As featured in the 2018 July/August Gold Prospectors Magazine
by Amanda Ellis
As outlined in the (2018) June/July issue of the Pick & Shovel Gazette, the promise of prospecting for gold in the Virginias has recently recaptured the attention of treasure hunters worldwide. But it’s not just the elusive nature of gold that attributes to its appeal — it’s also the depth of history in these sister states. Gold mining in the Virginias is shadowed by its Appalachian neighbors, but the two states have their own intriguing stories to tell, yielding plenty of promise for avid, present-day prospectors. At its peak, Virginia was the third largest gold producing state in the country. Over 300 mines and areas of prospect existed in Virginia throughout its extensive mining history — although no mines are active at this time. It’s not just the amount of gold mined at the peak of the state’s mining history that attracts prospectors, but the purity — evaluated at about 22 karats.
Virginia was one of the earliest states in the country in which gold was discovered. Even before Conrad Reed unearthed the 17-pound gold nugget that served as the start of the gold rush in the North Carolina Piedmont region, reports dated 1782 state Thomas Jefferson discovered a gold-bearing rock that weighed around 4 pounds on the north bank of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. This report served as an accurate foretelling of the discoveries that were to follow — and caught the intrigue of local farmers.
These Virginian farmers fed on this intrigue, resulting in the beginning of small-scale gold mining operations in 1804. Most of this consisted of placer mining (the mining of stream bed deposits) — but carried the possibility of bigger treasures. Unlike many of the Western states that are flowing with massive rivers, Virginia is home to small rivers and creeks that consist primarily of slow flowing water. As a result, most of the gold is found in bedrock and pay layers. Early mining in the Virginias consisted of extracting gold from shallow saprolites using mechanical methods, which involved relatively inexpensive labor — making for a popular pastime.
Gold in Virginia is predominantly found in the “gold-pyrite” belt, which spans about 9 to 15 miles in length and runs for 140 miles along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is part of the Piedmont region that features high areas of gold production in both the Carolinas. Although there were additional gold mines scattered throughout the state of Virginia beyond the belt boundaries, present-day prospectors will have the most luck searching within that belt. Significant counties of production include Faquier, Culpepper, Madison, Orange, Louisa, Fluvanna, Buckingham, Cumberland, and Prince Edward.
The results from panning the placer deposits in Virginia’s rivers transformed local farmers into full-fledged miners and the subsequent establishment of larger operations. The first lode mine was established in Virginia in 1806 less than two miles northwest of Shady Grove Church in Spotsylvania County. In 1825, additional mines were opened, including placer mines and lode mines near the falls of the James River in Amherst County. The Virginia Mining Company of New York first incorporated gold mining with its operation of a lode deposit in the Gratsy Tract from 1831 until 1934. From 1804 until 1828, a total of more than 120 ounces of gold were mined in the state of Virginia. The year 1829 alone brought production levels matching that entire time period — turning the heads of miners around the country. By 1830, the alluvial deposits most easily obtained were mostly depleted, so miners started delving into the lodes of Virginia’s quartz veins.
For Every Peak There is a Valley
Gold mining continued to escalate and from 1840 to 1849, Virginia produced an average of 3,000 ounces of gold annually. But all good things must end and when the California Gold Rush began in 1849, most miners moved west in search of greater profits. The California Gold Rush didn’t just impact mining in Virginia, but along the entire East Coast. While production in Virginia continued, it was on a very small scale, and nearly ceased completely during the Civil War years. Although production resumed through 1934, total annual reports were estimated at only a few tens of ounces, and interest waned.
In 1934, an executive order shifted the tide. This order set the price of gold at $35 per troy ounce — up from the previous $20.67 per ounce. This piqued the attention of miners around the country and encouraged a revitalization of gold mining, with production in 1938 reaching a high of 3,000 troy ounces — but it was short lived. On Oct. 8, 1942, the War Production Board issued Limitation Order L-208, which categorized gold as a non-essential resource. During World War II, all gold-only producing mines were shut down in order to redirect economic attention and labor to the war effort. Gold was last produced in the state of Virginia in 1947 as a by-product of lead and zinc. After the war, few miners returned to mining on account of the country’s economic state. Despite the historic decline, promise for prospecting in Virginia remains as there is gold in veins yet untouched — and placer deposits still to be panned.
Lake Anna State Park
Lake Anna State Park was originally the site of the Goodwin Gold Mine, where gold was first discovered in 1829. After the mine’s closure, the land was transformed into a reservoir for Dominion Power’s nuclear power plant. The site opened in 1983 as a recreational park featuring what has turned out to be one of Virginia’s most popular lakes. Whether you enjoy primitive or luxury camping, Lake Anna has something for everyone, including camping cabins, six-bedroom lodges, and cabins with lakefront views. If you aren’t into camping, there are day-use parking areas as well — but these fill up quickly during the busy summer and holiday months.
The most popular activities at Lake Anna State Park include hiking, highlighted by more than 15 miles of trails. There are also trails that allow biking and horseback riding. If you feel like casting out your line, there is a fishing pond where you can try for largemouth bass, crappie, and bream, among others (a valid Virginia fishing license is required). Cool off with a dip in the lake when swimming is allowed during the summer months. In addition, boating and canoe tours are available. A bathhouse-concession complex makes for a comprehensive recreational destination — without even mentioning the educational opportunities on-site.
Lake Anna State Park features a visitor center that highlights the history of the area’s gold mining and prominent points of interest. Guided tours of the Goodwin Gold Mine are available upon request and you’re also welcome to participate in a gold panning or nature program. An outdoor environmental education pavilion is also available for use — especially ideal if you’re traveling with a group. While you’re visiting, be sure to check out the Gold Mine Gift Shop to pick up a souvenir — the proceeds of which go to state park maintenance.
Monroe Park is situated in Goldvein, Va. — an appropriately named area for anyone hunting for hints of treasure. The property is home to the official gold mining interpretive center for the Commonwealth of Virginia — and the only museum in the state dedicated solely to the history of gold and gold mining. Goldvein is located in proximity to 19 former gold mines. The Gold Mining Camp Museum features a variety of exhibits that showcase the history of the gold mining industry and allow you to follow in the footsteps of some of the state’s most prominent miners.
The exhibits include the Assay Office, where in its time gold was weighed, tested for purity, and assigned a value. The office also served as the headquarters for the business aspect of the mine. From there you can tour the Mess Hall, where miners gathered for dining and socializing, and you can purchase bags of mining rough with either gold or gems, minerals, or fossils, along with basic prospecting equipment. The museum’s most unique exhibit is the Hornet Balls — seven-ton balls used to crush the ore from which gold was extracted. These huge resources were found at a mine site about one mile from the museum and remain a mystery to this day, making for an exciting photograph.
Have you ever wanted to learn to pan? The Gold Mining Camp Museum features a popular gold panning demonstration area, where free demonstrations can be observed at certain times during the week.
Monroe Park offers other recreational opportunities in addition to the Gold Mining Camp Museum. There is a playground, sports field, baseball diamond, horseshoe pits, beach volleyball court, and a quarter-mile trail for walking that loops around much of the location. An important feature to note is the Prospector Pavilion featuring picnic tables and a large charcoal grill — ideal for reunions, parties, sports team events, or social gatherings.
Treasure Hunting and Prospecting
Virginia’s rich mining history certainly piques the interest of modern-day prospectors. Gold prospecting with a metal detector is very popular in Virginia, and in addition to gold, you might find Revolutionary War and Civil War relics. Although there are no pay-to-play gold sites in Virginia, with a little knowledge and some supplies, you can easily set out on your own and with some luck, strike gold. A good place to start is in one of Virginia’s rivers:
• You can find gold in the Dan River in both Floyd and Patrick counties. There are many mines in the area and gold eroding from the rock filters out into the river.
• Check out Willis River, particularly the tributary of Tongue Quartz Creek. There have been reports of large gold nuggets found in this river.
• The Rapidan River is a great place to prospect, with mining in the area dating back to the 1800s.
• The Rappahannock River still offers tiny flecks of gold, which can be discovered with experienced panning techniques and patience.
• Stick to the Carolina Slate Belt area of the James River, which historically has lots of mining activity. Cumberland County is a great place to start.
• Placer gold can be found in the Potomac River with many major mines located in the nearby area. Quantico Creek and Neabsco Creek are two tributaries that offer plenty of promise.
• Try your luck along the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River and focus on locations close to old gold mines.
If you’re simply interested in hunting for treasure, there are a few pay-to-play gem mines in Virginia. These sites are highlighted by the Morefield Gem Mine — one of the few mines in operation that allow for regular collection. Features include the “Mine Dumps,” various exhibits, a gift shop, sluice screening, and a picnic area. In addition to the Morefield Gem Mine, there is the Lucky Lake Gem and Mineral Mine, located just west of McKenney, Va., which offers flume mining. Two other gem mines to note are Scufflin’ Acres and Earthen Paradise — enough for you to treasure hunt to your heart’s desire.
Wild, Wonderful West Virginia
Although West Virginia doesn’t have the rich mining history of its sister state, there are still traces of gold to be found — if you know where to look. Gold was first discovered in West Virginia in 1886 near Parkersburg. However, the excitement at the discovery was short-lived when the quartz veins that contained the gold were found to be limited in production potential. The amount of gold wasn’t enough for the implementation of commercial mining — but incites enough excitement to draw the attention of experienced prospectors. The challenge? West Virginia doesn’t boast the exposed igneous rocks that are elemental in big gold-producing states. In addition, placer gold deposits are limited, which means prospectors approaching the task with pans and sluice boxes will yield minuscule results.
Where can you find gold in West Virginia? Focus on the greenstone belts in the eastern regions, specifically Jefferson County. If you’re dead set on scavenging for placer deposits, try your luck in the South Branch of the Potomac River, public access points along the Little Kanawha River in Wirt County, or Smoke Hole Canyon. If you’re looking to transform your search into a weekend excursion, set up camp at Horseshoe Campground, which is located on a feeder stream that flows into the Cheat River. Keep your focus on Sissaboo Hollow in Tucker County, where miners discovered promising quartz veins back in 1927.
Although this will certainly give you some insight into prospecting for gold in West Virginia, the best approach to take is to join a local prospecting club, such as the Gold Prospectors Association of America. This is the largest gold prospecting organization in the world and has chapters based out of New Haven and Craigsville. Clubs can provide you with valuable information on where gold has previously been found in the state and help you access privately owned land — upon which the largest amounts of the elusive mineral West Virginia has to offer might lie buried.
The prospect of finding gold in the Virginias is limited — but for modern-day miners with the dedication to perfect their skills and the ability to pick out promising locations, it’s certainly worth a shot. The best part of searching for gold in the Virginias is the lack of crowds, a barrier to entry in other locations — so start your search now before the genie leaves the bottle!
Amanda Ellis is a freelance writer based in North Carolina