McDuffie County was rich in ore

Modern prospectors pursue gold mostly for fun, but more than a century ago, the rich veins beneath today's Thurmond Lake created a thriving industry.

Most mines were along Little River, in portions of Columbia County that lie within today's McDuffie County boundaries. Empty mine shafts still dot the lake's remote shorelines, where patient panners still extract small amounts of recreational gold.

One of the earliest mines was the Griffin Mining Co., which prospected on 280 acres near Raysville Road. The company sold $100 shares of stock in the 1850s to finance its operation.

The company namesake, Jeremiah Griffin, was a wealthy McDuffie County farmer who was among the first to take an interest in the region's goldfields after their discovery in 1823.

David Williams, a Valdosta State University professor and author of The Georgia Gold Rush , said the discovery was made by two English miners who were traveling the South as peddlers and found gold ore embedded within veins of quartz.

The story, he said, is told -- at least in part -- by geologist W.H. Plucker, who presented a paper on McDuffie County in 1902 during the American Institute of Mining Engineers' conference in Philadelphia.

The English miners, he wrote, had no money to buy the property where the gold was located, so they approached local farmers who already had much of the land under cultivation.

"Mr. Griffin bought about 3,000 acres of supposed gold-lands lying along Little River. The purchase was unfortunate for the mining industry, as it effectually shut out all other prospectors, and confined entirely to Griffin and his associates the mining development of the whole region."

The area, known as the Columbia Mine, was excavated at first by hand, using slave labor to smash gold-bearing quartz into tiny fragments from which gold could be extracted.

Griffin soon explored other methods that led to his development of the "stamp mill" that soon revolutionized his industry through the use of heavy stamping devices that could smash huge volumes of ore with less labor and time.

"These early contraptions were made almost entirely of wood, except for the metal plates attached to each stamp head for crushing the ore," Dr. Williams wrote in his book.

In its heyday, multiple stamps -- powered by water, much like a grist mill -- were used to batter the ore into particles filtered through screens with running water. The finer particles washed over riffled plates lined with mercury to draw out the gold dust in a process called amalgamation.

Operators then shut the mill down at regular intervals to scrape gold-bearing mercury from the riffles. The amalgam was then boiled at 400 degrees to separate the gold from the mercury, he wrote.

As the gold mining industry grew in McDuffie County, more mines flourished. By the early 1900s, at least six major mines were established, according to the History of McDuffie County , published by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

An old county map showed the Columbia Mine and others marked Griffin, Copper, Four Oaks, Parks and Boss, while local charters were issued for companies that included National Mining Co. of Chicago (1900); Reeves Mining Co. of Cincinnati (1901); El Dorado Mining Co. of Chicago (1902); and Juanita Mining Co. of Hancock County, Ga. (1909).

Today, the little mining that occurs is done by hobbyists.

"We usually issue 25 to 30 permits a year for recreational panning," said Tom Lewis, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at Thurmond Lake. "It is strictly by-hand panning -- no motorized equipment."

GOLDEN YEARS

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

1853: Dorn leased part of the mining to William Lloyd, of New York, who added a network of shafts and pits northeast of the first one.

1854: Mining operations 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: Dorn -- then a 56-year-old millionaire bachelor -- took a wife, 14-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 Dorn.

1871-83: McCormick invested huge sums to resurrect the mine after surface gold had been removed, but the mines were no longer profitable.

1883: 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