Profitable gold mining began in the United States with the accidental discovery in 1799 of a seventeen-pound gold nugget in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. North Carolina’s gold production peaked between the 1830s and 1840s as hundreds of mines contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the national economy, necessitating the 1837 construction of a federal Branch Mint in Charlotte to process Piedmont gold. Gold mining suffered a major decline in North Carolina after the discovery of the richer and more extensive gold deposits in California in 1848. However, the North Carolina gold miners who did not join the western rush continued to work the shafts of the Piedmont using increasingly sophisticated European and South American technology, as well as new innovations such as hydraulic mining techniques from California, until the advent of the Civil War.
From the end of Reconstruction (1877) to 1920, gold mining in North Carolina was sporadic and often funded by outside investors or used as a ruse in gold and stock scams. Copper mining, with gold and silver as secondary products, using increasingly complex technology and associated environmental issues, drove most of the mining fervor during this period. Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, gold production slowly increased until the Second World War, but never became a major industry as they were out-competed by the more profitable gold fields in the western United States, Alaska, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.
From the 1970s to today, dependent upon the price of gold in the market and the requirements of environmental regulation, prior mining districts in North (and South) Carolina have continued to be examined, explored and cautiously mined using cyanide heap leach techniques. Although few in number, these limited lease mining projects have extracted over two million troy ounces of gold and nearly a million troy ounces of silver by 2010. Future extraction by the ongoing Haile Mine (South Carolina) project will increase this amount substantially in the next decade. Nevertheless, Cabarrus County continues to hold the world’s record for producing the greatest number of large (a pound or more) gold nuggets and was the epicenter of North America’s first gold rush.