Opinion: Daily Journal

Gold mining was once big part of N.C. economy

A reporter for the Western Carolinian of Salisbury in 1825 wrote, “The mining interest of the state is now only second to the farming interest.” But according to historians Richard Knapp and Brent Glass in Gold Mining in North Carolina, the average Tar Heel did not fall victim to gold fever. Nevertheless, there was enough demand by 1830 that a Miners’ and Farmers’ Journal began publication in Charlotte.

Like many events with long-lasting results, the discovery of gold was unplanned. In 1799, John Reed’s son, Conrad, found a massive gold nugget in a creek bed. For three years, the Reeds did not know the rock’s worth.

It was used as a doorstop. After learning its value, John Reed panned nearby Little Meadow Creek for more nuggets. And he found them.

Until the mid-1830s, farmers panned for gold when the agricultural season ended. Prospectors swirled the gold in pans and rockers full of water; a rocker was a wooden box or set of connected boxes that, when rocked, separated gold from gravel. Because gold is heavier, it rested at the bottom of the shaken pan or rocker.

By the late 1820s, in many places part-time prospecting in creeks was turning into full-time mining operations. Although some gold mining companies employed hundreds, mining operations typically were small.

The smaller operations provided a corporate blueprint for later pursuits in the furniture, textile, and tobacco industries. Because of gold mining, Charlotte evolved from little more than a village during the antebellum era into a regional financial center.

American and foreign investors heard and read of gold discoveries in Mecklenburg County. Many moved to the Carolina Piedmont to start mines or work in them. Although gold prospecting and mining occurred as far west as present-day Cherokee County and as far east as present-day Nash and Halifax counties, most gold was found in 10 Piedmont counties: Guilford, Randolph, Davidson, Rowan, Montgomery, Stanly, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Gaston, and Union.

Less than 30 years after Reed’s discovery, in 1827 North Carolina granted the first charter to a gold mining company. Corporate charters ranged from $100,000 to $300,000. (Investments of at least $100,000 were needed to start a deep-mining operation.)

For many years, North Carolina provided the only native gold for the United States mint. Once the gold was shipped to Philadelphia to be minted, however, little came back to circulate in the Tar Heel State. As a result, North Carolinians wanted a government mint.

Interestingly, the United States opened the Charlotte mint in 1837, after gold miners’ deposits had started to decline. While Congress delayed its decision to establish the mint, Christopher Bechtler, with homemade equipment, opened a private mint. He coined gold, including the first minted-gold dollar.

Historians report that Bechtler coined $109,000 in his first four years of business (1831-35). Always trusted, the Bechtler mint lasted until 1857, a decade and half after its founder’s death.

In the 1840s gold mining revived, and miners, many of them immigrants, established new operations. Although the California Gold Rush lured many potential entrepreneurs westward, the vast majority of North Carolinians remained and participated in the state’s mining renewal.

Eventually, technology that was used in the California Gold Rush, such as hydraulic mining, was used in North Carolina. During the 1850s, mining activity waned because digging deeper and deeper for less and less gold yielded little profit.

By the advent of the Civil War gold mining in North Carolina became so unprofitable that the activity stopped. Even so, gold mining had influenced the Old North State’s unique economic development. According to Knapp and Glass, it contributed to North Carolina becoming a “leading manufacturing state [while being] one of the most rural states in the nation.”

Dr. Troy Kickler was founding director of the North Carolina History Project.