Gold in Virginia

gold forms in Type II supernova explosions, such as the one that formed the Crab Nebula
gold forms in Type II supernova explosions, such as the one that formed the Crab Nebula
Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr

Nucleosynthesis of gold starts with atoms of iron which were formed by fusion within the core of a star. All elements in the universe with more than 26 protons in their nucleus (i.e, "heavier" than iron) were created through neutron capture processes. Neutrons are forced into the nucleus of an atom within a star. In a radioactive decay process, a beta particle (electron/positron) is emitted from that neutron. The neutron is converted into a proton by that beta decay, and an atom of an element with one higher atomic number is formed.

Nearly all gold atoms were created very quickly in what physicists called the r-process, for with "r" for "rapid" nucleosynthesis. It is possible that some gold atoms formed in the s-process ("s" for "slow"), just before an old star becomes a white dwarf.

Assuming the atoms of gold found in Virginia today were formed originally by the rapid nucleosynthesis process, then Virginia's gold deposits started with the collision of two neutron stars or when the nickel-iron core collapsed in a Type II supernova. Those supernovae are high-energy explosions of fast-spinning stars with a strong magnetic field.

In an initial pressure cooker phase, the star's core collapses. The pressure compresses atomic particles together faster than radioactive decay splits the nuclei apart, and forcing a proton into a nucleus is one way a star creates a new element. Almost immediately, in the second phase a violent explosion expels the newly-formed elements into a gaseous cloud.

A neutron star merger within 1,000 light-years of our solar system could have created a high percentage of the heavy elements that coalesced and formed Earth and the other planets in our solar system.

Perhaps 80 million years before the formation of our solar system, which occurred 4.6 billion years ago, the dramatic end of two neutron stars disseminated gold and other heavier-than-iron elements atoms into space. Those elements then accumulated in gas clouds via gravitational forces, and were incorporated into new stars, asteroids and planets.

The process for creating heavier-than-iron atoms is still being debated. A 2020 scientific study concluded that the frequency of neutron star collisions was too low to create all the gold identified today. In addition to star collisions, magnetorotational supernovae could have forced protons into nuclei to create the elements beyond gold in the Periodic Table of Elements.1

The Gold-Pyrite Belt in the Piedmont physiographic province is a zone of mineralization 15-25 miles wide, east of the Blue Ridge and stretching all the way between the Potomac River and Buckingham County. Gold is also found in the Virgilina District of the Carolina Slate Belt, south of the James River. Some of the original deposition of gold in the Virgilina District occurred about 650 million years ago, with a major influx of gold mineralization 550 million years ago. Gold deposits in the Gold-Pyrite Belt north of the James River probably formed 550 million years ago.

gold in Virginia is concentrated north of the James River in a gold-pyrite belt of metamorphic and volcanic rocks along the western edge of the Chopawamsic Terrane
gold in Virginia is concentrated north of the James River in a gold-pyrite belt of metamorphic and volcanic rocks along the western edge of the Chopawamsic Terrane
Source: Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Gold

gold deposits in Virginia south of the James River are most common in the Virgilina District
gold deposits in Virginia south of the James River are most common in the Virgilina District
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Gold Deposits of the Carolina Slate Belt, Southeastern United States: Age and Origin of the Major Gold Producers

Over the last 4.6 billion years, those gold molecules have moved within the mantle and crust. The gold found in Virginia today can be traced back to the time volcanic islands and chuncks of continental crust formed in the Iapetus Ocean, before they were accreted to the continental crust and created the supercontinent of Pangea. Those island arcs were on the western edge of Gondwana.

In the formation of Pangea, subduction of crust led to melting and differentiation of different minerals within the magma. The gold in today's Piedmont bedrock may have been remobilized roughly 450-250 million years ago, between the Taconic and Alleghenian orogenies. The accretion of the Potomac Terrane formed between 500-470 million years ago, followed by the younger Chopawamsic Terrane formed between 474-465 million years ago, may have brought pre-existing gold deposits to Virginia.

It is also possible that the gold deposits in places such as Orange County were formed during the collision of tectonic chunks of crust:2

The gold is believed to have formed in submarine hot spring environments, where mineral-bearing waters pooled in topographic lows.

Gold and quartz, which melted at similar temperatures, flowed into fractures parallel to thrust faults. As the mass of molten rock slowly cooled below 1,943°F, gold molecules shifted from a liquid to a solid state and "froze" or crystallized in place.

Most of the molten gold crystallized within bedrock while still buried miles underground. Some vaporized gold could have been emitted from volcanoes as fine particles with volcanic ash, and formed ancient placer deposits on the surface of the island or on the Iapetus Ocean seafloor nearby. As terranes were accreted to the edge of the North American Plate, such surface deposits would have been scattered by erosion while subsurface gold near hot springs was concentrated into ore bodies. Molecules of gold have cycled and been recycled into different locations over time.

Much of the Virginia gold may have been melted and moved (mobilized) during the Taconic, Neo-Acadian, and Alleghenian orogenies. Under heat and pressure, the gold originally contained within volcanic islands was squeezed along with silica (quartz) into the veins now scattered within the metamorphosed bedrock of the Virginia Piedmont.

Underneath ore deposits at the surface may be funnel-shaped feeder zones connecting to magmatic roots. Low-grade disseminated gold deposits at the surface identify where exploration geologists might discover high-grade feeder zones. Deep drilling can identify if there is sufficient gold-rich ore at depth to justify the expense of creating an open-pit mine in Virginia, similar to the Haile mine in South Carolina.

gold deposits formed originally when minerals in magma melted and crystallized at different temperatures, concentrating gold with quartz and sulfides
gold deposits formed originally when minerals in magma melted and crystallized at different temperatures, concentrating gold with quartz and sulfides
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Gold Deposits of the Carolina Slate Belt, Southeastern United States: Age and Origin of the Major Gold Producers

open pit mining of the Haile gold deposit in South Carolina resembles excavation at a rock quarry
open pit mining of the Haile gold deposit in South Carolina resembles excavation at a rock quarry
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Geologists studying the Carolina Slate Belt deposits concluded that gold deposition occurred over several hundred thousand years. Some deposits formed within 50,000 years, where the magma source cooled without renewal from the heat source. There were different ore-forming environments for each deposit, and:3

... the gold mineralization is about the same age as the enclosing rocks, rather than younger. Lead isotopic variations of the major gold deposits in the slate belt also show that the gold was remobilized after its initial deposition...

Fluid-inclusion data suggest that water-dominated fluids associated with the different styles of mineralization had a wide range of temperatures and contents of salt. Results indicate that during gold deposition in some deposits, gases were lost (for example, carbon dioxide), and that mixing of different types of water-rich fluids was necessary before gold precipitated; data for other deposits support a model of mixing of seawater and hydrothermal fluids.

Some veins may be even younger than the Alleghenian orogeny, and date from the time when Pangea split up about 225 million years ago. Triassic basins developed when the crust thinned. Earthquakes were a common occurrence as blocks of crust moved at faults moved. The sediments in the basins tilted and molten basalt at great depth jetted through cracks to the surface. When the pressure of the overlying rock was released briefly during earthquakes, other fluids may also have boiled up towards the surface, squeezing through cracks in the surrounding rock.

When silica cooled back into hard rock, it formed new quartz veins within the fractures through which the liquid had moved. At the Vaucluse Mine in Orange County, gold was found mixed with "rose" quartz (colored by iron oxide) and sericite formed when feldspars were altered by hydrothermal fluids.

In those locations where gold had been a component of the molten fluids at depth, those quartz veins included gold deposits. Molten sulfur was also common in those hydrothermal fluids, so crystals of iron sulfide (FeS2) are also found along with gold ore. The glint of iron sulfide crystals has led to is common name, "fool's gold."

The gold may have been carried in the hydrothermal liquid as nanoparticles that formed a colloid, comparable to how proteins and fats are suspended within milk. When the high concentration of suspended gold nanoparticles finally crystallized as the hydrothermal liquid cooled, thick gold veins were created.

Gold simply dissolved in hot fluids, rather than suspended in a colloid, could also crystallize into deposit. The tiny particles which crystallized would create very thin layers of gold, rather than the thick veins with nuggets cherished by gold prospectors. Tiny particles can be extracted commercially today, especially from volcanic deposits where gold literally erupted as a tiny percentage of the material in ash clouds. The ash is heaped into a pile, and then a fluid with cyanide is poured on top. As the fluid flows through the heap, gold dissolves into it. The final step is extracting the gold from the "pregnant liquor," after which the cyanide can be reused.4

The earliest English settlers of the Virginia Company were looking for gold. Gold equals wealth, at least to humans. The richest man in the history of the world was been the ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa. In the early 1300's, he controlled more wealth than any other human who has ever lived because Mali produced most of Africa's gold. It was the major source of gold for Europe until the discovery of the New World.5

control of gold made Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali, the richest human in the world
control of gold made Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali, the richest human in the world
Source: Wikipedia, Catalan Atlas

The Spanish seized vast amounts of gold from Aztec, Inca, and other Native American societies in Central and South America. The English started their colonization efforts about a century later, and targeted North America to avoid conflict with existing Spanish settlements. In Virginia and then later colonies, the English did not discover any native societies in North America that had mined and accumulated gold. The gold discovered by the English within Native American communities along the East Coast had been acquired from shipwrecks or exchange with early Spanish and French settlers.

The first gold rush in the United States occurred in North Carolina, nearly two centuries after Jamestown was settled. In 1799, a 12-year old boy found a heavy rock with a yellow color near the site of modern Charlotte. The family used it as a doorstop until 1802, when a North Carolina jeweler bought the rock for $3.50. After he revealed the doorstop was a 17 pound gold nugget, the gold rush began in the western North Carolina Piedmont. Initial mining depleted placer deposits, where gold had accumulated in streambeds. In 1825, miners began digging in the ground to extract gold from lode deposits, where it was mixed with quartz in veins.6

Thomas Jefferson documented the first gold discovered within Virginia:7

I knew a single instance of gold found in this state. It was interspersed in small specks through a lump of ore, of about four pounds weight, which yielded seventeen penny-weight of gold, of extraordinary ductility. This ore was found on the North side of Rappahanock, about four miles below the falls. I never heard of any other indication of gold in its neighbourhood.

That lump of ore would have washed down from its original location in the Piedmont, past the Fall Line at Fredericksburg, before settling with other sediments in a placer deposit on the Coastal Plain. Jefferson's handwritten version of Notes on the State of Virginia suggests he had heard of gold in the Piedmont physiographic province, but he edited out information about Gold Mine Creek before publication.8

Thomas Jefferson may have been aware of gold in Louisa County, as well as a nugget found downstream of Fredericksburg
Thomas Jefferson may have been aware of gold in Louisa County, as well as a nugget found downstream of Fredericksburg
Source: Massachusetts Historical Society, Notes on the State of Virginia (p.14)

Gold Mine Creek now flows into Lake Anna
Gold Mine Creek now flows into Lake Anna
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Despite the dreams of the Virginia Company in 1606, gold had to be brought to Virginia. In the colonial era, coins of gold and silver were scarce. There was so little "hard" money (gold or silver) that Virginians used tobacco receipts as a form of cash.

the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad identified where gold might be mined along its route in the Piedmont
the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad identified where gold might be mined along its route in the Piedmont
Source: Library of Congress, Map showing the economic minerals along the route of the Chesapeake & Ohio Rail Way (Thomas S. Ridgway, 1872)

Various legends claim that General Braddock brought a chest filled with gold in 1755 to Alexandria, before he marched to capture Fort Duquesne from the French. In one legend, the gold was buried along what is known today as Braddock Road near Centreville in Fairfax County, before Braddock's military operation got far from Alexandria on its way to disastrous defeat in Pennsylvania. The coins intended to be used for paying the soldiers were melted and poured into cannon barrels, then buried to lighted the load and prevent wagons from getting stuck in the mud.

Other legends suggest the gold was buried during the hurried return after the defeat on the Monongahela River. To date, treasure hunters have found nothing, while historians debunk the claims.9

The first searches for gold involved looking for tiny flakes in streams. East of the Fall Line, bottoms of the rivers were covered with silt and mud that totally obscured any evidence of gold flakes. Coastal Plain streams eroded through sediments with no gold ore, so Native Americans had no local sources and English colonists had no luck finding placer gold deposits.

The first placer miners that looked in streambeds west of the Fall Line scooped up gravel and sediments in a bowl filled with water. Larger pieces of gravel and cobbles were picked out, then the remaining sediments were swished in the bowl. Lighter particles washed over the edge, while flakes of the heavier gold particles (twice as heavy as lead) accumulated at the bottom of the bowl. Flakes of gold had been accumulating for thousands of years at the bottom of Virginia's streams before placer miners arrived, but it did not take long to exhaust the accumulated supply.

To find more gold required finding ore in the bedrock, and excavating ore at those sites from which flakes were eroding into the streams. Virginia had no sites east of the Fall Line where gold ore was exposed at the surface. Only after gold-seeking settlers moved west of the Fall Line was it possible to discover lodes of ore where gold was concentrated enough to be worth mining.

The first commercial gold mining in Virginia started in 1804 at Whitehall Mine, near Shady Grove Church in Spotsylvania County. It was in the Chopawamsic Terrane, an island arc accreted to the North American tectonic plate in the Ordovician Period. The veins of quartz and gold melted/crystalized at similar temperatures. Hydrothermal fluids migrated through other layers of rock during metamorphism, and when the liquids cooled the gold and silica quartz) crystalized in veins. Miners at Whitehall dug at least one shaft 100 feet deep.10

the Whitehall Mine is located in the Chopawamsic Formation, north of Lake Anna
the Whitehall Mine is located in the Chopawamsic Formation, north of Lake Anna
the Whitehall Mine is located in the Chopawamsic Formation, north of Lake Anna
Source: Mindat.org, Whitehall Mines, Gold-Pyrite Belt, Spotsylvania Co., Virginia, USA and ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Mining a gold vein required excavating a high percentage of "waste rock" in order to extract the ore. Veins varied in width, reflecting the size of fractures in which hydrothermal fluids crystallized as well as the percentage of gold in those fluids. When miners reached the end of a vein, they continued to excavate in hopes of finding a new segment nearby:11

Most of the productive veins of the gold belt were less than 2m thick, on the order of 100m long, and mined by surface workings.

The first state geologist for Virginia, William Bartram Rogers, noted:12

... we find the auriferous veins in most cases very irregular in their forms: at one point having a thickness of several feet; at another very near to the former, contracting so as only to measure a few inches across. Again, in many cases the vein divides, and the separate portions afterwards unite or send off other branches...

In Morton's mines, the width varies from seven feet to five or six inches. In Booker's the vein forks, thins, and as frequently widens. At the Union mines on the Rappahannock, the breadth varies in some cases from six inches to nearly three feet. In fact, from the dimensions of the vein at any assumed point, no certain inference can be drawn with regard to its extent at other and remote positions.

The ore-bearing quartz extracted from lode mines had to be crushed before chemicals could be used to separate the gold particles attached to quartz crystals. Pulverizing rock required heavy machinery to grind the ore and expose the crystal surfaces where gold had crystalized as hydrothermal fluids cooled. Placer mining which required an individual to use only a bowl or simple equipment that used gravity to separate out gold flakes. In contrast, lode mining was an expensive industrial operation requiring hired workers and capital investment.

Gold was discovered in 1826, supposedly by children returning from Sunday School, in Orange County. The Orange Grove Mine, near a modern boat ramp on Lake on the Woods, was developed and quickly became a major producer.

The Vaucluse Mine nearby, which operated between 1832 and the Civil War and again in the 1930's, became one of the largest source of gold in Virginia. The gold-pyrite belt was prospected and Franklin Mine in Stafford County opened around 1837.

The Liberty Mine in Fauquier County opened in 1834. Ore excavated from the lode deposit was crushed by two seven-ton hollow "hornet balls" made of concrete covering an iron mesh frame. The heavy balls, 7 feet high and 20 feet in circumference, crushed ore placed in circular, 7-foot in diameter concrete troughs. A steam engine provided the power for rotating the balls.

The hornet balls (named perhaps for their resemblance to hornet nests, or perhaps from the buzzing sound they made while rotating in the troughs) have been moved about a mile from Liberty Mine on Rock Run. They are now on exhibit at Fauquier County's Monroe Park and the Gold Mining Camp Museum, the only museum in Virginia solely dedicated to the history of gold and gold mining, which opened in 1998 on Route 17 at Goldvein.13

two hornet balls used to crush ore were moved from Liberty Mine to the Monroe Park and the Gold Mining Camp Museum in Fauquier County
two "hornet balls" used to crush ore were moved from Liberty Mine to the Monroe Park and the Gold Mining Camp Museum in Fauquier County
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The first stamp mill in Virginia to pound rather than grind the ore was installed in 1836 at the Tellurium mine, the largest of the 50 gold mines that were developed in Goochland County. The stamp mill replaced the original, less-efficient crushing procedures based on how the Spanish had extracted silver in Central and South America since the 1500's:14

The gold ore was crushed by hand and then washed in a box to separate the waste material. The ore was pulverized in a circular rock-lined pit by stones attached to horizontal poles fastened in a central pillar and dragged around the pit by horses; this device is called an arrastra. About this time a small stamp mill, or pounding mill, was built near the mine to crush the gold ore; this was probably the first mill of this type to be erected in the United States. The ore was placed on an iron-die plate and crushed by 50-pound wooden stamps with iron shoes. Six stamps were reported in operation at the mine in 1836.

gold and silica (quartz) often crystalized together from hydrothermal fluids to create veins
gold and silica (quartz) often crystalized together from hydrothermal fluids to create veins
Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Quartz-gold hydrothermal vein rock (Neoarchean, 2.67 Ga; Hollinger Mine, Timmins, Ontario, Canada) 4 (by James St. John)

The valuable gold was separated from the non-valuable minerals in the pulverized ore by dissolving it in mercury. The combined gold and mercury "amalgam" was then separated and heated; the mercury boiled off, leaving the gold behind. In the 1830's, the Orange Grove Mine used 250-300 pounds of mercury annually.

However, in Virginia's gold-pyrite belt the sulfur-iron pyrite in the bedrock interfered with gold crystals dissolving in the mercury to form an amalgam. As a result, the percentage of gold extracted from the ore was low.

By cooling the vapor when the mercury-gold amalgam was heated, the mercury could also be recovered and reused. The miners wanted to reduce their processing costs. They were less concerned about the environmental impact of excess mercury, which contaminated local creeks and was converted to poisonous methylmercury in fish.

Even today, mercury levels are elevated in creeks downstream from long-closed mining operations. Those who pan for gold as a recreational activity today find tiny balls of mercury and amalgam, as well as flakes of gold. Cyanide was used in the 1920s at the Melville (Rapidan) mine in Orange County to dissolve the gold and then recover it by roasting the amalgam. Unlike elemental mercury, cyanide will degrade over time and will not persist forever in the soil

When opponents were fighting construction of a Wal-Mart on the Wilderness Battlefield in Spotsylvania County in 2009, they highlighted the risk of contaminated soil being exposed:15

There are 15 abandoned gold mine shafts on the parcels projected for development. Some of the mines are as deep as 300 feet with lateral tunnels at various levels, the Vaucluse mine being one of the largest mines in the area. In addition there are 32 strip (pacer) mines and 22 tailing dumps. Gold was mined in this area from 1832 through 1938. On this site, two heavy metals (arsenic and mercury) and the chemical cyanide were used in the processing of gold.

Arsenic was leached into the ground to distinguish the gold ore from iron pyrite. Once the gold ore was found it was amalgamated into pure gold using mercury and cyanide. The tailings were then spread in dumps around the mines and residuals remain today.

panning for gold today can result in balls of mercury/amalgam as well as flakes of gold
panning for gold today can result in balls of mercury/amalgam as well as flakes of gold
Source: Gigmaster, The Gold Rush In Virginia I

Lake Anna State Park highlights the history of the Goodwin Gold Mine, which was located on Pigeon Run within the park. Interpretive panels identify it as the first gold mine in the state was funded by New York investors in 1832, and that 170 mines operated in the gold-pyrite belt. Between 1830-1850, Virginia was the third-largest gold-producing state. Over 75,000 ounces of gold were transported to the US Mint in Philadelphia.

The Goodwin Mine site was identified after placer mining revealed the site. In placer mining, the heavy gold flakes within stream sediments were separated from quartz sand and clay particle by panning, then by the use of sluices. To reach the ore, the source of the gold flakes, Baltimore investors funded the excavation of a 95-foot vertical shaft in 1881. A steam engine powered a stamp mill that crushed the ore into powder, from which the gold could be removed by amalgamating with mercury.16

Over 300 gold mines were developed in Virginia, starting in Spotsylvania County, and total production since 1804 is approximately 100,000 troy ounces. Placer (alluvial) gold was scarce by 1830, so mining shifted to digging quartz/gold veins in bedrock. The lode or "hard rock" mines were opened in saprolite in the Piedmont, which was relatively easy to excavate with pick and shovel. At depth, the bedrock which had not decomposed into saprolite had to be blasted with black powder; dynamite did not become available after the Civil War.

Miners first identified the location of the vein with gold ore. After excavating portion of the vein at the surface, a vertical shaft was dug to reach the ore deeper in the earth. Horizontal levels or "adits" were dug to reach the vein from the shaft, and to excavate the ore. Typically, veins were narrow and the bedrock was solid enough so the hole or "stope" left when ore was extracted would not collapse. Otherwise, wooden timbers had to be cut, carried underground, and installed in the mine.

extracting ore from a vein in a lode mine required digging vertical shafts and horizontal levels, such as at the Phoenix Mine in North Carolina
extracting ore from a vein in a lode mine required digging vertical shafts and horizontal levels, such as at the Phoenix Mine in North Carolina
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Gold Deposits of the Southern Piedmont (Figure 11)

The name of the community of Goldvein in Fauquier County reveals that it is located within the Gold-Pyrite Belt. There were once 19 gold mines within five miles. The most productive was the Franklin Gold Mine on Deep Run. It opened in 1825, closed during the Civil War, then re-opened in 1868. Between 1877-1901, it was largely dormant due to exhaustion of ore and flooding of the shafts. Mining restarted in 1901, stopped in 1914, and then had one final phase between 1933-1936.

At least one attempt was made in Virginia to use hydraulic placer mining techniques. In 1932, a mining engineer familiar with western and Mexican mining operations leased the tract with the Melville Mine in Orange County. He installed a 4" pipe connecting the Rapidan River to the placer deposits, with a 80-horsepower motor to pump water up to the mining operation. The 4-inch pipe was narrowed by a nozzle to 1-inch, increasing the power of the water to wash sand and gravel free from the stream bank.

The material eroded from the side of the stream, by the power of the water from the hose, was supposed to flow into boxes with riffles designed to trap the relatively heavy gold particles. The lighter quartz particles, which were of no value to the miner, were expected to flow into piles of waste tailings.

By the time the hydraulic mining cold begin, cold winter weather froze the water pipes. Operations were not started when the weather warmed up, because the miner had lost money in the stock market during the continuing Great Depression and could not finance the work alone. He joined with other investors, and the Rapidan Gold Corporation redirected its efforts towards mining the lode deposits via shafts opened to 125 and 240 feet in depth.17

gold miners excavated underground shafts in the gold-pyrite belt east of the Blue Ridge, stretching from Fairfax to Buckingham counties
gold miners excavated underground shafts in the gold-pyrite belt east of the Blue Ridge, stretching from Fairfax to Buckingham counties
Source: Gigmaster, Virginia Gold Mine!

Some of the gold mined in California had an unexpected impact on Virginia just prior to the Civil War.

Captain William Lewis Herndon loaded the sidewheel steamer SS Central America on the Atlantic coast of Panama in September, 1857. Along with the passengers, the ship carried nine tons of California gold, including coins from the San Francisco mint. The journey to New York was interrupted by a Category 2 hurricane, and the ship sank 200 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina.

Though 153 were rescued, 425 passengers and crew died. All the gold sank 8,000 feet underwater to the Blake Plateau. In the 1800's, the loss of the Central America was as famous as the sinking of the Titanic is today. The Town of Herndon in Fairfax County honors the captain who heroically tried to offload his passengers before going down with his ship.18

the 1857 sinking of the SS Central America triggered an economic recession (panic) that ended construction of the Manassas Gap Railroad
the 1857 sinking of the SS Central America triggered an economic recession (panic) that ended construction of the Manassas Gap Railroad
Source: Wikipedia, SS Central America

The SS Central America shipwreck exacerbated the Panic of 1857, an economic recession triggered by the inability of banks to provide specie (gold/silver) when demanded by the holders of paper bank notes. The economic recession forced the Manassas Gap Railroad to suspend construction of its Independent Line, and the "temporary" junction became permanent and evoled into the City of Manassas. The railroad embankment became a key feature on the Civil War battlefield of Second Manassas in August, 1862.19

Three tons of gold from the Central America were recovered in 1988. Treasure hunters discovered where "the bottom was carpeted with gold. Gold everywhere, like a garden..." and brought it back to Norfolk, where many of the people rescued from the ship had come ashore in 1857. Multiple lawsuits over rights to the salvaged gold were resolved in the Eastern District of Virginia court. However, the key person in the treasure hunt was accused of selling $50 million worth of the gold and cheating the investors who had contributed $12.5 million to finance the search and recovery from 7,200 feet underwater. He was jailed in 2014 but refused to talk, and the gold from the S.S. Central America disappeared for a second time.20

Mining of lode deposits dropped off after discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California in 1848. Some production resumed in Virginia after the Civil War, but only in small-scale operations. There was a renewal of interest again after the Federal government set the price of gold at $35/ounce in 1934.

gold mining restarted briefly in the 1930's, including at the Collins Placer in Goochland County
gold mining restarted briefly in the 1930's, including at the Collins Placer in Goochland County
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Gold Deposits of the Southern Piedmont (Plate 19)

World War II ended gold mining in Virginia. According to one description, the high price set by the Federal government in 1934:21

...piqued the attention of miners around the country and encouraged a revitalization of gold mining, with production in 1938 reaching a high of 3,000 troy ounces — but it was short lived. On Oct. 8, 1942, the War Production Board issued Limitation Order L-208, which categorized gold as a non-essential resource. During World War II, all gold-only producing mines were shut down in order to redirect economic attention and labor to the war effort. Gold was last produced in the state of Virginia in 1947 as a by-product of lead and zinc.

commercial gold mining in Virginia resumed after World War I, but ended soon after World War II
commercial gold mining in Virginia resumed after World War I, but ended soon after World War II
Source: Virginia Department of Conservation and Economic Development, Gold in Virginia (Publication 19, 1980)

There is still gold in Virginia. By one geological estimate, there may be as much as 378,000 troy ounces remaining in lode deposits and 274,000 remaining in placer deposits. However, that gold is not concentrated sufficiently enough in any one location to justify the cost of opening a mine and processing the ore. There is gold dissolved in seawater as well, but the cost of extraction is too high to justify "mining" it.22

Exploration and drilling by the Callahan Mining Corporation in the 1970's revealed the extent of the Cofer deposit in Louisa County, between Mineral and Wares Crossroads. The deposit was not economic to mine. The site was reclaimed after 2008. Two shafts were closed; tailings were covered in lime and topsoil before being replanted. Primary benefit of reclamation was the elimination of acid mine drainage flowing into Contrary Creek.

The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy sought Abandoned Mine Lands funding for the cleanup. The site history notes:23

The site was discovered in the 1950's by New Jersey Zinc Co. It was never mined but explored as late as 1975 by Callahan Mining Co. The workings are 110 meters (361') below the surface and 500 meters long (1640'). Drifts are 60 meters (196.8') and 110 meters (361'). Piedmont Mineral Associates includes New Jersey Zinc and Callahan Mining Co. The mine site consists of two vertical shafts, a dump void of vegetation, acidic ponds, pH less than 4, and a small reservoir like structure...

Environmental harm exists from acidic drainage. Acidic drainage with less than 4 pH. Acidic drainage and sediment is leaving the site and iron precipitate is evident in offsite streams. Pyritic and acidic soil conditions are prevalent on approximately 5 acres

the Cofer deposit in Louisa County was a new gold mining prospect in the 1970's, but the site was reclaimed 30 years later
the Cofer deposit in Louisa County was a new gold mining prospect in the 1970's, but the site was reclaimed 30 years later
Source: Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), Mineral Mining

the Cofer deposit in 2002, before reclamation
the Cofer deposit in 2002, before reclamation
Source: Google Earth

In 1988, Sterling Exploration requested the Orange County Planning Commission to grant permission for exploratory mining north of Lake of the Woods. The county officials rejected the request. The residents in the Lake of the Woods development opposed the possibility that mining could re-start near them.24

In 2014, the Board of County Supervisors in Goochland County approved a proposal to re-open the Moss Mine, which had been discovered by John Moss in 1835. It was operated between 1836-38. Two inclined shafts were excavated then, with one stopping 30 feet deep and the other at 50 feet. At the 30' depth, they were connected by a 70 foot long horizontal "drift" excavated through the ore body.

The Moss Mine had been reopened in 1891, with shafts excavated to 70 feet deep and connected another drift at that depth. Before operations stopped in 1933, the mine had reached 230 feet deep. It was reopened briefly in 1936, with a ball mill for crushing ore. Efforts to reopen again in 1984 did not lead to any production.

surface plan and 150-foot level of the Moss mine in 1934
surface plan and 150-foot level of the Moss mine in 1934
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Gold Deposits of the Southern Piedmont (Figure 8)

The 2014 proposal was to develop an open pit mine the size of a football field, following a 2-wide gold vein down to 125 feet in depth. Gold would be obtained by "free milling," using water and gravity to physically separate the gold from worthless quartz and other materials without use of cyanide, mercury, or other chemicals. The applicant described the project as a mine clean-up project, and even suggested he might obtain government funding for site reclamation. The soil was contaminated with mercury, which had been used in the past to separate out the gold particles.

Extracting the gold was expected to take just three years. Afterwards, the waste rock would be replaced in the pit, the site would be reclaimed, and a wetland created. The projected $2 million cost for mining might be offset by the gold that would be extracted, but at a minimum the property would be more marketable after removal of the mercury.25

In 2021, the Moss Mine at 4385 Shannon Hill Road in Goochland County was the only site in Virginia with a state-issued permit for reclamation after mining gold. The permit was held by Big Dawg Resources LLC, which posted a bond for $3,000 per disturbed acre to cover potential cleanup costs. That bond amount, set by the Virginia Department of Energy, was far below the estimated cost of $8,000-$12,000 per acre for actual reclamation.

Big Dawg Resources LLC also obtained a local permit for gold mining operations. In 2020 the Goochland County Board of Supervisors renewed the Conditional Use Permit issued in 2014, which had expired after five years. According to the staff report from Goochland County staff, the proposed mine plan changed in the new permit:26

In 2014, the applicant proposed to mine for "free milling" gold. "Free milling" gold is visible gold that can be separated from its host rock through crushing and gravity separation technology. No blasting or chemicals were to be used. However, this process would have provided a self-contained open pit mine at a depth between 75 and 150 ft. Large volumes of water were to be used to facilitate gravity separation. After the applicant removed and cleaned contaminated soil, the site was to be restored to a wetland type environment.

This 2019 application would not utilize a large open pit or large volumes of water. The reclamation process would be completed for one small area at a time with reclaimed soil being returned by the end of the day. Centrifuges would be utilized to facilitate gravity separation. No new pits or shafts would be created.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would not limit the use of mercury or cyanide for the extraction of gold at the Moss Mine, but would impose limits on what might be released from the site. An official from the state agency stated:27

We are not going to regulate what's in it, but we will regulate what's being discharged.

in 2014, Goochland County officials approved re-opening the historic Moss Mine (red X) for gold mining
in 2014, Goochland County officials approved re-opening the historic Moss Mine (red X) for gold mining
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

the site of the historic Moss Mine may be more valuable for residential and timber use, rather than gold mining
the site of the historic Moss Mine may be more valuable for residential and timber use, rather than gold mining
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

In 2020, Buckingham County residents expressed concern that drilling of over 20 exploratory holes since 2016 could lead to open-pit gold mining, and county officials notified Aston Bay Holdings that its core sampling for commercial use was not a permitted "by-right" activity in areas zoned for agricultural use.

The company had leased 5,000 acres in the county, plus another 6,000 acres in Central Virginia. Aston Bay claimed to have found 701 grams of gold per ton in samples from the surface, and up to 37 grams per ton in drill cores that sampled the underground vein. However, the company's finances were questionable. Its shares were a "penny stock," and Aston Bay had no history of actual mining. Two other exploratory drilling projects in Buckingham County since 1980 had failed to lead to actual mining.

Aston Bay Holdings began exploratory drilling in Buckingham County in 2016
Aston Bay Holdings began exploratory drilling in Buckingham County in 2016
Source: Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, Proposed Gold Mine Could Threaten Buckingham County, James River

The Friends of Buckingham expressed concerns that exposure of copper, lead, and zinc sulfide minerals and mining operations could lead to surface water contamination, and potentially groundwater impacts on drinking water wells. To minimize such risks, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (renamed the Virginia Department of Energy in 2021) had reclaimed three old mining sites in 1997. Tailings were removed and/or covered at the London-Virginia, Buckingham, and Sprouses Corner gold mines.

Aston Bay Holdings anticipated using modern mining techniques and gold extraction technology to make it profitable to restart gold mining in Buckingham County. That approach had been successful in South Carolina, where the Haile gold deposit discovered in 1827 had been re-developed after 2007 to become the largest gold mining operation on the East Coast. In Central Virginia, the target was:28

...a high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham as well as an adjacent wider zone of lower-grade disseminated gold mineralization.

Aston Bay advertised the potential in Buckingham County because it needed to attract capital for actual mining - or stock speculation
Aston Bay advertised the potential in Buckingham County because it needed to attract capital for actual mining - or stock speculation
Aston Bay advertised the potential in Buckingham County because it needed to attract capital for actual mining - or stock speculation
Source: Aston Bay, Virginia Overview and Buckingham Gold Property

The 2021 General Assembly declined to impose a temporary ban on mining gold in Buckingham County, but did require the Virginia Department of Energy to study the impacts of developing the deposit and provide a report to the legislature by the end of 2022. The state agency contracted with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to conduct an independent study to:29

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ashton Bay Holdings made clear that all mining would be done in underground workings. Underground mining might impact groundwater in ways similar to underground coal mining. Underground tunnels would not create the risks of a large excavation with a massive pile of tailings piled on the surface, which could be carried in a flood into nearby streams used as sources of drinking water.

first pour in 2017 of gold extracted from the re-opened Haile gold deposit in South Carolina
first pour in 2017 of gold extracted from the re-opened Haile gold deposit in South Carolina
Source: OceanaGold Corporation, HGM Gold Pour Master

In 2021, Ashton Bay Holdings also started exploratory drilling for copper and zinc on about 2,000 acres in Pittsylvania County. In discussion of the potential reclamation costs for a mine, a Virginia Department of Energy official noted that mining companies had to post a bond of $3,000 per disturbed acre while actual cleanup costs would be $8,000 to $12,000 per acre.

An Ashton Bay Holdings official suggested the company would not plan to use an open pit mine to extract minerals:30

I don't see the potential for an open pit anywhere in the state of Virginia.

active and abandoned mines and quarries in Buckingham County in 2021
active and abandoned mines and quarries in Buckingham County in 2021
Source: Virginia Department of Energy, Mineral Mining

No mining was proposed in Orange County in 2021, but the historical gold mines became involved in the controversy over the proposed Wilderness Crossing rezoning to build 4,750 residential units on 2,168 acres. There were five historical mines on the proposed site with 15 shafts and surface mines; all had been dormant since the 1930's.

there are five known and named mine locations within the Wilderness Crossing Project
there are five known and named mine locations within the Wilderness Crossing Project
Source: Sullivan, Donahoe & Ingalls (SDI), Outline of Approach Strategy and Update on Gold Mine Coordination, Wilderness Crossing Development

The Vaucluse mine, where more gold was mined than anywhere else in Virginia with almost 1,000 feet of horizontal shafts, was in the center of the project site.

sites of former gold mines were within the Wilderness Crossing proposal
sites of former gold mines were within the Wilderness Crossing proposal
Source: Piedmont Environmental Council, Shocking news about historic gold mining contamination

Opponents of the project highlighted how gold mines had used mercury, and the Rapidan River was currently "impaired" because of mercury in fish tissue. However, the source of the current mercury could be upwind coal-burning power plants. Burning the fuel in the 1900's and early 2000's vaporized mercury within the coal, and emissions from power plants moved via air currents that reached Virginia where rain deposited the pollutant.

The Wilderness Crossing rezoning proposal did not include mitigation or remediation measures for historic mines, but acknowledged the local history with place names such as Goldmine Parkway.31

Beale Treasure

Minerals of Virginia

Mythical Hidden Treasures of Virginia

Vaucluse Mine

gold deposits in central Virginia are concentrated near the Chopawamsic Fault (white line)
gold deposits in central Virginia are concentrated near the Chopawamsic Fault (white line)
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Geologic map of the Fredericksburg 30' x 60' quadrangle, Virginia and Maryland

Links

gold veins are concentrated in the Piedmont, in the Potomac and Chopawamsic terranes accreted onto the North American Plate in the Taconic and Neo-Acadian orogenies
gold veins are concentrated in the Piedmont, in the Potomac and Chopawamsic terranes accreted onto the North American Plate in the Taconic and Neo-Acadian orogenies
Source: City of Fredericksburg, Historic Resources Along The Rappahannock And Rapidan Rivers (p.46)

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panning for gold in the Piedmont will result in one or more flakes, but is a recreational rather than commercial activity today
panning for gold in the Piedmont will result in one or more flakes, but is a recreational rather than commercial activity today
Source: Gigmaster, The Gold Rush In Virginia I


Rocks and Ridges - The Geology of Virginia
Virginia Places