Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
The Russell Heritage
History of Ben Russell and Russell Lands
The Early Days of Russell Lands
Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Pine Lumber Company
Church in the Pines
Mr. Ben Article 2
Gold Mining in Alabama Before 1860
By Robert A. Russell
EARLY GOLD MINERS and prospectors in Alabama, under standably more intent upon finding and mining the valuable substance than in recording their activities for the enlightenment of posterity, however interesting or historically significant they might have been, kept almost no records and left behind them no maps as clues to their activities.(1) Consequently, the story of gold mining and the men who worked the mines in the state prior to 1860 is practically legendary. (2)
Gold was first discovered in East Alabama about 1830. Already it had been found in the Carolinas and Georgia, and eager prospectors and miners had traced it southwest wardly from that region. The area designated as the Alabama gold field is in the shape of a large, triangle measuring about ninety miles on each side and having an area of about 3,500 square miles. It embraces wholly or in part the counties of Cleburne, Talladega, Randolph, Tallapoosa, Chambers, Clay, Coosa, Lee, Elmore and Chilton. This field, lying along the eastern central part of the state, adjoining Georgia, is known to the geologist as the southern extremity of the crystalline belt which has its southwest beginning in this field and extends northeast into Georgia and the Carolinas.
The country rock of the crystalline area is, for the most part, micaceous, talcose and graphitic schists and slates. The veins and dykes that carry the gold-bearing ore, of course, run in and usually with these formations. The ore varies widely in texture, color and weight, but is generally a form of quartz or its associates. The gold is usually found in the ore, but sometimes' occurs in crevices alongside it or in the country rock near it. This gold presents itself in many varied mixtures, solutions, sizes and shapes, but pure metallic gold appears in forms from microscopic particles to large nuggets.
Of the many types of ore, "freegold ore" is usually the most valuable and the easiest to mine and mill. The gold in this ore is in its pure and natural state and is usually coarse and visible. This type of ore is quartz, ranging in color from crystal clear to dark blue or black, and can be readily recovered without any form of contamination.
Another type, "oxidized ore," was originally sulphide or a mixture of gold, iron and copper pyrite, as well as other minerals. A great elapse of time, with the aid of water and air, has oxidized or destroyed the other minerals, leaving the gold free and in a fairly pure state in the crevices of the ore. This type usually runs from the ground surface to the water level or just above it.
A third type, "secondary enrichment," is actually not a type, but a condition or a present state of oxidized ore. When ore is in the process of oxidation, the water traveling from the ground surface to the water table sometimes carries solutions of gold which concentrate and enrich the ore just above the water table. The ore is richer at this point than just above or below it. In some cases all of the gold leaches out of the area above the water table.
"Sulphide ore," a fourth type, is one that carries gold, sulphide of iron and copper, along with the various other minerals and solutions that have not been oxidized. Except in rare cases, sulphide ore lies below the water level and is extremely difficult to process. The early miners could do practically nothing with this type of ore.
A fifth type of ore, "alluvial deposits," is made up of sand, gravel, and clay, usually composed of quartz containing gold flakes and nuggets that are found lying free in the deposits. Alluvial deposits are found in valleys and along the banks of streams that have at one time run through free gold veins. The ore and country rock have been broken down by erosion, and the water has carried the gold downstream and deposited it with the sand and gravel in the valleys and stream beds. As gold is heavier than sand and gravel, it is often found in a highly concentrated layer next to the bedrock. The upturned ledges of the bedrock act as riffles or traps to catch the passing gold. This was nature's own way of mining gold, and panning these deposits was the early miners' easiest method of seeking and finding gold.
For the ante-bellum Alabama gold miners all was not gay, lusty, romantic and filled with rich adventure, for mining was then an extremely crude, backbreaking, and, for the most part, discouraging operation. Their only tools were picks, shovels and buckets. Ore and waste were laboriously drawn from the mines with hand wenches or hauled out in rough hand-constructed wheelbarrows. They did have hand drills and black powder for blasting, but dynamite, of course, had not then been invented. Their equipment, supplies and machinery had to be hauled to the locations by wagons over Indian trails through forests for long distances, an ordeal often requiring many days and sometimes weeks.
Added to the miners' troubles, and not the least of them, was the fact that the Creek Indians owned or claimed most of the land in East Alabama and it was tremendously difficult to gain either the possession of the land or the right to mine it. Only a short period of time had passed since the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Indians were still bitterly resentful of the white man and, at, times quite belligerent. Their reluctance to give up land claims demanded the exercise of endless and unwearying patience before the miners and prospectors could acquire the rights they sought.
The lack of mining and milling knowledge was another obstacle early Alabama miners had to surmount. After all, they were the pioneer gold miners of America. The majority of them left Alabama for California in '49, and, because of knowledge and experience gained in prospecting, mining and dealing with the Indians in Alabama, they became the recognized authorities and leaders of the gold fields of the West.
According to one story, all miners suffered from a common disease known as "gold fever." Describing this ailment a miner wrote: "If a man· sticks to gold mining long enough to have any measure of success at any one place, he is a doomed man and will suffer from gold fever the rest of his life, and he will never be worth a hoot for anything else but gold mining." This may be true, but it is more likely that the determination and courage that characterized the early miner were but reflections of the natural pioneer spirit of adventure that was prominent in the typical early American settlers.
Of the various mining districts in the Alabama gold field, one of much interest and importance is the Arbacoochee, situated in the most northeastern section. Lying between the Georgia line and the Talladega Mountains, it covers all or partially the counties of Cleburne, Randolph, Clay and Talladega. Here were the most productive operations in the area. Chulafinee, Kemp Mountain, and Pinetucky were other important mining areas in the Arbacoochee District.
All the mines in Arbacoochee, both alluvial deposits and vein material, were about the same in nature, and the methods used to recover the gold were the same throughout the region. The alluvial deposits were worked first, and then some years later, when these had been exhausted, mining and milling were begun in the ore or vein materials.
The first method the miners used to obtain gold from the alluvial deposits of the Arbacoochee District was that of handpanning the deposits. In using this method, the miner would select a site near water, and with a shovel fill his pan about half full of alluvial sand and gravel. Then, filling the pan to the top with water, he would shake it vigorously at an angle, whereupon the gold would sink to the bottom of the pan and the water would carry away the top layer of gravel. This progress was repeated several times until all of the sand and gravel had been washed out, leaving only the heavy gold in the pan. Improvement over the hand pan came with the rocker-box or washer. This contraption, the first mechanical device for concentrating and collecting gold from the alluvial deposits, was simply a wooden trough with deep cross riffles similar to those of a washboard and mounted on rockers like those of a chair. It was hand powered. Water, along with the alluvial material, was fed into the upper end from another wooden trough, and the rocking action of the washer kept the sand and gravel moving through and out of the trough, leaving the gold in the riffles.
Still further improvement came with the sluice trough, which was not only an alluvial gold concentrator and waste material conveyor, but an early first step toward mass production. The troves, about two feet wide and, at times, hundreds of feet long, were equipped with a great number of removable riffles and carried a sizeable stream of swift water. With a sluice trough running through an alluvial deposit, twenty or thirty men could shovel gravel into it continuously. The gold was collected in the riffles and the waste material carried hundreds of feet away from the diggings. At the end of the day the water was cut down, the ri££1es removed, and all of the gold concentrate was washed to the end of the trough where it was cleaned of foreign matter in a rocker box, and then sacked in sheepskin bags.
By the year 1840 a considerable quantity of gold had been mined in Alabama and many nuggets had been found, some of them ranging in value from upwards to $1200.00 each. , · Gold fever continued to mount as production brought. fame and. a degree of fortune to the town and district of Arbacoochet From every section of America came ambitious, eager men to obtain land and to learn to mine, and all bent on making their fortunes. Here in Arbacoochee occurred one of the first of all land booms. Land prices soared to fabulous proportions and small fortunes were made in land deals. In fact, considerably more money was made by promoters and land sharks than was realized from gold mining. The town of Arbacoochee grew from a small mining camp to a sizeable town of some 5,000 inhabitants by 1845. It boasted of twenty general stores, five barrooms, two mining equipment stores, two hotels, a fire department, a race track and over a hundred permanent homes. In addition, as was typical of all mining camps, temporary tents and shacks of every description crowded the area. A school and two churches added cultural color to the town.
Meanwhile, at Chulafinee, a short distance to the northeast of Arbacoochee, the alluvial gold boom was also at its height. This town, only about half the size of its rival, was built of a more permanent nature. For instance, many of its store buildings were constructed of brick. A large quantity of the gold accredited to the Arbacoochee District was mined here and the land boom was just as wild as it was in the town of Arbacoochee.
By 1846 Kemp Mountain and Pinetucky had also become blustering alluvial mining centers. In these areas hard rock or ore mining and milling was already in its experimental stage.
Another prominent mining section in the Alabama gold field was the Goldville District, southwest of Arbacoochee and including the territory from the northern boundary of Tallapoosa Co1:1nty south to the Hillabee Creek, six miles north of present Alexander City. A large number of mines were located in the district, some of the more prominent ones being the Birdsong, Goldville, Log Pits, Hog Mountain, Ely Pits, and the Ulrich or Dutch Bend Mine.
The town of Goldville, like Arbacoochee, was in the center of the district and, having the only road from the outside, it became the trade center. Prospecting and alluvial mining were started here in the early 1830's and by 1845 Goldville was a mining town of twelve stores, three barrooms, a hotel, a mining supply house, a race track, a school and churches. Many dwellings and· two large tent villages housed the· popuation which at the height of the boom reached 3,000 people. Today, one would look in vain for even as many as one-tenth of that population in Goldville or in the Arbacoochee District.
In the Goldville District there was considerable alluvial mining up to 1840, but after that date this part of the field was concerned mainly with ore mining and milling. It was here that the first ore was successfully processed in a waterpowered mechanical mill. The ore was first crushed and then passed into a stamp mill, consisting of a powered set of five cams that lifted the iron-shod wooden stamps and dropped them, first one and then the other, into an iron box. This action crushed the ore until it was fine enough to flow out with a current of water. From the stamp mill the crushed·· ore and water passed over mercury-covered copper plates that held the gold like a magnet. When the mercury became · saturated with gold, it was stiff or putty-like and was scraped off the plates with a straight edge and rolled into balls. These balls were then placed into chamois skin and twisted, forcing the excess mercury through the skin, and leaving the gold inside in the form of heavy amalgam. This amalgam was put in an iron still and the last remaining mercury distilled off, leaving a mat of pure gold which was melted into bars for shipment.
Mercury plates were also used in the alluvial sluice boxes to catch the fine gold that would ordinarily have washed away. Several such mills were set up on creeks in the Goldville District and the ore from a number of small mines was hauled to them for custom milling.
Hog Mountain mine was the large producer of oxidized and sulphide ores in this district. The Birdsong and Log Pits, or »ig Grunt Mining Company, as it was originally named, along with the Ely Pits, were also prominent mines. Ore from these was principally oxidized ore that ran in some places in excess of $100.00 to the ton. But these mines were abandoned later, when too much water broke in and when sulphides were encountered.
The Ulrich Pits or Dutch Bend gold mine was one of the most prominent early ore mines of the Goldville District and, was located on the north side of Hillabee Creek. Around 1840 Dr. Ulrich, a native of Germany, came up from Savannah, Georgia with a group of settlers, seeking a section that had the soil, terrain and other characteristics of his homeland. It was his plan, after finding such a place, to settle, plant vineyards and produce commercial wines. As he came into East Alabama, he decided that here on the steep slopes rising from Hillabee was the ideal place for his vineyards. He bought 1,200 acres of land along the creek, built his home, and planted his vineyards. Following a spring, he dug a large tunnel into the hill to be used as a cool wine cellar, and in the process of the digging, he discovered a vein of gold ore. Later, other good veins of oxidized ore were found nearby, so Dr. Ulrich decided to build a stamp mill to process the ore. The mill was run by water power from the creek, and the ore was hauled from the mine tunnel to the mill in small cars that ran on wooden tracks.
Dr. Ulrich operated his mine for years. It was said that he made his gold up into small, one-ounce bars that he traded for cattle and supplies. His place became known as Dutch Bend, partly because it was located on a sharp bend in the creek, but mostly because the natives mistook Dr. Ulrich for a Dutchman.
The mining district to the southeast of Goldville was named the Devil's Back Bone region, because of its rugged ridges. Blue Hill, Gregory Hill and Silver Hill were the prominent mines of this district. They were located on the same large vein system. Here was possibly the largest and longest vein of gold ore in the state, being three miles in length and stretching in places to a width of one hundred feet. The ore contained very coarse free gold for the most part, but also, at depth, some sulphide. A good quantity of alluvial gold was recovered from Blue Creek and its tributaries that ran parallel with the large vein. Around 1850 a stamp mill was erected on Blue Hill and was operated at intervals for years.
The miners experienced two major difficulties in processing the ore of this section. Even though the mining was easy, and the gold was free, the ore was of a fairly low grade. Consequently, a large tonnage had to be milled to make a profit. The other problem was that the ore contained a quantity of graphite, and this caused the mercury to slide off the plates. They learned, however, that they could overcome this trouble by feeding a solution of tanic acid at intervals onto the plates to clean them. The acid was made on the property by mixing water with finely ground red-oak bark ashes.(8)
The last and most southwesterly section of the East Alabama gold field was known as the Repetoe District and was loc_ated in Chilton County, near Verbena. One of the leading producers in the state, the Repetoe mine was worked as early as 1835. This was a large alluvial field, and a good quantity of free gold and sizeable nuggets were recovered here through the use df long sluice troves and box washers. The Repetoe was very productive for many years but, oddly enough, the so-qrce of the gold was . never found. Even today a man is working this alluvial mine, still looking for the source.
The amount of gold produced in the Alabama gold field will doubtless never be known. The United States Mints record only $367,000.00 worth of ore as having been sent to them from Alabama between 1830 and 1860. But it stands to reason that most of the gold mined during this period did not reach the mints directly. Instead, it was used for money locally and to pay for equipment and supplies in other states, principally in Georgia. It is also assumed that the great numbers of miners who left this section in 1849, bound for the gold fields of the West, carried with them quantities of Alabaina gold with which to pay their ways.
Regardless of how profitable the Alabama gold mines were, or· how brief, comparativeiy speaking, was their existence, their operators were certainly courageous and determined men whose love of adventure and pioneering spirit led them into the East Alabama hills to write a very important and exciting chapter in the progress of America.
1 This paper was read at the annual meeting of the Alabama Historical Association, Montgomery, April 20, 1956.
2 William B. Phillips, The Lower Gold Belt of Alabama ..• Geological Survey of Alabama Bulletin No. 3 (Montgomery, 1892); Wm. M. Brewer, Upper Gold Delt of Alabama . •. , ibid., No. 5 (Montgomery, 1896); and George I. Adams, The Gold Deposits of Alabama .•• , ibid., No. 40 (Montgomery, 1940). Like Phillips, Brewer, and Adams, who wrote bulletins in the first sixty years of Alabama gold mining and who had to draw from meager, uncertain and inadequate records and hearsay for their data, this writer, even at a much later date, is compelled to do the same. However, this accounting is perhaps as complete as can be prepared from existing information.
8 An interesting landmark in this district was the Fanny Goldmine hill. This section of land belonged to the widow of an Indian, and although the name implies that it was a mining property, it was not. The woman was told that to register her land in the proper manner, she would have to have an English name. From the' settlers she had heard the name Fanny and, having seen and liked the gold and mines at Blue Hill, she proceeded to register her land under the name of "Fanny Goldmine."
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version