It’s not exactly the gold rush days that brought settlers to California and Alaska, but the hope of finding those hidden shiny nuggets is bringing average people to the creek beds of eastern Iowa and western Illinois.
We’re told there is gold in all 50 states. And although most of us imagine striking it rich with the mother lode of gold nuggets, the prospectors who invited us for the hunt know better.
On a sunny Saturday morning at the dead end of a sandy Knox County road, we joined three groups of amateur prospectors panning for little specks of gold.
Among the groups in the creek is the Illinois Gold Seekers, more than a dozen people from the Quad Cities who find standing in a meandering river about the most relaxing and rewarding way to spend a couple hours of free time on a weekend.
The day we tagged along, they were sifting the waters on private property, on land hidden from the public. The owner of the land allowed them the chance to enjoy their hobby, looking for treasure and finding it, in the tranquility of a beautifully wooded plot of land that adjoins fields of golden Illinois corn.
“I’ve been prospecting for 12, 13 years,” said Ben Nicholson, the founding member and leader of the Rock Island-based Illinois Gold Seekers.
He’s an experienced prospector who knows he won’t strike it rich, unless you measure your treasures in lasting friendships and calming hours spent outdoors.
“I’ve met so many cool people since I started this,” says Bonnie Laws, one of the many women sifting for those gold sparkles in the group.
These are miners for a new millennium, but they’re using some old technology. Another member of the group, Julie, uses a set of copper divining rods to search out the gold.
“You know, you saw this on television,” Julie said, “People were divining for oil, they were divining for water. I’m going for gold.”
Each amateur prospector has their own way of searching. Some use simple dishes that slowly drain away the water and sediment as you splash it from side to side.
Others use metal contraptions that channel the water over ridges, leaving just the smallest pieces of stone and metal in the end.
But all of them use their own patience. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme.
In fact, getting rich doesn’t even seem to be the point.
“For us, it’s just a hobby to get out and have fun, enjoy the sunshine and the people,” says Ben.
Bonnie fully agrees, saying, “It’s a hobby. It’s fun. I enjoy being outside. I love being outside.”
There has been a bit of a gold rush across the country since television brought prospecting to cable television. But the groups we met shake their heads when we mention those programs.
These are people happy to find the smallest speck of gold, who also find joy in all the discoveries a clear, slow-moving creek provides.
Their treasures are “flour gold,” agates, clam shells and all the other minerals and special finds that are in a waterway. You just have to look close enough, and “treasure” is all in the eye of the beholder.
“Interesting rocks, fossils, semi-precious stones; I have found a few small garnets in here,” said Ben.
They sometimes revisit sites they’ve already seen because no location stays the same forever. And, to tell the truth, it doesn’t really matter.
What matters most to them is the chance to enjoy pristine nature with people who share your same interest, who will help you out in your hunt and who find the same excitement in your discoveries as you.
For our prospectors, that’s a golden rule that brings them back out time and again.
Where is the gold?
Sizable quantities of gold have not been found in Iowa or Illinois, but “placer gold” has been discovered in some locations as a result of glacial movement. Neither state has appealed much to commercial gold mining operators.
A small gold mine operated for a short time around 1900 along the Big Sioux River in Lyon County, Iowa.
“These deposits are generally scattered throughout large areas, and do not accumulate in quantities that are economically feasible for mining, but do provide recreational prospecting opportunities for gold seekers,” according to GoldRushNuggets.com.
More than 22% of respondents to a poll on IllinoisGold.org said they have found gold in Illinois.
The GoldRushNuggets website reports the Sangamon River and its tributaries have some gold in Macon County, and there is fine gold in the Illinois and Spoon rivers in Fulton County. The Vermillion River in Ford County has produced small amounts of gold in the past, as has the Embarrass River in Jasper County and the Wabash River and its tributaries in Wabash County.
Another blog about gold reports gold has been found in a small tributary and in the Mississippi River Valley in Henderson County and in an outwash plain in McHenry County.
The first gold found in Iowa was reportedly along the Iowa River northwest of Marshalltown. Gold has also been reportedly found on Otter Creek in Fayetteville County, on the Volga River and its tributaries, on the South Skunk River in Jasper County and in the Turkey River in several counties in northeastern Iowa.
IowaGold.com reports fine gold and some flake gold has been reported along the Des Moines River just north of Harvey. Flour gold has also been reportedly found in the Iowa River about 2.5 miles northwest of LeGrand at the Three Bridges County Recreation Area in Marshall County.
The site says much of the gold found in Iowa is flour gold, which is very fine and sometimes powdery in texture. The site says it can be difficult to detect flour gold on sight, and that some gold can get covered in mold and other material.