Columbia County once gripped by 'gold fever'

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2010

Very few things can bring more tales of legend and folklore than the highly sought precious yellow element: gold. This valuable commodity brings its highest price ever today on the world market.

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Old Columbia County was no different. From as early as the mid-1820s, along with the excitement of individual discoveries, gold mining was one of the area's first industries. When word got out, prospectors descended on the local landscape like plagues of locusts.

The isolated gold belt of this region, with many rich veins and deposits, extended from Warren County through northern Columbia and Lincoln counties and into South Carolina.

Much of this sector was in present-day McDuffie County, as old Columbia County was divided in 1870. Ore found there was said to have been of excellent quality.

One of the first miners in the territory was Jeremiah Griffin, a wealthy local farmer, who bought out the interest of two traveling Englishmen who had discovered gold on nearby lands. By purchasing 3,000 acres that adjoined his claim, Griffin soon had a virtual monopoly that shut out would-be competitors.

Griffin later became a mining engineer and invented the gold stamp mill. It was erected on Little River about 1832. This invention was the forerunner of the gold mining mills of later years, and today the original stamp mill is housed at Yale University.

A small book, titled simply "Gold Book," located on the shelves of the Probate Court office in Appling, relates to the gold fever of 1832 when people could buy a chance in the unique land lottery of Georgia. The prize was a hoped-for gold mine located on lands predominantly within the former Cherokee Indian reservation of northern Georgia. In time, a branch mint would be built at Dahlonega, Ga., for the manufacture of gold coins. Columbia County native Ignatius Few had a hand in helping to choose the architects for this project.

Unfortunately, in the 1840s, after Griffin had enlarged his plant, he was accidentally shot and killed in a mishap with his own gun while returning from Alabama on his horse. Shortly thereafter, his enterprise was bought out by the Columbia Mining Company.

This undertaking worked on a huge scale until the machinery was confiscated by the Confederate government during the Civil War and all the work came to a standstill. Also, about this time the mint was closed in Dahlonega.

Many Southern miners had previously left in 1849 for the more lucrative gold fields of the west, namely California. Nevertheless, early postal records reveal that there was a post office operating at the Columbia Mines site until it was discontinued June 22, 1866, with Benjamin Brownhead serving as postmaster.

Eventually, the outlying area would produce other, smaller mines, namely the Copper, Oakes and Boss mines. These by no means were the only ones.

After the war ended, Col. J. Belknap Smith came from the North and mined in the area with success until his death. During the following years, his wife kept up the tradition and reportedly became quite wealthy.

Even a late as the turn of the 20th century, villages in the area had postal outlets with sensational names like Goldtown.

Throughout the years, other gold seekers have tried their skills around the area with varying degrees of success. It was soon learned that once the gold bug had bitten, it was hard to let go.

Probably that last local gold boom was during the Great Depression years of the 1930s, when the Hamilton Mine of McDuffie County was worked for a while by William Fluker. A noted geologist, Fluker was a lecturer on the speaker's circuit at many conventions and gatherings in that field.

The J. Belknap Smith family and the William Fluker family lie in repose in fenced-in graves in a small cemetery on the Wilkes County side of Little River, where once they crossed over for their gold-digging ventures.

Gold fever has periodically flared up and reawakened on occasions, with the lure of that profitable strike just around the corner. Only a fortunate few have found that elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Most were farmers and continued their agricultural pursuits while supplementing their incomes with gold mining.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with the impoundment of Clarks Hill Lake, now occupies some of the former gold mine lands. Some shorelines still on occasion reveal remnants of old pits along the banks. Today, permits are issued by the Corps for recreational gold hunting by individuals looking for that elusive gold nugget, or maybe a little "panning" along the shore for a gold flake or two as souvenirs.

(Charles Lord, of Grovetown, is a Columbia County historian.)



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