Gold Rush!

On the gold mine trail at Lake Anna State Park.

I got up after nine on a recent Saturday morning, bemoaning the fact I was too late, too disorganized to get myself backpacking, but a good hike just might suffice this gnawing need to get out in the lovely, warm, pre-leaf-turn weather. Where to go—something new—not too far away. I didn’t want driving time to eclipse hiking time. Rather than return to my mountain haunts or local loops, I chose, after some online research, a hike the site termed the Goodwin Gold Mine Trail, a seven to eight mile combination of hiking trails in Lake Anna State Park.

Gold—the word jumped off the page. Goldmines in Virginia? Lake Anna State Park? Lake Anna? Usually, when I hear Lake Anna, I first think of a nice canoeing river, the North Anna, dammed to make a lake to provide cooling waters for the North Anna Power Station. Then I think nuclear power plant, not built to withstand the Aug. 23, 2011 earthquake, which occurred as reverse faulting on a north or northeast-striking plane within a previously recognized seismic zone, the Central Virginia Seismic Zone.

And then I think of a huge lake full of stinkpots. That’s what we, as aloof young small boat sailors, used to call motorboats used for waterskiing or just going fast with annoyingly large wakes. Now I do love going out fishing, but still see massive gas-guzzling dollar signs, as well as elevated noise pollution, when watching all these motorboats zipping around places like manmade Lake Anna.

But gold mining is quite a different topic—square in the middle of Virginia, the barely rolling piedmont oak forests. It’s not about gold earrings, necklaces or the allure of ornamentation or investment; it’s the mining history, the “rush” madness, the stories and poetry. My dad used to read us Jack London stories and recite Robert Service poems.

In the truck, up I-95 to the Thornburg exit, west along 606, then 208 to 601, three more miles to the entrance of Lake Anna State Park, and right into a full blown triathlon – the Giant Acorn. At the entrance gate the helpful park staff assured me I wouldn’t be in the athletes’ way, or even be aware of them when I got onto the trails, so I first drove down to the lake, to the boat ramp and beach, which must be heaven during summer, then headed back up to a parking lot along the road to the cabins.

Once my dog and I crossed the procession of bikers and runners and walked through the forest curtain, we never saw or heard another soul until we got back to the truck some three hours later. Snaky winding streams, trails through oaks, pines, birch and deciduous forests, evidence of a horse train, that’s all we saw as we walked the millpond trail to a spot where the Hailey’s gristmill damn stood before being burst by the same storm which caused the Johnstown Flood. Heading along the Pigeon Run Trail we turned off onto the Gold Hill trail, our ultimate destination.

“Gold Hill” is what this area was originally called before being acquired as part of the 2810-acre (10 miles of lakefront) Lake Anna State Park, which opened in 1983. This was the site of the Goodwin Gold mine, where gold was first discovered in 1829 with mining reaching its peak in the 1880s. It was one of about 23 goldmines operating in Spotsylvania County alone during the19th century. The earliest mention of gold in the state is from Thomas Jefferson who wrote about a gold nugget or rock found on the banks of the Rappahannock River in 1752. From 1830 to 1849, Virginia was the third leading producer of gold in the nation, with Spotsylvania at its heart. Take that John Smith. Looking for gold in all the wrong places.

This county, along with Culpeper and Orange, were the some of the most gold-prosperous of the counties sitting along Virginia’s Gold-Pyrite belt, a volcanic geological formation running from Fairfax County southwest for about 140 miles. (See the map below) Like most of Virginia’s 300 goldmines, the Goodwin Gold Mine started as a placer mine, but eventually changed over to lode-shaft mining in the 1880’s.

The forest along the Gold Hill Trail was partially interrupted by a power line, making space for fields of feathery goldenrod. Back into the woods, I started seeing sloughs and pit-like depressions, evidence of mining operations. When I reached the mine site, it was marked by piles of beautiful stones covered with moss and vinca-periwinkle near Pigeon Run. Hard to imagine the extent or complexity of the gold operation without a bit more interpretation, so I put as a must-do for next summer: go to Lake Anna State Park and sign up for a weekend Gold Mine Tour and maybe try a little panning for gold as well. It was a fun hike turned to all things gold, just imagining stone crushers and pans swirling, the gold bits and flakes settling out. I could see golden sparkles in Pigeon Run, gold leaves on trees. Hard to ask for a much nicer early autumn walk.  

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