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Gold and Copper mining in North Carolina

Gold mining in North Carolina dates back to the earliest colonial times when British expeditions were sent to North America in search of the precious metal.  Sir Walter Raleigh was unsuccessful in his attempt to locate gold, and the Spanish quickly followed, but were met with the same fate.

The first recorded discovery of gold in North Carolina was in 1799 in Cabarrus County by Conrad Reed, a 12-year old boy who reportedly skipped church to go fishing.  The nugget found by Reed weighed 17 pounds.  In 1802, a Fayetteville jeweler identified the rock as a gold nugget and paid what Reed asked for, $3.50, though the actual value was around $3,600. Reed may have been uneducated but he was not ignorant and later settled with the jeweler for $1,000. The sale set off a frenzy of speculators who came to North Carolina in search of wealth.  The lure of gold drew miners from as far as the Cornish coast in England.  For the next fifty years, North Carolina was the leading state in gold production. 

One of the richest veins of gold was found in a small area in southern Rowan County that came to be known as Gold Hill.  The gold was discovered in 1842 by Archibald Honeycutt and Daniel Culp on the lands of Andrew Troutman.  It is estimated that over $2 million dollars worth of gold was taken from the mines of Gold Hill.  At a depth of 750 feet, the Randolph Shaft is one of the richest and deepest mines east of the Mississippi.

Two types of gold are found in North Carolina:  “Placer,” or creek, gold mining used pans to wash the rocks and expose the gold.  Underground mining got its start when, in 1825, it was discovered that the metal also existed in veins of white quartz. Underground or “lode” gold required a much greater amount of money, labor, and machinery.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California and gold mining began to wane in North Carolina.  But it was known that gold and copper often appear together and as early as the 1820’s, Gold Hill mining operators had mentioned the presence of copper, but concentrated on gold. By the 1850’s, as gold mines began to close, Gold Hill copper mining got its start.   By the turn of the century, with the development of electrical equipment, copper mining completely overtook gold in importance.  In spite of the abundance and demand, the mines were not consistently profitable. Both copper and gold bullion were shipped to the Charlotte mint, which was built in 1837. 

The majority of the labor force in the mines consisted of white males under the age of 35.  In the antebellum period, one third of the workers were black slaves.  The underground miners were paid between $25 and $35 per month while the common laborers earned $13 per month.  Occasionally, women were hired to wash the rocks, and they were paid $4.50 per month.  Steam powered machinery as well as horse or water powered equipment was used. 

Workers descended into the mines on ladders that were 20 inches wide.  They carried their tools with them, and they only had a candle on their helmets to light the way.  The tools they used were pick-axes, mallets, shovels, and sledge-hammers.  The darkness made conditions disorienting and dangerous.  In addition to manual labor to dig the mines, blasting was used to penetrate the rocks, and the smoke that filled the shafts  added to the danger. 

In the camps, outbreaks of smallpox and typhoid fever were common especially in the spring of the year when contact with mosquitoes and other insects was unavoidable.  In addition to disease, safety issues in the mines took many lives of the workers.  Occasionally, violence among the workers would break out in the camps, but this was rare.    

Mining attracted investors as well as workers.  Artisans also came to the area to support the workforce in the mines.  The population around the Gold Hill area quickly grew as a result of the mines, and stores and churches sprang up as well.

The outbreak of the Civil War took many of the miners away to fight.  It was almost the turn of the century before there was much recovery in the mines.  The mines continued to be worked until they became exhausted, and eventually FDR shut down the mines during World War II.

In its heyday, between 1804 - 1825, North Carolina mines supplied gold all domestic gold coined by the U.S. Mint worth a total of $134,000, at that time., There were 294 mines and prospects in the central Piedmont of North Carolina between 1800 and 1948, and 50 in South Carolina. $2.1 million in gold bullion was assayed in Charlotte during the time period of 1876 to 1891. Records of gold production for North Carolina total $24 million, but experts believe those records reflect only about half of the gold that was actually mined.


Gold in North Carolina

Reed Gold Mine

Glass, Brent. King Midas and Old Rip: The Gold Hill Mining District of North Carolina.  Dissertation Chapel Hill, 1980