The Yellow Doorstop
The first gold rush in the United States took place in North Carolina, and the first discovery of gold occurred in Cabarrus county, through very unexpected means. In 1799, twelve year old Conrad Reed went fishing in Little Meadow Creek and fished up a seventeen pound yellow rock. He took it home to his father, John Reed, who proceeded to use it as a doorstop for the next few years. The former Hessian soldier didn’t know what gold was, nor did he know its value. He just thought it was junk his son brought home.
In 1802, Reed took it to get appraised by William Atkinson, a silver smith from Concord. He wasn’t able to help him, so he brought it to a jeweler in Fayetteville, who was able to identify the seventeen pound nugget as gold. He kept it overnight and smelted it for Reed. When Reed returned to the jeweler, he was met with a six-to-eight inch bar of gold and exchanged it for $3.50, which is about a thousand times less than what it would have been worth.
After Reed realized what the value of the gold was, he took to the creek. He knew the creek would dry up during the summer, so along with some partners and slaves that he owned, he began to dig up the creek. He ended up finding a significant amount of gold, including a twenty eight pound nugget.
The Reed’s mine is the United State’s first gold mine, and when news broke out of the newly discovered riches, the Carolina gold rush began.
The Depth of Gold
After the initial storm of miners, more gold was found in the surrounding counties, which blew up to surrounding states. The places where gold was discovered shared something in common. The Reed mine and the other newfound mines all lie atop the Carolina Slate belt.
For the next several years, most of the heads of families were miners by trade, which was the most popular occupation second to farming. Many miners were poor and didn’t really know what they were doing. They would use crude and primitive tools to dig through the placers, until the surface started to run dry of gold.
In 1825, Matthias Barringer discovered that you can mine gold from white quartz. He was able to follow these veins of gold deep into the ground, and this sparked the beginning of underground lode mining. Investors saw this as a lucrative opportunity, and began investing in these new found lode mines, providing them with experienced international miners and engineers, as well as sophisticated equipment.
The Count of Charlotte
On May of 1830, one particular agent, Vincent de Rivafinoli, from the London Mining company, was sent to North Carolina as a mining engineer and efficiency expert. He was a well educate Italian aristocrat, that not only claimed that he was a count, but that he was also acquaintances with Napoleon. When he arrived in Charlotte, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He walked around with a cape, and he even had a personal butler that walked with him and groomed him everyday.
Even though he was very elegant and flamboyant, he was able to flip mines that weren’t being productive. One mine, in particular, the Rudisill, was being handled sloppily with primitive tools and techniques. Under his supervision, the mine became the most producing mine of Mecklenburg county, which had around 80 mines. The mine became worth 1.5 to 2 million dollars, even though it was one of the simpler and more shallow mines. He also introduced ore processing equipment, like the Mexican arrastra ore crushers, to the St Catherine mine.
Even though he boosted the efficiency of the mines he worked on, he was not liked by the mining community, mainly because of his pompous attitude. Rivafinoli found the miners’ behavior to be brutish and immoral,
“the morals of the miners is deplorably bad…Drunkenness, gambling, fighting, lewdness, and every other vice exist here to an awful extent…Several of the miners who were imported from Cornwall are excellent men, belonging to the Methodist church, and one or two of them preach, if not with success among the miners, yet quite so among the country people around.”
He was eventually ran out of Charlotte in 1837. This was around the time of the banking crisis, when investors started to pull out, due to mines and mills shutting down from overextended finances.
An International Rush
During Rivafinoli’s stay, he brought with him an elite group of miners from all over the world. This included the best of the best from England, Germany, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, and France. Most immigrants consisted of mostly younger single men, which gave them the opportunity to be more flexible to move from mine to mine. There was so much diversity, that one mine housed thirteen different languages.
Mining continued steadily until the California Gold Rush hit, and people started to migrate west, all except for the Cornish miners. The miners from Cornwall, England had the experience and techniques for lode mining that dates back centuries. Unlike the other immigrants, the Cornish brought their families and decided to stay and settle in North Carolina. Since they already spoke English, their assimilation was seamless.
The German Mint
Even though North Carolina mining was booming by the 1830s, it was difficult to mint the gold. The nearest federal mint was in Philadelphia. For many miners, this wasn’t worth the trip, out of fear of losing ore or getting robbed. The Bechlers, a German family of goldsmiths, gunsmiths, and watch/clock makers decided to come up with a solution to this problem. They produced their own mint.
This made the need for a local federal mint apparent, and to compete with the Bechler mint, congress reluctantly gave approval of a federal mint in Charlotte. Their main concern was that the construction of this mint wouldn’t be covered by the amount of gold that it would produce. The elaborate federal building was designed by Philadelphia architect, William Strickland. It had a Greek Revival-style, with brick and leopardite, along with a rare black spotted granite.
When the mint opened in 1837, it was so extravagant that the Treasury Department needed to do an investigation. The auditor claimed that the unnecessary elements of the building, such as the carriage house, ice house, bathhouse, and trees and flowers could have gone into several years of minting. Colonel John Hill Wheeler, who lived in the main building, felt that keeping up appearances was especially important for a federal building,
“The government had purchased a beautiful location in this town, which is one of the most flourishing in the state, and had erected a building with much architectural taste upon it. It is of course the subject of observation to, not only the citizens of our own country, but foreigners of science and taste,…If I erred in this disbursement, it was the error of honest patriotism: and as such, I hope it will be duly appreciated.”
Despite concerns, the mint had processed 100,000 bullion the first year, and handled 10 million dollars worth of gold by the Civil War.
During the Civil War, the mint was used as a confederate headquarters and a hospital. From 1901-03, Thomas Edison would work in the basement and attempt to extract gold from ore using electricity. Then it became a federal assayer’s office until 1913. In the 1920s, the roof caved in and was rebuilt in the 1930s as a public art museum. This mint has the legacy of creating the first federal gold dollar, which was set in motion by the creation of the German mint.
After twelve year old Conrad Reed found a seventeen pound gold nugget, his father used it as a doorstop, not realizing its worth.
North Carolina surface mining after the rush hit
Early underground lode mining
A group of mine workers
The Federal Mint in Charlotte, North Carolina