Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Descent into the Mines–Part One

by Matt Neal

[Originally posted in The Patch as The Lost Towne Laker]

Location: Woodstock, Georgia

“In today’s economy,” I told her, “we can’t afford not to dig for gold!”
She gave me the sort of look you would expect after a statement like that.
So come with me, good readers, as we explore some deep and mysterious gold mines and track down the history of gold in this region. And when I say gold is literally in your own backyard, get ready to be surprised.

To start with, I contacted a well-known local gold enthusiast and panner, Rob Kelly, founder of Allatoona Gold Panners. I told him I was interested in the mines and the history of mining in this area. Stories or legends of old miners, possibly haunted legends, would be perfect.
After meeting at Rob’s house in Towne Lake, he showed me a rather interesting map. It displayed what is known as the “gold belt”. Stretching from the Carolinas through north Georgia toward Alabama, it runs right through our little burg. In fact, the area between Woodstock and Canton was literally covered in red dots indicating gold mining.
I thought the Georgia Gold Rush was just in Dahlonega. After all, they have that museum and touristy stuff. But Rob informed me that gold mining was common in many parts of North Georgia.
Then he showed me the gold. He found it himself, not far from here. Sure, it was small, but it was gold!
After a brief lecture on the history of Georgia gold mining, we jumped in Rob’s big giant truck and headed for the gold! I’ll go ahead and state here that much of the land where people now pan for gold is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That means there are rules. Rule No. 1, no metal detectors. Rule No. 2…oh, just check the website.
Half an hour later we were trudging along a path near the lake. Why is it always uphill? Soon I was sweating like a banshee as I tried to keep up with Rob, my senior by probably 20 years. It was humid and hot, maybe a 150 degrees, I bet.
As we followed one switchback after another, I looked around. Where were we? I was without my faithful guide, Bwana. But I smiled as her last words echoed in my ears – “You found him on the internet? Do you even know this guy? He might lead you out in the woods, rob you, and leave you there.”
However, the places we visited were all right off Bells Ferry Road, and within walking distance to more than one subdivision between Sixes Road and Woodstock. Yes, the gold is that close.
As I panted and wheezed behind Rob, I asked him if people still look for gold around here. He told me they do, and that it's actually not uncommon. Mostly hobbyists, like himself, do it for fun. Mining in this region started in the 1820's, and was in its heyday until the California gold rush of 1849. Since then, it's been sporadic and practically non-existent since the 1950's. Nowadays, it’s not likely you can get rich from gold panning. But yes, without a doubt, there is gold still in these hills. Them thar hills, I should say.
Just then, as we hit the main trail, we saw that something was different. I glanced down at it. No more switchbacks here. This was not a normal trail.
“Notice how flat and straight it is,” Rob pointed out. “This was actually a rail bed.”
I looked at the path in surprise. It went gently up hill, and was definitely flat. It was hard to imagine that miners a century and a half ago, way out here in these woods, actually had a railroad! The quartz would be loaded into the small rail cars and either pulled by horse or mule or perhaps steam to the stamp mills.
“Quartz,” Rob told me, “is what they were looking for. Gold is in the quartz, along with other metals.”
I puffed in acknowledgement and thought of my living room sofa and air conditioning. But then things got interesting.
“See,” he said. “Quartz.”
Sure enough, there were actual chunks of quartz just lying around on the ground.  I picked up a few pieces and examined them. Would I find that elusive thread of gold? Rob laughed.
“After a while, you stop looking at every piece of quartz.”
Then I remembered that over a century ago men were crawling all through these hills, so any quartz just left lying on the ground is unlikely to contain gold.
“Quartz,” he continued, “is found in veins that would slant back into the earth.  Miners would dig down and follow the vein to get the gold.”
At that moment, as we rounded a corner, something caught our attention. It was white, and it was sticking right out of the side of a hill. A huge quartz rock!
But something was wrong. Mining was off-limits these days, yet what we found was definitely a vein of raw, white quartz.
“See how the edges are clean and sharp?” Rob told me. “That means this is new.  Someone has been digging here...recently.”
We inspected the large vein of quartz. It was indeed newly dug and newly cut.
“But no gold,” I said, inspecting the various chunks of quartz strewn about the ground. “Whoever did this found nothing.”
I suspect the Corps of Engineers would be interested in this. But likely there was no harm done. On we went.
But then we noticed something else odd. We could see a creek running beside the path, and the ground around it had a strange, bumpy appearance.
“Whenever you see these bumps and grooves,” Rob explained, “that means miners worked here.  They would dig a trench, throw the dirt in a pile, then move over, dig another trench, throwing the dirt in the old trench.”
Sure enough, the area did reflect the work of century old mining. Up the hill we went, steeper and steeper.
What we found next, no picture could do justice to.
“Wow. It’s huge,” I muttered. And I meant it.
“This is from hydraulic mining,” Rob said. We were looking at a hole. A big hole.  Trees were growing from the bottom center.
“How many houses you think could fit in there?” he asked. “Probably five, six stories.”
Without some sort of magical, futuristic 3D camera, my photos were useless.
“You can’t take a picture of a hole,” Rob said with a laugh. It was true. My photos had no depth.
As we skirted the ridge, he explained that miners brought back the technology of hydraulic mining from the California gold fields. These hills they had left decades before still held gold, and now they knew how to get it out.
Next, we grabbed vines and tree branches to pull ourselves up a near vertical cliffside. What I was looking for, Rob told me, was just ahead.
Then, we found it!
I narrowed my eyes and gave a grim smile.
"Yes," I muttered. "There it is."
[to be continued...]
- The Lost Towne Laker

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