Lost Gold Mines
Lake visits three abandoned gold mines located near the Lake Martin shore
Story by Jim Denney
Gold! The word brings to mind 49er’s rushing to California, or later the push into Alaska’s gold fields. But one of the first gold rushes in the U.S. was to Alabama, right here in the Lake Martin area.
In fact, there’s still a gold rush “city” in Tallapoosa County – aptly called Goldville. Although now Goldville is a tiny community in the northeastern end of the county, when gold was discovered here in the early 1840s, Goldville boomed and overnight became one of Alabama’s largest cities with about 5,000 residents. Goldville filled the needs of Alabama gold miners with seven saloons, two hotels, a number of theaters and dozens of merchants.
Many Alabama gold mines were located near Lake Martin and some were submerged when the lake was filled in 1926.
However, many still exist, hidden and largely forgotten by the modern world.
Even before the Alabama gold rush, gold was found in the mountainous regions of north Georgia in 1828. Within a decade, gold prospectors had journeyed into the Piedmont region of Alabama and into Tallapoosa County. At that time, the gold-bearing regions in Alabama belonged to the Creek Indians. In 1830 congress passed the Indian Removal Act and by 1837 the forced removal of Native Americans from Tallapoosa County was complete and the Alabama gold rush soon followed.
In the beginning, gold prospectors panned area creeks and rivers to find the “placer gold” on the riverbeds. Gold is heavy, and as dust and nuggets erode out of the riverbanks, they are concentrated in river gravel. Retrieving it is relatively easy. However, in a few years most of the streams in the area were panned down to the bedrock. Then the more difficult form of mining began. Hard rock mining or underground mining is the process of excavating rock or ore and crushing it to extract gold. Usually tons of earth excavated yields only ounces of gold, and that was the case in most of the mines in the Lake Martin area.
Dadeville resident Jerry Bynum, who pans gold as a hobby, knows many of the old mines hidden around Lake Martin.
The Alabama King mine is south of Jacksons Gap, near Madwind Creek. Walking through the woods, the mine entrance seems to suddenly appear from nowhere.
The entrance is large enough for most people to walk through without even stooping over. Bynum and I wore headlamps and walked down the main tunnel, where the air felt slightly humid. Here and there smaller shafts appear on each side of the main tunnel. The mine walls appear to be more earthen than rock. Bats can be seen hanging on the ceiling and walls and thick concentrations of mosquitoes are found in some of the secondary shaft dead ends. Evidence of modern prospectors is visible at one the smaller shaft’s end – scars from a pick in the wall.
One of the more unique features of the Alabama King mine is the remains of a building nearby that was once used for gold processing. Only the stone foundation remains beside a small stream.
“The nearby stream was probably dammed to power a hammer mill where they would haul out the rock ore and crush it,” said Dadeville resident and local historian Harold Banks.
The Gregory Hill Mine lies in a region known as the Devil’s Backbone, a narrow geological feature that runs from northern Tallapoosa County to Martin Dam. Parts of it actually extend into The Ridge development, but the mine itself is located near Wildwood Road, off of County Road 34.
An obvious difference between the two mines is that Gregory Hill’s shaft walls are hewn from solid rock instead of earth. The floor is flat, the walls are straight and the ceiling is concave. According to Banks this appearance means the mine was dug with pick and shovel.
“They are the easiest to walk in and probably the safest,” he said.
The gold here was located in graphitic schist, which gives some of the rock in this mine a slick, almost greasy texture.
Gregory Hill Mine appears to be a favorite hangout for bats. Clusters of four or more can be found here and there. Many of the bats are covered in condensation that looks like dew. In the winter months during hibernation, the moisture helps prevent dehydration.
The main tunnel in the Gregory Hill Mine is fairly straight and extends for about 80 feet before turning sharply and coming to an end. There are no smaller tunnels branching off, but the tunnel walls hold interesting geological features. In 1891 this mine was being operated by Major Parmelee.
Parmelee moved his equipment from the Silver Hill Mine to the Gregory Hill Mine. He extracted more than $80,000 of gold, but couldn’t cover the cost of operation and eventually abandoned the mine.
The nearby Blue Hill Mine is yet another type of mine, dug with more modern methods. Most of the work was done using high pressure hoses and explosives. When observed from a distance, it’s obvious that half of the hillside at the site has been removed.
“They would pump water up to the top of that hill to a big water tank. When they wanted water pressure they would open the valve at the top that flowed to a nozzle and a hose that took several men to hold. It would have tremendous pressure that would literally blast and wash the ore out,” Banks said.
By using gravity, water from the tank flowed down into a series of progressively smaller pipes that would increasingly build pressure to achieve the tremendous force needed to water-blast the soil away. The hillside here has several mine entrances, located side-by-side.
Blasted mines don’t have the man-made shape of hand-dug mines, in fact they look much more like natural caves. The ceilings here are much higher and the overall tunnel is much larger. Lake Martin covers the lower section of the Blue Hill Mine, but streams that flow across the upper parts of the mine into the lake can still produce gold by panning.
To pan for gold, a wide, shallow pan is filled with sand and gravel and water and then shaken or sloshed around. Heavy gold sinks to the bottom of the pan while other materials are washed away. Panning for gold is harder than it sounds and it takes practice to master the technique.
Panning for gold may be a fun hobby for outdoor enthusiasts, but both Banks and Bynum agree it’s no way to get rich. In fact considering the amount of work involved, picking up aluminum cans on the side of the road is more likely to be a profitable metal foraging hobby.
Since most of the mines around Lake Martin are on private property it, anybody interested in searching for gold should get written permission or mineral rights from the landowner before trying to strike it rich.
In 1849, the California gold rush began and most of the Alabama miners lit out West to stake their claim. A brief resurgence in Alabama gold mining occurred during the Great Depression, when gold prices rose to $35 an ounce, a handsome price at that time. Since then, the Lake Martin area mines have remained dormant.
Today the most valuable natural treasure in this region is the shoreline and waters of Lake Martin itself.