Rock Engine House has interesting past.
By Mary Browning

One of Jamestown’s Halloween entertainment sites this year is Castle McCulloch on Kivett Drive, where the Greensboro Community Theater will lead visitors down “The Yellow Brick Road.”

It might be interesting to remember, then, that the impressive 1832 building there was in ruins until 1985 when present owner Richard Harris began its restoration. Even as a relic of its former self, it was still arresting to glimpse it through the trees and undergrowth that had overtaken it.

The massive walls of cut stone blocks, the towering square chimney and, most of all, that 20-foot Gothic arch at the south end of the building would simply stop you in your tracks on your first encounter and even on your second or third.

The site had passed from private ownership to Preservation North Carolina, which made it available for purchase and preservation, and then to Harris. Its historical credentials are as impressive as the building. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Historic American Engineering Record, listed on both, officially, as “The McCulloch Gold Mill.”

Still known locally as the Rock Engine House, it stands at the center of what was once a busy and well-known mining district. There were a lot of mines in this neighborhood during the years between about 1820 and the 1860s, and some of them changed ownership and names often. However, from the engineering record citation, it is known that during its operating lifetime this mill processed ore from the Lindsay Mine, Deep River Mine, Gardner Hill Mine and possibly the McCulloch Mine. In addition, the study says, the mill probably crushed the ore of individual prospectors and miners. 

It was built in 1832 by entrepreneur Charles McCulloch on property on Copper Creek purchased from Robert Hodson. It is the only existing pre-Civil War engine house built solely as a gold mill in North Carolina. For architecture, McCulloch relied on a tried and true style seen in engine houses in Cornwall. For equipment, though, he turned to the latest technology. There was a new power source—the steam engine—and a new milling technique. McCulloch hoped that this would successfully solve the problem of how to extract gold from the hard quartz that came from 50 or more feet underground, because by the 1830s, the easily accessible gold had already been mined.

He installed a steam engine, probably of the walking beam type, and a Chilean mill, perhaps two, of 14-feet diameter, twice the normal size. There was also a retort to recover the mercury or quicksilver used in separating the gold from the rock.

The massive building wasn’t all of the operation, of course. When the studies of the site were made by various teams, they were hampered by trees that had been planted in the 1940s for harvest, but they did find that there had been a rubble-masonry dam about 260 feet upstream from the building, flanked by earthen dikes 210 feet long, and a 16-inch sluice gate that let water flow into the head race. Also, there were traces of the mill race, a lower rubble dam, ore dumps and roads. The race diverted the stream and also directed water from the dam behind the mill building and into a tail race, which was probably also a settling pond. The race provided water for the boilers, and also, by way of sluices to the Chilean mills for the crushing work. This water then flowed back into the original stream-bed.

Those who wrote the citation for the Historic American Engineering Record, surely the best able to understand the workings of the Rock Engine House, found many things about the site and the building “bewildering,” probably in that important elements were missing or were unusual. The report concentrates on the technical aspects of the whole site.

It is a full and interesting record of what was seen at the time, which was probably about 1980.

The national register citation provides more detail on the architecture. Copes of both citations can be found in the vertical files of the High Point Public Library’s North Carolina collection.

News & Record, Sunday, October 30, 2005

Reprinted with permission of the News & Record  and of the author