By Leah Hughes
The Big Discovery
On a Sunday in 1799, on a farm about 26 miles east of Charlotte in a rural community called Midland, 12-year-old Conrad Reed went fishing. Reed was the son of John Reed, a German-born farmer who settled in the North Carolina Piedmont. On that particular Sunday, Conrad Reed found something shiny in the creek. He lugged his 17-pound find to the house where his father put it to use as a doorstop. The “rock” served its utilitarian function for three years until John Reed took it to a jeweler in Fayetteville who identified it as gold. The jeweler paid Reed $3.50 for it.
Word spread about the discovery – the first documented gold discovery in the U.S. – and miners and prospectors flocked to the surrounding area to strike it rich. Within the first year of digging at the Reed Mine, a slave unearthed a 28-pound golden nugget. Maps designated North Carolina’s “gold region,” which included Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Iredell, Rowan, Union and several counties to the east. Mines were opened throughout the area, and North Carolina quickly became the largest gold-producing state in the country.
When gold was found in North Carolina, it had to travel to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Strong boxes, which resembled treasure chests made of wood, metal and locks, secured the gold along its journey. But the risk of robbery, poor roads and susceptibility to bad weather made the trek to Philadelphia dangerous. In 1835, the U.S. Congress approved plans to build the first branch of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte.
Philadelphia architect William A. Strickland, who designed the Philadelphia Mint, also designed the Charlotte branch. The neoclassical structure with two white columns and eight windows along its front was constructed on West Trade Street between Mint and Graham streets.
The U.S. Mint in Charlotte began coining on Dec. 4, 1837. The Mint produced coins worth $5, $2.50 and $1. Each coin minted in Charlotte has a “C” mark on it, and they are rare to find today. Coining continued until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. The total value of coins produced in Charlotte amounted to more than $10 million.
During the Civil War, the building served as a Confederate headquarters and hospital. After the war in 1867, the government reopened the building as a U.S. Assay Office, where gold was extracted from ore, analyzed and assigned a value. Once the area’s gold supply dwindled, the Assay office closed in 1913. The building was slated for demolition, but a group of citizens purchased it for $950 and moved it to its current location on Randolph Road. The building opened as The Mint Museum, the first art museum in North Carolina, on Oct. 22, 1936. In addition to its collections of African, American and European art; decorative arts; and fashion, the museum (now known as Mint Museum Randolph) houses the Heritage Gallery, which tells the story of the building. The gallery includes gold-rush artifacts, such as a miner’s pick, pan and strong box. It also has a collection of coins minted in Charlotte. Visitors can walk around the back of the museum to see the original facade with the gilded eagle, once called “the pet of the community” by assayer Stuart W. Cramer.
Taking it to the Bank
Today Charlotte’s history in gold mining and coining is reflected in its status as the second-largest financial city in the country.
Bank of America traces its Charlotte presence back to North Carolina National Bank. Charlotte resident Hugh McColl became CEO of NCNB in the early 1980s. He grew its reach throughout the Southeast, changed its name to NationsBank and merged it with BankAmerica Corporation to make it the first nationwide bank. Bank of America Corporate Center in Uptown is now Charlotte’s tallest building at 60 stories tall.
In 1939, Wachovia Bank and Trust Company of Winston-Salem merged with Charlotte National Bank. Wachovia became a banking fixture both locally and throughout the country. Then in 2008, West Coast based Wells Fargo & Company acquired Wachovia Corporation. The familiar stagecoach logo now shows up throughout the Queen City.
The Gold District
Community members are working to transform an industrial district between East Morehead Street and West Summit Avenue north of the Wilmore neighborhood and west of South End. The area was once home to prosperous gold mines. The effort began in late 2013 to brand the area and change zoning regulations. The proposed Gold District would encourage mixed-use development, such as residential, retail, restaurants, offices and a museum. Signs of progress include the recent openings of The Unknown Brewing Company and Craft Tasting Room and Growler Shop. To learn more about the district, visit facebook.com/TheGoldDistrict.
Explore Gold in Charlotte
Reed Gold Mine
Reed Gold Mine opened as an N.C. Historic Site in April 1977. Several of the tunnels have been restored for tours, and the visitors’ center contains exhibits and mining equipment. Visitors can pan for gold April 1 through Oct. 31, weather permitting. Admission to the site is free, and panning costs $3 per person. Hours are Tuesday- Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Mint Museum Randolph
Mint Museum Randolph is open Wednesday, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., with free admission from 5 p.m. - 9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults and $6 for children ages 5-17. Discounts are available for college students, senior citizens and tour groups.
Bank of America Heritage Center
Learn more about Charlotte’s banking industry at the Bank of America Heritage Center located in Founders Hall at the Bank of America Corporate Center. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. about.bankofamerica.com Wells Fargo History Museum Stop the Wells Fargo History Museum on Tryon Street. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free.
Wells Fargo History Museum
Stop the Wells Fargo History Museum on Tryon Street. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free.
This article ran in the March 2015 issue of Charlotte Happenings.