gold panning

The Gold Panning Days of Yore

Dear Readers,

When I was little kid, my parents took me to the Gold Rush Festival in McCormick, S.C. – a small town and county seat located near Lake Thurmond. For those of you who come from or live in Georgia, you may take offense, and refer to it as Clark(s) Hill Lake. Indeed, there is a whole back story and controversy in the name of this man-made reservoir on the Savannah River, which borders two states, but that’s for another day. Back to the gold…

Panning at the Gold Rush Festival

I remember that there were two different options. One was for little kids, where they spiked the paydirt (as one calls it) with little tiny balls of brass or copper. I remember getting so excited, about all this gold I was panning out! I was rich! Then, when my dad finally told me it was fake, that it was just for fun, I remember feeling cheated and got really angry. I still remember that… (lol). The second option was panning real paydirt, which is alluvial soil with a good concentration of actual gold. I got to do this as well, once I’d calmed down from my earlier frustrations…

Panning takes a LOT of skill and patience, as you gently agitate the dirt in the pan with water, spilling out the lighter elements, until you see a tiny residual amount of black sand (usually hematite or magnetite) at the very bottom of the pan. This is where gold, if present, would live. I walked away from the festival with a tiny vial of little gold flakes floating in water, probably less than you’d get in a shot glass of Goldschläger. Almost forty years later, I still have that vial…

The Science of Gold Mining

On that day I was bitten, and bitten hard, by the gold bug. Since then however, I’ve learned a few things. For one, I learned that nobody pans their way to golden riches – gold panning is what’s called an assay – merely a test for the abundance of gold. To mine placer gold in any appreciable amount, you need a sluice. Gold panning was done to find the best place to collect soil for the sluice, and maybe to do the final separation of gold from the collected black sands. If you just stuck to panning, you’d be there all day with very little to show for it. Yet, the canonical tin-type photographs of a Gold Rush just show rough looking men sitting by a stream, panning away

Sluices operate by creating small eddies and counter-currents in a trough of moving water. Miners would carefully add paydirt to the top of the trough and let it flow with the water back into the stream. Heavier particles, like gold, would find these eddies of low velocity current and settle down to the bottom, allowing for the lighter parts of the soil to be carried away. It was messy, and at large scale can pollute a stream or creek, but it was a simple and effective method to collect gold from paydirt. The last steps, removing gold from the heavier sluice deposits, could be even more dangerous to people and the environment. Enter elemental mercury…

Thankfully, in the old Gold Rush days, mercury was likely very expensive and difficult to come by for the average tin pan miner. It’s heavy – a liter of liquid mercury weighs about 28 pounds, so it is also difficult to transport. Mercury has the curious property of being able to dissolve gold into a liquid amalgam, allowing for easy separation from soils and sediment. To retrieve the gold, the mercury was heated over a flame and vaporized into a gas, leaving just the gold behind. Mercury is incredibly toxic and persistent– both to humans and the environment – particularly in vapor form. Sadly, the use of mercury in gold mining is still a problem today, impacting some of the world’s most wild and pristine places, like the Amazonian rainforest.

The Dark Side of Gold Prospecting

On that same vein (pun intended), it’s important to note that man’s insatiable quest for gold has led directly to immense suffering and death the whole world over. From the Spanish conquistadors of the 1500’s, to the Native American conflicts culminating in the Great Sioux War of 1876, to modern day struggles in the Amazon and eastern Congo, the thirst for gold has caused severe hardship and starvation, forced migration and slave labor, pandemic disease and death, and untold environmental destruction. It continues to this day. My interest and fascination with those hard-scrabble miners of the American West, who risked their lives to make their fortunes, is tempered with the knowledge that they did so at considerable detriment to others. Indeed, in our sense of national identity and rugged individualism associated with the expansion West, we carry with us a dark passenger.

The Song of the Black Hills

My newest short story, “The Song of the Black Hills” is set in 1868 in the newly formed U.S. Territory of Wyoming. I wanted to explore what life must have been like for those who risked their lives on the Oregon Trail to seek their fortunes. I wanted examine their hardships, their fears, and of course, their greed. Imagine what it must have felt like, after a hard days work, to hold a bag of gold dust in your hand. Enough to buy land, build a farm, and start a family. And yet, these miners infringed on the historical lands of the first peoples, setting up sad and predictable conflicts. I hope you find The Song of the Black Hills an entertaining read, with a notable twist.

It is just a story, after all…

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