America's First Gold Rush
GOLD! In 1848, that word sent thousands of people from all walks of lIfe streaming into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California to a place known as Sutters Mill. The rush was on and there are but few students who have never heard of "The 49'ers" (no, not the San Francisco 49'ers!).
But how many have ever heard of John Reed? Or how about John's son Conrad? No? Well, before the gold rush to Alaska in the 1890's, before the rush to Montana, Idaho and Colorado in the 1860's and even before the famous gold rush to California - there was a major gold rush in a place you might never expect. In fact, it was the FIRST gold rush in the United States.
In 1799, Conrad Reed was 12 years old. One Sunday afternoon as he was playing along Little Meadow Creek in what is today Cabarrus County, NC, he discovered a pretty yellow rock about the size of a small iron - but VERY heavy. Like any normal 12-year-old might do, he decided to pack the 17 pound "rock" home to show to his father. And like most fathers who are not wise in the way of rocks, John examined it (I'm sure he agreed with Conrad that it was an "interesting" find) then found a practical use for it in the Reed home... as A DOORSTOP! Without a doubt, it was the most valuable doorstop that ever existed. At today's gold prices it would be worth at least $240,000!
There it stayed for three years. Then one day, John decided to take it to a jeweler in Fayetteville, thinking it might have some value. After exmining it closely, the jeweler offered to purchase it and asked John what he would take for it. Not realizing its true value, John and the jeweler struck a deal for...$3.50! It was actually worth about $3,600! Ignorance is often bliss and we can assume that John left the jeweler's shop with the $3.50 jingling in his jeans, satisfied that he had struck a fair bargain. After all, the shiny, heavy "doorstop" had cost him nothing! Not until later did he discover the truth. But that simple transaction in Fayetteville set the stage for this nation's first gold rush.
Later, when John discovered what Conrad had really found and how valuable it was, he started thinking that there might be more gold on his land where that came from. So he and three others began prospecting Little Meadow Creek. Soon, they began finding more nuggets in the gravels in and near the creek. His partners provided money and labor for the operation. In return, they received three-quarters of the gold found. John kept the remaining quarter.
In 1803, a nugget weighing 28 pounds on the northwest side of the "lake" (a wide place in the Little Meadow Creek) touching off a new round of Gold Fever. Other discoveries followed. Methods of working the placer gravels quickly became more sophisticated. At first the miners scoured the bottomland digging up stones, clay and picked up what nuggets they could find. Later they used frying pans as gold pans. By the summer of 1805, they were using rockers, which were boxes with tin bottoms made full of holes which were placed on steel sliders inside of larger boxes.
By 1806, the operation was becoming more sophisticated and miners were using mercury to separate the finer particles of gold from the sand. When mercury is placed in contact with sand containing gold, it will amalgamate or "bond" with the gold particles that are present, absorbing it. To recover the gold, the mercury was heated to vaporize and evaporate it, leaving the tiny particles of free gold to be collected.
For some facts about gold and more information about the mining methods used during the period the Reed Mine was in operation, see their website: https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/reed-gold-mine.
The successful mining operations on the Reed plantation caused great excitement in the area, and neighbors began prospecting their own lands. Many were successful, and soon other mines - such as the Parker, Harris and Phoenix - were in operation. Elias Boudinot, Director of the United States' Mint, in 1804, called the attention of President Thomas Jefferson to the recent events - events that would mean so much to the struggling young Nation which theretofore had depended solely upon foreign countries for its sources of gold. William Thornton, architect of the Nation's capitol, sought an option on lands surrounding Reed's acreage and established the North Carolina Gold Mining Company. His grandiose plan failed because landowners, dreaming of striking it rich themselves, declined to sell their property, and because President Jefferson had appointed Thornton to head the Patent Office.
Two decades later, in the mid-1820's, as more sophisticated methods of mining were introduced to the region, shafts were sunk at nearby mines to tap veins of gold-bearing quartz in the underlying rock. Separating the gold from the quartz required huge Chilean grinding stones, bigger rockers and retorts for processing amalgamated mercury. Thousands of people headed for the diggings, and our Nation's first gold rush was on. Companies were organized, boom towns sprang up and the economy of the area thrived.
Enough gold was being produced in NC by the 1820's that community leaders began requesting that the US government open a mint in Charlotte to produce coinage. At least one privately owned minting operation had been attempted but had failed. In 1830, Christopher Bechtler, a jeweler and watchmaker, settled in the area and established himself as an honest businessman. At the request of several prominent citizens and miners, Bechtler opened an assay and minting business. The coin pictured here is one produced by Bechtler. This link will take you to a site for more information about the Bechtler Mint (https://video.unctv.org/show/gold-fever-and-bechtler-mint/)
Although shafts had been sunk to exploit the veins at some of the other North Carolina mines in the mid-1820's, it was 1831 before the first shaft was sunk at the Reed mine to tap the veins from which the deposit gold had been washed by the elements. This initial shaft was very productive - it alone is said to have yielded from $18,000 to $20,000 worth of gold (a lot of money in those days) - and many others subsequently were sunk at the Upper and Lower Hill workings. The gold-bearing quartz ore mined from the shafts was "crushed" by the huge grinding wheels of the Chilean mill or by the iron heads of the stamp mill to expose the gold inside where it could then be recovered by the use of rockers and mercury.
In 1834, the aging John Reed entered into an agreement under which his sons and sons-in-law would provide labor for the mining operations; as landowner, he would get one-third of the income and his partners would share the other two-thirds. Late that year, however, a dispute arose when a 13-pound nugget was recovered, and the ensuing ten-year litigation prevented full exploitation of the Reed mine. Sarah Reed died in 1843, and John - a former Hessian soldier - who had become an American citizen in 1842, died in 1845. Both were buried on the eastern slope of Mansion Hill near the mine.
In accordance with John Reed's will, his plantation was sold following his death. The new owners were his grandson, Timothy, and his son-in-law, Andrew Hartsell. Another son-in-law, George Barnhardt, had already begun a profitable mining operation at nearby Gold Hill, a site that emerged as North Carolina's most famous "boom town" in the gold mining region.
Timothy and Andrew failed to profit from the property and it changed hands a number of times. In 1835, Emmer Graham and James W. Osborn acquired it and formed the Reed Gold and Copper Mining Company. Their ambitious plans encountered the same economic problems that even capital improvements could not solve: low-grade ore compared with that which had been discovered in the western United States, the high cost of producing the gold and water shortages.
It was during the Graham-Osborn ownership that August Platz, mining engineer and assistant to the editor of the Mining Magazine, visited the mine and published in that journal the most instructive report ever prepared on the property. His detailed map, showing the buildings and underground workings, remains the most valuable contemporary documentation of the Reed Gold Mine.
Following dissolution of the Reed Gold and Copper Mining Company, the property was split up and sold to several individuals. After the Civil War, William L. Hirst of Philadelphia succeeded in buying up all of the original John Reed Land and brought James P. Bruner from Philadelphia to conduct mining operations. In 1875, success was being reported, including the discovery of one nugget worth more than $2,000. During this period of ownership by Hirst and his son, Anthony, "hydraulic mining" was considered for the Dry Hollow (between Upper and Middle Hills), but the water to exploit these "rich alluvial deposits" was the major problem. Little Meadow Creek was virtually dry during parts of the year; and, though Rocky River and Buffalo Creek were potential water sources, the capital necessary to harness their power was not available.
Reed Mine visitors panning for gold.
(Courtesy of Charlotte Convention and Visitors Center)
Profit margins remained slight, and on January 10, 1895, Anthony Hirst sold the original Reed property plus one additional small tract to Oliver S. Kelly, O. Warren Kelly, and Dr. Justin D. Lisle of Springfield, Ohio. Dr. Lisle reopened the mine, and in 1895, "some prospecting and development work" was done. An old shaft on Lower Hill was retimbered; the west and south sides of Lower Hill and both banks of Little Meadow Creek "opened up for placer work," and a shaft "sunk near the western limit of the property," opening "a large body of low-grade ore that is said to assay $7.50 per ton in free gold, and $11.55 per ton of gold in sulphurets."
Inside of a year a discovery occurred in Dry Hollow which again focused attention on the Reed Mine. On Thursday, April 9, 1896, in a placer at a depth of 3-1/2 feet, a nugget weighing nearly 23 pounds troy and measuring 10 inches in length and 4 inches in diameter was found. Before the prize was stored in the vault of the Concord National Bank, it was weighed out to be 17 pounds in pure gold and was valued at $4,866.
This discovery encouraged the partners to make capital improvements. Heavy machinery was purchased; a ten-stamp mill, crusher and steam pump were put into operation. From 1896 through 1901, the Kelly Company continued to exploit the mine. The placers were worked in "small way" and some quartz mining was done, but with the wild stampedes to the Klondike in 1897-98, Atlin in 1899, and Nome in 1900, the attention of capitalists, miners and the public was focused on the Yukon and Alaska. There was no incentive for the Kellys to spend more money on a mine promising small returns on their capital invested. By 1903, the Reed Mine had been closed, to reopen only briefly in 1911-12, when the placers and old dumps were worked.
For the next 22 years, there apparently was no serious mining at the Reed. In 1934, with the Nation in the grips of world-wide depression and encouraged by an increase in the price of gold from $20.67 to $35.00 per ounce, a few unemployed miners reopened the placers and several small nuggets were found. With pan and barrel rockers similar to those used a century earlier, a miner might recover in a day gold worth fifty cents. The hard work and small return soon drove the miners into other activities or onto relief roles and the Reed again closed, never to reopen as a commercial venture.
With time, the original "mansion house" of John Reed and the other early buildings had all rotted down. Newer buildings had been erected from time-to-time and around 1910, a substantial house was built for a tenant, but (by the 1970's) it too had deteriorated beyond salvation. In 1921, ownership of the Reed Mine was transferred to the O.S. Kelly Company and to Armin L. Kelly in 1950. Inasmuch as the Kellys held on to the property largely for sentimental reasons, only a few fields were rented out. From a historical standpoint, the result was fortunate, since the property had been allowed to lie fallow. Little is left of the original Reed Gold Mine except the tunnels, shafts, and foundations of buildings and mills to remind one of the glory days of the Reed Gold Mine. But here, surrounded by paved roads and modern homes, lies the unspoiled plantation of John Reed with its boundaries almost unchanged since 1845, when the old German was buried upon it.
Until the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and the wild rush to California in 1848-49, North Carolina was the Nation's principal gold producing state. Other rich strikes in the West followed, and the North Carolina mines were practically deserted within a few years. Many miners who stampeded to the western gold fields and silver lodes had learned their skills in North Carolina and the mountains of north Georgia. The rich Cherry Creek strike (near what is today Denver, CO) was made by disappointed North Carolinians en route home from California. All this happened many decades after the Nation's first gold rush was set up by Conrad Reed's discovery in 1799.
The Reed Mine, site of the first discovery of gold in the United States, assumes a significance out of proportion to the value of the precious nuggets and ore recovered from Little Meadow Creek and the adjoining hills. In fact, the Reed Mine was the beginning of the country's gold mining industry.
On January 1, 1972, the Reed plantation became the property of the State of North Carolina.
WHY NOT VISIT THE REED GOLD MINE
Today, you can visit this fascinating historic park and walk through underground tunnels where gold was first discovered and mined in America. For information about special events at the Reed Gold Mine, contact them at the following:
For more information about the Reed Gold Mine call or write:
Reed Gold Mine
9621 Reed Mine Road
Midland, NC 28107
Phone: (704) 721-GOLD (4653)
9621 Reed Mine Road
Midland, NC 28107
Phone: (704) 721-GOLD (4653)