Two centuries ago, a young boy’s accidental discovery in Cabarrus County led to the first gold rush in the United States. For 50 years, North Carolina led the nation in gold production and gave a young country a new kind of wealth.
Stately pines towered over the meandering Little Meadow Creek. The creek was nearly dry; hundreds of rocks laid bare along the bank and creek bed. But Conrad Reed, a cheeky 12-year-old, decided on a Sunday in 1799 that he’d rather fish in this shallow spot than go to church. As the boy waited for a bite, he saw a yellow rock protruding from the water. It was a strange rock, unlike the usual quartz and slate he saw in the countryside. He plucked the rock from the creek bed and carried it home.
Conrad’s father, John Reed, couldn’t figure out what this rock was. It was the size of a modern-day football. A silversmith in Concord couldn’t identify it either; he could only tell John it weighed 17 pounds.
For the next three years, John Reed used the rock inside his house as a doorstop.
A new life
John Reed was an uneducated German mercenary who came to America to aid England in the colonists’ uprisings. Near the end of the Revolutionary War, he defected from his military order in Savannah, Georgia, and settled in the backwoods of North Carolina. Here, he found a tract of land near Meadow Creek in Cabarrus County, a county where other German immigrants put down roots. He planned to farm full time and raise corn and wheat on 30 acres with his wife, Sarah, and their children.
Three years after Conrad found the rock, John Reed went to Fayetteville on business and showed it to a jeweler, who identified it as gold. The rock was the first documented gold found in the United States.
The jeweler kept the nugget and smoothed it into a six-inch bar that glimmered in the light. He told Reed to name his price. Reed, believing that $3.50 was a fair trade (it was the equivalent of a week’s wages), sold it. The jeweler duped him. The bar was worth $3,600 — more than 1,000 times the amount Reed took home to his family. When Reed realized the jeweler’s trick, he confronted him. Oral history is divided on whether he returned home with another $1,000 or $3,000. Either way, Reed started his new business: gold mining.
While rumors of gold abounded in the country, colonists never found the precious ore. Conrad Reed’s rock gave the young United States new wealth and independence from foreign countries. Everywhere, men and women turned over rocks and panned for gold, dreaming of endless riches and opportunities.
At the peak of the rush, there were more than 600 gold mines in North Carolina. From 1800 to the Civil War, gold mining ranked second only to agriculture as the state’s most economically successful industry. Entire families worked hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface in search of wealth. Many farmers worked their crops in season and panned for gold in the winter. The estimated value of gold recovered reached more than $1 million a year, and North Carolina led the nation in gold production until 1848, when the California gold rush eclipsed it. The gold found in North Carolina earned it a nickname — The Golden State — a title that would later be given to California. Gold was so prevalent in the Old North State that from 1804 to 1828, all domestic gold coined by the United States came from North Carolina.
President Andrew Jackson decided to build a branch of the United States Mint in Charlotte to press the gold found from local mines into coins. The building was erected on West Trade Street at the site of the present federal courthouse. In March 1838 the first coin was struck — a half eagle, with a face value of $5. Later, the mint produced quarter eagles, worth $2.50, as well as $1 gold coins.
John Reed continued to scour Little Meadow Creek for gold. The family called the land around the creek The Potato Patch. They likened digging for gold to digging for potatoes.
Reed formed a partnership with three men: Frederick Kizer, his brother-in-law; the Reverend James Love; and Martin Phifer Jr., a wealthy landowner. Together, they acquired nearly 800 acres of land, new equipment, and slaves. It wasn’t long before a slave named Peter unearthed a 28-pound gold nugget from the bottom of the creek.
As word of Reed’s good fortune spread throughout neighboring states, prospectors descended upon North Carolina’s central Piedmont. Families in nearby towns sifted through their own creeks and streams in hopes of finding fortune.
By 1803, someone found gold in Montgomery County. From county line to county line, Montgomery County had 13 major gold deposits, making it the hub of North Carolina gold mining.
There, the Russell Gold Mine was a massive operation. Hundreds of men extracted about 70 ounces of gold from the mines each day. In some cases, the pockets of gold were so pure they didn’t need refining, so workers boxed them in wooden crates and shipped them straight to the owners. The Russell Mine also had numerous pits, vertical shafts, and adits, which were dug through a belt of highly mineralized rock. Men who made 90 cents for a 12-hour workday, often with nothing more than a candle attached to their hats for light, hand-dug the largest pit in the Russell Mine. The Big Cut was 60 feet deep, 300 feet long, and 150 feet wide.
For the first two decades of gold mining in North Carolina, miners rooted out gold. It was called surface placer mining, and it was the preferred way of doing things.
But that would change.
A better way
In 1825, in a creek in Stanly County, Matthias Barringer spotted golden flakes floating in the water. He followed the flakes up the creek until they ran out. Confused, he saw a white rock protruding out of the bank where the gold stopped. He dug in with his pick, and after a few minutes of chipping away, he saw a pocket of gold embedded in the rock — almost 1,500 pennyweights of gold from one pocket alone. With this discovery, Barringer invented a new way of mining, called lode mining.
Before long, men found other ways to extract gold from places across North Carolina. One man started using high-pressure water hoses to blast away the muddy soil that held the gold in its clutches. Dubbed hydraulic mining, the process was the most destructive type of mining and was outlawed in 1925. Miners also used black powder to blast the gold ore away from the rock.
Each year, the methods of extracting gold from the clay improved.
In 1828, J. Humphrey Bissell of Charleston, South Carolina, bought the McComb Mine in Charlotte, located near the intersection of West Morehead and Center Streets. Samuel McComb opened the mine in 1825; it was the oldest mine in Mecklenburg County.
The mine became one of the highest yielding operations because of new technology and the experienced South American miners Bissell brought to the United States. The mine was a diverse place — more than 1,000 men who spoke 13 different languages worked there.
Count Vincent de Rivafinoli, an Italian aristocrat and experienced mining engineer who was the head of the Mecklenberg Gold Mining Company, bought the Rudisill Mine in Charlotte. He brought in 80 expert miners from England, Germany, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, and France. The miners from Cornwall, England — said to be “skilled, superstitious, clannish, and strongly Methodist” — began to influence North Carolina mining. They taught North Carolina miners safe techniques for lode mining.
The Rudisill Mine became known as one of the richest and most profitable mines in the state, with yields as high as $72.41 per ton of ore processed.
Today, tunnels from the two mines still lie beneath much of the area just south and west of uptown Charlotte. Numerous shafts from the Rudisill Mine lie parallel to South Mint Street, with one of the principal shafts located near the intersection of South Mint and Summit Avenue.
During the Civil War, gold mining operations halted as workers became soldiers. Only one North Carolina mine remained in operation: the Silver Hill Mine between Lexington and Denton. It produced zinc, lead, silver, and gold. With the Confederate Army constantly in need of ammunition, miners hurriedly dug the lead and silver to cast bullets. Removing the silver and gold from the lead was expensive and time consuming; much of the silver remained in the lead. It’s said that many a Yankee soldier died from North Carolina’s silver and gold bullets.
The last find
After the war ended, the Charlotte Mint closed. In 1932, when the government announced plans to demolish the building, the Charlotte Woman’s Club launched a campaign to save it. The structure was disassembled and rebuilt at its present location off Randolph Road in Charlotte’s Eastover neighborhood. On October 22, 1936, it was formally dedicated as North Carolina’s first art museum — the Mint Museum of Art.
John Reed continued to churn out an estimated $1 million in gold between 1806 and 1846. Reed’s grandson, Isaac Craton, discovered several rich gold veins on the property in 1831. It was a whole new era at the Reed Gold Mine, producing more than $1 million in gold in 20 years.
Although gold made the Reed family rich, Reed never relied on mining for money. He continued to farm at the family plantation, Mansion Hill, until he died in 1845 at age 88. Three years before his death, the United States granted him citizenship. He left behind nine children, 54 grandchildren, 18 slaves, and an estate worth more than $1 million by today’s standards. Reed’s obituary honored him for being a “faithful Christian, a good citizen, a kind parent and neighbor, and a helper of the poor.”
John Reed’s great grandson, Jake Shinn, found the last large nugget on the Reed property. It weighed 23 pounds — only a few pounds heavier than the one Conrad Reed found all those years ago when he went fishing in that dry creek full of rocks.
Coggins Gold Mine
“There’s nothing else I like to do,” he says.
Ten years ago, Younts purchased the site of old Coggins Mine, near Eldorado.
As the legend goes, one day during a heavy thunderstorm, one of Coggins’s slaves was rounding up the cows when he took shelter under a tree to keep dry. While under the tree, he saw a gold nugget on the ground.
He showed his find to Coggins, who promised the slave a ham if the nugget was gold. It was, but no one knows if the slave received the ham.
By 1882, the Coggins Mine was in full operation and continued until 1934.
But the Coggins Mine had a reputation for having more mining accidents than any mine in North Carolina. One of the worst happened on a payday. Three men who worked the night shift hurried to leave the mine and collect their pay. They rode the ore bucket to the surface instead of climbing out of the mine by the ladder. As they reached the top, the ore bucket tipped and dumped the men out. They plunged to their deaths at the bottom of the 600-foot shaft.
During its best years, the Coggins Mine was a community of its own.
There was a blacksmith shop, a country store, a post office, and a 16-room boardinghouse. The boardinghouse burned down at the turn of the century, leaving only a stone foundation.
These days, Younts pans for gold on his property, telling the story of the slave who found the gold on his land centuries ago.
Gold found in North Carolina Counties
People found gold in 34 counties in North Carolina during the 1800s. In 1824, a farmer named Andrew Troutman put Gold Hill on the map when he found a nugget on his land. By the mid-1830s, prospectors flocked to the tiny town in Rowan County to find their gold. At one time, the town’s population swelled to 8,000. By 1845, Gold Hill had 23 mines, a post office, a jail, 26 saloons, and six brothels. Its size grew to span more than a mile. Today, a few people have worked hard to preserve the history of the town. The two original stores — the Mauney Store and the E.H. Montgomery Store — are still open. Visit the Gold Hill Mines Historic Park, and take a tour.
Gold Hill Mines Historic Park
735 St Stephens Church Road
Reed Gold Mine
9621 Reed Mine Road
Midland, N.C. 28107
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Caron Myers is a freelance writer. Her most recent book is Captain Steven, The Little Pirate who Fought the Big C. She lives with her husband, Danny “Chocolate” Myers, in Davidson County. Her most recent story for Our State was “Buffalo Bill” (October 2011).