North Carolina’s gold belt runs through the Piedmont north of Charlotte, but McDowell and Rutherford counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains drew prospectors suffering from gold fever to Vein Mountain and Golden Valley during the 19th century. The miners are long gone, but visitors can try their hand at panning at a handful of the old mines.
Gold in North Carolina
A 12-year-old boy named Conrad Reed pulled a 17-pound gold nugget from Little Meadow Creek in 1799 and took it home, where it served as a doorstop until 1802. An unscrupulous jeweler offered Conrad’s father $3.50 for the specimen, and so began the North Carolina Gold Rush. For the first 20 years of the gold rush, prospectors typically used a shovel and pan to look for gold on the surface or in streams, but by 1825, the first mine was established. The gold veins near the tiny village of Rutherfordton near the Blue Ridge lured the Bechtler family to the South, where, in 1832, they minted the first gold dollar in the United States. A wayside marker north of town marks the spot of the mint and the Bechtler House Museum (no website; 130 W. Sixth St.; Rutherfordton; 828-287-6113) is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Reed Gold Mine
While not in western North Carolina, the Reed Gold Mine (nchistoricsites.org) deserves a mention because it was the site of the first documented gold discovery in the country. Visitors can tour historic buildings, portions of the underground tunnels and the visitor center, where gold and mining equipment are on display. “Talking rocks” on an educational trail provide lessons in geology, and the remains of an 1854 mill house can be reached by a short walk. Tours of the historic buildings and the mine at the North Carolina Historic Site, open Tuesday through Saturday, are free. A small fee is collected for gold panning.
Tourist-oriented gold mine attractions in western North Carolina typically sell visitors a bucket seeded with gems or gold and give them a seat at a sluice, where they use running water to sift through the dirt. Emerald Village (emeraldvillage.com), high in the Blue Ridge near Little Switzerland, is the site of the North Carolina Mining Museum and a gold-panning operation. Thermal City Gold Mine (huntforgold.com) in Union Mills is 10 miles north of the Bechtler home in Rutherfordton. In addition to gold sluices, the company has a store selling mining supplies and a riverside campground where guests can pan for gold. The Lucky Strike Gold and Gem Mine (luckystrikegoldandgem.com) in Marion invites guests to choose their own method of prospecting on the Second Broad River. Lucky Strike is the only attraction open year-round.
Museums and Festivals
The Mountain Gateway Museum (mountaingatewaymuseum.org) in Old Fort is the site of the annual North Carolina Gold Festival. Gold mining and panning demonstrations, exhibits and vendors surround the historic log cabins that house the museum. Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Museum of North Carolina Minerals (no website; 214 Parkway Maintenance Rd.; Spruce Pine; 828-765-2761) displays more than 300 gems and minerals in interactive displays. The family-oriented Colburn Earth Science Museum (colburnmeseum.wordpress.com) is part of Pack Place (packplace.org), an education, science and arts center in downtown Asheville. The science museum has an extensive collection of gems, crystals and minerals.