GATESVILLE, Ind. – Among the dirt, gravel and stones dredged from the bottom of Salt Creek, the sparkle was unmistakable.
A tiny flake of gold, no bigger than a speck, had risen to the top of the worthless rock.
Prospectors swirled the collection of stones and water in their pans, trying to get a better look. Most had been looking for gold for years and knew the telltale glitter and the way gold moved in the water. Without years of experience, you’d probably miss it.
“You never know what’s going to show up in the pan,” Ed Romine, a prospector out of Henryville, told the Daily Journal (http://bit.ly/17sbG0c ). “There’s thrill in the unknown.”
In the shallow streams and creek beds of Brown County, a new gold rush is going on. Outdoorsy types have taken to the water in search of flakes of natural gold left behind millions of years ago.
No one is hitting the mother lode or striking it rich. But for modern-day Indiana prospectors, panning for gold is a chance to be outside, gather with like-minded friends and experience the thrill of finding buried treasure.
“There’s nothing like seeing that glint of pure yellow in the bottom of your pan. There’s an allure that goes beyond economics. If you have gold fever, you know it,” said Nelson Shaffer, a gold specialist with the Indiana Geological Survey.
Dozens of members of the Gold Prospectors Association of America gathered in the bends of Salt Creek, hunched over the water. Some of them used hand-held pans to sift through the bed of the stream.
Others had gas-powered generators pumping water and gravel into sluice boxes. The boxes separated the material, allowing them to get a closer look at what had been picked up.
Occasionally, the work would be interrupted by shouts when someone found something. Though rare, the exclamations pop up every hour or so as new discoveries are made.
Salt Creek has become a hotbed for gold prospecting in Indiana. The creek comes together in Brown County, made up of tributaries flowing from Sweetwater Lake and northern Brown County.
Along the way, it cuts through glacial deposits left after the ice ages. When glaciers bulldozed through North America, the ice sheets picked up rocks and minerals along the way. As the ice melted, those minerals were left behind.
That is where Indiana’s gold comes from, Shaffer said.
The state’s geology doesn’t have the veins and lodes that define the American West, but people have been finding gold and even small diamonds in the streams of Brown and Morgan counties for more than 100 years.
“Gold is very heavy and very resistant to weathering and decay in the environment. Gold became weathered out of the rocks, and you had little bits of free gold,” Shaffer said. “When water moves the sediments, gold becomes collected in streams. Then humans come with gold pans and mechanical differences find it.”
Gold has been found in creeks throughout the state. Prospectors flock to 14 Mile Creek in Charleston State Park, Silver Creek in Clark County and the Wabash River near Logansport.
Many of the runs that flow through Morgan-Monroe State Forest have been successful for Romine.
“It’s got good gold in it – it’s chunky,” he said.
Romine’s history in prospecting goes back generations. His father, his grandfather and great-grandfather were all miners, focusing on hard-rock mining in Kentucky and Arizona.
When he was about 3, Romine’s dad took him out into the hills to prospect as soon as he was old enough to walk the steep terrain.
“It’s in my blood,” he said. “You’re not going to get rich off of it. You spend more money on gas and equipment than you get from what you find. There’s times when I go out and get skunked, and times I go out and get 2 or 3 grams. It depends on where you’re at that day.”
He is president of the state’s southern chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America. The state has two chapters, one in southern Indiana and one in central Indiana.
Each chapter has dozens of regular members, as well as people who take part in their monthly prospecting meetings. The draw is the relative prevalence of gold that the state has.
“There’s more gold in Indiana than people realize. I do this full time. The gold is a little chunkier and better in northern part of the state, but we have good, decent gold here in the middle,” said Jim McIntyre, president of the central chapter of the association. “It’s possible to come in and pull three or four grams.”
McIntyre is a professional prospector and outdoorsman, trapping fur and searching for gold throughout the state. The Greensburg resident first learned about panning while watching TV shows about it, and started out standing in area streams combing for flakes.
Since then, he’s started his own gold camp on property in Decatur County, led exhibitions all over the state and prospected throughout the U.S. Most recently, he was in Idaho to look for gold.
“That’s a whole new situation. We were lowering our equipment 2,000 feet down a cliff to get down to the river,” he said.
Part of the advantage of panning for gold locally is that, in its simplest forms, it takes almost no equipment to get started. While more experienced prospectors use fancy water pumps and sluice boxes, all that people really need is a pan, a shovel and a bucket.
But anyone considering starting the hobby should do research first, Romine said. Numerous Web sites and publications from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources are available online, as are potential locations.
And in all cases, people need to get permission to pan for gold, said Jon Eggen, manager of compliance and enforcement for the Department of Natural Resources.
Private property requires permission from the owners, a fact that many people don’t consider as they follow a creek or stream.
“A lot of people mistakenly think, once you get into a creek, they can do whatever they want. That’s not the case. People own that creek,” Eggen said.
For small creeks, streams or rivers, permission from the property owner is all prospectors need to get a general license to work a waterway with a pan, hydraulic dredge or other equipment.
Prospectors need a free permit from the Department of Natural Resources to work on state property, Eggen said.
Permit requests have been inching upward over the past decade, and the Department of Natural Resources is seeing more variety in the types of people applying, Eggen said.
“Huge popularity in the last 10 years for prospecting. It’s a lot like taking the family out fishing, they get to be outside, have some fun,” he said.
Romine has noticed the same thing at the club level. For a long time, the only Indiana prospectors were old-time miners and those who had been at it for years.
But an increasing amount of people have seen gold panning on reality shows on TV. Now, men, women and children can be found in the streams at chapter events, Romine said.
“We have to keep it alive and keep it going,” he said. “That’s why you get the kids involved with it.”
This is an AP Member Exchange story shared by the Daily Journal.