"See a penny, pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck."
Who hasn't hoped for such luck? I was feeling lucky when we visited Reed Mine in Midland, N.C. Gold, the thing of legend and lore, and luck, started here with the earliest operating gold mine in the nation in 1799.
We arrived midmorning to a busy parking lot and headed to the visitors' center. Except for the small fee to pan for gold, the entire park and tours are free.
The center offers a film about historic lore including that of a "12-year-old boy who found a 17-pound rock that served as a door stop" and of a "slave who found a 28-pound nugget in the creek while mining part-time for his owner." The film lays the groundwork for what to expect in the exhibit hall and on the mine tour, which run every half hour.
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Our guide, Dan, walked us over Little Meadow Creek while explaining the beginning of mining on the Reed farm using long sided, shallow bowls allowing creek sediment to wash away with the water. Eventually, placer mining evolved to digging into the hill that rose ahead of us.
The first access to Reed Mine was at the top where workers used pick and shovel to dig down 50 feet or so to the quartz veins. This was before the time of explosives and commercial development.
A door to inside the cool mine led to the stone-walled Linker tunnel. The tunnels have been expanded for visitors, but back in the day, they were no more than 4 feet, 5 inches high. Long wooden wheelbarrows, used to move rock and ore, were designed so miners could bend over as they pushed them along. When Reed closed, it had 36 shafts.
Ore was piled into a "kibble" and pulled to the surface for crushing. Though our way was lit with incandescent lights, early miners, who were employees of the owners, dug by candlelight and did not have hard hats. Some men stuffed their hats with cotton to help soften the blow of falling rock.
"There was nothing glamorous," our guide said, "about being a gold miner in North Carolina."
Soon after the first gold finding was announced, other mining operations sprang up in the Piedmont. Today, Carolina Panthers stadium in uptown Charlotte sits on what was the Rudisill mine. The Phoenix mine became a golf course and Gold Hill, which was the biggest mine in the state, became part of a local park. But, thankfully, the Reed was donated to the state.
After the tour, we took a right and walked past the Cornish kibble ore bucket to Upper Hill. When Reed went from placer mining to digging, experienced miners from Cornwall, England, were hired.
Quiet and serene today, in the mid-1800s, this place was noisy and active. Placards describe the drilling of a deeper shaft, the use of a steam engine to pull water from the tunnels and how the water was directed to the stamp mill, which crushed the gold bearing ore. All that remains today is a chimney and stone foundation. We followed the signs to the restored Stamp Mill, where demonstrations of the crushing process are on-going April through October.
Back at the exhibit center, displays of gold and its uses are showcased behind glass in safes. We saw a true troy ounce, which is today's gold measure. There is an astronaut helmet with a gold shield for protection from the bright sun, circuit boards, jewelry and art.
The rest of the exhibit showed the mining process: How gold was extracted from ore using mercury, cyanide and/or chlorine gas, and a concentration table, a much larger version of a miner's pan. One wall gave a quick geology lesson, another explained the history of gold mining in the Piedmont. One small display case highlights minerals incorporated into our everyday lives such as titanium found in the white pigment of M & Ms and Oreos.
The gift store offered T-shirts, gemstone jewelry, postcards, maps and polished stones for collecting, as well as pans and sieves for sale.
Since we were feeling lucky, we purchased tickets ($2 each) to try our hand at placer, or creek, gold mining. Just on the other side of the parking lot, folk of all ages stand beside water-filled wooden troughs shaking pans of sediment in the hopes of seeing that golden glimmer. During a typical season, visitors will pan 1 1/2 tons of creek "dirt."
Top pan, we dip the pan into the trough and swirl the water around to wash the layers of sediment, changing the water every five seconds. Larger stones leave first, then the pebbles, until all that's left is the smallest grains of sand, and, if we're lucky, gold. Gold flakes are heavier than the sand and will stick to the sides of the pan. When gold flake is found, park employees supply a small glass vile with water to hold the memento. I didn't find any gold in my pan, but my friend did, even if she does need a magnifying glass to see it. Lucky gal, she found gold at Reed Mine.
Susan Doyle of Rock Hill is a freelance writer. Her column appears monthly in the Lake Wylie Pilot. She can be reached at email@example.com.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Reed Gold Mine
WHERE: 9621 Reed Mine Road, Midland, N.C.
ONLINE: reedmine.com; nchistoricsites.org/reed/reed.htm
COST: Free Admission to the 880-acre park, $2 per person to pan for gold
AMENITIES: Picnic facilities
DIRECTIONS: I-485 East (outer), Exit 43 toward Mint Hill/NC5, right on Blair Road (NC51), Right at Albemarle Road/Elm Forest Road (Hwy 24/27), Left on NC-1100/Reed Mine Road. Look for signs. About one hour from Lake Wylie.
June 2: Junior Prospectors Day Camp, one day for children ages 8-11
June 12-14: second annual North American First Gold Festival
June 14: N.C. Open Gold Panning Competition