Mountain Jim Gwyn and the lost silver mine

By: Azalea R. Bolton - Storyteller

My great-grandfather was known as Mountain Jim Gwyn. He was born in 1838, and grew up and lived his life in Elk Park, which is in Avery County. He was well known for his tales of mountain lore and stories about a lost silver mine. Mountain Jim owned 104 acres where his home was located, and at one time had owned 600 acres around Elk Park and Newland. The house where he lived was only about a quarter-mile from where he grew up. There were no other families around when he was a boy and he was raised in a rough shack that had been built by his mother and father.

According to Mountain Jim, one of the first families that came into that particular area of the Appalachian Mountains was the Mund family, who were prospecting for gold, along with a Mr. Swift. They never did discover gold — but instead found a silver mine, which they worked for a while. That silver mine was located on a creek which emptied into the Elk River on the edge of Mountain Jim’s property. The Munds never built a house, but camped out in the woods instead. When the weather got rough, the Munds and Mr. Swift carried their silver bars into a cave, which was located high up on a cliff. Then they rolled a large rock into the opening of the cave.

Mountain Jim was given a description of the cave by his father (also named Jim Gwyn) and searched for it for most of his life. When he reached the ripe old age of 98, he finally located it. He pried off several large rocks below the opening of the cave, but could not scale the steep cliff to try and pry away the large barrel-shaped rock which was wedged in the mouth of the cave.

Mountain Jim (according to what I’ve been told) lived to be 103 years old. The story was told that he walked the 3.5 miles to Elk Park and then died later on that same day after he returned home. I know he lived to be at least 100 years old, because a reporter from The Asheville Citizen-Times interviewed him on Dec. 4, 1938 about the lost silver mine. During that interview, Mountain Jim was busy pulling nails out of a 78 year-old barn. He must have still been a strong man, because while they were talking, he moved a bridge footing — which was 18 feet long and 10 inches in diameter. It seems the recent rains had washed the footing onto the bank and Mountain Jim planned to reuse it across the river.

There was also a summer camp site for the Indians located on Mountain Jim’s property. He said the last three Indians were chased from Cove Creek to the Elk River by a Mr. Boone and his men from Boone, where two of them were captured and the third was killed in a fight. The Indian was buried there on the banks of the river by a rock. Mountain Jim had a collection of arrowheads. He said he had talked to the local Indians about some that were different than the others. The Indians told him those arrow heads did not belong to their tribe but belonged to another tribe which came over here from an island.

The Indians reportedly came by regularly on their way from Virginia, Johnson City, and Boone’s Creek and crossed the Elk River and then went on to Cove Creek. Mountain Jim had lots of Indian relics and said he had given many more of them away.

When Mountain Jim was young, wild game was plentiful. There were coons, rabbits, squirrels, bears, partridge, pheasants and deer. One time when Mountain Jim went hunting, he was carrying an old army musket and he came up on seven deer. He said he shot and killed a large buck — the hide of which weighted 12.5 pounds. Now that was a real wall-hanger!

After Mountain Jim married, he worked in the glass mines at Bakersville. The winters back in those days were really cold. Mountain Jim said one night in March he came home from Bakersville and the snow was especially deep. He found the house locked up because his wife was away. He broke out a window with his foot and crawled into the room. He was too cold to even build a fire, so he got under the feather bed and that kept him from freezing to death.

Mountain Jim Gwyn married twice and had 10 children by his first wife. One of those 10 children was my grandfather, Harrison “Pap” Gwyn. Another one of his sons, Charlie Gwyn, fought in the Spanish-American War.

In regards to mining in Western North Carolina, there was a Sink Hole Mine seven miles southwest of Bakersville, which is in Mitchell County. Historians believe this mine goes back many centuries. Trees they found down in the mine in the 1800s were said to be 300 years old. This means excavation would have started about the time that Spanish explorers came through the mountains searching for gold and silver. Found down in the rock of the mine were old stone-digging tools that historians believe were used by Indian miners. Metal tools were also found, and some speculate Spanish soldiers may have searched the Sink Hole Mine trying to find silver.

In 1867, Thomas Clingman, who was a former U.S. senator, reopened the sink hole mine because of stories he had heard from the Indians about white men on mules coming from the South long years before who dug at the mine and then carried away a “white metal.” Clingman dug a shaft and two tunnels at the mine, but only came away with about $3 worth of silver, so he closed down his excavations.

What Clingman didn’t realize was that there were riches down in that mine in the form of mica. Mica, which was used in stoves and lamps, was bringing $8 to $11 per pound at that time. A horse driver saw some of the mica that Clingman discarded and took a block to Knoxville. Some of the men recognized this as mica, then moved into Mitchell County and mined for it there. The Sink Hole Mine closed in the 1960s, but the remains of the mine are still located there on Mine Creek Road.

I suppose one thing we can all learn from this story about Mountain Jim is: never give up. Keep on trying to reach your goals in life, no matter what your age. If my great-grandfather could finally locate a lost silver mine at age 98, then it’s never too late for any of us.

Azalea R. Bolton is a resident of Richmond County, member of the Story Spinners of Laurinburg, and member of the Richmond and Anson County Historical Societies.

Azalea R. Bolton