Bellville gold rush lots of flaky fun

The Buckeye Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America maintains the Swank gold claim on the Clear Fork between Bellville and Butler. / Todd Hill/News Journal


BELLVILLE — It’s been more than 160 years since the most exciting thing ever to happen in Bellville transpired.

The community that would eventually become Bellville can trace its origins to 1808, five years before the founding of Richland County, when James McCluer picked a path through the forests from Fredericktown to the Clear Fork.

In the autumn of that year James, of Pickaway County, was joined by Samuel and Thomas McCluer and Jonathan Oldfield, and a cabin was built at present-day Bellville. The following spring James returned south to retrieve his family and introduce them to their new home.

McCluerville, however, never came to pass. It wasn’t until Robert Bell arrived in the new settlement from New Jersey in 1815 that a town was officially formed. Bellville then grew quickly, ideally situated along the Clear Fork as the only road connecting Mount Vernon to Mansfield, now known as Ankneytown Road. Today it parallels Ohio 13 a few miles to the east.

Bellville’s greatest claim to fame during its nearly 200-year-history, however, didn’t come along until 1853.

It couldn’t begin to compare with the gold rush that transformed California’s Sierra Nevada during the same period, but after gold was discovered just north of the Clear Fork by Dr. James C. Lee, interest in Bellville’s mineral resources grew.

We’re talking about interest, not gold fever. And gold flakes, not nuggets, were all prospectors found. One panner was reported to have discovered 57 flakes of gold, but there were few other instances of such impressive finds, and even accounts of that one aren’t reliable.

However, when a second prospector, A.G. Thompson, came across gold later during the 1850s in the Clear Fork near Gatton Rocks, a mini-gold rush was on. Known as the Swank Claim, this area remains active to this day and has yielded at least one high-priced find, according to local legend.

Bellville’s first gold finds occurred along what is generally known as Deadman’s Run north of town; the watercourse has also been called Stelz’s Run and Gold Run over the years. Although difficult to locate today, the claim, which was active for several decades, was near the Dutchman’s Bridge and the Dew Drop Inn, established by Lucy McSherry in 1874.

Deadman’s Run got its name after a man attempted to cross Dutchman’s Bridge during a time of high water in 1840 and drowned. To this day, the spot is listed among supposedly haunted localities in Richland County because of an 1859 incident.

A man was walking through the area one night when he was spooked by someone wearing a sheet. Scared that it was the Dutchman’s Bridge ghost, the man ran home.

“Physical prostration and brain fever followed, and it was weeks before he was on the street again,” Richland County historian A.J. Baughman wrote in 1908.

What little gold that’s been found in Ohio rests in the two-thirds of the state that was glaciated during the Pleistocene epoch 11,700 to 2.5 million years ago, under either the Wisconsinan or Illinoian ice sheet.

The latter sheet is a thin strip between the Wisconsinan and the unglaciated portion of Ohio, extending from Cincinnati to Richland County. Today’s two most productive gold claims are in the Illinoian. One is in the Brushy Fork north of Owensville in Clermont County east of Cincinnati. The other is the Swank Claim near Gatton Rocks.

All of the gold found in Ohio to date has been of the placer type, flakes that break off from the main deposit. Gold veins and nuggets have never been found on the surface in the state, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Geologists have long surmised that primary deposits exist 3,000 to 12,000 feet underground in the Precambrian basement complex.

The Swank Claim in the Clear Fork is maintained as a private campground by the Buckeye Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America off Cutnaw Road, across from Wade and Gatton Nurseries.

According to the chapter, one quartz rock layered with gold found there was valued at $50,000. The claim is best known for burgundy-colored garnets and fine flour gold.

Panning there requires membership in the GPAA, although every year over Labor Day weekend the chapter opens the site to the public for its Gold Rush Days.

Bellville has no shortage of historical landmarks. Five of its structures are listed in the National Register of Historic Places — the village hall at Park Place and Church Street; the All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church next door; the chapel in the cemetery; the Gurney-Kochheiser House next to Stoodt’s Market, which was built in 1879; and of course the bandstand, which also dates from 1879.

But it’s been the prospect of striking it rich at Bellville, although virtually nobody has throughout its long history, that has made the picturesque village on the Clear Fork a destination for many.

The Buckeye Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America maintains the Swank gold claim on the Clear Fork between Bellville and Butler. / Todd Hill/News Journal
Twitter: @ToddHillMNJ

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