Virginia's Fauquier County, blessed in the 19th Century with a gold boom that sustained 19 different mines and sent countless ounces to the U.S. Mint, may be embarking on a renewed romance with the yellow metal.
The county yesterday gave an Arizona company permission to prospect for gold at two abandoned mines--the Franklin and the Little Elliot--the first step, county officials hope, toward putting Fauquier back on the map as a gold production center.
Callahan Mining Corp. has already sunk four 500-foot holes at the Franklin mine, which has a half mile of now inaccessible tunnels, but the company is not commenting on whether rock samples brought up look promising. Company geologist Richard Gleason will only say "We're looking with the goal of finding something."
The drilling has generated endless speculation among old timers who believe there is gold to be found and jokes among county officials about a lucrative new source of revenue. "Everybody's real tickled," says Lee District Supervisor Sam Butler.
Production began in 1825 at the Franklin site, apparently using "open cut" techniques in which laborers dug trenches and sifted for gold in its pure form, according to a history of Fauquier County. Gold fever grew in the next decade in Virginia, with 10 companies chartered to explore in Fauquier and other Virginia counties in 1834 alone.
During the 1860s, some 6,000 ounces of gold were brought up at the Franklin mine, according to H.P. Monroe, postmaster at the nearby town of Goldvein who has made a hobby of local gold history.
Franklin closed down around the turn of the century. In the 1933, a Pittsburgh group tried to make it work again, excavating tunnels at 50, 150 and 290 feet below the surface, with access by twin cages lowered and raised with winches. The venture folded two years later, apparently after producing little or nothing.
In the mid 1950s, a retired sawmill operator, Brewster Helm, made another attempt to make the Franklin mine produce. He worked the mine as a hobby off and on for 10 years starting in about 1955, digging surface trenches and spending thousands of dollars of his own money. If he found anything, he kept the news to himself.
President Nixon's deregulation of gold in 1971 allowed its price to rise from the officially set $35 per ounce and it hovers today at about $410 per ounce. This has made formerly "uneconomic" mines worth a new look, Gleason said during a tour of the Franklin site yesterday.
Callahan began surveying for gold around Virginia in 1981. Based on analysis of rock and soil samples and other geological indicators, Gleason said, the company believes it is worth going to the major expense of drilling holes. But production, if there is any, will be years off, Gleason said.
Callahan leased the site in January and began drilling without getting the special permit the county has required since 1982. Gleason said the company was not aware of the requirment.
Yesterday, the board unanimously gave Callahan permission to drill the holes and to dig 12-foot deep trenches around the site. The company got the same rights for a second abandoned mine it has leased, the "Little Elliot," which is farther south off Rte. 17.
Gleason said that if gold is found at Franklin, it will probably not be nuggets or dust but bonded with "pyrite", a sulfur and iron compound in what is commonly called "fools gold," which Callahan would sell to another company that would produce actual gold from it.