There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

Almost two centuries after a gold rush brought fortune hunters (and bar brothels) to North Georgia, a new generation of prospectors is rediscovering what’s been true for 500 million years

Digger Don disappears beneath the surface of the water, where it courses seven feet deep, to guide the three-inch nozzle of his dredge over the crenulations of quartz and granite, burrowing through silt and sand toward the hard-packed bedrock in Tesnatee Creek, a storied destination on geological maps of the “Gold Belt” arcing across northeast Georgia.

The dredge’s racket scares away snakes but not the trout, which loiter nearby to feed on insects expelled with the tailings, or loose gravel. Digger Don, an athletic fifty-three, shrink-wrapped in a wet suit and diving mask, bobs to the surface from time to time, grins, and gives a thumbs-up to his prospecting buddy, “the Sheriff,” who watches, hawkeyed, from the bank. Digger Don looks as sleek and carefree as the otters that play farther downstream near a berry patch.

However, with this virile vacuum cleaner, he is intent on cleaning up—really cleaning up.

With gold’s eye-popping ascent in the commodities exchange (it could exceed $2,000 per ounce later this summer if its current trajectory continues); flinty, flannel-friendly reality television shows such as Gold Fever, Gold Rush, and Prospecting America; and the availability of more efficient, high-tech gear, Lumpkin County, the site of this country’s first gold rush—and according to legend, the point of origin for every treasure hunter’s rallying cry, “There’s gold in them thar hills!”—is once again in the crick-churning throes of what folks around here simply call “the fever.”

Digger Don is known by most as Don Minzey, a Cumming electrical contractor, but the secretive social code of gold mining values the discretion of nicknames almost as much as “color in the water.” This is Minzey’s fourth season of prospecting. He belongs to the Weekend Gold Miner’s Club, a Dahlonega-based organization with 783 members scattered all over the country—sometimes trekking from the West Coast, where personal dredging is banned. “The monthly meetings used to be dominated by retirees just looking to socialize, but there’s been an influx of younger members who are serious about getting out there,” Minzey says. The organization, which leases about 240 acres from private landowners, has grown by seventy-five hobbyists so far this year and expects to swell its ranks even more as the weather heats up and hopeful, if not desperate, treasure hunters wield pan, sluice, highbanker, trommel, and—this year’s must-have Father’s Day gift—the dredge.

Buoyed by a couple of pontoons and tied with ropes to birches overhanging the riverbank, Minzey’s dredge sucks up loose material from the riverbed and runs it through a sluice that traps the weightiest particles in its ridges, or “riffles.” Because gold is twice as heavy as most minerals and nineteen times heavier than water—and possibly because the stuff virtually winks with a smug awareness of its maddening desirability—it tends to “hide,” as miners say, by settling into loose but hard-to-reach deposits called “placers.”

After four hours of dredging, Minzey carries the sluice box to the narrow shore, filters the contents through the mesh of two “classifiers” resembling kitchen colanders, and finally whips out that iconic old-timer’s tool: the pan. “No matter how much fancy equipment you use to mine gold, one way or another, you ultimately end up back at the pan,” he says, swirling the contents slowly and methodically until the water and lightweight particles slosh gently over the sides. “Some people who are starting out will shake it really hard, as if they’re fighting with it, but that just wears you out because this is time-consuming. You want to find your own rhythm. There’s a sort of pleasant, Zen tedium to it.”

Photograph by Jamey Guy

Finally a small but noticeable sheen of yellow flecks starts to illuminate the black sand in the pan, like a mouth-watering emulsion of butter.

“To make sure it’s not fool’s gold, you can hold your hand over it to block the light—gold glows even in the shade, while pyrite needs to be hit by the sun to sparkle,” says Minzey, demonstrating with his palm.

This is what they mean by “pay dirt.”

The Sheriff, also known as Benny Chester, leans over to squint at the find and casts a larger shadow. The mining club’s membership director and unofficial philosopher king, Chester looks the part of old-timey prospector with his galluses and feral, salt-and-pepper whiskers. “There’s an important distinction between ‘gleam’ and ‘glitter,'” he says. “Don’t ever say the word ‘glitter’ to a gold miner. It’s one of those bad, unlucky words, as in ‘all that glitters . . . ‘” He leaves the axiom unfinished. “But gold, well, gold always gleams, no matter where it is.”

By the end of the day, Minzey estimates a gold recovery of about half a pennyweight, a standard measuring unit derived from the weight of a medieval coin—a haul adding up, roughly, to around $40, depending on market fluctuations and other variables, or “just enough to pay for gas, which is pretty typical,” Chester says with a shrug.

“It’s enough to make me come back and try this spot again next weekend,” Minzey says. Before moving to North Georgia twenty years ago, he grew up near a gold mine in southern California, where he failed to find much in the neighborhood creek. “Looks like today we have flour gold, a few flakes, and some wire gold. Georgia supplies most of the world’s wire gold, which looks the way it sounds. Most of our flakes are the size of sesame seeds, but some are a little bigger, like rice grains. An oatmeal-sized flake you can pick up with your fingers is called a ‘picker.’ A picker is a step smaller than a nugget; those are exciting to find, and you will get a few on a good day. Another definition is that if you can hold the piece six inches above the pan, drop it, and hear it hit the pan, it’s a nugget. The ‘clink’ that gold makes is its own sound, and some would say its own reward, and it’s one of the root causes of auri sacra fames, more commonly known as ‘gold fever.'”

That nugget of Latin comes from Virgil’s The Aeneid, written between 29 and 19 BC. “Sacra” can mean either “holy” or “accursed.” Both definitions are apt, since gold places a supernaturally powerful and potentially destructive hold on our collective imagination.

Gold, likely born in an exploding supernova, was forged in primordial volcanos about 500 million years ago. Abbreviated as “Au” in its number seventy-nine spot on the periodic table of elements, it is malleable and ductile, resistant to rust and corrosion, and undeniably beautiful in its purest, raw state. Next to pyrite and other less lustrous minerals, it evokes an aloof Scandinavian supermodel with naturally blond hair alongside someone whose cheap peroxide highlights have turned brassy and dull.

The Southeast’s Gold Belt stretches from middle Alabama to Virginia, widening into a sort of shiny buckle in the Georgia mountains, where the largest deposits have turned up in Lumpkin, White, and northern Cherokee counties—largely in the rivers and tributaries named Yahoola (pronounced “yay-hooler”), Chestatee, Tesnatee, and Etowah. “We have the purest gold in the world,” says Chester. “Ours is usually twenty to twenty-three carats—98 percent pure.”

As early as 1564, a French explorer observed that the Indians of Appalachia panned for gold, but the indigenous population did not exalt the metal with as much giddiness as their European trading partners. By the nineteenth century, most Cherokees had learned the hard way to stay secretive about this treasure—to no avail. In the late 1820s, legend has it, Benjamin Parks tripped over a rock while deer hunting and noticed its arresting color, which he later compared to an egg yolk. He arranged to lease that land from its owner, a preacher, who was skeptical until more nuggets were unearthed. Word spread.

“They came afoot, on horseback, and in wagons, acting more like crazy men than anything else,” Parks recalled decades later in a newspaper interview, summing up America’s first real gold rush.

As 10,000 miners or more, the so-called “’29ers,” along with their attendant service providers—prostitutes, tavern keepers, and lawyers—swarmed to stake claims, this area bustled with enough vice, violence, and general hell-raising to make Deadwood look like Pleasantville. The boomtown that arose dubbed itself “Auraria” and then developed with more density six miles to the north in a spot the Cherokees called “dalanigei,” meaning “yellow money.” That moniker eventually was anglicized, somewhat, to “Dahlonega.”

Rocks were the natural weapon of choice. “Residents liked to brag that you couldn’t find a single rock that didn’t have somebody’s skin attached to it,” says Kenneth Akins, a retired Department of Natural Resources historian who serves on a committee that is planning a gold museum in Auraria, to complement the one in Dahlonega’s courthouse. Even the preacher’s mother hurled a stone at Parks’s subcontractors in a fit of pique.

The downtown building that houses Dahlonega’s hipster music venue, the Crimson Moon, once functioned as one of many brothels during that era. (Today young baristas whisper about sightings of spectral “naked ladies” upstairs. In fact most of the area’s landmarks and waterways swirl with ghost stories involving tommy-knockers, or grizzled, subterranean leprechauns, and vigilante Indians, who sometimes get blamed for stopping a dredge’s motor, mid-dig.)

Ultimately the opportunistic landgrabs by miners resulted in the Trail of Tears, the brutal, forced exodus of the Cherokee Nation to Oklahoma in 1838, the same year the U.S. Mint opened a branch in Dahlonega to crank out coins. The state commandeered the land and distributed parcels by a lottery, and frenetic placer mining continued until the California strike of 1849, when most North Georgia miners saddled up and headed west too, founding Denver along the way. It was their migration that prompted an amateur geologist named Dr. M.F. Stephenson to plead from the courthouse steps: “Why go to California? In that ridge lies more gold than man ever dreamt of. There’s millions in it!”—a phrase Mark Twain echoed in The Gilded Age. The miners’ more colloquial version, “There’s gold in them thar hills,” has become even more familiar, as banter between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam.

Many speculators eventually returned to Georgia, thwarted by the crowds and vaguely disappointed in the looks of raw California gold, which, for various reasons of composition, does not glow as vibrantly as its Southern counterpart—still a bragging point among contemporary local hobbyists. “Ours is so much prettier than theirs,” Chester says.

Technological developments enabled the returning prospectors, bankrolled by industrialists, to start hydraulic mining with explosives and water pressure that gashed the mountainside, revealing underground quartz veins coruscated with gold. Mercury proved an effective chasing agent in the sluices. So the miners had resources to dig harder and deeper—with greater toxicity. In the mid-1800s, they chopped pines, erected trestles, and built noisy “stamp mills” to crush ore to render the gold. These company-owned outfits ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, creating a nonstop, earth-trembling vibration felt in locals’ teeth twenty miles away—at least those few who had not yet lost chompers to mercury poisoning, mountain dew, rock fights, and poor hygiene.

One prospector found what remains, at twenty-two feet thick, the largest known vein of gold-bearing quartz in the world, with fifty-four pounds and nine ounces of treasure uncovered in one day, worth $1.2 million at the time. It lured Northern investors to snatch up 7,000 acres in 1895 and form the Dahlonega Consolidated Gold Mine, the first and largest attempt at systematic, deep mining east of the Mississippi River. The industry slang for a mother lode site like this makes today’s touring school groups giggle: the Glory Hole.

Dr. Stephenson, it turns out, was right about the hills and their millions. Eventually Dahlonega supplied, via mule train, the forty-three ounces of blinding gold leaf for Atlanta’s capitol dome. And a new generation of prospectors—most of them better-groomed—are working the land today.

“Gold is the only real wealth,” Chester says. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt made it illegal to own bullion because someone could’ve bought the whole country with it, and Nixon took us off the gold standard, but Jimmy Carter, bless his peanutpicking heart, helped us by loosening up regulations to allow private individuals to trade legally on open markets.”

As a general rule, the lower the value of the dollar and other currencies drops, the higher gold rises. In 2008, when the economic mood turned apocalyptic, gold-oriented enterprises boomed. “We’ve seen our equipment sales double in the past two or three years,” says Tony Ray, co-owner of the Crisson Gold Mine, the area’s only on-site vendor for Keene products, the John Deere of mining. “Our biggest seller is the four-inch dredge, which goes for around $3,600, but another hot item is the minihighbanker, priced at $350, which concentrates the material down so you don’t have to pan as much.”

Crisson, founded in 1847 and boasting the state’s only still-functioning stamp mill from the old days, is one of three history-rich venues to get beginning prospectors started with instruction, equipment, and lore. Bryan Whitfield, a fourth-generation miner from Harlan County, Kentucky, reopened Consolidated Gold Mine in 1991 as a destination for panning and touring parts of the labyrinth of four and a half miles of spooky, bat-inhabited tunnels and shafts, some 1,000 feet deep (expect tommy-knocker noises around the Glory Hole). “My family was in coal mining, so there’s just something about being underground that feels like home to me,” Whitfield says.

A few country miles away, Gold n Gem Grubbin serves as the state’s only commercial gold mine, processing forty tons of alluvial material a day on 100 acres of floodplain that was part of the lucrative old Loud Mine. Brian Devan, who purchased the rich bottomland in 1983, initially was running 300 tons through his plant but opted to slow production and share the bounty and experience with visitors, who can pan for a day—or stay longer—on the scenic campground, which offers dredging access to the Tesnatee River.

“If you want to become a miner, I recommend you go to one of those places and get some hands-on instruction in the basics and then practice,” says Minzey, who has accumulated nine ounces of gold since he started (do the math). “Join a club if you don’t have access to private land. But if there’s a stream on your property, try it. Based on the Gold Belt maps, there’s probably gold in the Chattahoochee River and Lake Allatoona, which is a public place where panning is allowed, as well as in the suburbs, all along Buford and Johns Creek, into Atlanta. It just hasn’t been found yet.”

Several clubs, such as the Weekend Gold Miner’s, lease private land. Members pay enough dues to cover property taxes, with a “finders keepers” understanding about the gold, which they collect in small vials and then sell discreetly to private assayers by word of mouth—not to the roadside vendors with hand-scrawled “We Buy Gold!” signs, dismissed by Chester as “rip-off artists,” and not on eBay, which he calls a platform for “pigs in a poke.”

The rookie’s first question: Hasn’t all of the gold been claimed by now?

No, it’s still thar. Think of surface gold deposits as wonderfully self-replenishing, with the earth constantly sloughing off loose sediments here and there, all the better to shine; that small placer had to have belonged to a large vein somewhere.

“Gold is an indicator of the passage of time, because it’s bound up in quartz and other heavy minerals deep underground, but the rivers wash it into placers in the processes of erosion,” says Joey Tamburino, who wears a T-shirt that says “I Got Mine.” His family owns Gold n Gem Grubbin, where he grew up and works today. “Instead of thinking, ‘This spot has already been mined, so it’s empty,’ you should think, ‘If somebody found something here, there is probably even more in a large deposit here or nearby.’”

Adds his mother, Susan Tamburino, who is Devan’s partner: “It all comes down to water, gravity, and patience—gold is as earthy and elemental as you can get.” Responsible mining simply accelerates and intensifies the sifting dynamics of nature. The old dynamite-driven hydraulic method, which left still-visible scars, is outlawed, as are mercury and other toxins.

“We have a policy of reclamation, of recycling the water in the plant and turning our dig sites into clean ponds for the ducks and using our tailings for landscaping,” Devan says. “The attitude used to be rape, rob, and ruin the land, but most miners now are environmentally conscious—in our case by conviction, certainly, but also because a whole lot of permits and DNR inspections make sure the processes don’t harm the land.”

Dredging muddies the waters, but not in an adverse way, says Chester, whose nickname is the Sheriff because he’s a stickler for club rules (leave the riverbanks alone and no firearms!), enforcing them with his imposing frame and don’t-mess-with-me aura.

“Dredging causes no more of a disturbance to the riverbed than a heavy storm,” he says. “The river washes and fills the hole right back up with sand. I’ve seen someone run a hot dog frank through the machine and have it come out unscathed, so wildlife isn’t getting caught up and killed, except for the bugs and tiny invertebrates that the fish eat all around us when we’re doing it. We’re helping by extracting trace amounts of that leftover mercury and effectively cleaning the rocks. We’re ‘green.’”

Lately he fields an average of six phone inquiries a week from potential club members, many of whom have just been laid off or suffered some other setback, but he is quick to note his group’s attrition rate.

“As soon as most people realize how labor-intensive mining is, and that you’re probably not going to pay your rent with it, never mind strike it rich, they tend to quit,” Chester says. “So I try hard to keep expectations realistic. Prospecting cost me a girlfriend or three because they thought I was going to get rich, and I didn’t—that’s a whole other kind of gold digger. All it takes is finding gold once, though, to get the fever. Then you never want to stop.”

He found flour gold on his first outing and since has recovered an enviable quarter-ounce piece from his stomping grounds. Minzey delights in the irregular, crystalline forms: “I have one that looks like Darth Vader’s head and another cool, round one that looks just like a soccer ball, inlaid with hexagons of another mineral,” he says. Devan displays a picker resembling a Catholic crucifix, but his showpiece “corker,” as he calls it, is a marble-sized ruby slathered by almost an ounce of molten gold—which singer Kenny Rogers, a passionate nugget collector, offered to buy for $50,000.

“Nuggets are like clouds—you can see different shapes in them,” Chester says. He chews on a hand-rolled cigarette and gazes at the river. “I’ve seen some people turn greedy and bad over gold. Me, I’m just not interested in the materialistic aspect of it.”

Then why bother panning?

“Like a lot of things in life, it’s the quest, the seeking of it,” Chester says, quoting Robert Service, the poet of the Yukon: “It isn’t the gold that I’m wanting so much as just finding the gold.”