Before the California Gold Rush, Charlotte was the place if you were mining for gold
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Christian Ciciarelli was golfing with an old friend one day when he heard about mysterious tunnels far below uptown Charlotte.
“He said there are gold mines,” Ciciarelli recalls.
It was the first time Ciciarelli, a Wells Fargo employee, had heard such a claim — and it seemed too interesting to not investigate.
A quick Internet search gave him a history lesson on the discovery of gold in Charlotte in the 1800s.
But, Ciciarelli couldn’t find a credible source to tell him what he really wanted to know: Are there gold tunnels under Charlotte and can you access them?
For help, he turned to Curious NC, a special reporting project by The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
Curious NC invites inquisitive readers to send in questions for journalists to find answers to. Sometimes, you’ll even be asked to tag along with a news reporter on a dig for the truth.
For this question, the answer is 500 feet underground.
Carolina’s gold rush
Go to Bank of America Stadium and look south.
Under West Morehead Street and Interstate 277, and buried beneath the warehouse-style buildings on Mint Street, experts say there’s a network of old gold mining tunnels.
Starting in the 1830s, there were two prominent mines here — one called the Rudisill, the other called St. Catherine.
Every mine had at least one shaft, made by boring a large hole into the ground. Then, miners would use long ladders to reach the bottom of the shafts and begin their work in the tunnels.
As gold was extracted, the rock would be sent elsewhere for processing and eventually sold.
Chunks of quartz that had flecks of gold — but not enough to be valuable — were tossed in a “waste rock” pile. Later, that rock was crushed and donated to the city for road building. This, according to the Charlotte Observer’s newspaper archives, led locals to brag that their streets were “literally paved with gold.”
Giving a little bit of gold to the city was no big deal for the Rudisill Mine owners — in its heyday, the mine produced upwards of $2 million worth of gold, historical records show.
But, as Ciciarelli points out, it’s not so easy for a Charlotte resident to find all this out.
The last mine standing
Maybe you’ve wondered why the city has a “Gold Rush” bus/trolley line?
Or, perhaps you’ve heard that gold has something to do with the name “49ers,” UNC Charlotte’s athletic mascot.
If you’re really observant, you may have noticed the sidewalk historical markers (almost all in South End) detailing the gold rush.
But, local historian Dan Morrill says, many people seem to be unaware the city was once the epicenter of gold mining in the United States. (Charlotte’s claim to fame was short-lived. The California Gold Rush of 1848 far-eclipsed the riches here.)
Still, gold in Charlotte is what led the U.S. Mint to open a branch here in 1837. (And that’s why we have the Mint Museum). Gold also ushered in Charlotte’s first big economic boom.
The gold lodes, or veins, put a rural, sparsely-populated Mecklenburg County and the surrounding Piedmont area on the map.
Back then, Morrill notes, Charlotte had no railroad. Its economy had revolved almost entirely around farming, with cotton the most lucrative crop.
“Charlotte was a very isolated place - it took five days to get to Raleigh,” explains Morrill, retired UNC Charlotte professor and current director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
Through the commission, Morrill has tried to document and preserve what he can of Charlotte’s gold history.
But, without a major tourist attraction, the history largely goes unnoticed.
These days, thousands of people walk or drive right past the remnants of Charlotte’s gold rush.
The left-over tunnels long ago filled up with groundwater and, one by one, the old mine shafts were capped off with dirt and concrete.
But, as we researched Ciciarelli’s question, we did find one above-ground gold artifact hiding in plain sight.
“You would never know it’s here,” Ciciarelli said, looking at two hunks of concrete almost completely covered by sticks and scattered rocks.
‘Plenty of gold there yet’
Before we tell you where the old mine shaft is, we need a couple of disclaimers:
It’s located on private property. Trespassing and parking are not allowed. We talked with the property owner who gave us and Ciciarelli permission to visit.
Finally, you should know the shaft is permanently plugged.
Morrill says he learned the mining shaft was filled in and covered with cement years ago, making it impossible to access the gold tunnels from here.
Even if you had a long ladder and the right mining gear, he says, you’d be in for a major disappointment: This part of the old Rudisill was thoroughly mined before it closed.
“Nobody’s gonna go down there and get rich,” Morrill says.
What’s left of the Rudisill Mine is found on an empty lot on West Summit Avenue, right outside of Uptown.
One part of the old mining site is documented in Morrill’s research as being a pump shaft head. When the mine was in use, this shaft contained a pipe and miners employed steam-engine power to pump water out of the tunnels.
Another remnant on site is believed to be part of a building foundation where a mine company had constructed what was known as a “hoist shack.”
This, as far as Morrill knows, is all that’s left — above ground, at least — of the Rudisill and other Charlotte gold mines.
A few other shafts and stretches of tunnels have been uncovered and documented since the mines closed, according to the newspaper archives.
One of the most recent finds, documented by the Observer in 1975, came as a road crew worked on a portion of Interstate 85, near Rozzelles Ferry Road. The crew found abandoned mine shafts and tunnels from the old Stuart Mine.
In 1929, as the city finished construction on a fire station on Tuckaseegee Road (now named Wesley Heights Way), a Charlotte Observer article noted excavators found a tunnel running parallel to the roadway. Not far from there, the 1929 article states, a man named W.T. Frazier said he’d filled in three mine shafts on his property near West Trade and Montgomery streets.
At the time, Frank Wilkes, an owner of Capps Mine on the outskirts of Charlotte, told the newspaper: “Seversville is honeycombed with tunnels and there is plenty of gold there yet.”
A Charlotte Observer reporter and photographer looked for these old documented mine shafts but couldn’t find any other than the one on West Summit Avenue.
The first gold in NC
Charlotte’s gold potential might have never been known if not for a discovery 30 miles east.
If you’ve heard this story before, you have probably been told part-history, part-legend. But, all the historians we talked to agree it went something very similar to this:
In 1799 in rural Cabarrus County, Conrad Reed was fishing in Little Meadow Creek when he found a nearly 17-pound golden yellow rock that looked unlike anything he’d ever seen before. He took it home where his parents promptly began using the odd, heavy object as a doorstop.
Gold sat at the Reeds’ door for years until farmer John Reed went on an excursion to Fayetteville and showed the rock to a professional jeweler. He sold the rock — worth more than $3,000 — way undervalue, for about three bucks.
Eventually, he realized he’d made a huge mistake.
In 1802, Reed gathered a few friends and sent the rest of his kids back down to the creek to look for more gold.
By the next year, the search-and-find operation expanded. Reed and a few business partners began to realize profits.
Gold mining would also become inextricably linked to some of the South’s darkest history.
Documents at the Reed Gold Mine historical site show John Reed and others relied heavily on unpaid slave labor. One slave, who is known in historical records only as “Peter,” found a 28-pound gold nugget at the bottom of Little Meadow Creek.
Peter’s find remains the largest-ever single nugget of gold found east of the Mississippi River, according to Larry Neal, historian and manager at the Reed Gold Mine.
For more information about the Reed Gold Mine and North Carolina’s “Gold Trail” — historical and tourist sites — go to visitNCgold.com.
Special thanks to Larry Neal, Dan Morrill and Kenneth Taylor, state geologist for North Carolina, for their help on this Curious NC project.