WAMPUM, Pennsylvania — Keith Roupp has a story to tell, the kind that beckons you to pull up a chair and set a spell while he tells it.
It all begins with a crystal-clear stream not far from his home in Lawrence County, a 14,000-year-old glacier that no one’s really thought about for 14,000 years, and a young man with an old soul connecting with the land around him.
“Like many young people from around here, I’ve always been an outdoors person, love everything about it. And like many young people, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of finding a treasure, in particular, gold,” Roupp said. “You see, with gold, you really have to work hard to earn it.”
That’s right. His newfound hobby is prospecting. Through it, Roupp has found not just gold but also an appreciation for how communities and common purpose forge new friends and experiences.
Over 170 years ago, James W. Marshall found flecks of gold during an inspection of a tailrace waterway of a primitive sawmill. He proclaimed, “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine!” Since then, the adventures and riches of finding that precious metal have beckoned men and women from across all socioeconomic backgrounds.
That Jan. 24, 1848, moment spread as rapidly as possible for the time by telegraph, overland stagecoach, pony express, and emigrant trains. It drew thousands of people, some adventurous, many desperate, to visit a vast, mysterious land recently ceded to the United States by Mexico.
It was not the first gold rush in the country, though. That distinction lies due south of here in North Carolina and dates back to 1799 when a 12-year-old boy found a large gold nugget along a creek that ran through the family farm. The family used it as a doorstop for years, not understanding its value.
The discovery eventually led to the Carolina gold rush and a 28-pound nugget found in the same creek.
Roupp found himself intrigued with the idea of prospecting when his buddy showed him a little vial with about half a gram of gold in it.
“He told me he had found it along on Neshannock Creek, and so I decided to do a little bit of surveying and look around for things myself,” he said. “The Neshannock is not my favorite spot even though I can see it from my home.” It’s a sparkling tributary that runs from Mercer County and empties into the Shenango River in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
“I thought I’d try to take my adventure a little bit off the grid, so we came here to the property my uncle owns to check out the creek that runs through it,” he explained.
For Roupp, the adventure is not limited to finding gold. It has also been the wealth of information and education he has accumulated in researching minerals, land, and geology, not to mention the bonds of community he has formed over what he calls a hobby.
It is a Thursday morning in October. The air is brisk, with faint traces of a summer still evident in the air. The leaves have begun to turn, and Roupp is leading a group of prospectors, most of them newbies, on an adventure of a lifetime. “The first time I actually found it on my own, I was actually surprised,” he said. “I wasn’t really expecting to find it, and then, I started finding little pieces, like little grains of flour, and literally, that’s how small it can get.”
He explained his eureka moment: “You can see it from the other minerals in the pan compared to the actual gold. The gold sticks out like a sore thumb. And just seeing that, I was just like, ‘Holy shit! There’s actually gold here.’ And it’s just been on ever since.”
Pennsylvania has long been known for its rich natural resources, including iron, coal, oil, and shale — resources that have fueled and built this country for centuries. To a lesser extent, the state is also the home of rare gems and minerals, such as pyrite, quartz, and garnet — and gold.
“We can thank the ice age glaciers that brought gold and platinum here from what is now modern-day Canada,” Roupp explained.
The outing this Thursday has over a half a dozen people looking for the unmistakable flecks of yellow. They are all there for the fellowship, the adventure, and the gold, but also for the cowboy coffee and the food.
It is Judd Stauber’s first time prospecting. The suburban Pittsburgher found a video Roupp posted on YouTube awhile back on mining in western Pennsylvania and decided why not?
“I got in touch with these guys, and I never would have thought you could just sit down at a stream and pan for gold and get gold. It’s just crazy. I mean, I’ve been at these streams since I was a kid. And I never, ever thought there would be gold that you could actually get,” the 47-year-old Allison Park native said.
You see, Stauber’s first bucket in the stream netted him gold, and he is pretty elated. “Yeah, the first bucket. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. He still hasn’t shaken what he later describes as gold fever, although all the people admit their prospecting has no similarity to gold rushes of the past.
As of this week’s market, gold has an astounding value of about $1,900 per ounce, about $400 higher than what the average price hovered at before the pandemic. To date, Roupp has not cashed in on any of the gold he has found.
Roupp is a throwback to a different era, when honing a multitude of talents made you invaluable to a multitude of trades. He sees his jack-of-all-trades approach to providing for himself and his family as an asset, not something holding him back.
“My day job, I’m a telecommunicator. I work on the phone selling products, answering calls to help people when they call in to buy products, things of that nature, telecommunications. But I’ve had multiple careers. I do a little bit of everything. The way I see it, the more you know, the more valuable you are. It’s pretty cool,” he said.
He is also a throwback to our love of forming associations. He started the Western Pennsylvania Gold Prospecting Facebook group to test the waters to see if people were interested in the hobby. The private group started with just him. Then along came John Smith, and the two became fast friends.
“It’s now grown to over 200 members who drive as far as three hours to come and hang out with us and pan and find gold,” Roupp said.
Thanks in large part to technology, cultural shifts, and the social isolation that technology can create, people for the past generation have lost that internal lust we once universally shared to form associations within our communities. We used to like each other’s company — a lot. Especially over shared values or a common purpose, it made us better people, better neighbors, better parents, and better sons and daughters.
What they are doing here recreates that sense of community these young people still yearn for.
“We all hang out. We have fun. Some parents have their kids come along,” Roupp said. “I tell everybody to bring basic prospecting equipment as well as enough food and drink for themselves and be prepared to have a story to tell their kids and grandkids years from now unlike the ones most of your friends will share with theirs.”