Friday, July 22, 2011

A Descent Into the Mines–Part Two

by Matt Neal

[Originally posted in The Patch as The Lost Towne Laker]
Location: Woodstock, Georgia

Next, we grabbed vines and tree branches to pull ourselves up a near vertical cliff-side. 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."

“There!” Rob said. “See that hole? That’s an old mine.”
Finally, this is what I came to see. Visions of the caves from Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disney flashed through my mind. Would we have to rappel in? How long would our descent take? Would we find the skeletons of century old miners, shovels still in their hands? A ghostly miner would make a perfect chapter in my book.
The cave entrance was in the side of a sinkhole. I dropped down in to investigate.  The entrance was smaller than I expected. It was barely big enough to crawl into.
“Corps of Engineers,” Rob said, “collapsed all the tunnels years ago. They did it for safety. But they only collapsed the entrances. Over time the tunnels caved in, leaving a sinkhole where you can get to the old tunnels.”
I stuck my head in the cave.
“Gandalf?” I called. “Gimli?”
Certainly not the Mines of Moria, these were small. In fact, I’m not sure how useful they were even when new. I had pictured long, tourist friendly caverns–like you find at Dahlonega. These things would have been for crawling, not walking. They were dirt, not rock, and mostly caved in. My descent into the mines took a decidedly less exciting turn. And yet...
I shined my flashlight as far back as I could. It almost seemed as if there was a hole in the cave floor, way in the back. The spirit of adventure was upon me!  Should I crawl in? Should I risk all to discover what lies ahead?
No, I decided. This was not safe. And I'm no cave expert.
“Maybe I shouldn’t mention the location of these things when I write about it,” I told Rob. He agreed that would be best. I don’t want anyone crawling into those things and having them collapse.
After examining the mine as safely as I could, Rob and I climbed out and continued on. But we were not finished with mines.
Moments later, Rob pointed out a second mine. Again, I dropped into the hole for a closer look. This one was probably smaller. Looking as far back as I could, I saw no other twists or turns. In times past, it's possible these were all much larger, maybe even interconnected. But not now.
“Is there anything else?” I asked, as we made our way back down. “Any structures left?”
I was pleased when Rob said there were. At this site, he told me, they did more than just mine the gold. They processed it to some extent.
I almost walked right by them, and would have if Rob hadn't pointed them out.  Massive cement slabs lay on either side of the path. The were the partial remains of a stamp mill. The base for the stamps was all that was left, and these would probably last for quite some time. Rob explained that the stamps were big iron jobbies that would crush the rock.
Here I will insert Mark Twain’s description of it from Roughing It (now in the public domain).
Six tall, upright rods of iron, as large as a man's ankle, and heavily shod with a mass of iron and steel at their lower ends, were framed together like a gate, and these rose and fell, one after the other, in a ponderous dance, in an iron box called a "battery."  Each of these rods or stamps weighed six hundred pounds.  One of us stood by the battery all day long, breaking up masses of silver-bearing rock with a sledge and shoveling it into the battery.
In our case, this stamp mill broke up quartz rocks, allowing the gold to be extracted. Vines covered the remains, and many a hiker probably gave them a passing glance, not knowing their true purpose.
Next we came upon something even more intriguing. It was a structure beside a small creek. And the creek was…red.
“See the color of the water?” Rob pointed out. “It’s reddish brown. That’s from the iron. Iron means quartz and can lead to gold.”
The structure itself, could it have been a smelter? Possibly, judging by the furnace opening at it’s base. All that remained was a picturesque, vine covered brick wall, well on its way to falling over.
As we walked back, Rob had another surprise. The path wound down by the lake.  And there, between the path and the lake, was something so overgrown that most people probably never even see it.
We pulled aside vines and bushes. There, tucked neatly away by time and all but forgotten, were the remains of a building. Quaint stacked stone reminiscent of some ivy covered ruin in an English countryside peeked out at us.
"What's that opening down there?" Rob asked.
I made may way into the underbrush and discovered what was probably a furnace at the base of the structure.
"Furnace," I said. "So this was another smelter."
Rob managed to find some old metal bits and pieces, probably all that is left of door hardware, judging by the look of it.
After returning to Rob’s giant truck, he drove me around to some other places where people pan for gold. We turned down a road that appeared mostly wooded, but then I looked again.
"Wow," I said. "There are houses right there. And you find gold here?"
"Around here, yes."
I wondered if people knew that just outside their back door, in that little creek their kids play in, lies gold. I wondered if people knew how close they were to the first gold rush in the country, where thousands of men crawled up and down hills, scratching at the ground, and digging a meager living out of the earth in the hopes of striking it rich.
I asked Rob if many of them did get rich. For answer, he drove me to an old church on Bells Ferry Road, the Sixes United Methodist Church. Behind it was a cemetery.  Many of the graves were from the early 1800’s onwards.
“Those stones," Rob said, "are for the people who had money. If you had money, your family got you a headstone.”
“And the rest?" I asked. "The ones with no money?”
“Well,” he said, “over here on the back side of the cemetery, in these woods, is where the poor miners are buried. No headstone, nothing.”
I looked with amazement. Just 30 feet beyond the overgrown patch of woods was a subdivision.  Houses, backyards, kids swing sets–and here was the woods of the old cemetery that holds the bones of men who came here to get rich and instead found toil and drudgery, and death. It was completely overgrown. I could picture boys building forts in those woods. Do they know? Does anyone know, or remember them? Or is that their final fate after all? Buried and forgotten in unmarked graves in an overgrown, unremembered patch of woods behind houses from a newer era. The land of the living bordering the land of the dead.
But I digress.
I was satisfied with my excursion. I found no ghosts and no gold, but I know the gold is there for anyone with the patience to pan for it. And hopefully readers will find an interest in some of the many things that occurred in the very places we now live.
- The Lost Towne Laker
Rob Kelly is available for presentations. He is also willing to prospect creeks on personal property, for half the gold he finds. Gold maps are available for $15.

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