Early in 1979 I had been transferred by Newmont Mining from Western Australia where I had been working as the exploration manager, to take up a newly created role as exploration manager for the eastern United States.
That this position was a new one was a little surprising, as Newmont was founded in New York in 1917 with its first mines in Montana — the very name being a fusion of “New” and “Mont.” In all that time they hadn’t bothered to explore in the eastern U.S., that is east of longitude 100 degrees.
My claim to fame was that I had staked the mineral leases over a gold prospect in Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. The mine, named Telfer, had been launched early in 1977 as the largest gold mine in the country. Within a decade this mine established Newmont as a resource float and one of the top 50 companies in Australia.
This not only justified Newmont relocating me, but also my family. My wife was happily working as a primary school teacher in Perth and was reluctant to move. Our three kids, age 9 through 15, were happy in their present situation but admittedly found the prospect of an intercontinental move more exciting than did their mother.
For most of that first year in the new role I travelled extensively in Maine and New Hampshire in the northeast, where huge private lands were available. The land was owned by the paper companies but seemed on the whole poorly mineralized.
The lead-zinc mines of the Mississippi valley were most impressive, but all the prospective ground was held by established mining groups. Most of the land in the eastern U.S. is so called “fee land” where the mineral rights are held by the landowner.
On the other side of the country my colleagues were busy expanding Newmont’s already extensive gold mines at Carlin, making the company the second largest gold miner after Homestake Mining. They also had huge copper mines like Superior/Magma.
So I was feeling frustrated that we seemed to be in an area that only had coal mines — apart from a freak high grade zinc operation in New Jersey.
At a Newmont Exploration board meeting just before Christmas, the vice-president of mining had brought to my attention a gold prospect in South Carolina, owned by a friend of his named Bill Mechlinberg, a former engineer he had worked with.
By way of further inducement, Bill had loaned us gold nuggets from the mine and some of them were quite large.
This was enough bait to get me excited and by early 1980, with my deputy Dr. Jack Parry, I was on my way south to check out this gold mine. It had already been in production for several decades before closing in the early 1940s.
Jack and I were soon flying south from Newark airport to Columbia, South Carolina, where we would hire a car and head off northwest about sixty miles to the Mechlinberg property near the border with North Carolina.
Soon after 11 a.m. we were driving along narrow winding country roads, passing the occasional small town and scattered farm buildings, but mostly amongst fields of cotton and tobacco.
We were running late to meet Bill so I sped up. Jack, always helpful, pointed out a road sign warning a maximum 40 mph, but I ignored it. Rounding the next corner we all but collected a police car heading south, and as we passed he flicked on a flashing light, executed a tire-squealing U-turn and parked directly behind us after we pulled over.
“This,” said Jack ominously, “will be expensive.”
I got out of the car and walked back to the state trooper in his car. He was obviously on the radio checking our registration, so I opened his passenger door and climbed in. In the process I banged my knee into his automatic rifle, clamped in a rack.
He was annoyed at my clumsiness and swung a radar gun towards me, with an accusing finger pointed to our recorded speed of 55 mph — obviously 15 over the limit.
I responded that we were on a quiet country road with a few farms and no traffic, so I couldn’t see the problem.
He looked at me with a grin and said, “Y’all English?”
To which I replied, “Yes.” I thought better of admitting to being Australian.
But he then asked for my driver’s licence, which was of course Australian. This puzzled him, so I explained I was working for Newmont based out of New York. The year might have been 1980, but the Yankees were not the flavour of the month in South Carolina, so in hindsight this was probably not what he wanted to hear.
So out came his notebook and the questions started. Name and address were easy, but when I replied “geologist” to the question of profession, he looked a little stumped.
He had clearly never run into one before and asked what I did. I explained we studied rocks and minerals, and I noted he wrote down “professional.”
So encouraged, I added I was a doctor of geology, a rock doctor in fact, clearly the first he had ever come across.
“Weel naaaw, what the hell are you-all doin’ in Union County?” he asked.
I explained we had an appointment to meet with Bill Mechlinberg at his gold deposit and unfortunately we were now running late.
The trooper grinned and said we’d need a police escort to get to Bill’s place in decent time. He folded his note pad and requested I get back in my car, explaining he would pull in front of me and then, “you-all just hit the gaas.”
Getting back in my car, Jack asked what had taken so long and bet “it cost heaps.”
“No,” I said. “Just belt up — we have a police escort to Bill’s!”
Over the next few months we conducted first-stage exploration over the Mechlinberg project, including geological mapping, soil sampling and some geophysics to develop drill targets.
By mid-year we reached the stage of confidence that told us we had enough new ore in sight to start a drilling program. However, this wasn’t like Australia on private land; you needed the agreement of all landowners here.
Bill had another eleven people who had retired on this 12-acre property and built their homes, some very modest but a few grand southern mansions. They fronted on a trout lake, the old tailings dam.
Most of the landowners were happy to go along with Bill on the exploration program, receiving option fees, but one old guy, an Evangelical minister, had to consult with the Lord before he would sign.
Just as we were about to let a drilling contract, an objection was made by Jerry Eubanks, a musician friend of Bill’s from Knoxville, Tennessee. Mr. Eubanks had built a huge ranch-like spread and his horses grazed on his parkland adjoining the dam.
In July we held a meeting at the local town hall where Jack and I explained to the residents with colour slides the mining projects Newmont had developed in Australia (Telfer), in Canada (Lynn Lake) and the U.S. (Carlin).
At the end of this Jerry had come up to me and said that I should advise Mr. Malozemoff, Newmont’s chairman, that Jerry Eubanks had more money than him and would never allow the company to disturb the tranquility of his ranch. Since this was two acres right in the middle of the property, it killed the project.
On my return to Connecticut and talking this over with the family, Hamish my eldest asked the name of the musician in South Carolina; I replied Jerry Eubanks.
Hamish said: “I don’t believe it, Dad. He is the head of the Marshall Tucker Band and they are huge. Maybe not the Beatles, but Dad, seriously!”
First, I had flown from Perth with the Jackson Five in 1975, and did not know who Michael Jackson was, and now this. He gave up!
— David Tyrwhitt is a consulting geologist based in Australia with extensive experience in China. He has written several insightful pieces on mining and geol
ogy in China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.