North Carolina stakes a claim to holding the site of the first documented discovery of gold in the United States, but Georgia points with pride to having been the site of the country's first major gold rush. The Dahlonega Gold Museum State Historic Site, housed in that state's oldest surviving courthouse, traces the development of gold mining in the northeast mountains of Georgia.
From Charlotte, Dahlonega, Ga., is approximately 225 miles, about a four-hour drive.
To see and do
According to one legend, Benjamin Parks first stumbled upon gold there while out hunting deer in 1828. It's uncertain as to whether Parks was actually the first to find it, but he lost little time in spreading the news about his discovery. In a short time, thousands of miners came to the region to seek their fortune.
One of the boom towns that sprang up was Dahlonega (pronounced "duh-LAH-ni-ga" - the Cherokee word for the color of gold). In 1836, Lumpkin County was established, with Dahlonega as its seat. A two-story, Federal-style brick courthouse was built in that same year at the center of town. The bricks were handmade from local clay and therefore contain trace amounts of gold.
When a new courthouse opened in 1965, local citizens helped save the original from the wrecking ball. The state of Georgia bought the old courthouse for $10 and then invested another $100,000 to refurbish it for its new role as the Dahlonega Gold Museum.
A film, "America's First Gold Rush," shown every half hour in the second-floor theater, presents an overview of gold mining in the region. Artifacts on display include a stamping mill, one of the "water giant" nozzles used in hydraulic mining, and a hand pick actually used by Benjamin Parks. One interesting document is a deed for a 40-acre gold lot, given to a lucky Georgian during a land lottery held in 1832 at what was then the state capital of Milledgeville.
Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit is the collection of gold coins minted at Dahlonega. In 1835, Congress authorized the establishment of branch mints in New Orleans, Charlotte and Dahlonega. The Georgia branch operated between 1838 and 1861, and over the course of 23 years minted more than 1.3 million coins with a face value in excess of $6 million. The museum's collection of locally minted coins includes gold dollars, quarter eagles ($2.50), half eagles ($5) and an extremely rare $3 gold coin.
Trivia: The gold used to gild the dome atop the state capitol in Atlanta came from Lumpkin County.