When gold was found at Sutter's Mill in 1849, Ohioans were among those who joined the California Gold Rush, hoping to strike it rich. Most came home empty-handed, but a few returning '49ers tried panning Ohio streams. To their surprise, they found tiny flakes of gold. Today that discovery is still celebrated by a group of dedicated amateurs from the Gold Prospectors Association of America. Every Labor Day Weekend they sponsor an Ohio Gold Rush near the site of the state's first gold strike. As 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports, there's gold in these Ohio hills.
Karen Schaefer- Conjure up the image of a gold prospector and you might picture a grizzled old man in long underwear with a pan and a pickaxe over his shoulder, combing the creeks of California or Colorado. But here on the Clear Fork River near Belleville, Ohio, about ten miles north of Mohican State Park, a group of present-day prospectors in tennis shoes and shorts is putting a new face on a time-honored tradition. Some fifty members of the Ohio chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America are wading in the shallow waters of the stream. They've come with their families on this hot afternoon to move rocks, dig holes, and sift through sediments, hoping to catch the glitter of gold.
The tiny flakes of gold they're finding aren't native to Ohio. They were brought here by the glaciers from gold-bearing rocks in the Canadian north. Panning remains a traditional method for finding the flakes. Prospector Mark Bartholomew of Crestline scoops ups a load of rocks and sediment from the creek bottom in his green plastic pan. He swirls the water around and dumps out the big pieces. Then he flips the pan like a chef, tossing the silt and bits of rock into ridges built into the pan's edge. He's looking for that first golden glint.
Mark Bartholomew- Nope, nothing this time. Hope that's not bad luck!
KS- Bartholomew will have to hope for better luck next time. Farther along the stream, other prospectors have turned to more modern technology. Troy Johnson of Clyde is giving Jamie Kreglow of Bellevue his first lesson in prospecting with a dredge. That's a small machine that sucks up sediment through a four-inch hose like a vacuum cleaner, then spills it over a sluice. It's noisy and expensive - cost, about a thousand dollars, plus gas. But a dredge can move more sediment than panning, an advantage to those who've really caught the gold bug.
Troy Johnson- We've got this suction nozzle down in the hole. We have to pry the rock loose and everything. We only want to go down so far, probably one to two feet. And then when we're done, you've got a small hole, you leave that for the fish to get in and they can lay their eggs in the river.
KS- These modern-day gold prospectors are quick to point out the environmental benefits of their search. Ron Kyle is a professional photographer and fly fisherman. He claims dredging does no harm to the stream's aquatic insects.
Ron Kyle- As you can see, the caddis fly is in here. And he's alive. There's no injury to that bug whatsoever after it went through the trough on the dredge, so that proves that the gold mining is not hurting the aquatic insects at all.
Mike Hansen- Most of the hobbyist dredges don't move that much sediment. More sediment is moved every time we have a good heavy rain.
KS- Mike Hansen, Chief Geologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, agrees. He says the state doesn't require licensing for people who work the Ohio group's four claims, all leased from private owners.
MH- As far as a mining operation, this is much too small to regulate or license or anything. It's really gold prospecting from the standpoint of a hobby, rather than an economic venture. Although many people, going well back into the last century, have tried to find gold in Ohio.
KS- But for those with gold fever, there's only one important question. Jess Sutherland has been prospecting all over the U.S.
Jess Sutherland- Here's some gold from southern Ohio. This is probably five dollars worth of gold here, with that nugget in it. And it cost me $8 to drive there to get it. And runt he dredge cost me another dollar and a half-worth's of gas and a whole day's doing it. So I only end up losing about $4. But it was a lot better than golfing.
KS- Most people prefer to keep their gold rather than sell it. Even with gold prices at $260 a troy ounce, no one here is striking it rich. But that doesn't deter these Ohio prospectors enjoying an afternoon of digging in the cool, clear waters of the creek. Around the country, more than 80,000 members of the G.P.A.A. work claims like this one. And on Labor Day weekend, they'll invite anyone who's interested to try panning for gold. Some of them, like 7-year-old J.J. Kreglow, might just get lucky on their very first try.
TJ- The little guy, I showed him the spot to dig. I said dig six, eight inches, get you some stuff in there, wash those heavy rocks off. And he was and I got over there and I showed him how to pan and he got him a speck of gold out of it, first pan. There's the gold discoverer, right there.
J.J. Kreglow- I was just panning and then we saw the little shiny thing-y and it was the gold piece. I was like, ooh-ooh!
KS- Striking it rich on the Clear Fork River near Belleville, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.