The Bellville Gold Rush

In 1849, when word was confirmed that gold was available for free in the hills of California, there were countless men all over the US who suddenly dropped what they were doing and headed for the other side of the North American continent.

Quite a few of those men were from Richland County.

As soon as the weather broke in 1850, they all left home with glowing hopes. The remaining years of the decade saw a long sequence of men straggling back home, subdued, weary and broke.

These defeated men all learned a lot from their folly.  One of the things they learned was the art of panning streams, shoveling hillsides, and sifting gravel and, ironically, the one thing that stood out to Dr. Lee when he got back to Bellville, was that it had a lot of streams, plenty of hillsides and an abundance of gravel.

So he panned, and shoveled, and sifted; and against all odds, he uncovered the treasure in Bellville that had eluded him in California.

That’s what started the Bellville Gold Rush in 1852.

This postcard from 1911 shows the Clear Fork River as it passes the mouth of the valley where gold was discovered.  Today this scene is where Bellville North Road meets State Route 13.

The Treasure Map

Dr. Lee found his nuggets in the valley just north of Bellville where the road to Mansfield dodged between the hills along a stream called Dead Man’s Run.

It didn’t take long for that valley to fill up with prospectors; but once word was out, there were folks chewing up every stream in Jefferson Township.  Reports came echoing into town out of the surrounding hills: gold south of town, gold west of town; gold in Wildcat Hollow; gold in Castor’s Hole and Longstreth’s bottom.

All those prospectors who the California hills had made fools of—disappointed and restless—were suddenly and unexpectedly granted a second chance.  Soon there were mine shafts and water sluices all up and down the Clear Fork Valley; and in the contagious enthusiasm of gold fever you can bet that Aunt Harriet was eyeballing the furrows of her turnip bed a little more closely that summer.

Clipped from the Richland Shield & Banner July 12, 1854.  

From History of Richland County by A.J. Baughman, 1908.

This 1912 photo captures the place where Dead Man’s Run empties into the Clear Fork River, underneath what was called Dutchman’s Bridge.  At that time, the main road to Mansfield was Bellville North Road and this whole area was more like a park, where people went to picnic.  What we know today as State Route 13 was constructed in the late 1950s, completely revising all the contours of this landscape.

Driving in the hills around Bellville it is not difficult to imagine why prospectors returning from California might have thought the Clear Fork area was potential gold country.  Though it is not the Sierras, the scenic landscape is certainly reminiscent of the Gold Rush region; especially here on Rule Road, only a mile northeast of Dead Man’s Run.

The original gold fields north of town were owned by Miller Moody, but newspapers spreading the rumors were sly enough to ‘erroneously’ publish the location as ‘the Miller property.’  It was a calculated ruse so that no matter what the gold panning strangers said about who gave them permission to search, the locals knew the prospectors were claim jumpers if they claimed to have spoken to “Mr. Miller.”

The Mansfield paper purposefully misled poachers by publishing the name of Dr. Lee in reverse as “Dr. Eells.” They were obliged to print the news, but they didn’t want every crazy fortune-hunter in the state showing up in Bellville.

As it was, plenty of scoundrels showed up.  Most notable were a couple of well-dressed men who stepped off the train from Pittsburgh, who eyeballed the grounds, surveyed the property documents, assayed the prospects; and then mysteriously disappeared.  Several months later reports coming from Pennsylvania told of high dollar stock investments being sought for the Bellville Gold Mining Company.

So there definitely were people making fortunes on Bellville gold… they just weren’t in Bellville, or finding gold.

How It Pans Out

There was, apparently, just not much gold to be found.  Or, if there was, the diggers were good at keeping the news very quiet.

Any failure of fortune was certainly not for lack of trying.  In Long’s ravine, a miner dug a shaft 47-feet deep into the hillside.  Not surprisingly, he struck the mother lode of well water.

Like many virulent fevers, the gold sickness waned for a while, and then made sudden desperate returns.  There was another Bellville gold rush in 1858; then in 1870, 1890, and 1905.  In the 20th century there were two vertical shafts sunk on the east side of Dead Man’s Run to a depth of 30 feet.  This enthusiastic company of new-fangled miners set up a sluice fed by a digging, sifting steam-engine apparatus.

This photo, taken around 1905, shows the steam-engine-powered gold sluice set up in Bellville’s gold region along Bellville North Road.  The little stream that runs through the valley has been known through the decades variously as Dead Man’s Run, Gold Run, or Steltz’s Run.

Even if the gold was in short supply, the rumors of riches never seemed to wane. It was reported that the Steltz Farm produced rubies in the gold vein. From the very beginning authorities asserted that the Bellville horde was “almost pure, being 27 carat gold,” and during the Klondike era, it was determined that Bellville gold “was 4 carats purer than Alaskan gold.” It was found “in black sand, laced with small garnets and quartz.” Prospectors announced they had come up with copper as well, and native silver.

Mr. Steltz said he had refused $50,000 to lease the land to speculators. That would be about a million and a half in today’s dollars.

Everyone had an opinion—backed by certified expert geologists—of exactly where in the hillsides the gold originated: up in the “Waverly Drift” layer of dirt; or more specifically at four feet below the surface; or just above the bedrock.

Gold is heavy, so it eventually finds its way into the streams where it can be sorted out from the gravelly creek bed and washed by runoff. Apparently, water can carry it just about anywhere.

The Bellville gold territory is generally upstream of Palm Park on Bellville North Road, where the treasure-laden stream feeds two small ponds and passes under this park bridge.

The Gold Deposit

In 1913 my great grandmother moved into a house on the hillside above Dead Man’s Run.  In the 1970s I asked her if she was aware that her homestead had been a gold mining camp once, and she said there were holes in the ground, holes in the hill, and dams in the creek that told the story quite clearly.

And I asked her if she ever made the effort to look for gold.  She laughed and told me this story.

Her husband was as interested in free gold as anyone, but he was a practical man and he had no faith in rumor. He had watched dozens of stray prospectors wander through his yard, but had never yet seen a single pebble of gold in the pans they sifted.  He wasn’t given to wasting time sorting through rocks on the extreme off-chance he might stumble across a random nugget.

But all that changed as casually as you might change a diaper.

The house had its own running water, but sometimes it was quicker to just step out the back door and dip a bucket out of the creek—especially for something like soaking the baby’s diapers.

One day those diapers were in a pile outside, ready to be hung on the line, when Frank walked past and something caught his eye.

Somehow in that shady glen the sun shone down a ray that landed on the diapers, and it sparked a shiny glint that snagged his attention.  He looked, then he peered closer, and there on the top of the cloth, caught in a small fold of diaper, was a tiny flake of gold.

If you’ve ever seen one you’ll know; it may not be bigger than a cracker crumb, but if it catches the light just right, its gleam is unmistakably luminous.  That’s why people love it.  The tiniest glimpse of it and something way deep inside you leaps like a happy dog.

Great Grandma told me Frank caught the gold bug from little Irene’s diapers.  He kept asking her, “Are you SURE that’s where it came from?!?”  And she replied, “It came from the water, and the water came from the creek, unless your daughter pooped it out!”

“I meant it as a joke,” she told me, “but he stared at Irene for a long time, like he might be considering the possibility.”

Frank took a pie pan out to the creek after that, and he invested many hours of fruitless toil in the sand and gravel before he gave it up.

That wasn’t really the end of the story though, because little Irene was the youngest, possibly the cutest of Frank’s daughters; and no matter how fairly he treated all his children, it was clear to them all that she was his favorite.

Her brother was fond of saying, “Irene can do no wrong.  Heck, she poops gold!”

Today the search for gold continues in the Bellville area, a few miles downstream where the Clear Fork River passes the intersection of Gatton Rocks and Cutnaw Roads, at the Swank Claim.  Affiliated with the Gold Prospector’s Association of America, the camping area gives access to the river where nuggets still hide in the gravel.

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