- In 1873, a gold rush started in Washington with the discovery of gold in Swauk Creek. And it was discovered soon after in the nearby Williams Creek. Prospectors staked claims to lucrative placer gold and lode gold deposits. The town of Liberty grew to provide for their needs.
- In the 1880s, some lucky prospector found the largest gold nugget ever in Washington state. It weighed over 22 ounces!
- Liberty is now a ghost town, but you can still look for gold there. In 2013, a prospector with a metal detector uncovered a 16.25-ounce nugget and a 13-ounce nugget worth $55,000.
The desire for gold was a powerful motivator for much of the early exploration and settlement of the American West. Major 19th-century gold rushes to California and Alaska are legendary in United States history. Today, Nevada mines 80% of all the gold produced in the United States. But Alaska, Colorado, California, and Arizona are also large gold producers. The state of Washington is a lesser-known source of gold that continues to attract recreational prospectors. And it occasionally produces sizeable nuggets. Read on to discover the largest gold nugget ever found in Washington State!
Where is Gold Usually Found?
Discoveries of large chunks of gold occasionally make the news. However, most gold occurs mixed with other minerals. Experts have to break it up to get to the good stuff. Igneous rock formations of quartz or intrusive magma that has pushed into softer rock formations are often the geologic features with the highest percentage of gold. Gold within veins of these original rocks is “lode” gold. When the rocks erode, small grains and flecks wash down the mountains in streams and rivers. Because it is heavier than water, the gold settles in crevasses and the bottom of slower-moving parts of the river. Here, prospectors can pan it. This type of gold is called “placer” gold.
The Washington Gold Rush
In 1873, a gold rush started in central Washington with the discovery of gold in Swauk Creek. Soon after, it was found in the nearby Williams Creek. Prospectors staked claims to lucrative placer gold, as well as lode gold deposits.
The area produced some unique specimens of crystalline and wire gold. Interestingly, wire gold looks like bundles of delicate threads. Collectors highly value these rough-textured nuggets. Unfortunately, most were melted down for coin production. By the 1880s, most of the claims had been played out, but not before producing some large nuggets. Records of most of these have been lost to history. However, the largest gold nugget ever in Washington weighed over 22 ounces! At today’s price of about $1,880 an ounce, such a nugget would be worth over $41,000!
Today, Liberty is a ghost town, but prospectors continue to comb the area hoping to find some overlooked gold. In 2013, a prospector with a metal detector uncovered a 16.25-ounce nugget shaped like a smooth potato. Just a few feet away, he found another chuck, weighing 13 ounces! Though neither individually beat the record set back in the 19th century, the finders discovered an estimated $55,000 windfall!
How You Can Pan for Gold in Washington
Believe it or not, you can still pan for gold in Washington yourself. Federal lands under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are available for panning and prospecting unless specifically forbidden for environmental or other reasons. These agencies will provide maps showing which areas are open for gold hunters. State-owned lands are not open for panning without a contract from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Panning and prospecting on private land are possible only with the owner’s permission. Check out the free guide to Recreational Gold Panning available from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What was the largest gold nugget ever found in Washington state?
The largest gold nugget ever found in Washington state was discovered in the central part of the state near the town of Liberty (today a ghost town). It reportedly weighed over 22 ounces.
Is gold still being discovered in Washington state?
Yes. A prospector found two nuggets weighing 16.25 and 13 ounces in 2013 near the ghost town of Liberty in central Washington.
What are wire gold and crystalline gold?
These are two rare types of naturally-occurring gold with a rough texture, looking like bundles of threads or chunks of crystal. The value of these specimens often exceeds their weight in gold as artistic pieces because of their remarkable appearance.
Is panning for gold allowed in Washington State?
It depends on where you are panning. It is allowed on designated areas of federal lands, is not allowed on state lands, and is allowed on private land only with the permission of the owner.
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