Grab your pans, pick and shovel. Throw on your overalls and jump into those wading boots. Dust off your sense of wanderlust and head for the motherlode. There's gold in the Old Dominion.
"There's still plenty of gold in the ground, just like in California," says geologist and gold nut John D'Agostino, of Reston. "The little headwater streams will contain color and flakes. You're not going to get rich, but you can try your luck at it."
Skeptics may think this sounds like a chapter from Ripley's Believe It or Not, but the counties of Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun, Fauquier, Stafford and Spotsylvania are on the nothern tip of an area known as the Gold Belt, which stretches from Northern Virginia to Georgia.
No one should quit their jobs or abandon their families to search for riches, but there is a chance to share the adventuresome spirit of the '49ers and have some fun panning for gold.
Most of the gold in this area is placer, or water-borne. At the open shafts like the Franklin Mine near Goldvein, Va., traces of gold have been washed out of the deposits and have settled in steam beds. But commercial mining reached its peak from 1835 to 1879, with a brief rejuvenation during the Depression.
"That's was when people would do anything to make a dime," says Jesse Whitlow, a semiretired geologist and panning expert.
The small, feeder streams that crisscross the area near the confluence of the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers are a panner's best bet. Approximately 50 mines were worked at one time or another in this region where five counties meet, near Rte. 17 and west from I-95 toward the communities of Goldvein, Morrisville and Summerduck.
John James, a 64-year-old contractor from Morrisville, worked in the assaying office of the Franklin mine during the 1930s. "They ran the mine 24 hours a day," he recalls. The samples proved the existence of the ore and that is when the "gold fever" hit. "A lot of them got carried away."
Inside the Franklin mine, James remembers the dynamiting that opened the shafts. "At the 55-foot level, there was a space so big you could turn a four-horse team around."
While most of the samples "weighed less than a pencil mark," he said, "you could visibly see the veins. Oh yes! There was gold."
Prospectors and men seeking work came from as far away as Tennessee. A bunkhouse was their home away from home. Meals were served. There were "good old-fashioned porker games. It was pretty dull around here until then," said James.
"There was gold there all right," James said. "The men had tie clasps and collar pins made out of it."
Some of the men, James said, would augment their incomes by crouching down in the riffles and panning out tailings, which is another term for gold that has washed out of the mines. In the Depression, everything a man could earn counted.
The placer gold, or tailings, is still available.
Whitlow recently led a party of four to a stream near the Franklin mine. A gentle man with an equally gentle touch with the pan, Whitlow is 62 and a 20-year veteran of panning. Armed with the tools of the trade, he bounded through the sunny woods one morning with the step of an army recruit.
With the sunlight dodging through the falling leaves of birch and poplar trees, Whitlow scanned the area for a moment. Then he sent his round-blade shovel about two-feet into the stream bed. Out came a sand-and-clay rock stew that was plopped into the pan.
A novice panner followed his instructions. In keeping with D'Agostino's theory that luck beats skill, a small gold bead about the size of a grain of sand glimmered in the water in the bottom of the pan. Gold!
Pan after pan produced traces, or as the miners say, color. But nothing was found to compete with the first reported gold find in Virginia in 1782, when Thomas Jefferson discovered a four-pound lump of ore on the north side of the Rappahannock River, upstream fredericksburg.
Even though D'Agostino's finds were mainly "the size of a pencil mark," he likes to point out, "Gold fever is real." Once you find it and the word gets around, "everybody and his dog will be there.
It is easy to understand why Union-commanders reportedly had trouble keeping Colorado militiament from deserting when they camped at color-laden streams near Great Falls during the Civil War.
There are a lot of theories on how to find gold. Whitlow's may be the best: "Gold has to be in the area."
The Virginia Mining Company may have followed that aphorism when the first commerical mining operation was started in Orange County in 1833.
Over the next 30 to 40 years, mining spread through the Piedmont region and Northern Virginia along the 20-mile-wide Gold Belt.
The price of gold never rose above $20 per once, according to accounts of the day, and mines began folding because profit incentives were too low.
Even with the dizzying prices of gold rising and falling near the $400-an-ounce mark, the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston reports no evidence of a commericial renaissance.
Some of the last mines in operation within a 50-mile radius of Washington were in Prince William and Fairfax counties.
The Crawford, yielding traces at Neabsco Creek and Jack Paterson's Run, four miles north of Dumfries and 1 1/4 miles from Rte. 1, was discovered just before 1935 by William P. Crawford in Prince William.
One-half mile southeast of Independent Hill, still in Prince William, two shafts were sunk and considerable trenching was done at the Greenwood Mine.
Bull Neck Run produced the only mine known in Fairfax County. In the Gay '90s, William Kirk operated a hydraulic gold-gravel washing plant that carried water in a flume from Annie Gordon Falls. "High grade ore" was mined there from 1936 to 1937 by Virginia Mines Inc., using a 70-foot shaft.
In 1927, geologist J. T. Lonsdale said any future mining in the five-county region could be done at a profit, "if properly conducted." With the gold being found farther and farther below the water line, the location of the ore becomes more of a chemical and less of a manual process.
Figures on the total commerical value of the gold mined in the region are elusive, but Lonsdale said $3.3 million (at $20 per ounce) worth of gold came from Virginia and wound up in the U.S. mint between 1889 and 1926. Another source said the annual take was valued at $50,000 to $100,000.
For the recreational panner, there are several points to remember, according to D'Agostino and Whitlow:
No two streams are alike. They are individuals and should be panned accordingly.
Do not go into any of the old mines. They are extremely dangerous and should be considered off limits.
It is extremely doubtful that a panner will find anything larger than a grain of wheat, so sharp eyes and patience are musts.
It is even more doubtful that anyone will get rich.
Many of the streams flow through private property, so be sure to ask permission from the land owner. Most are cooperative, they say.
Leave the area as you found it.
"This is for everyone-young and old. It can really be a good way to spend an afternoon for the family," said D'Agostino.
As one panner noted, "It's more fun than fishing and hunting because you can laugh and tell jokes without scaring the gold away."