As gold prices continue to rise around the world, there is renewed interest in panning for gold in certain parts of the United States. In the late 1800s, the state of Virginia had a thriving gold-mining industry. Today there is still gold to be found in the streams of central Virginia. The lure of easy money is drawing many to buy prospecting equipment and head into nearby streams. But striking it rich is not that easy.
Todd Bonshire is the manager of Monroe Park, a restored 18th century gold mining camp in Goldvein, Virginia. A historian by training, he teaches visitors about the rich history of gold mining in the area and how to pan for gold.
"It is amazing how many have started coming here to buy prospecting equipment and to find places in the area to go prospecting," said Bonshire. "Especially now that gold is near $1,800 an ounce, the interest has just skyrocketed."
In 1782, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his notes on Virginia that a man found a piece of quartz with gold in it near Fredericksburg, and gold fever spread across the state. In the early 19th century, there were 19 gold mines in the immediate area. But during World War II, gold mines were deemed not essential and were shut down.
"Well this is some quartz from the area, and this is where you find the gold," added Bonshire.
Gold is found inside quartz rock that runs in a belt along the eastern United States. Miners would have to dig out thousands of kilograms of rock to find a few ounces of gold trapped in the crevices.
"Right here there is a little crevice and you can you see that there is some pyrite in there, somebody popped this open, and there is a nice little pocket," added Bonshire. "The gold would also be found similar to this inside a big piece of quartz."
Today, prospectors pan for gold. Years of rain and snow have broken up the quartz rock and washed the gold into streams.
"By shaking it, all the lighter materials float up to the top all the heavier materials, which would be your gold and a substance called black sand, which is iron-based, all sinks down to the bottom of the pan," Bonshire explained.
Gold is 19 times heavier than water. The larger, less dense materials float out of the pan, leaving heavier materials behind.
But prospecting is not easy. Bill Oliver has taken it up as a retirement hobby. Oliver is a member of the Northern Virginia Gold Prospectors Club. He says they had 10 new members at their last meeting, all looking to cash in on rising gold prices. But Oliver says big finds are rare.
"You never know when you are going to find a nugget. You might find one. Nobody has found one down here for about two years now but, there are nuggets down there. We just have not found them," Oliver noted.
For him, prospecting is just an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.
"I probably have not found what - $20 worth in the past year. It is not a money-making hobby. In Virginia you have to spend the right money for equipment," added Oliver. "[It] takes you forever to get the money back you spent. The people making the money are the people selling the equipment!"
For most, the draw is still just the thrill of the hunt. And the dream that one day you just might find that big nugget.