Hartwell Gold by Nicholas A. White
It began in the farmland of Oconee County, South Carolina, located west of Lake Hartwell, four years after I arrived from Florida. Milton Highwater assembled blockades of bulldozers, scrapers, haulers—equipment twice as large as a house. He shipped conveyer belts south from North Carolina. He buried miles of pipe beneath cow pastures. The foothills became the site of five future gold mines, the first pursuit of the century toward opening a new American mine instead of reviving the old.
Highwater came to Oconee County with confidence, claiming he’d resurrect the dominance of the Carolinas once more, after one hundred and fifty years, as the gold capital of the world. People liked that. On his first public address, he said one of the richest gold veins in all of North America lies under Oconee County, still ripe for the taking—one of the nation’s best-kept and most profitable secrets. People liked that too, even though the experts doubted its validity, especially one of my peers at the university, a geologist professor, who said in truth the gold vein was a complete wildcard and nobody knew what they’d find. But Milton Highwater had filmed a demonstration, where he tested several spots south of Seneca for gold, finding deposits in each test and pulling rich ore from places nobody expected, baffling prospectors across the country.
“Bring your families to the mines,” he said. “Bring everyone.”
It didn’t take long for Highwater to recruit his labor. The bowling alley closed. The Food Lion shrunk its hours of operation without enough workers to stay open full-time. A stillness enveloped the town, like a big breath that blew everything to the mines.
Four years earlier, I’d moved to South Carolina from Florida to take care of my nephew, Benjamin. Things were different then. The recession hadn’t started yet, not officially, and Benjamin was still in middle school, still climbing trees with his best friend, Clayton Wilson, to search for a glimpse of the university’s concrete football stadium. But one thing had remained the same: nobody took environmental engineering seriously.
I bought a house on Lake Hartwell, but nobody listened to me about the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) seeping into the lake via groundwater. And nobody listened to me now, years later, about the potential water pollution from nearby gold mining. I’m talking about more than just the dirty water we were already seeing, pre-excavation. Milton Highwater held land as close as two miles to the shoreline, and if he used cyanide there to refine the gold—common practice—and with the amount of disturbed dirt from his operation, runoff from heavy rains would flood the lake with catastrophic results to the ecosystem.
Clayton Wilson was the first from Benjamin’s high school to join the rush. Clayton’s dad owned the convenience store just up the street, a good man, though gullible. I’d known him ever since moving here. When I asked Ben what he thought about Clayton going to the mines, he shrugged, as usual, and said, “His family needs the money, sir,” and then loped away to his room. There’d been a gap between us ever since my brother died, and the way he looked at me was different than the way he looked at our neighbors. I’d moved from Florida. I was the outsider here, sometimes even in my own home.
Benjamin’s high school became a chicken coup, all of them waiting around, seeing who might leave next. But fighting the mines had become social stigma against local economic welfare. The past two years had been unprecedentedly difficult. Lake Keowee, north of Hartwell, would survive the mining, no doubt about that. The nuclear power plant made that land untouchable, even to Milton Highwater. But the shores of Lake Hartwell sat unguarded.
My king snake, Mac, rustled around in his pebbles, curling into the edge of the glass.
“You mind feeding him, Ben? Mice are in…well, you know where they are.”
Benjamin nodded at me, those dark eyes always troubled, like his dad’s.
“Sure. Yes sir.”
Even after four years I hadn’t acclimated to all of the sirs. I’m your guardian, I wanted to say, not your drill sergeant. Benjamin walked into the garage to retrieve a cardboard box in the fridge with individually wrapped mice, curled and gray and thawed from the freezer. Ben returned to the living room, slid open the lid of the tank, tore the slit along the bag and shook until the mouse slid onto the pebbles with a thud.
“You heard from Clayton recently?” I asked.
“His truck still running okay?”
Mac swallowed the mouse in one gulp, the lumpy mass protruding from his body. Benjamin snapped the lid shut. I stayed in my chair, legs crossed, trying to find a magic solution to block Highwater from the land around the lake. The recession had created a county full of people like Clayton and his dad, people who believed their hands were tied. And here I was with my government paycheck from the university, still doing fine, still feeding my pet snake his favorite individually wrapped mice.
Dr. Khan worked in the structural engineering department. She and I knew each other from an advisory board, and even she, despite listening to my concerns with the mining operation, defended its importance, from both an economic standpoint and sheer fascination. Occasionally she came over for dinner. This evening, Benjamin wanted to sift through the shoreline in our backyard, searching for some of Milton Highwater’s gold.
“It’s fascinating the way he’s building them,” Dr. Khan said, waving her napkin. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Using local labor for such a complex project? We haven’t seen something like that in half a century.”
“An economic stimulus, sure,” I said.
“Modern mines are fascinating, aren’t they? To think how far we’ve come, since, well…” She smiled, glancing out the window at Benjamin. “You know they dig more than three miles underground in some places in Nevada? Takes twenty tons of rock to produce a single ounce of refined metal. Can you believe that?”
I watched through the window. Benjamin squatted in the lake with his waders, sifting through a meshed screen of mud.
“There’s a gold belt in the middle of the state,” Dr. Khan said, “comes down from Charlotte and passes near Columbia through to Georgia. That’s where all the big mining was a century ago. No denying that. And sure, it’s possible for there to be a gold vein in Oconee County, but likely?” She sighed, relaxing into her chair. “I don’t know about that. Bogus or not, though, an awfully convincing recruitment ad, and some of the younger kids around here, you know, high school, younger—Ben’s age—with the way things are…I guess I can understand why some of them feel like it’s where they need to go.”
I wondered if Benjamin still considered himself one of those “kids” from around here. Most days he seemed resentful, especially regarding the car I’d bought him and the house where we lived. Some mornings I would wake up and feel the need to rationalize that wearing an eighty-dollar jacket to work didn’t mean I was some spoiled brat from Florida. I’d come from the same bloodline, the same two parents. I’d just chosen a different route with my life.
“But I’m just a structural engineer,” Dr. Khan said, smiling. “We build up, not down.” She wiped her mouth with a napkin. “You know the mines are opening officially tomorrow? Well, guess who’s got an extra ticket for the tour?”
I told her maybe, but first I needed to check my schedule.
By now I’d earned my reputation as the environmental opponent. The angry phone calls from county residents, economists, and even one state senator didn’t surprise me. What surprised me, though, was that Highwater himself would lead our tour.
After Dr. Khan left, Benjamin came inside, his teeth clenched, mouth tobacco-filled. Every time I saw one of his cans of tobacco or dip-spit bottles around the house, I wanted to toss them out and remind him that his dad had chosen me as his guardian, and he ought to respect my rules. But I never knew how much to push with him. I didn’t know how to raise someone else’s son. Apparently being an uncle didn’t carry any weight, just like being an environmental engineering professor didn’t mean anything to the county and state officials. I’d talked to them about rethinking their permits for the Highwater Mines, and they’d smiled politely and then closed the door and never called me again. “We’re in the middle of a recession,” I imagined them saying. “And this guy’s worried about lake pollution?”
“Find anything today?” I asked.
But of course Benjamin didn’t. He would never find anything in a manmade lake, dammed forty years ago. If he found a gold nugget in our backyard, I’d quit teaching and work for Highwater myself. I told him too bad, maybe next time, and then I complained about the amount of paperwork I had to finish before tomorrow.
Sir, sir, sir, I thought. Yes sir. No sir. I wish you weren’t from Florida, sir. I wish you were more like my dad, sir.
By now I’d earned my reputation as the environmental opponent. The angry phone calls from county residents, economists, and even one state senator didn’t surprise me. What surprised me, though, was that Highwater himself would lead our tour. I figured he’d lead tours only for legislators or county officials who needed to sign permits, not a couple of professors at the university. I canceled my classes for the day and drove west with Dr. Khan, along with a water-sampling vial hidden in my pocket.
Past Walhalla, the land shocked me: foothills and trees and then, when you least expected it, the mines, flattened and cleared. The largest mining operation ever on the east coast, they said. All constructed on hope. They weren’t just industrial plants with conveyer belts and wheels, but intricate, massive ecosystems of their own, with the magnitude of manufacturing facilities. Metal buildings populated the land, and paved roads connected them, with what seemed like miles of pipes, some buried, some above ground. Dr. Khan was right about the impressiveness of using local labor.
“Even more impressive than the time we toured the nuclear plant, huh?” she asked.
What stood in the dirt was a marvel, and for a moment I felt proud of my connection to the community for what they’d accomplished. These were modern Egyptian pyramids dropped into farmland; Rome’s coliseum altered and duplicated right here in Oconee County. But then I remembered the lake only a few miles away, and what might happen months later with a surge of rainfall rushing down from the mountains.
While waiting for Milton Highwater, Dr. Khan admired the steel buildings, pipe racks, conveyer belts—the type of stuff she’d once designed in her previous career. Everything about Milton Highwater resembled the tycoons of previous eras. He wore a white cowboy hat, white jacket, and a bright blue shirt. The mines were clean, just like him—no rust, fresh paint on the steel, layers of gravel administered as landscaping. This wasn’t the type of man I had expected the people of Oconee County to follow, but after he greeted us, I understood.
“And you’re the ten o’clock tour,” he said.
It was his speech—loud, pompous, and certain—that made people succumb. Highwater was a backslapper, the type of person who talked louder, made eye contact, shook hands harder, and argued quicker. The type of person I despised for too often rising to the top through no accomplishments of their own, relying on their stature and command to instill blind faith. I was small in his presence, insignificant, as we all were.
Dr. Khan fought for closest spot beside Highwater throughout the tour. There were others with us, over a dozen, men in suits, women in heels, none of whom I recognized. I lingered near the end of the pack, fingering the glass vial in my pocket, wondering how to sneak away to the lowest contour of the site for a water sample. I hadn’t told Dr. Khan about this, either.
A dump truck passed nearby carrying a load of raw rock.
“We’ll get an ounce from that, if we’re lucky,” Highwater said. “But we’re often lucky.”
He ushered us forward to the edge of a massive pit, already dug ten feet below the surface—an ocean of exposed rock and dirt. Dr. Khan scanned the site, hands shielding her eyes from the sun. I imagined Benjamin down there for weeks, sifting through muddy dirt after a heavy rain with his little mesh sifter and a bucket.
Dr. Khan pointed to one of the refinery buildings in the distance, where sodium cyanide purified specimens into ninety-percent gold. “I’m assuming those are designed with, what, factors of safety of three, three and a half?” she asked.
Highwater laughed. “Engineers,” he said. “It won’t fall down, I promise you that.”
At the base of the site was a silt fence, the type used for managing runoff at residential commercial sites, comically inadequate for a construction site with hazardous chemicals.
“Down there,” I said, pointing. “That’s the end of the property?”
“That’s the end of the zoning permit,” Highwater said.
“Can you see the lake from there?”
“Not unless you climb—”
A rumble shook the site. Smoke rose in pillars. Milton Highwater flashed with rage, his face turning red, teeth clenched. He spit tobacco into the wind, but it dribbled from his chin, staining his white jacket.
“Our drilling crew forgot we had guests today, apparently,” he said. “Wait here. Sorry.”
He headed toward one of the metal buildings. Those of us on the tour shrugged at each other, unsure what to do.
“Guess they’re not supposed to blast today,” someone said.
Dr. Khan walked a few more steps toward the open pit. Someone took out her camera and snapped pictures of the refinery buildings, along with one of the stormwater ponds behind us. One of the mine employees, wearing a construction safety vest, eyed our group, probably wondering why a dozen civilians were standing like lost sheep on his property. Dr. Khan migrated over to the employee, followed by the person with the camera, then the rest, and I found myself standing alone.
I descended toward the silt fence, expecting someone to call after me. But to my surprise I made it all the way there unnoticed. I stumbled over the fence, almost ripping my pants. There was a trickle of water twenty yards away, a natural stream. I squatted beside the water and turned over one of the smooth rocks, a childhood habit from searching for salamanders. Then I filled the glass vial.
But what I saw an arm’s length away stopped me. The rock was the size of a silver dollar, maybe bigger, its color fake in appearance, almost as if sprayed with yellow paint. I reached for it, held it in my palm for a moment, testing out the weight. Of course it wasn’t a gold nugget. The biggest gold nugget ever found, the one that’d started the gold rush in America, was seventeen pounds, the size of a small flat iron, pulled from Reed Gold Mine north of Charlotte. Since then all the nuggets had been plucked from North America, which was why modern miners had to blast twenty tons of rock to recover a single ounce.
And then I remembered the demonstrations on TV, the ones where Milton Highwater baffled everyone by finding gold-rich ore where nobody expected. No way, I thought, stuffing the rock into my pocket. My heart was pounding, and I walked back to the tour, trying to calm down, feeling the rock bumping against my leg and hoping nobody would notice my return. But Milton Highwater was already back, and he stared at me while I climbed the hill toward him. It wasn’t until I reached the top that I realized I’d forgotten to hide the vial of water.
“Just taking a look, huh?” he asked.
I stared at the vial in my hand. Milton Highwater snapped his fingers, and the vested employee took it from me. Nobody else spoke.
“Well, then,” Highwater said. “Shall we continue?”
My brother died while gigging frogs. Nobody knew exactly what happened—no eyewitnesses—but they found his body the next morning in the lake, along with his abandoned boat, his skull sliced up and a bucket of frogs still on board. The sheriff concluded reeds had snagged the propeller and dragged my brother underwater as he tried to fix it. He either died of head trauma or drowned. Four years later, Benjamin panned religiously for gold in ankle-deep water almost every evening, making me wonder if that was his connection to his dad—the lake, the water, the gentle waves.
I didn’t tell Dr. Khan or anyone else about the yellow rock. First I wanted to take it to a specialist in Greenville and have them confirm my suspicion: Milton Highwater had painted rocks to pass for fake gold during his demonstrations and then tried to hide the evidence. He’d wanted cheap, local labor to build his mines, and he knew the easiest way to recruit was to trick people into thinking those mines were unrealistically loaded.
Turned out I was right.
It snowed on the fifth anniversary of my brother’s death. Our breaths reminded me of the condensation from the nuclear plant, further north. The snow started light at first, then heavy as a downpour of rain. I’d never seen so much of it before. It stuck to the sidewalks and soon to the road, too.
“My dad hated the snow,” Benjamin said. “Hated the way it felt on his skin.”
It was the first time I’d heard him talk about his dad in the past tense. Ben wasn’t wearing a hat or anything, and the snowflakes gathered on his hair, our hands stuffed into our pockets as we stared down at the tombstone.
“Imagine having him as an older brother,” I said. “Growing up with him, trying to have a snowball fight. Imagine how that went.”
During the drive home, we saw people dancing and spinning in circles and laughing with each other. A woman walked the sidewalk, her face turned upward to catch the flakes. The owners of a restaurant came outside with their child, no more than three years old. She giggled at the sight of the flakes and dragged a scarf through the snow as if it were a snake that followed her. I thought about my pet snake curled against his glass aquarium, as comfortable as ever, oblivious to the storm.
It didn’t take long for the runoff to meander. Cyanide, PCBs, everything I’d feared. Oconee County changed forever, and not just for me, but for everyone. Newspapers circulated the contamination as if it’d been impossible to predict, armed with my suspicion regarding Milton Highwater tricking everyone. People didn’t like that. The Oconee mines did find some gold, but less than other operations in the country, averaging only one ounce per forty tons of rock. I suspected public opinion about the environment would’ve been different if they’d found more.
In November, with the government elections, new officials and a new president decided the recession shouldn’t trump environmental and public safety. News of the contamination spread to neighboring states. Media from Greenville, Charlotte, and Atlanta arrived on the shores of Lake Hartwell seemingly overnight, along with their corresponding lobbying groups. The government outlawed digging within a fifteen-mile border of the river, effectively shutting down Milton Highwater’s entire operation. Of course Milton fired back with even more media attention than those who’d spurred the lake cleanup, but even his lawyers lost, and before long, the mining operation was suspended, pending a government-issued cleanup of the lake.
Dump trucks hauled dirt away from contaminated sites to some storage facility near Columbia. An army of men in yellow suits and masks invaded the shores to establish runoff barriers. Benjamin stopped panning for gold in our backyard, choosing instead to sit on the dock and watch as the lake he’d been raised around, his connection to his dad, was altered forever.
“Look at that, the water’s still getting dirtier,” I said, sitting beside him one evening. My loafers dangled near the surface.
“It’s my fault,” Ben said.
“The lake? That’s Highwater’s fault.”
“The day he died. Dad asked me to go with him, gigging frogs. I told him no.”
I didn’t know what to say. “That was five years ago, Ben.”
“It’s not your fault, not in a million years. Your dad was stubborn as hell.”
After Ben shrugged, the way he shrugged, I knew there was no changing his mind. He’d already accepted the guilt, found peace with it, and arguing with him would’ve only widened the rift between us.
“You’re a good kid,” I said. “There’s no use in questioning that.”
A man named Jack Janson from Washington, D.C. led the effort to clean up the lake. Occasionally he spoke during open forums, and one afternoon I asked him about their timeline for the cleanup. He tapped a bundle of papers against his leg as if this question disturbed him, then sighed and as quickly as he could, repeated everything he’d already said. The chemicals were polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs. Some cyanide. I rolled my eyes, already knowing this. “What about the children?” someone asked. “What about the university’s rowing team?” Jack Janson repeated what he always said, that nobody was going to drop dead from touching the water, that only long term conditions posed a threat, and that the only real immediate danger came from eating the fish.
“Runoff barriers, soil removal, contamination control,” he said, answering someone else’s question, failing to mention, as usual, what exactly they planned to do to remove the chemicals already in the water, which was what I’d feared all along. This wasn’t the same as cleaning a public swimming pool. It wasn’t like anybody could drain the lake, remove the contamination, and then start all over. Nature had to clean up after us now, with slow processes that might return the ecological balance. All we could do was wait.
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