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John Fisher listened to the scrape and rattle of shovels as several workers cleared a path through a long-ago cave-in inside a horizontal shaft of the Barringer Gold Mine in

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John Fisher listened to the scrape and rattle of shovels as several workers cleared a path through a long-ago cave-in inside a horizontal shaft of the Barringer Gold Mine in

Misfortune in the Barringer Gold Mine

John Fisher listened to the scrape and rattle of shovels as several workers cleared a path through a long-ago cave-in inside a horizontal shaft of the Barringer Gold Mine in Misenheimer. Fisher and the workers were about 200 feet beneath the surface of the rolling hills of northern Stanly County. Nearly a century had passed since eight miners died a sudden and horrible death here on a wet August afternoon in 1904. Millions of gallons of water had plunged down the mine’s vertical entrance shaft and filled up the mine so quickly that only one man escaped.

The Barringer Mine had closed a year after the miners’ deaths, but in 1998, Fisher — who grew up in Stanly County not far from the mine — was a partner in an effort to resume working the old digs. He was entering the mine to try to determine whether it was worth reopening. The work crew was clearing a path through the shaft — known to miners as an “adit” — so that Fisher could take a look at the last place the miners worked before the tragedy. The crew had cleared away enough dirt for Fisher to get through the opening. The scene was illuminated by bobbing lights on hard hats. It was a different kind of darkness deep underground — “as dark as dark can get,” Fisher recalls.

He passed a round room that had been excavated to expose a vein of rock. And then he entered a cutout and looked around at a tableau that had last been touched 94 years earlier — when Theodore Roosevelt was president, the Wright brothers’ famous flight was less than a year in the past, and Misenheimer was known as Gladstone. Fisher saw a workbench carved out of one wall. A couple of shovels and wheelbarrows were scattered around the area, along with what appeared to be dynamite fuses. Small chunks of rock lay on the floor of the adit. The miners had been making holes in the rock with handheld 20-inch drills and small sledgehammers, pounding the drills into the vein, twisting them, and repeating the process until the holes were deep enough to insert sticks of dynamite. A couple of drills protruded from the wall where the miners had left them when they heard the torrent of water racing down the mine’s entrance shaft.

Fisher felt a flush of excitement as he looked around the room. But that was quickly replaced by concern. The adit had caved in once. It could happen again. “The euphoria of the moment kept me from feeling fear,” he recalls. “Then I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I didn’t want to alarm anybody, but I realized it was time to quietly exit.” Fisher took a few photos and picked up several chunks of the blue-green rock lying on the floor of the adit, and then he and the workers returned to daylight.

John Fisher toured the Barringer Mine in 1998 to find out if it would be worth his effort to reopen it. He left with a souvenir: a hunk of rock speckled with gold. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

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The Barringer Mine was one of dozens of gold mines that, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pockmarked the hills of the counties that branch out from Morrow Mountain at the edge of Uwharrie National Forest. The possibility, however remote, of finding gold whenever somebody sticks a shovel in the ground has become ingrained in the local collective consciousness. “If you’re digging a ditch on someone’s land, they’ll joke back and forth that if you find gold, they’ll split it with you,” says Jim Misenheimer, a retired school administrator and teacher, and a town councilman in nearby Richfield.

The gold deposits were created millions of years ago when ancient volcanoes pushed up the surrounding Uwharrie Mountains. The range once topped 20,000 feet or more, but the passage of time has worn them down so that the tallest peaks are now a little over 1,000 feet. Today, the Uwharries rise above the landscape not as towering mountains but as rolling blue hills. Crossroads communities and small towns — Badin, Denton, New London, Mount Gilead, Gold Hill, Misenheimer, Richfield, Seagrove — are scattered throughout. Most of these little towns had a gold mine nearby at some point in the 19th century.

The Uwharries became known for their outlandishly large gold nuggets in 1803, when Cabarrus County farmer John Reed sold a 17-pound nugget that his son had found in a creek. A jeweler in Fayetteville paid Reed $3.50 for it — the equivalent of about $80 in today’s money. Farmers and newcomers started combing the region’s creeks for more gold, and in 1825, Matthias Tobias Barringer, whose farm was about 20 miles northeast of Reed’s, began finding nuggets along a section of Long Creek that flowed through his property. Barringer collected gold worth about $8,000 — more than $179,000 today — and eventually discovered the first gold vein in quartz in the United States. The find was chronicled in newspapers across the 24 states that then made up the U.S. “The discovery of Barringer’s mine has set the people to searching for gold in places where it was never before thought of,” The National Gazette of Philadelphia noted that April. The story depicted the North Carolina Piedmont as an El Dorado, where there was “scarcely a mile square in which particles of gold may not be found.” After word of his discovery got out, Barringer was beset by a lawsuit challenging his ownership of the land. The suit dragged on for years, and work at his mine was hampered by his legal problems and flooding from Long Creek.

Meanwhile, farmers in the surrounding countryside found gold on their lands, and gold-seekers from all over the world began arriving. Gold was also discovered in Charlotte, and shafts and adits of mines ran beneath the city’s streets. So much gold was being found that, in 1835, Congress approved the nation’s first branch mint in Charlotte to produce gold coins. North Carolina gold became a hot topic nationwide, and high-rolling, well-connected investors — naval officers, members of Congress, even President James Garfield — started sinking their money into the state’s mines.

By the late 1880s, Barringer had won the legal battle for his property, but he was an old man, and he decided to let it go. The property changed hands several times. In 1888, new owners diverted the flow of Long Creek away from the original entrance shaft. That made work in the mine easier. But it set the stage for tragedy.

In 1903, the Barringer Mine was bought by the Whitney Company, which had been set up four years earlier to build a dam for a power company at the nearby Yadkin River Narrows. Its general manager was an English-born mining engineer named Egbert Barry Cornwall Hambley. North Carolina newspapers buzzed about the Narrows project, one suggesting that it would make the Yadkin “the Niagara of the Cotton Belt,” transforming the sleepy surrounding towns into bustling industrial cities. By 1901, Hambley and the Whitney Company had bought roughly 15,000 acres in the Morrow Mountain area, stretching about 13 miles from each bank of the Yadkin.

Less than a year after the company acquired the Barringer Mine, workers at the site uncovered a fortune. Six tons of ore with an average value of $20,000 per ton — more than $640,000 today — were hauled out in just a few days. The Salisbury Daily Sun reported “masses of almost pure gold as large as a man’s fist.” The vein showed no signs of giving out. The Whitney Company continued to rake North Carolina gold into its vaults in 1904 while assembling men, machines, and materials for its massive construction project at the Narrows. It seemed that the Barringer Mine was finally producing the wealth that miners had long suspected to exist deep beneath the ground.

Now a historic landmark, The Narrows Dam was completed in 1917 by Alcoa. The project was launched by George Whitney (far right) in 1899, four years before he bought the ill-fated Barringer Gold Mine. Seated next to Whitney is his general manager, Egbert B.C. Hambley. photograph by STANLY COUNTY HISTORICAL CENTER

• • •

On August 11, 1904, nine miners escaped the steamy dog days of summer when they climbed down the long ladder into the cool shafts of the Barringer Mine. Around 2:30 p.m., the heavens opened. In Charlotte, an inch and a quarter of rain fell in only 25 minutes. At the Barringer Mine, flooding broke the earthen dam of a retaining pond that was built after Long Creek had been diverted 16 years earlier. Millions of gallons gushed toward the mine. A giant whirlpool formed at the shaft entrance, and water swirled into the mine like it was draining from a bathtub. Only one miner — an African-American man named Jim Reid — escaped. The others — seven black and one white — died sudden and terrifying deaths deep in the pitch-black darkness. It took weeks to empty the mine and recover all of the bodies.

One newspaper reported “masses of almost pure gold as large as a man’s fist.”

The family of 18-year-old Will Canupp, the white miner who’d been killed, sued the Whitney Company. They eventually settled for $1,850 — about $54,000 today. No records could be found at the Stanly County Courthouse for the families of the seven black miners — Henry Deberry, Charles Eudy, Will Harris, John Mangum, James Miller, Caleb Moose, and Will Stirewalt. Later newspaper reports, however, said that all of the families received settlements.

Work at the Barringer Mine resumed that fall, but in August 1905, a year after the disaster, the mine shut down for good. The tragedy was a stunning setback for the Whitney Company, but work continued on the Yadkin River dam. Some of the men who’d worked at the mine were sent to the Yadkin, and by 1906, construction on the project was going around the clock. Huge granite blocks from Rowan County were being laid in place to stop the water.

And then another tragedy hit. On August 13, 1906, Hambley, the manager of the Whitney Company’s North Carolina operations, died during a typhoid epidemic. But the fatal blow to the company’s plans fell in February 1908, when George I. Whitney, the Pittsburgh industrialist who’d founded the company, was indicted for embezzlement. Work at the Yadkin ceased, and the dormant Barringer Mine, along with the company’s other mines in Gold Hill, was closed indefinitely.

• • •

Eventually, a Dam was completed on the Yadkin River to power the Alcoa plant at Badin Lake. The Yadkin Narrows is now under a couple hundred feet of water.

The Barringer Mine property changed hands several times over the decades following the flooding tragedy. There was occasional talk of reopening the mine, but nothing came of it. Eventually, the property was bought by Henry Davis Plyler, who found enough gold in the mine to buy each of his sons a farm. But he did not reopen the site. By the mid-1960s, the buildings that the Whitney Company had erected were falling down. At that time, Plyler’s grandson C.D. owned the land. He once hinted to the Salisbury Post that he’d sell the mineral rights for $50,000 — about $408,000 today. There were no takers.

In 1998, John Fisher and his partners bought the property from the Plyler family and hoped to reopen the mine or establish a quarry there. Fisher had the rocks that he brought out of the mine assayed, and he learned that they contained veins of almost pure gold. But residents vigorously protested plans to reopen the mine, and the Stanly County Board of Commissioners refused to approve rezoning for heavy industry. Fisher walked away.

Today, a state historic marker stands at U.S. Highway 52 and NC Highway 49 in Richfield, briefly retelling the story of the Barringer Mine. The site is about a mile and a half, as the crow flies, from the busy intersection. John Pickler, a Richfield farmer, bought the land — and the mining site — several years after Fisher and his partners’ failed efforts. Pickler says he has no doubt that there’s still gold down in those dark and dank shafts. But he’s content to leave a sleeping beast alone. Almost two decades later, he well remembers the fierce debate. “It was ugly,” Pickler says, “and it got uglier. That’s why the Barringer will never be mined in our lifetime.”