Stand too close to Maryland's oldest gold mine at Great Falls Park and the gold fever bug just may bite.

If it does, one might imagine pickaxes flailing in 100-foot shafts a century ago, as a dozen miners worked to extract gold ore. Eureka!

Visitors with less imagination may simply see the rotting wood and rusting metal of the old mine surrounded by a chain-link fence draped with poison ivy.

The Maryland Mine, located about 30 yards from the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Great Falls Road, opened in 1865 and operated sporadically until 1940, when gold deposits became too hard to reach.

Most of the gold that was mined in the state came from the Great Falls area. Although there was never enough of the precious metal to inspire a rush, a handful of hobbyists believe there's more there.

Walter Goetz of Bethesda is one of them.

"There is a certain thrill in finding gold because it's so hard to find," said Goetz. He said he has found only a few ounces of gold in 15 years of panning and mining.

Goetz wrote a booklet entitled "Maryland Gold Fever" that describes the history of the state's gold production and its 60 mines -- most of which were in Montgomery County.

Despite indications that gold was discovered as early as 1829 in Northern Maryland, there are no records of mining ventures until 1865. Four years earlier, a Union soldier reportedly discovered gold while cleaning his skillet in the Potomac near Great Falls.

Unlike in the American West, there was no rush of fortune hunters to Maryland, according to Goetz. Maryland produced 5,000 ounces of gold -- a tiny amount compared with California's 106 million ounces.

"The Great Falls area was the big gold producer in the state, and it wasn't big," said James Brooks of the Maryland Geological Survey.

There is no record of how many people came to Montgomery County to strike it rich, but it doesn't appear to be many, Goetz said.

Today, a short trail littered with beer cans and bottles leads to the foot of two shafts of the Maryland Mine. A small marker in front of the mine has become a home to spiders and their webs.

Goetz is bothered by the deteriorating condition of the neglected site and is trying to get historical societies and community groups to restore the mine before "it completely falls apart." He said the National Park Service has not maintained the mine, apparently because it is not a significant attraction.

But Park Service spokeswoman Sandra Alley said it would not be feasible to restore the mine to its original condition because the shafts have a tendency to flood, presenting a safety hazard. She said, however, if the mine were restored there would probably be interest in it.

"But even if we did restore it, and that's a big if, it would be very unsafe and would have to be monitored closely," Alley said.

Goetz maintains that most gold discovered in the state was never recorded. The 5,000-ounce figure represents gold taken to the nearest mint in Philadelphia, and he said a lot of miners never made the trip.

"It was a long way to Philadelphia, and that left plenty of chances of getting robbed along the way," he said. "It was a lot easier to get rid of the gold locally.

"Compared to the standards of the West, Maryland didn't produce an awful lot of gold, but 5,000 ounces is a very conservatively low estimate. I wouldn't even try to guess how much was sold locally."

Roland Van Allen, a retired electronics engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has been teaching summer classes on gold in the county for five years through Open University. For $15 his students try their luck panning for gold in a stream in Great Falls Park. A few may come away with a flake of gold worth less than a penny. Most don't discover anything except how stiff their backs can get after a couple hours panning in a river.

"It's hard work," Van Allen said. "People who expect it to jump right in their pan don't find much of anything."

What Van Allen, 64, did find this summer is that interest in his class is waning. He offered four classes, and had to cancel two because of low enrollment. The other two were combined because one was rained out. Only 25 students enrolled.

"Every year the enrollment is dwindling," he said. "I guess the yuppie generation isn't interested in panning for a few flakes of gold."

But the old-timers haven't given up. Goetz said he sees a handful of people crouched on the banks of the Potomac River each weekend, swishing a pan of sand and rock in search of pinhead-sized flakes of gold.