of Congress a few miles away–business arrangements that probably wouldn’t pass the smell test today.
Walter A. Goetz, author of Montgomery County Gold Fever, describes how the Atlantic Development Company and a subsidiary, which controlled more than 2,200 acres near the Great Falls of the Potomac River, conducted extensive exploration for rich veins from 1915 to 1917 by trenching and stripping more than 50,000 linear feet of earth. So scarred was the landscape that rumors began to circulate among locals that the real purpose of all that digging wasn’t gold after all, but clandestine preparation for an imminent German invasion.
Developers leveled many of Montgomery’s golden footprints as suburban Washington rippled from the city. But so extensive were the works here that even the insatiable bulldozer couldn’t erase all the marks miners left.
Greater Washingtonians often flock to the Great Falls Maryland unit of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park for the solitude the refuge affords–minutes from downtown but a world away. On a recent day I hiked a couple trails there and spotted a number of critters also enjoying the balmy winter day. A pileated woodpecker and a red-tailed hawk flew off at my approach. Three white-tailed deer dashed into the safety of the trees. It’s hard to imagine that the quiet woods here were once the epicenter of Montgomery County gold mining, laced with trenches and pocked with shafts.
The National Park Service’s interpretive efforts are naturally focused on the C&O Canal, an effort to link the interior of the growing nation to markets eastward. The canal’s flat towpath is among the park’s most popular trails. Other paths snake into the forested interior among the traces of a golden past.
Near the entrance to the park are the tumbledown ruins of the Maryland Mine, accessible via a roughly two-mile hike (on the Gold Mine Loop) from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. The vestiges of the mining operation that existed here through the 1930s are doing their best to stand up to time and the elements. A ruined water tower, blacksmith shop and retaining wall are the structures still left. The collapsed shafts that descend deep into the earth serve to remind how much pay dirt miners dug. The National Park Service has fenced off the falling structures and erected a small interpretive sign, but that, too, has seen better days.
Scenes at the site of the Maryland Mine
On the northern end of the park, the less-traveled Ford Mine Trail likewise retains scars mining made on this land, although there are no interpretive signs and the remains are less evident. Trailside there’s at least one shaft, now a deep dimple collecting what falls from the forest canopy. Mostly the Ford Mine Trail is an effort in reading the wooded landscape, picking out manmade features from natural ones, cuts and trenches from the channels water made as it flowed off these hillsides following the path of least resistance.
Collapsed Shaft at the Ford Mine
And that golden road? MacArthur Boulevard winds its way along the Potomac River from downtown. Years ago, that was Conduit Road, and when the stretch of it out near Great Falls needed patching, workmen used mine tailings, which contained trace amounts of gold. After a good rain, observant and lucky travelers, if they looked closely enough, could spot that familiar glint that so many people spent their lives trying to capture.