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Courtesy of Mike Streeter • mcrocks.com
Into the void
Kyanite from the Celo Kyanite Mine in Yancey County was used in spark plugs and other refractory ceramics.
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Courtesy of Bo Smith
Mica for the ancients
Detail from a painting by Jerry Newton depicting Native American mica mining in Western North Carolina.
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Courtesy The Museum of North Carolina Minerals
Sorting it all out
Deer Park, a feldspar and mica mining operation located in Mitchell County, was extensively photographed in the 1920s. This photo is one of the documentary photographs appearing in the Deer Park Mine scrapbook at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals.
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Sarah E. Kucharski photo
The astounding volume of mica in the Spruce Pine Mining District far exceeded its known uses, so researchers got busy finding things to do with it.
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Courtesy The Museum of North Carolina Minerals
Trucking it in
The Spruce Pine Mining District had more than 700 mica and feldspar mines, according to the N.C. Geological Survey. There may be two or three times as many prospective pits in the district, the survey contends. The mica mines went full bore until solid-state electronics were developed in the 1960s, causing many to close.
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Sarah E. Kucharski photo
The Spruce Pine Mining District produces 90 percent of all the mined and processed quartz that the electronics industry uses, according to the Mountain Resources Commission.
The word “mining” in Western North Carolina may conjure up roadside gem sluices in the mountains. But the region’s mining industry is richer than that, for the most ordinary of minerals.
Nearly all the quartz that goes into making silicon wafers world over comes from mines in Spruce Pine, making the small Mitchell County town of 2,000 people the heart of the multi-billion-dollar computer industry.
The rocks that make up the Appalachian Mountains also make up many of the bridges, roads and highways that crisscross the state. Granite is so important to North Carolina that it has been named the state rock.
Because of the region’s mountains (some of the oldest in the world), North Carolina is the nation’s leading producer of mica, that glass-like material most kids collected and peeled apart in every county in Western North Carolina, is used in roofing felt, shingles, paint, plastics, and wallboard.
The National Mining Association estimates mining to be a billion dollar industry in North Carolina. In 2010 (its last available figures), more than 260 companies were mining in the state, employing about 38,000 people and paying them an average annual salary of $52,871.
“Mining provides the most jobs and the biggest money for Mitchell, Avery and Yancey counties,” said Mitchell County mining historian Robert. S. “Bo” Smith. “For those three counties, it’s the biggest industry here.”
To appreciate the mountains’ rich mineral history, one must become acquainted with North Carolina’s three geological zones—the Blue Ridge, the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain.
The Blue Ridge zone, about 200 miles long and 15 to 55 miles wide, comprises about 10 percent of the state. Made up of rocks about one billion years old, “this complex mixture of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock has been repeatedly squeezed, fractured, faulted and folded,” according to the N.C. Geological Survey. The rock substrata far beneath WNC’s rich soil has never stopped shifting, as people who have felt its (so far) mild earth tremors will attest.
Within the Blue Ridge zone is the Blue Ridge Belt, the geological name for the rock underlying most of the mountainous area of Western North Carolina. Within the Blue Ridge Belt is the Spruce Pine Mining District, a broad swath of land in Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties along the North Toe River near the N.C.-Virginia line, which boasts some of the richest deposits of gems and minerals in the world.
In 1839, North Carolina carried out the nation’s first geological and mineralogical survey. By then, mining in North Carolina was already hundreds of years old.
“Ancients,” as the state’s earliest residents were called, were pulling mica out of the Spruce Pine area 2,000 years ago, using it as money and to decorate graves, Alex Glover of the Feldspar Corp., wrote on Mitchell County’s website. Around 1744, Cherokee Indians mining mica, emeralds, aquamarine, and quartz also excavated the related minerals feldspar and kaolin and used ox-drawn carts to pull them to the coast, where the English bought it for ceramic wares, Glover wrote.
Scotch-Irish settlers who moved into Mitchell County from the eastern part of the state found a cash crop. “Because they were farmers and almost all of their property had mica on it, they would plant their crops and then go mine mica,” Smith said. “They didn’t have many cash crops, but mica was one of them.”
Non-Indian prospectors first started mining mica in the Spruce Pine Mining District in the 1850s. The astounding volume of mica there far exceeded its known uses, so researchers got busy finding things to do with it. During Reconstruction, the Union general Benjamin F. Butler—despised inside and outside of the Confederacy—enlisted an agent to buy the rights to mica mines in Western North Carolina. A mica boom begun in the mountains in 1878 helped supply materials for an insulator in Thomas Edison’s electric motor. By the 1890s, the nation’s mica mining activity centered around Spruce Pine, earning it the nickname “The Mineral City.”
Cakes of mica were made into windows for furnaces and woodstoves. Because of its super-high kindling point, manufacturers used mica as insulation in toasters and installed it in vacuum tubes. When World War II broke out and factories were cut off from their European mica supplies, the mines in Yancey, Mitchell, and Avery counties began working overtime to supply the nation with all it needed.
The Spruce Pine Mining District had more than 700 mica and feldspar mines, according to the N.C. Geological Survey. There may be two or three times as many prospective pits in the district, the survey contends. The mica mines (of which there were also some further west in Macon County) went full bore until solid-state electronics were developed in the 1960s, causing many to close. There are few industrial uses for sheet mica anymore, but North Carolina—primarily Western North Carolina—produces about 60 percent of scrap mica (found in granite rock) used in products such as cosmetics, paint, and plastics.
One of the most famous mines in WNC is the Sink Hole Mine seven miles southwest of Bakersville in Mitchell County. Its history goes back centuries, historians estimate. Believed to have been mined by Indians before white settlers arrived, its excavations measured up to 80 feet across and extended across a ridge for a third of a mile, John Preston Arthur wrote in “Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913.”
Inside the depressions were old stone digging tools that Indian miners were thought to have used, as well as some metal tools. Trees growing in the rock waste in the 1800s were found to be 300 years old, dating excavations to about the time that Spanish explorers were traveling through the mountains in search of gold and silver.
“Silver seems to dominate in the Carolinian dream of mineral wealth, when it is, of all such dreams, the one least likely to be realized,” C. Hanford Henderson wrote in an article published in “Popular Science Monthly” in September 1892.
Could Spanish soldiers hoping to enrich their monarchy have searched the Sink Hole Mine? There is only speculation. In 1867, Thomas Clingman, a former U.S. senator and a brigadier general in the Confederate army, reopened the mine after hearing Indian stories about white men on mules coming from the South long, long ago to dig at the site and carry away “white metal,” he wrote in his “Speeches and Writings.”
Clingman did some digging in the mine himself and showed some of what he found to miners from the western part of the country. Nodding with approval, they said the quality of the ore would bring the then-impressive price of $300 a ton. Clingman dug a shaft and two tunnels at the mine but was able to produce only about $3 worth of silver.
“As has often happened, he failed to grasp the prize almost within his reach,” Frederic W. Simonds, a University of Texas geologist wrote in “Science” magazine in 1896. “Ill health and a want of capital caused him to abandon the enterprise, and strangers, profiting by his preliminary work, reaped a substantial reward.”
That reward was mica. Mica that Clingman and his workers discarded attracted the attention of a horse driver, who took a block of it to Knoxville. People there who knew its value moved to Mitchell County and started mining. Mica, used in stoves and lamps, was bringing $8 to $11 a pound at the time. “The rewards were considerable,” Henderson wrote in Popular Science Monthly.
The Sink Hole Mine closed in the 1960s. Remains still exist, off N.C. 226 on Mine Creek Road northwest of Ledger.
Web forums suggest there is gold to be found in the creeks and rivers in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe, McDowell, and Burke counties, but no one in North Carolina has disclosed a significant find in more than 100 years.
North Carolina’s golden past got its start along Little Meadow Creek in Cabarrus County, near Charlotte. In 1799, Conrad Reed was walking along the creek when something shiny caught his eye—a 17-pound gold nugget. Unaware of its value, his father John Reed used it as a doorstop and sold it in 1802 to a Fayetteville jeweler for $3.50—one tenth of one percent of its value, state historians estimate.
The next year John Reed and a couple of partners—fellow farmers—started digging for gold in the Little Meadow Creek, but it was a slave named Peter who a few months later discovered the next significant find—a gleaming, malleable nugget of gold that weighed a hefty 28 pounds. The nation’s first gold rush was on. During the next 20 years, Reed and his partners panned about $100,000 worth of gold out of Little Meadow Creek—a fortune at the time.
Farmers in the Piedmont started looking for gold in their own creeks, with some success. In 1825, a German immigrant in the Charlotte area discovered surface gold not far from the Reed farm and followed nuggets to the deep vein that produced them. A dozen vein-mining companies sprang up in the area, attracting miners from Europe and South America. There were so many people looking for gold in North Carolina during the 1820s that the state legislature appointed a UNC geologist to survey and locate the state’s gold-producing areas.
Chief among them was McDowell County, which would become the center of the North Carolina gold rush. The southern part of the county produced rich finds along Muddy Creek and the Second Broad River within Vein and Huntsville Mountain, giving rise to boomtowns like Brindletown and Brackettown. Yet to be discovered is the fate of a trove of gold that early settler James Logan found and buried before Indians killed him.
In the middle part of the state, along the narrow geological band called the Carolina Slate Belt, some two-dozen gold mines had opened, typically named for their owners—Dunn, Capps, Alexander, Ward, Fentress, and Howie. By 1832, there were more people looking for gold in North Carolina than were employed in any other industry, other than farming, and the state was the nation’s leading gold producer.
North Carolina’s state library has a fascinating sepia-toned 1845 map on which are these carefully penned words: “This map is a fair representation of that part of the gold region which has been surveyed in the county of Haywood (County)…” On it, in beautifully scripted penmanship, are names of owners and their holdings, few of which likely panned out, including Hawkins (640 acres), William Shelton (300 acres), and Nathan Coward (640 acres).
Gold was not the big producer for Western North Carolina that it was for the central part of the state. But because of the Piedmont, North Carolina during the early 1800s provided the only native gold for the U.S. Mint, according to the North Carolina History Project. However, getting that gold to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia was expensive and dangerous.
In the 1830s, German immigrant and jeweler Christopher Bechtler began buying thousands of acres of land beside rivers and streams in Rutherford County’s gold-producing regions. Like Levi Strauss who made his money in the California gold rush not by panning for gold but for making durable denim for gold rushers to wear, Bechtler made a fortune not from the gold he found but from the gold he pressed.
The Bechtler mint made gold coins that were often purer and of better quality than the gold coins produced by the U.S. Mint, government inspectors concluded. Bechtler and his sons pressed more than $2 million in gold coins in the decade after they opened the business.
Known for their integrity and honesty in dealing with miners’ gold, the Bechtlers earned a fortune until 1835, when Congress approved construction of a mint in Charlotte. The state’s gold supplies already were dwindling when gold was discovered in California in 1849.
Though hobbyists still pan for gold (and gems) in private creeks and at roadside stands in the mountains, gold is pretty much over in North Carolina, though in 2011, high gold prices prompted companies to buy mineral rights near Raleigh and at old gold mines near Asheboro.
Today the state is pressing license plates commemorating its mining heritage and declaring the Tar Heel State as “first in gold.” The plate features a picture of a prospector panning for gold in a stream. It costs $20 or $50 for personalized one.
The mining of many other minerals provide a good living for other North Carolinians. Marble along the Murphy marble belt and the Brevard fault zone is mined in Swain and Henderson counties. Gem mining has produced rubies, sapphires and garnets in Macon County and emeralds and aquamarine in Mitchell County. Clay is a big industry in Avery County.
But perhaps the most valuable of all, at least as far as people’s everyday lives are concerned, is the quartz that comes out of Spruce Pine. The Spruce Pine Mining District produces 90 percent of all the mined and processed quartz that the electronics industry uses, according to the Mountain Resources Commission, which advises the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on the use of mountain assets.
The importance of quartz in Mitchell County cannot be overstated, but Shirley Hise, executive director of the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce, will give it a try.
“The world could not function without Spruce Pine because we have the purest supply of quartz in the world,” she said. “If you’re sitting in Spain or Italy or Brazil or Turkey and you have a computer at your desk, you have Spruce Pine. If you have a cellphone, a laptop, an iPad, you have Spruce Pine. We say we are the most important mining district not just in Western North Carolina, not just in North Carolina, but in the United States and in the world.”
“It just happens that when the rock (quartz) was formed, Mother Nature gave it the properties that the industry needs,” said Robert Mensah-Biney, director N.C. State University Minerals Research Laboratory in Asheville. “Quartz is a silicon dioxide, and when the rock forms, it comes with impurities. It just happens that the impurities—things like iron, potassium and aluminum—in WNC are not as abundant as they are in other areas of the world. The quartz from North Carolina is pure. That certainly helps the economy in this part of the state.”
Quartz mined in the Spruce Pine area is used in the production of nearly every desktop and laptop computer made today, as well as a host of other electronic devices like watches and mp3 players that depend upon silicon chips. People who have solar panels on their roofs are also likely supporting local miners—quartz is used in the production of photovoltaic cells. Unimin Corp., which mines in the Spruce Pine area, supplies world manufacturers with much of the quartz they need to make glass, ceramics and lights, according to the Mountain Resources Commission.
Spruce Pine’s unusually large and unusually pure quartz crystals are so valuable to the computer industry that its quartz mines are protected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Which points out one of the region’s biggest economic ironies—the Blue Ridge Mountains, among the oldest mountains in the world, are invaluable to the world’s most modern industries.