The new Portis Gold Mining Company, incorporated in 1866, began on a solid footing and attracted considerable attention. Investors quickly purchased all of the stock issued by the firm, which was valued at $500,000. Thomas K. Thomas became president of the company and Stephen G. Sturges of Newark, New Jersey, assumed the role of treasurer. James Henry Platt, Jr. of Petersburg, Virginia, an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, served as the company's general agent and superintendent.
The 1860 census listed Thomas K. Thomas as a gold miner with real and personal estate valued at more than $75,000.
An account of the mine's activities, first written for the New York Herald, appeared in the October 24, 1866, issue of Raleigh's Weekly North-Carolina Standard. According to the correspondent, operations began on August 1. A steam-powered saw mill ordered from New York cut the lumber needed to build the company's headquarters, a two-story building measuring seventy by thirty feet.
The company faced the challenge of removing small flakes of gold from the red clay of northeastern Franklin County. To accomplish this, the officers purchased a machine recently patented by a company in Newark, New Jersey. According to the newspaper article, the equipment would "work an entire revolution in the process of surface gold mining."
The device included a barrel made of boiler iron, the interior of which measured approximately sixty by forty inches. Workers placed soil and rock into the barrel through two small, square openings, filling half of it. Water was added until the contents were the consistency of "mush." The side of the barrel included a pocket filled with seventy pounds of quicksilver (mercury). This was fitted with a faucet that enabled workers to draw off the mercury. After the barrel was closed, it was revolved at the rate of twenty-five revolutions per minute for thirty minutes, at which time the mercury was added. During the process of running the machine for another thirty minutes, the small particles of gold adhered to the mercury. Stopping the barrel with the pocket beneath it and the square openings at the side, workers then washed the interior of the barrel with a hose connected to a reservoir of water. This removed the tailings and left the gold-laden mercury in the pocket, ready to be removed and separated.
The correspondent made interesting observations about James H. Platt, who moved to Petersburg after the Civil War and became active in the Republican Party. Platt claimed to have been well received in the South because he expressed his political views in an honest and "temperate" fashion, unlike some northerners whose "sycophantic adhesion or pretended conversion to extreme Southern views" created distrust. Virginians later elected Platt to several terms in the United States House of Representatives.
Thomas K. Thomas, like the author of the newspaper article, undoubtedly had high hopes for the Portis mine, but the returns he envisioned failed to materialize. In September 1868, the Portis Gold Mining Company mortgaged its property to Stephen G. and William E. Sturges for a period of two years. By this time, Thomas K. Thomas was no longer listed as an officer. The company appears to have defaulted on its debt. As a result of a suit brought against the company by the Sturgeses, Sheriff E. A. Gupton auctioned the property on November 7, 1870, and the plaintiffs bought the 933 acres and mine buildings for $11,000-a steep discount on the $60,000 Thomas had been paid for his land just four years earlier.
Published in The Franklin Times on February 12, 2015.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.