Gold has been mined in South Carolina since the early 1800s. Deposits have generally been concentrated in the lower Piedmont in a geologic zone known as the Carolina slate belt, a band of Precambrian and Cambrian volcanic rock running from Virginia to eastern Alabama. Most early mining operations extracted gold from placer deposits, in which loose gold particles were removed from sand, gravel, or other eroded materials. Lode deposits, in which gold-bearing masses of rock are still in place, required greater outlays of labor and technology to extract and crush the gold-bearing rock, then separate the gold ore from other minerals.
Gold mining began in earnest in South Carolina around 1827. According to legend, Benjamin Haile, a prominent landowner in Lancaster District, was chinking a log cabin with mud from a nearby stream when he noticed flecks of gold. In 1829 Haile made the first shipment of South Carolina gold to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Other gold deposits were discovered shortly thereafter, including the Brewer mine in Chesterfield District, the Ridgeway mine in Fairfield District, and a host of smaller operations in York and Spartanburg Districts. Around 1852, in the western part of Edgefield District (later McCormick County), William Dorn made a gold strike that would make him one of the wealthiest men in the upstate. Antebellum production in South Carolina peaked around 1852, however, when just under $127,000 worth of gold was extracted.
Gold mining declined further during the Civil War. General William T. Sherman targeted the Haile mine, which produced pyrites used to make sulphuric acid for the Confederacy. Effective mining was not resumed until the late 1880s, when northern investors began to purchase gold-bearing property and resumed production. The Haile mine was purchased by James Eldredge, a New Yorker who owned the Hobkirk Inn in Camden. Eldredge was then bought out by a New York corporation that began a large-scale twenty-stamp mill operation. Technology was deficient and profits were poor until around 1888, when a German-trained mining engineer, Dr. Adolph Thies, developed a barrel-chlorination process that extracted gold from low-grade sulphite ore. Other advances, such as geological surveys and diamond drilling, further increased production. The Haile mine processed one hundred tons of ore daily in the 1890s and was visited by the foremost mining and metallurgical engineers of the time.
Gold mines in South Carolina were largely dormant from 1900 to 1937. An explosion wrecked the Haile mine in 1908, and it largely ceased operations for the next three decades. But in 1934, the U.S. government increased the price of gold to $35 per ounce, which spurred new mining activity. The Haile mine was rejuvenated in 1937, and became the leading producer of gold in the southeast. World War II brought an end to production, however, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the closing of all gold mines. Production in South Carolina all but stopped in the decades following the war, but skyrocketing gold prices in the 1970s and 1980s reinvigorated interest in South Carolina’s mines. New extraction techniques added to profitability. The Haile mine reopened in 1981, and by the 1990s gold production had also recommenced at the Brewer, Ridgeway, and Barite Hill (Dorn) sites. South Carolina ranked sixth in the nation in gold production in 1992, but declining profitability and environmental concerns forced most mines to close again by the end of the decade, leaving them to await improvements in technology and location of richer sites that will make resumption of gold mining economically feasible.
McCauley, Camilla K., and J. Robert Butler. Gold Resources of South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: Division of Geology, State Development Board, 1966. Pardee, Joseph T., and Charles F. Park, Jr. Gold Deposits of the Southern Piedmont. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1948. Pittman, Clyde Calhoun. Death of a Gold Mine. Great Falls, S.C., 1972.