A Trifling Place
12:47 pm
Fri June 14, 2013

Episode 10: The Charlotte Ninety-Niners

Welcome to A Trifling Place, a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.

When I first moved here, there was one billboard that I found really confusing. It was for the new '49ers football team at UNC Charlotte. 

The only 49ers I know of are 3,000 miles away … in San Francisco.

To get to the bottom of this, I called Tom Whitestone. He's UNC Charlotte's associate athletic director for media relations.

Norm the Niner, the 49ers mascot, catches the University shuttle. Before Norm, the University's mascot was an owl because college students attended classes in the evening in places like Charlotte’s Central High School (after the high school students left for the day) for the first few years of its existence.
Credit UNC Charlotte

He says the school's nickname is the 49ers because of the importance of the year 1949.

"This institution UNC Charlotte, got its beginnings in 1946 as a Charlotte center of the University of North Carolina,"  Whitestone says. "It was a center that was built to take care of servicemen returning from the war. But it was planned to be a temporary institution. In 1949, Bonnie Cone, who is our unofficial founder and several other community leaders, pushed to make the University permanent. And that led to Charlotte College, which has led on to University of North Carolina at Charlotte."

That's fine. But you can't call yourself the 49ers AND have a gold miner as a mascot AND a prominently placed gold miner statue on campus AND use gold as your accent color on the school logo and uniforms and say it doesn't really have to do with gold.  

Whitestone says it's convenient that the 49ers remind people of the "pioneering spirit" of the California Gold Rush. But Charlotte actually does have a rich gold mining history.

Gold In The Charlotte Region

In fact so much gold was being mined that the first branch of the U.S. Mint outside Philadelphia was established here in Charlotte in 1836. And it produced 5 million dollars worth of gold coins .

Coins from the U.S. Mint in Charlotte are on display at the Reed Gold Mine's visitor center.
Credit Tasnim Shamma

But if anything we should be talking about the 99ers, because gold was discovered in neighboring Cabarrus County in 1799, fifty years BEFORE the California Gold Rush.

And the best person to tell the story might be Aaron Kepley, he's a historic interpreter at Reed Gold Mine and has a personal connection to the gold mine. His great-great-great-great-grandfather is John Reed, the man the gold mine is named after. Reed Gold Mine is a state historic site and nationally recognized landmark in Midland, just 20 miles outside Charlotte – the first documented discovery of gold in the U.S. happened here.

"Right here on top of Little Meadow Creek, in 1799 a 12-year-old boy named Conrad Reed was fishing with his brother and sister. They had actually skipped church, the story goes," Kepley says. "And they were bow and arrow fishing in the water. He supposedly shot an arrow into the water, reached down to pick it up and there was a shiny metal rock in there."

It weighed seventeen pounds. Conrad didn't know what it was, so he took it home to his father, John Reed, who was a farmer.  He never saw a piece of gold that big, so he used it as a door stop for three years. But eventually, John Reed's curiosity got to him and he took the rock to a jeweler down in Fayetteville.

Credit Tasnim Shamma

"And the jeweler said, 'Yeah it's gold, how much do you want for it?' John thought about it and he took the going rate for basically a week's pay as a farmer, which is $3.50," Kepley says. "We don't know how much the jeweler resold it for, but that piece of gold was probably worth something around $3,600. So yeah, he got the better end out of that deal."

The first year of the Reed Mining Operation, in 1803, a slave named Peter Love discovered the largest nugget of gold -- 28 pounds -- ever discovered in the Eastern United States.

"He took it out of the creek bank and showed it to his master and his master said if he could pry off a piece of that gold nugget, he could keep it. But the only thing Peter had to pry it off with was his dinner fork and he thought it was a joke because he's a slave," Kepley said. "If he breaks off this piece, he breaks his dinner fork, his master is going to laugh at him either way and he's going to keep the gold regardless. So even though that could have been a down payment on his freedom, he refused to do it because he didn't want to break his fork and be laughed, it's kind of a point of pride for him."

Reed and his neighbors figured there was probably more where that came from. And the Carolina gold rush was on!

Kepley led me underground to see the tunnels and shafts. The only light they had was the candles attached to their foreheads. 

Way at the top of one shaft 55-feet deep, there's a giant kibble or bucket -- that's where the men would pile in and be lowered down with ropes into the very dark tunnels.

A New Kind Of Gold Rush

The Carolina Gold Rush petered out by the mid 1900s. There are still some small operations, but don't count on finding any Tar Heel gold at your local jewelers.

"The majority of it that we've traded in, probably in the last 30 years is from South Africa," says Ernest Perry. He's the owner of Perry's in South Park. He says Russia and China are also big gold producers, but... 

"You'd be surprised how many people that actually go up into the mountains and mine gold in these streams," Perry says. "And it's a hobby and sometimes you can make several thousand dollars a year if you spend enough time at it."

Especially right now. The price of gold is insane. 

Jeweler Ernest Perry, the owner of Perry's in South Park, shows off a day's worth of gold people came in to sell.
Credit Tasnim Shamma

"Gold right now is $1,385 an ounce and I fully think it will be over $2,000 before the year is out," Perry says. 

Some days, he says, there are more than 100 people coming in to sell their gold. He empties an envelope full of random jewelry worth thousands of dollars into a plastic container.

"This is scrap gold that we would have purchased in the last day," Perry says. "And as you can see most of it is broken chains and rings and jewelry that people just don't wear anymore. So this is traded in or sold and people then take the money to buy other jewelry or pay their bills with it."

So two centuries later, Charlotte's still got a gold rush, except this time, people are mining their jewelry boxes.