There was little for Private John Cleary or John Clear or John Carey or Alexander McCleary, or whatever his name was, to do while stationed in lower Montgomery County late in 1861. His unit – quite possibly, but not assuredly – the 71st Pennsylvania was charged with making sure no Confederate units advanced across the Potomac River that winter.
So he spent a lot of time wandering, looking at his feet and watching his step on the uncertain terrain around Great Falls. And apparently this Union soldier who history failed to identify properly somehow kicked over or stirred up or saw a glint in a rock and upon further examination realized it was gold.
So Cleary (or Clear or Carey or McCleary) marked the spot and returned after the war, hoping to strike his fortune. It is apparent he never did become a wealthy man, at least not by mining gold in Montgomery County, nor did anyone else who thought the gold in them-thar hills near the Potomac River was the ticket to Easy Street. It turns out Montgomery County was no California or Colorado or Alaska, but it was also not bereft of gold and probably still isn’t.
In fact, your house may be literally sitting on a gold mine. But your problem is the same problem the miners 150 years ago had. There’s just not enough there to make mining it economically viable.
An 1889 article in The Washington Post said, “A great many people are flocking to the fields thinking they can take up claims just as they do out West.” The Maryland Journal reported in May 1901, “Many persons will be surprised to know that within easy walking distance of the National Capital there are no less than half-dozen gold mines in actual operation. Prospecting is now a rather extensive industry along the banks of the Potomac, from a point near Georgetown up the river, past Great Falls, a distance of perhaps ten miles.”
While none of these mines was ever profitable, it wasn’t for lack of trying between the late 1860s and early 1920s. When the price of gold hit $35 an ounce in 1935, interest in mining gold in the county renewed, but again there was little success.
Now that gold is at $1,150 an ounce, is there reason to try again?
“There surely is still gold in the quartz veins of Montgomery County,” says Tim Rose, analytical laboratories manager of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian Institution and a Gaithersburg native, but he adds that it is “of doubtful economic viability.”
A Department of the Interior Geological Survey Bulletin published in 1969 concluded that about 5,000 ounces of gold was mined in Maryland, most of it from Montgomery County. The report said it was worth about $150,000. More than half of that came after the renewed effort of 1935.
“I don’t think anyone made money from the mining, but I bet there were some investors that lost a bunch,” says Rose.
So now gold mining is just part of Montgomery County’s history, and it is rightfully preserved by the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Since even long-time county residents rarely stray from the C&O Canal, the Gold Mine Loop is a great walk in the woods, largely free of encounters with others plotting the same course. The Gold Mine Loop is a three-mile trail starting at the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center. It’s a great hike any time of the year, with the thick canopy of trees blocking the summer sun, but the foliage-free winter offering the best views.
“It’s a beautiful area and there is signage at the Maryland Mine,” says Rose. “The trenches that crisscross the area are amazing.”
The most fascinating part of the hike is viewing the tumbledown ruins of the Maryland Mine. Mining took place here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then again in the 1930s. The remains of a water tower, a blacksmith shop and retaining walls struggle to survive against time and the elements as does a more recent descriptive sign.
On the northern end of the trail, the Ford Mine still shows the scars the mining made on the land. This part of the trail is an exercise in reading the landscape as there aren’t any signs to interpret the remains. Look carefully and you’ll be able to decipher the manmade cuts, trenches and channels from the natural landscape.
The loop includes a trail on the old trolley line that used to transport Washington residents to Great Falls. The tracks have long since been removed, but the raised earth where they once were is easily identifiable as a former railroad bed.
The trail is a great half-day hike in sturdy boots. The terrain is sometimes steep and often rocky – although the rocks are never gold.