The heyday of Vermont's gold rush may have been a small dab of paint on the state's 218-year-old historic canvas, but the crumbling remains of nearly a dozen mines and test shafts pepper the landscape in the Bridgewater-Plymouth area of Windsor County.
Windsor County was the prime focus of Vermont's 1850s-1880s gold rush era.
Now the first state historical marker to recognize the Vermont Gold Rush will be dedicated at Camp Plymouth State Park on Scout Camp Road in Ludlow. Members of the Rutland Rock and Mineral Club were instrumental in urging the state to erect the cast-iron marker.
The marker will be erected near the footbridge which leads back to the site of one of the abandoned gold mines later this year. The club will hold gold-panning demonstrations on the day of the dedication, which has not been determined yet.
"While 19th century gold rushes in California and Colorado get all the attention, there was a little bit of the Wild West in Vermont between 1855 and 1888," said Marie Fitzgerald, president of the Rutland club.
Fitzgerald said several club members pan for gold in Vermont streams. One member found a small nugget of some value near Ludlow last year. In Rutland County, she said, some gold has been found in the sands and gravel of the Cold River which races through the rugged Clarendon Gorge.
In 1855, a California gold miner returning home to Vermont found gold flakes and a small nugget in Reading Pound Brook. Within a few months, Reading Pound, Broad and Buffalo brooks were swarming with panners looking for gold.
The first-phase of Vermont's Gold Rush was centered around Plymouth Five Corners and lasted four years.
In true frontier-style, hotels and saloons sprung up in Five Corners to service miners, merchants and hangers on. However, by 1861-when civil strife broke out between the North and South-young Vermonters headed off for battlefields instead of the Windsor gold fields.
Vermont's Windsor County gold field was forgotten-until a brief, final spurt in the 1880s.
The town of Five Corners was abandoned in the 1860s. All that remained were cellar holes, stone sluice walls, and rare privy artifacts.
There are no markers for the individual gold mines, according to John P. Dumville, Historic Sites Operations chief for the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. He said that the old mines are located on private land and no one-at least until later this year-had ever requested a marker or gotten landowner permission to erect a marker. "It is an interesting story," Dumville said.
"My great grandfather, Ira Sumner, was a gold mine worker in Windsor County," cave and mine explorer Rick Pingree told the Rutland Tribune in a 2005 news story. "Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of records from the time."
The state's largest gold-mine operation was the Rooks Mine in Camp Plymouth State Park. It is the only gold mine that is situated, in part, on state-owned land. Vermont's new gold rush historical marker will be situated near the remains of the Rooks Mine.
All other gold mines and test adits are on private property-they are dangerous and off limits to individuals without the owner's permission.
"In 1880, a group of miners returned to the Plymouth Five Corners area and traced placer gold in Buffalo Creek to its source in a quartz vein high on the slope above the creek," according to Pingree. "Two years later, the Rooks Mine was in operation."
Pingree has explored deep inside the abandoned shafts of the Rooks Mine (later known as the Fox Mine); while the mine is dangerous for amateur cavers to enter, even Pingree got spooked inside the mine a few years ago. A companion encountered unstable ground inside the mine's vertical shaft. They quickly abandoned further exploration. Abandoned mines are more dangerous than many caves, according to Pingree.
Pingree mapped most of the Rooks Mine's remains. It was a big mine for its time-200 feet in length with both vertical and horizontal shafts. Parts of the mine are still shored up with 19th-century timbers. Even the remains of an ore car on rails can be seen. A large processing mill stood along the creek at the foot of the mine. Visitors can still glimpse some of the stonework of the old complex today.
In 1884 the Rooks Mine was top news here since it was producing $50-ton ore. But things changed in 1887. The Rooks was bankrupt, and the last stage of the Vermont Gold Rush was over.
While there are numerous test mine shafts that await discovery in Vermont's old Gold District, most were located by cavers since the 1980s.
The largest Vermont gold mines were the Rooks Mine, the Dailey Hollow Gold Mine, the Quttaquechee Mine, the T-Gold Mine and the Taggart-Fagneau Mine.
In time, frost action and ground-water seeping will obliterate Vermont's historic gold mines from view. It doesn't help that state historians have shown little interest in the period, while others seem not to want to glorify the state's "dirty" mining past.
But with the help of Rutland Rock and Mineral Club members and explorer and mine-enthusiast Rick Pingree, the memory of a time when Vermont gold fever seized locals and flatlanders alike will be kept alive a little while longer.