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It's common knowledge that California has produced a mother lode of gold. Ditto on Colorado and Alaska. And according to Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History geologist Tim Rose, "Australia produces some fabulous gold to this day."
But back in the day, a place much closer to home produced some pretty "fabulous gold," too: Montgomery County, Md.
"I grew up in the Gaithersburg area," Rose explains. "As a kid, as a rock-hound, we knew about the gold. So I've been having my eyes to the ground looking for it, ever since!"
Montgomery County is on the Piedmont Plateau: a belt of metamorphic rocks extending from New York to South Carolina. And the Piedmont has all these veins of quartz running through it.
"Within some of them there are little pockets of gold and fool's gold, too," Rose says.
But it was honest-to-goodness real gold that had people in Montgomery County all keyed up back in the 1800s, when it was first reported in the area.
As word spread, Tim Rose says people started panning for gold in streams in upper Montgomery County. Then they started full-blown mining operations: by digging trenches and sinking shafts. Pretty soon, the county boasted 20 to 30 mining operations.
"Everywhere you go in our area here, you look in stream beds, you look in farm fields, you'll find white quartz like that," Rose says. "Someday I'll be looking down, because I am still looking, and I'm going to see the glint, and I'm going to pick it up, and I'll go, 'Okay, I can stop looking now!'"
Searching for gold
Amateur geologist Jeff Nagy says he knew a man to whom that very thing happened not too long ago.
"[He] was walking along the trail and saw a piece of quartz," Nagy, a Montgomery County native, explains. "He stopped and picked it up and turned it over, and there was a streak of gold through it. So, you never know what you're going to turn up!"
Like Tim Rose, Jeff Nagy has spent a lot of time with his eyes peeled to the ground in Maryland.
"When I was a kid, I'd come home and my mother would be dumping all the rocks out of my pockets, and complaining about all the rocks I'd be picking up!"
Now, Nagy's a proud member of the Gem, Lapidary and Mineral Society of Montgomery County, and of the Baltimore Mineral Society. I recently helped him continue his lifelong gold hunt right near Great Falls, at the former site of the Maryland Mine. The gold mine used to be one of the state's largest, longest-lived and most productive.
Building over mines
Nowadays, the site has a lot of ruined buildings, like an old water tank, and overgrown dump piles. You can also find scores and scores of abandoned prospect trenches and shafts.
"This would have been a vertical shaft," Nagy says, motioning to a deep hole in the ground. "It was probably 200 feet deep. Look at the big tree growing out of it, so you know that thing is completely caved in!"
But from 1867 to 1940, Nagy says the Maryland Mine was a fairly thriving 2,200-acre operation.
"Part of it's down here and the Park Service owns it," he says. "The rest's up in River Falls this way, [where] there [are now] housing developments."
And that's the thing about so many of Montgomery County's gold mines. They've long been built over with roads and/or houses. One spot Jeff Nagy and I visited, not too far from the Maryland Mine, is now a tree-filled park, with benches, tables and a playground.
"Just think: the little kids on the playground playing atop an old mining area!" Nagy muses. "Unless you knew it was here you would have no idea that anything had taken place here."
Montgomery County's rich history
Nagy is currently updating the Maryland Geological Survey's book, "Minerals of the Washington, D.C., Area." He says he's eager to spread the word about the region's rich history of gold, and other minerals.
He points to Patapsco State Park, just west of Baltimore, as a prime example of erstwhile mining activity in the state. Between the 1830s and 1940s, Nagy says hundreds of mines in the area were pumping out a bunch of different minerals, including quartz, flint, soapstone, feldspar, beryl, mica, garnet, chromium, copper, serpentine, limestone and iron.
But Smithsonian geologist Tim Rose's eyes are on a different prize: gold. But again, not just any gold.
"Gold's found all around the world," he says, and of course, it's also been found in Montgomery County, Md.
"But not by me," he continues...Yet!
Photos: Mining in Montgomery County