Graeme Wood

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South Carolina Town Sitting on Gold Mine

Originally published in The Daily:

KERSHAW, S.C. — Let the gold rush begin at what will soon be the only active gold mine east of the Mississippi River.

A Canadian company has just announced plans to reopen a historic mine in this small Southern town with a depressed economy and double-digit inflation. It believes there may be billions of dollars of gold still left at the site.

“We want to take this opportunity,” Kershaw resident Sonya Poole said, “and grab it.”

And if the Canadians find that the gold veins lead under the nearby state prison, she said, “I’ll help them tunnel right underneath it.”
Poole is the founder of the town’s historical society, so she’s well aware of the story of the Haile Gold Mine. It first opened in the 1820s and was still producing some gold until the 1990s. Now the Canadian company Romarco Minerals Inc., which acquired the property in 2007, is working through environmental concerns with the goal of striking the mother lode again within three years.

Conservative estimates say Romarco could mine 150,000 ounces — about $250 million — every year.

That would bring some luster back to Kershaw’s economy. “It could be 300 or 500 jobs,” said Tony Starnes, the manager of the town, whose population totals about 1,800. “But just 50 would be good for us, because we haven’t had much of anything going on here.”

Mayor Wayne Rhodes, 60, has lived in Kershaw for 34 years. He has watched the town’s jobs vanish and its shops get shuttered. “In this town right now, you can’t even buy a pair of shoes,”  he said.

The biggest employers are the soybean processing plant, which Rhodes manages, and the prison. The main street has abandoned storefronts like the H & T Pharmacy, whose soda fountains are in dusty disrepair.

But gold, which is selling at $1,700 per ounce now, could change all that.

“Everybody around here has got ancestors who worked at the gold mine,” Rhodes says. “And now a lot of them will get to be gold miners, too.”

Kershaw wasn’t always so poor.

Poole used to swim in the mine’s Bottomless Pit back in the 1960s, a time when Haile was virtually shut down. But the town’s shops were so busy then that you’d have to drive around the block looking for parking.

“We were wealthy,” Poole said, drawing out the word into three syllables for emphasis: “Wea-eal-thy.” But when Springs Industries, the chief local employer, started moving jobs overseas in the 1970s, the town went bust and never really recovered.

Poole said Kershaw’s citizens are vigorously in favor of starting to “pour the gold bars” right now.

Not everyone is on board. Some worry about potential damage to the environment, particularly from using cyanide to extract the flecks of gold from crushed rock. Apparently not many are concerned about it, though.

“Cyanide in small amounts is OK, you know,” Rhodes said. “In this town, there’s just a very small minority who are not for the mine.”

Betty Lou Blackwell, an elegant Kershaw woman who lives in a mansion dating from the town’s heyday, said the townspeople absorbed the chemical tailings of previous mining eras just fine. “In the old days, it went into the water, and the fish ate the minnows, and we ate the fish,” she said. “And we all lived to be old.”

Romarco has won this sort of allegiance not only through promises of jobs and revitalization, but through a vigorous campaign of sweet-talking, public relations and openly buying the loyalty of the residents.

The company bought 180 pieces of property near the 4,200-acre mine at above-market rates, said Tammy Reynolds, a Kershaw realtor. “I’m probably one of the luckiest real estate agents in the world,” she said.

The company sponsors a Christmas parade as well as October’s “Hog Jam” and September’s “Gold Rush Days” (featuring an Elvis impersonator in a stretch limo). It also paid $50,000 for a children’s park. Romarco vice president David Thomas was voted “Citizen of the Year.”

“They’ve inspired us to see something better for our town, and for our future,” said Sheila Hinson, who heads the Kershaw Chamber of Commerce. “It hasn’t just been about money. It’s been about love and compassion.”

The mining operation is just in the exploratory stages now. A peek through the mine’s fences reveals a rolling landscape surrounded by poplars, oaks and sweetgum trees.

Romarco officials wouldn’t comment at length, but they told The Daily that they foresee pouring their first gold bars in 2014, if the environmental permits come through. Two months ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delayed permission, saying more study of the impact on the wetlands was necessary.

But the mine already has generated work for some citizens, including Gwen LaGrande, whose small sewing factory, just a few doors from the abandoned pharmacy, does about a quarter of its business for Romarco, producing pillowcase-sized polypropylene bags to hold samples from the mine. Down the street, the local fuel supply sells thousands of gallons of diesel to Romarco.

“This will be a model,” Rhodes said, noting that other mining towns might spring up, now that gold prices are so high that extraction is feasible again. “They’ll be looking at how we done it, and how well we done it.”

The mayor is trying to keep things in perspective.

“Sixty percent of this town is seniors,” Rhodes said. “They’re the World War II generation and Depression generation, and they tell me that we have to get ready for times to be harder.”

But not everyone is so patient. The mayor said that Gus, a Greek immigrant who owns the local pizzeria, warned him, “You do not get this gold mine, I will kill you.”

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