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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

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Mining and Gems in Western North Carolina

North Carolina's mountains have a mining history that dates back 5,000 years to a time when Native Americans discovered steatite, or soapstone, outcrops. Rich in the soft mineral talc, soapstone was easily carved into bowls and other useful containers. When clay pottery became popular 3,000 years later, soapstone mining ceased.

Native Americans also mined significant amounts of mica for use as ornaments and for the graves of individuals of high status. Mica found in burial mounds from the Midwest to Florida came from these prehistoric mines in the Black Mountains.

In 1544, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto searched the North Carolina mountains unsuccessfully for gold rumored to occur there. Not until 1799 was the mineral discovered for the first time in the United States, in North Carolina's Piedmont. America's first gold rush began here in 1803, and eventually more than 600 mines and prospects were scattered over the Piedmont and mountains. North Carolina remained the only gold-producing state until 1828, when gold was discovered in Georgia and America's first major gold rush began there. North Carolina remained one of the most productive gold-producing states in the United States until 1849, when the state's experienced miners headed west to exploit California's newly found reserves.

A number of other minerals have been mined here since the region was settled. Some copper mining occurred following the discovery of the mineral in Ashe County around 1850. And soon after the 1789 discovery of magnetite near the town of Cranberry, small water-powered forges began producing iron from local magnetite mines. By 1930, when competition from the Great Lakes region forced the local iron industry to shut down, Cranberry mines had produced 1.5 million tons of iron ore.

But the most important commercial mining materials were micas, feldspars, olivine, and crushed stone. Micas, due to their electrical insulating qualities and transparency, were once mined in great quantities for use in electrical components and as windows in stoves and lanterns. Currently, tiny mica flakes are used in paints and in cement that binds gypsum within sheetrock panels. One of the most commercially valuable materials to come from mines today is crushed stone, which is surface mined in open pits and used as gravel for rural roads, as a base for modern highways, and as the main component of concrete and asphalt.

A thriving tourism industry has evolved among many inactive mines in the region. From spring through fall, families and individuals enjoy visiting these mines with their mineral museums and retail gem shops. Most of the mines house water-fed flumes where visitors sieve buckets of mined soil in search of gemstones. Mines that sell materials salted with gems from other regions advertise their materials as "enriched." The other mines, that is, the ones that do not say "enriched," have native materials. At some flumes, experts are present to identify and mount such treasures for personal jewelry.

(See Appendix F for a listing of area mines and museums.)

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