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Reading, Pennsylvania

April, 1854


    Not all events which later prove to have historical importance result accidentally; that would be overstating the case. But enough do, and so occasions arrive when reasonable people can give pause to wonder and speculate whether these occurrences happen, not  haphazardly as they might at first appear, but according to design, a suggestion, evidently, that they result more from purpose than accident. Of course such a suggestion probably carries speculation too far beyond serious, even rational, consideration. Nevertheless, like a persistent itch which cannot be relieved by scratching since its origin on the body cannot be determined, these questions do arise and are not so easily dismissed as the skeptic would prefer.

   The case presently at hand concerns one Frank Montague, a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, who left home at the age of twenty-three to find his fortune in the world. Well, that description would be more exaggeration than not; the area in which he searched was smaller. More specifically, he heard about gold discoveries in northern Virginia and thought that he might try his hand at prospecting in the Potomac Valley.

    Now, gold was discovered in Virginia at the beginning of the nineteenth century; in fact, one early report is dated 1806. Consequently, when Frank set out on his own journey of exploration in the year 1854, gold mining had already been developed into a major industry. In all probability, then, Frank was starting a little late to find one of the major deposits, and if he had proceeded directly from his home in Reading to the Virginia gold fields as he originally planned, his efforts might have ended only in disappointment. And that is precisely where accident, or if you will, design intervened.

    As far back as Frank could remember, in his earliest childhood memories, his father had owned a grocery store in Reading, a family business to which everyone was expected to contribute. And once Frank entered his adolescent years, he was obliged, without further deliberation, to join his father at work, learning the business and preparing, or so his parents  hoped, for a future as a shopkeeper. it was even suggested, although implicitly, that one day his labors might be rewarded by receiving an interest in his family's store.

    But Frank had other, grander ambitions, which belittled the modest education he had received, leaving school as many boys did after the eighth grade. Instead of continuing his studies or pursuing a trade, alternative paths that his father might have chosen for him, Frank spent his idle hours dreaming of the faraway adventures he hoped to experience and the riches he hoped to acquire. And this much, at least, can be said for Frank: not only could he immerse himself in splendid dreams, he also had the courage to follow them. Consequently, on one spring day in early April, he bid his loving family farewell and stepped out to conquer the unknown with little more than a lumpy, sparsely filled rucksack on his back and a few coppers jingling in his pockets.

    It should be said that Frank had few resources, but he was a very resourceful fellow. And there was something else. Frank was in love. He had met an amber-haired, grey-eyed beauty named Rebecca Lambert at a church social, and Rebecca had stolen his heart. Then, much to his sorrow, she abruptly left Reading. Actually, it was less an abandonment than that terse description might imply; it was perfectly reasonable and expected that she should leave. After all, she did live in Pittsburgh where her father owned a lumber business, and the occasion of her stay in Reading was only to visit relatives. So all things in their natural order, Frank decided, and before he would venture south to find gold in Virginia, he would travel a circuitous route in accordance  with his priorities: first to stop in Pittsburgh and propose marriage, then to find his fortune in Virginia.

    But when Frank arrived in Pittsburgh, his meager supplies and money depleted, Rebecca's father Nathaniel Lambert was less than pleased at the appearance of a penniless traveler with few if any prospects for bettering his situation. Frank, however, saw his future intended father-in-law's reluctance to receive him into the family as only a temporary obstacle that he would soon overcome. At least, he observed, Rebecca shared his affections and was gleaming with happiness that he had followed her. Promising to return soon with his future and fortune secured, Frank made his farewell to the love of his life, an act that may have saddened Rebecca, but surely pleased her father; he was convinced that the young never-do-well was leaving Pittsburgh, almost certainly never to return.

    Now, the suspense could be prolonged: Did Frank ever return as prosperous as he planned, and did Rebecca, and especially her father, the grumpy Nathaniel Lambert, consent to their marriage? Well, yes, all of that eventually occurred; Frank became a wealthy man, married Rebecca, although perhaps not in that order, and together they raised a fine family, begetting prodigiously a succession of beautiful children. A long and happy life was the real treasure that Frank had gained. But to reveal these facts is not to spoil the story, not at all, for this is not, in truth, a love story about Frank and his Becky, although it might be considered a love story, under certain circumstances, about other people who were not necessarily more deserving but perhaps led more interesting lives. For the purposes of this narrative, Frank makes an appearance not for the contentment he achieved but for the discoveries he made and the events he set in motion.


    From Pittsburgh, Frank took passage on a steamboat down the Monongahela River as it meandered through Pennsylvania and south into northwestern Virginia. He had boarded as a steward, claiming extensive previous experience on the Hudson River in New York, a brave if not quite candid assertion; he had never been outside of Reading until his present trip. His boldness lasted until Morgantown when he was summarily ordered off the boat for insubordination.

    Without funds to purchase train or steamboat tickets, Frank stayed in Morgantown for a time, finding enough temporary work, an array of odd jobs, to pay for shelter and food. After a while, he began wandering around Monongalia county and its neighboring communities; he bought a horse and buggy and rode south to Fairmont, then northeast to Fairview, and finally returned to the banks of the Monongahela near Osage, all the while reviewing his options: how best to resume his journey east to the Potomac.

    One day he was riding along the river embankment just north of Morgantown when he noticed a group of prospectors panning on a tributary of the Monongahela. He stopped and questioned them about their success, but they answered his questions evasively, obviously trying to discourage him from joining them. So far, nothing had been found, they claimed, and they might have been truthful, Frank decided, but it was equally probable that they were deliberately trying to mislead him, to conceal any luck they might have enjoyed. After all, Frank reasoned, he would have hidden any information himself from strangers if he had been successful. Why share a discovery with others who had contributed nothing and offered nothing in return.

    So he decided to follow their example and try a little local prospecting; the potential rewards were well worth the effort. The only thing at risk was the expenditure of a few more days, a longer stay in the area than he had originally planned. And if he were successful, he was much closer to Pittsburgh than he would be in the eastern part of Virginia.

    After several weeks of strenuous work had passed without any success, Frank was on the verge of giving up. Then late one afternoon, while he was exploring the western bank of the river several miles north of Morgantown, Frank happened upon a small stream flowing downhill into the Monongahela. Now, if truth be told, there was nothing exceptional about this location; the stream resembled dozens of others that he had passed along either bank, but for some inscrutable reason he decided to follow the moving water upstream and explore the surrounding woods.

    Frank had ridden along its pebbly banks for about a mile in a westerly direction when the stream entered a narrow, wooded valley, perhaps another three miles in length. He continued riding through the deep hollow until he arrived at its western end, the base of an imposing, steep mountain that dominated the horizon. Frank tried to estimate the valley's dimensions. It could not have exceeded a half mile at its widest point, and it was even narrower along much of its length. Its northern and southern boundaries consisted of steep, forested slopes that climbed several hundred feet toward a smoothly defined ridge line. The valley floor itself, deeply rutted and littered with rocks, was unsuitable for camping, but along the southern escarpment, about a mile from its western end, a level, grassy plateau rose about twenty or thirty feet above the floor and extended nearly a quarter of a mile into its interior. With gradual slopes on its edges, it was easily accessible either mounted or on foot; and the soft ground would be relatively comfortable for sleeping, It was, all told, an attractive area on which to establish a campsite. Frank spent that first night camping on the plateau. In the morning, he surveyed the area more carefully. The plateau extended nearly a mile along the southern slopes; it would make an ideal site for a settlement, he decided, perhaps anticipating unconsciously that he may have arrived at journey's end, at least for a time.

    Except for excursions into Morgantown for supplies, Frank remained in the valley for the next several weeks, panning the stream for gold, or even diamonds, for he had heard rumors that precious gemstones of various kinds had been found in the vicinity. Then one morning on a day that started as inconspicuously as the days that preceded it, Frank discovered something that changed the course of his life.   

    He had been panning for three or four hours and was thinking about quitting for the day; the work was tedious and exhausting. But he was often in the habit of setting  small goals for himself and decided that stopping abruptly would bring bad luck. He would pan another five times before returning to camp. On his second attempt, he swirled and tilted the pan, and as the cloudy water ran off, he gazed unexpectedly on an array of tiny glittering stones embedded in the sand. Gold! He had discovered gold in western Virginia!   

    Once he managed to contain his initial excitement, Frank decided to determine the extent of the deposit, whether he had stumbled upon a rich vein or a few random nuggets. More glittering stones appeared in the next few panfuls, but after that he found nothing further. Then it occurred to him that the streambed was not the source of the stones; they must have fallen or been washed down here from somewhere else. He followed the stream to the mountain headwall and gazed upwards at the waterfall which gushed and tumbled steeply from the summit. Up there, he decided, on the summit; that's where the stones had fallen from. They must have been dislodged from the peak. But now, long shadows had engulfed the valley; it was too late to attempt a climb. That would have to wait until morning, so he reluctantly returned to camp.

    Early the next day, Frank slung a coil of strong rope over his shoulder and hoisted a day pack containing a few necessary provisions: a pan, lunch, water, and a first aid kit. Then he began his climb up the mountain headwall, following the waterfall as closely as possible. He estimated that the peak rose about eight hundred feet above the valley floor, not a very high altitude, but the slope was steep and rocky. He almost fell several times on the damp, moss covered rocks and frequently lost his footing on the loose crumpling stones. He took him over two hours to reach the summit, the climb much more difficult than he had anticipated.

    The summit was wide and level with truly magnificent views. Frank could see clearly all the surrounding landmarks. To the east, beyond the mouth of the valley, the Monongahela River wound pass the Morgantown docks. He thought he could recognize a few buildings on the busiest streets. Turning away from the sheer headwall, Frank crossed the summit and walked over to the opposite edge, facing the west.  Surprisingly, given the steepness of the ascent on the headwall, the far western face lacked a similarly dramatic profile. Below the edge, a cliff fell steeply perhaps a hundred feet, then sloped gently down through the woods toward the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks as they curved sharply toward the river and Morgantown.

    He also discovered the source of the stream. A shallow pond, apparently fed by an underground spring, crowned the mountain summit, its outlet flowing to the headwall and tumbling to the valley below.

    Frank panned on the summit for another hour and found more glittering stones, but he was becoming skeptical that they were really gold; they were too uniform in size. Then he found something else, something completely unfamiliar, embedded along side the stream just before it cascaded down the mountainside. It was a small rock, a mottled grey and black in color, that grumbled to the touch, even when handled carefully. He pried it free and added the rock to his stone collection.

    After lunch and a brief nap, Frank decided not to attempt a headwall descent this late in the day. It was much too steep, and light was fading. Going down the opposite face, toward the railroad, looked easier. He ascended the gentle western slope and circled back toward the valley entrance. It was an easier route, but it was much longer, at least another twenty miles. Frank did not stumble back into camp, his blistered and bleeding feet agonizing centers of pain,, until after midnight.







January 2012

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