Preserving the Mine

In the twentieth century, commercial production of gold in North Carolina sputtered along until 1915 but then dropped sharply and never recovered, despite renewed activity during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Manpower shortages and federal government orders during World War II closed the few remaining mines in 1942; this effectively ended production except for a small amount derived as a by-product of copper and tungsten mining from 1954 to the early 1960s. The spectacular rise in the price of gold in the late 1970s to $850 an ounce in 1981 generated much interest but no mining of note.

As with most—but not all—other Tar Heel mines during the century, there were few significant occurrences at the Reed. Various people (not always with the owners' authorization) periodically tested and explored the old mine, but the results each time were negative. Yet, a steady stream of amateur panners continued washing gravel in Little Meadow Creek. In about 1911 or 1912 local miners did some placer work and also sifted through the old ore dumps. For several months ending in June 1912, Warren Kelly supervised limited underground excavation off the engine shaft at the 120-foot level and then sank the shaft down to about 140 or 150 feet. This was the last underground work at Upper Hill until state ownership in the 1970s and twice as deep as any subsequent work.

In 1934 and 1935 Armin Kelly had Frank Cox, a local man, strip several veins along the surface of Upper Hill, but results were not worthwhile. During the Great Depression, lean men once again returned for an attempt to extract any gold still hidden at the Reed. Some, such as A. L. Nash of Rowan County, openly asked the Kellys for permission to work the gravel. Neighbors knew the family did not mind local folks panning as a hobby for small amounts of gold, but the Kellys asked for a share of any nuggets discovered. In 1934 a few miners washed placer material in barrel rockers of the type used a century earlier and also apparently opened up an old tunnel on Upper Hill for small-scale prospecting. As the national economy recovered, however, that mining ceased, and the Reed once again became a secluded spot where hobbyists panned and dreamed while tenant farmers pursued their normal work. Over the years various Kellys visited their rural retreat in North Carolina for country living and horseback riding. During World War II most of the old machinery was carted off to scrap-iron dealers from whence it might eventually aid the war effort as new metal. In 1962 the last of the resident caretakers, Charlie Barbee, moved to a home off the property, and the famous old mine lay abandoned until the Division of Archives and History opened it as a state historic site.

For nearly two centuries the Reed has retained an important, albeit sometimes forgotten, place in Tar Heel history. John Reed's mine, the result initially of historical accident, had early established a reputation for producing nuggets of remarkable size and purity. Doubtless that reputation led pioneer miners to discover and perhaps develop countless other gold prospects and mines—as well as related enterprises—in the South, some of which eventually surpassed the Reed in certain respects. Presently, however, this earliest known operating gold mine in the nation assumes new importance since it is the only major mine in North Carolina to survive unspoiled down through the years and be restored and preserved. While it is only twenty miles from bustling Charlotte, absentee ownership and relative isolation have permitted its eight hundred or so acres to remain intact since John Reed's death more than 150 years ago. For nearly eight decades the Kelly family owned the mine and, fortunately for history, chose neither to develop nor sell the property. In contrast, consider the inglorious fates of several other leading mines in the state: the Rudisill has long since been buried under the streets of Charlotte, and the Phoenix, located between Concord and the Reed, became a golf course. Gold Hill, the biggest mine in the state, fared better: part of it became a local park.

The golden promise of the Reed remained true, albeit in a different form. The mine became a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and a state historic site in 1971. In December of the latter year, Armin Kelly's heirs donated about seventy key historic acres containing the mine to the people of North Carolina and sold the remainder of their 820-acre tract to the state at well below appraised value. The historic site opened to the public in April 1977 with a new visitor center and more than four hundred feet of restored underground tunnels. Today the free site is open year-round—with a color film, special events, exhibits of mining history and technology, a restored and operating stamp mill, and numerous trails—and attracts well over sixty thousand visitors annually. There visitors still pan for and find gold adjacent to Little Meadow Creek, where two hundred years ago young Conrad Reed picked up that curious heavy rock that led to America's first gold rush.


Reprinted from Golden Promise in the Piedmont: The Story of John Reed's Mine, by Dr. Richard F. Knapp, revised edition, 1999. Available at Reed Gold Mine.