As panicky investors worldwide consider gold futures, now may be a good time to review Union County's golden past.
Newcomers may not realize Union County is home to the Howie Gold Mine, which was one of North Carolina's largest and most productive gold mines until World War II. The site, tucked safely away on a horse farm on Howie Mine Church Road, still bears witness to its heyday past with deep, gaping shafts, huge grindstones, and the memories of old-timers like Bill Howie, a great-nephew of the mine's original owner.
“The Howie Gold Mine ran up until 1942, when the president closed gold mines down because of the war effort,” said Bill, who's compiled a book about the mine.
He remembers visiting the site as a teen before it quit operating.
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He lived – and still lives – nearby, and his knowledge and continued interest have earned him the role of historian and unofficial tour guide.
I was lucky. Bill, who has the owner's permission to show the occasional, sanctioned visitor around, gave me a tour. He pointed out the main shafts, layout and sites of former buildings. (Because the property is privately owned and could pose safety hazards for the unprepared, newcomers should not attempt to access the site without permission.)
He also showed me a map of area gold mines that shows a historic gold mine belt stretching through western Union County into Davidson County. The large number of mines suggests there is still gold to be found.
Unlike the nuggets that visitors can find today at the Reed Gold Mine in Cabarrus County, “what came out of the Howie was almost like sand,” Bill said. He reports in his book that “up until 1935, 50,000 ounces of gold (and) a good quantity of silver had been secured from the mine.”
At its peak, the Howie mine employed about 100 men, Bill wrote. Several miners were killed while working underground there.
“The closing of the Howie Gold Mine signaled an end to a significant era in the history of Union County, an era that saw 30 different mining locations … and producing the largest amount of gold in the state in the 1940s,” Bill wrote.
And gold is still there, according to a 1970s geological report that Bill quotes in his book.
“The drilling rig core-drilled four small holes to determine the extent of gold left in the mine,” the report said. “This simple exploration, which cost thousands of dollars, found plenty of gold. However, the problem is that it will cost millions of dollars to try to remove the gold.”
Other golden moments
America's first recorded gold find was in Cabarrus County in 1799, when 12-year-old Conrad Reed found a 17-pound nugget in a creek. The nugget served as a doorstop for a while until it was sold to a merchant for $3.50. That find led to Reed's Gold Mine, now a state historic site.
I talked to Reed Gold Mine's site manager, Sharon Robinson, to find out whether high gold prices have increased interest in the mine, where tourists and schoolchildren can pan for gold.
“To be honest, we had more visitation back in June,” when gold prices hit an “all-time high of $1,080 (an ounce),” she said.
“We have had several phone calls about different places they could look” for gold, she said.
Other questions have been, “What is the law if you find gold on your property?” and “How do I know if I have gold on my property?” she said.
“Conversationally, the increase in gold has certainly piqued their interest and their ambition of finding gold on their property,” she said.
New Jersey transplant Rocky Caponigro of Weddington planted the idea of a gold column when he described himself as “an avid gold panner” in an unrelated e-mail about New Jersey jug handles, exits and area codes. Look for more about Rocky and his interest in metal-detecting in a future column.