WOODLAWN, Ga. -- Randy Waters fences them off as fast as people find them.
"The deepest ones we've seen are about 60 feet," the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ranger said of the abandoned mine shafts that dot the landscape along Thurmond Lake. "Some of them, you can't see the bottom."
The shafts, almost invisible after more than a century, are remnants of intermittent efforts to force gold from the rugged hillsides.
"There are dozens and dozens of them, just that we know of," Mr. Waters said. "And a lot of them still haven't been found."
Gold was reported in the area as early as 1791, when 14 mines were registered at Long Cane Creek in what is now McCormick County, S.C., according to Matrix, a mineral history magazine.
Since then, prospecting has occurred on both sides of the river ranging from amateur prospecting to full-fledged commercial mines.
"We think, especially in the western part of the lake, it was busiest in the 1820s and 1840s," Mr. Waters said.
Archaeologists have confirmed the existence of mining activities such as a stamp mill, where ore was crushed onto mercury-coated plates to recover gold.
"There was a lot of that in Lincoln County and McDuffie County," he said.
The most famous operation likely was the Dorn Mine, initiated by Billy Dorn in 1852. Historians estimate the gold found in that one mine during Mr. Dorn's tenure would be worth $18 million today.
The gold-bearing vein that slices across Thurmond Lake and into Lincoln, McDuffie and Wilkes counties in Georgia is the result of volcanic activity that occurred about 600 million years ago.
"To put it in lay terms, there was a volcanic arc, or belt, that ran through there, in which gold was deposited," said Dr. Ed Sharp, a professor at the University of South Carolina Department of Geologic Sciences.
Over time, the layers of gold-bearing rock were covered in sediment and metamorphosed into slate and other rocks. Today, erosion and water uncover the hidden deposits, forcing tiny flakes of gold into streambeds.
"What you have over there are mostly placer deposits," he said. "The grain size is fairly small. It's harder to find coarse gold and nuggets are really hard to find."
Today, companies continue to evaluate the area for gold and future commercial mining is a possibility.
"I believe the potential for gold there is very high," said Jay Lininger, publisher of Matrix.
South Carolina has been home to major mining operations for more than a century, he said.
"And there's a lot of exploration going on right now in Georgia," he said, "but you won't hear much because these big companies are very secretive about what they do."
Robert Pavey covers environmental issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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