Originally created 02/04/02

Club has golden opportunity

MCCORMICK, S.C. - It is midday in a secret location just outside a town long known for buried treasure. There is plenty of activity - but few words.

The members of the Gold Prospectors Association of America are hard at work at a pastime as old as civilization itself: the quest for gold.

On the modern side, there is Tim Conway, dressed head to toe in a neoprene wetsuit, chin-deep in muddy water - a bobbing blend of Jacques Cousteau and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Nearby is the Cadillac - perhaps even the Lamborghini - of gold-panning devices: a diesel-powered, floating dredge with a 4-inch suction hose that vacuums and sifts sediment in the blink of an eye.

"We are, at this very moment, just a half-mile from where the original mine shafts were," Mr. Conway said reverently.

At the opposite end of historical context - and looking like an extra from a Gunsmoke rerun - there is Fred Martin: bearded, determined and wearing worn boots.

"This is the old way," he said, swirling muddy water in oblong circles in a ribbed pan. "But it's the fun way: swishing the water around and around - and getting to see the gold in the pan."

The gold emerges gradually and in tiny flecks.

The fragments are pieces of prehistory that have found their way into creek channels on land leased by the hobbyist group for recreational panning.

"It's fun, a way to be outdoors," said Mr. Martin, whose 8-year-old son Scott accompanies him on most prospecting outings. "But you have to be patient."

Proper panning technique dictates a slow swishing, gradually getting even slower to concentrate the gold in the smallest volume of sediment. The gold - 19 times heavier than water - gradually settles in the bottom.

"I can tell you we don't get rich doing this," said Mr. Conway, the president of the Augusta-based chapter. "If you pay for your gas, you've done well."

The amateur prospectors, who use club dues to lease prime acreage to pan on, have their own pans, storage vials - and vocabulary.

There are "growlers," the large, noisy, heavy nuggets that emit a growl as they roll around in the pan. A "picker" is a piece large enough to pick up.

"Spider legs" are minute filaments of gold. "Fine flour" is dust.

Although many people think the famous mining towns of north Georgia are the only places with Southern gold, McCormick retains good quantities of the precious metal despite a century of mining.

The famous Dorn mine, whose abandoned shafts still bisect bedrock beneath present-day McCormick, produced huge quantities of gold in the 1800s that historians estimate would be worth more than $45 million today.

Is there still enough to strike it rich?

"We haven't found much today," said Leonora Myers, of Aiken, hard at work panning with her husband, Lynn. "Of course, if we had, well, we wouldn't tell you!"

The Augusta chapter of the prospectors association is one of many throughout the country where recreational panning has grown as a weekend pastime, Mr. Conway said.

Locally, the group meets monthly and pans often.

For information on the association, Mr. Conway - a local professional photographer - can be reached at 729-9900 or through e-mail at Conway2105@aol.com.

McCormick's legacy of gold:

  • 1835: Billy Dorn found gold on his farm and - after 15 years of prospecting - found a major lode on land owned by John W. Hearst, a predecessor of the famed newspaper Hearsts.
  • 1852: Mining accelerated by slave labor yielded $300,000 in gold ore during the first 16 months, making Mr. Dorn a wealthy man.
  • 1853: Mr. Dorn leased part of the mining to William Lloyd of New York, who added a network of new shafts and pits northeast of the first one.
  • 1854: Mining had expanded to include log cabins for miners, and as much as $9,000 in gold was said to have been taken in one day.
  • 1855: Mr. Dorn - then a 56-year-old millionaire bachelor - took a wife, 15-year-old Martha Jane Rutledge. They had nine children.
  • 1871: Cyrus McCormick, whose farming inventions changed the landscape of American agriculture, bought the mining company from Mr. Dorn.
  • 1871-1883: Mr. McCormick invested huge sums to resurrect the mine after surface gold had been removed, but the mines were no longer profitable.
  • 1883: Mr. McCormick closed the mines and died a year later. His family's contributions to the community led to the town's present-day name.
  • SOURCE: Matrix magazine

    Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.


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