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Prospecting For Gold In Virginia
by Fred Marmorstein
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Fred Marmorstein was a teacher for 17 years and is now freelancing full-time with numerous writing credits on websites, such as Both non-fiction and ficiton pieces published ranging from topics as diverse as autism to oral cancer.

Panning for gold in Virginia can be as easy as swirling sand in a four foot long black trough at the Gold Mining Camp Museum at Monroe Park in Goldvein, or it can be as challenging as digging and sluicing through Contrary Creek in Mineral. Either way, the possibility of finding that elusive yellow nugget still excites people as it has for thousands of years.

The Gold Mining Camp Museum – designated as “The Official Gold Mining Interpretive Center for the State of Virginia” by the Virginia General Assembly – might be a great place to begin your adventure into the world of prospecting. Behind the Mess Hall, two troughs filled with sand from a local stream surrender not only gold but other minerals, such as amethyst, mica, and pyrite.

According to Mr. William (Billy) Lassiter, of the Division of Mineral Resources, these minerals represent an area “formed about 550 million years ago during the Cambrian Age.” While The Division of Mineral Resources, a component of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy has documented “301 gold and silver mines, prospects, and occurrences” in Virginia, it’s not just a question of finding gold but finding where it’s at that is essential.

“We've done a lot of research as to where the old timers found gold and that typically is where we'll go. There is a certain type of gravel we look for. When we find it, we usually find gold,” explains Mr. Robin Adair, a homegrown prospector from Goldvein. In fact, prospecting areas start in Fairfax at Great Falls and head southwest for 140 miles through 15 counties. The entire 4000 square mile gold belt – which cuts a 15-25 mile wide band through Virginia – descends from Maryland all the way to the North Carolina state line.

But even though exploring abandoned gold mines is possible, Mr. Lassiter warns that “all abandoned mines are potentially dangerous areas with hazards that may not be immediately obvious.”

At its peak, Virginia was the 3rd largest producer of gold in America. The first actual gold deposit was discovered in 1806 at Whitehill Mine in the western part of Spotsylvania County. But before that, in 1782, Thomas Jefferson mentions a gold-bearing rock from his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson “knew a single instance of gold found in this state. It was interspersed in small specks through a lump of ore, of about four pounds weight, which yielded seventeen pennyweight of gold, of extraordinary ductility. This ore was found on the North side of Rappahanoc [sic], about four miles below the falls.” By the early 1800s, most Virginians knew gold existed.

In the beginning of the 19th century, people shoveled, panned, and sluiced from shallow saprolites: shallow, weather-beaten deposits of clay and crumbling rock. By the 1830s panning became commonplace in places like the Rappahannock River. But jumping into a creek and watching the gold magically appear in the bottom of your pan only happens in fairy tales. The weather, other claims, and the terrain can all affect prospecting.

Mr. Adair knows perseverance. “The only time we're not in the creek is when the water freezes in our pan, thus making it impossible to continue. I've been out panning when it was in the 20's and punched a hole in the ice. You can actually pan your material out before the pan freezes but when gold appears you can watch little ice crystals start to form on the gold itself and pretty soon the whole pan turns to slush and then ice.”

Many of the creeks and streams that can yield gold require an abundant amount of time, energy, and patience. But first, and most importantly, before digging or panning anywhere, the landowner’s permission is required. Most prospectors say getting written permission ensures that disputes are easily resolved. Contacting the Division of Mineral Resources or joining a club like the Central Virginia Gold Prospectors can also offer excellent information and guidance.

When the search first began for gold, knowledge of Virginia’s topography and geology became extremely important, helping gold seekers follow their dreams. There really is a plausible reason for gold’s existence in “them thar hills” instead of just media hype. Gold would be found in the hills because of erosion; erosion exposed the gold which could then be prospected by hand or machine. Deposits of quartz and pyrite were also possible clues to the presence of gold veins.

By the early 1900s, deep shafts were being drilled. At the Franklin Mine (also known as Deep Run Mine) in Fauquier County, miners drilled shafts up to 300 feet hunting for gold. Open from 1825 to the end of the Civil War, the Franklin Mine became one of the most productive of the 19 active mines in Fauquier County, generating $1,200,000 worth of gold.

Although the Gold Rush of 1849 signaled the initial downturn of Virginia’s commercial mining boom, the start of World War II significantly ended the search for gold. The War Production Board shut down all mines and used the idle labor force to support the war effort. By 1947, gold was no longer produced in Virginia.

The resurgence of gold mining in Virginia might take a while. Besides the economic costs of extracting gold (or enough gold to produce a profit), regulations exist to protect both the public and the environment. “Mine worker safety, public safety and health and the potential alteration of the environment’s land surface, hydrology, and ecological systems” are all contributing factors that could prohibit gold mining, says Mr. Lassiter.

But now that gold has surged to over $900.00 per ounce, the pursuit has taken on new energy.

How successful can you be? Mr. Lassiter declares that “the possibility of discovery of significant gold deposits in Virginia remains positive.” Even while panning for gold at the Gold Mine Museum, one young man found a piece of garnet and a tiny flake of gold slightly smaller than a mosquito wing.

Remember, however, that you may find more than just a piece of yellow rock.

Mr. Adair recognizes that “the rewards of prospecting lead to more than the discovery of a gold nugget.” Years ago, Goldvein’s local postmaster, H.P. (Pat) Monroe, shared his knowledge of gold and gold mines with a young Robin Adair. “The real fun is in researching our history and keeping our heritage alive. For me, the most rewarding part is researching our gold mining history and heritage and sharing it with as many people as I can.”

Published: Jul 16,2008 08:26
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