Carolina Gold

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a life-long Alaskan and a newcomer to North Carolina. Instead of explaining the differences I’ve noticed, I’ll save you your time by explaining the similarities instead:

There are none. Except for gold.

Over the weekend, I went to my friend’s house who lives just beyond the South Carolina border, some forty minutes from Charlotte. Cheaper property taxes has allowed them to live on several beautiful acres right on the edge of Kings Mountain National Military Park. A small creek runs through their backyard, where they’ve been prospecting  gold.

After a couple of hours of pumping water through prospecting equipment, I saw a couple, tiny gold flecks.  

I was intrigued by this Carolinian gold, and surprised to learn that the first gold discovery in the United States took place in North Carolina.  I had no idea they were the leading producers of gold until its discovery in California and Alaska. They never taught me that in Alaskan schools.

In Alaska, there’s volcanoes and earthquakes – two things that hint towards gold. But North Carolina is pretty flat, and therefore geologically boring. Or so I thought. Being the geology nerd that I am, I was curious to learn about the ground underneath me and to find out how this gold came to be here.

For those of you unfamiliar with geology 101, I’ve included a list of terms that will help you understand what I’m talking about.

Tectonic Plates




Divergent Plate Boundaries



Convergent Plate Boundaries



Lithosphere




Subduction Zone



Faults & Fractures

Lode Gold

Placer Gold

7 pieces of Earth’s crust that travel independently around the globe, causing seismic and volcanic activity. The three plates of interest here are the Eurasian, North American, and Pacific.

A boundary along two plates that are being pushed apart. The Eurasian and North American plates are being
pushed apart by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

A boundary along two plates that crush the plates into
each other. The Pacific plate is moving into the
western/northwestern part of the North American plate.

The layer underneath the earth’s crust that is brittle
(composed of solid rock), and above the asthenosphere –
the layer where rocks are molten from the earth’s
magma.

The area where one convergent plate moves under the
other, causing seismic activity, mountain building, and
volcanism.

Breaks in the earth’s crust

The original, large deposit of gold

Fragments of lode gold carried away by streams or
glaciers into alluvial deposits

When I decided to investigate the origins of Carolinian gold, I didn’t realize how complicated it would be.  My head has been wrapped around time tables that extend billions of years, trying to make sense of what happened when and how.

In the process, I made interesting discoveries about the Appalachians.  I’d always lacked an appreciation for the soft hills I considered subpar to the ‘true mountains’ of the West Coast. But now, my appreciation has grown, having had realized the vast amount of geologic activity this region has seen.  I never knew the Appalachians were an ancient mountain range that has been eroding away. I never knew they once resembled the mountains I grew up with.

Appalachians, near Asheville, NC

The foothills of the Appalachians is a plateau called the Piedmont. Within the Piedmont is the Carolina slate belt that runs parallel to the coast from Virginia to Georgia. The largest portion of it lays underneath Mecklenburg county.  It is in the slate belt that the gold is found.

While there is no set formula for finding gold, lode deposits are typically found along convergent plate boundaries.  Molten gold rises up through the faults and fractures caused by subduction until it cools and crystallizes in chambers underneath bedrock. As the earth around the lode erodes, placer gold is carried down moderate slopes until it settles.

Now I’m no geology major – I’m just a nerd who took a couple classes in college. But from my understanding, the Piedmont used to be a rift basin caused by divergent plate boundaries when the Earth’s geography looked much different than it does today. These rifts were then filled with sediment from the eroding Appalachians and material uprooted from subduction zones.

Sometimes I wish I’d decided to focus more seriously on geology. Then I’d really be able to tell you how Charlotte is built on top of a massive gold deposit. But, one of the things I love the most about writing is that it allows me to explore and learn about all sorts of things. Writing is a great way to find the common denominator between two things that are seemingly uncorrelated.

I liked geology for that reason. Before I got into it, I assumed rocks were stationary and boring. Then I learned about metamorphosis.  Rocks are constantly being recycled into new types of rocks. If the earth can go through changes and produce a beautiful result at the end, then so can people.  

A couple years ago I wrote an essay titled “The Metamorphosis.” It’s about the life changes I was going through at the time from a geologic perspective. I have included an excerpt here that I hope you will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it.

“Let us turn back towards the mountains.  There they stand, exposed and old – a sight to place aspirations upon.  Anyone who’s ever laced up hiking boots knows what it takes to summit one, but what about what it takes for a mountain to become a mountain? The minerals that make up Earth are subject to intense heat, pressure, and stress, all by the force of the planet recycling itself – the living attitude of inorganic material.  And so, these mountains stand, brutal in their creation, beautiful in their being. The rocks once laid on the surface untouched, then pushed down into the heart of the earth, not to be exposed again until their metamorphism was complete.”

Seward, Alaska


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