Hornet’s Balls and Gold Mining

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As much as I love exploring search engines and how they tick, sometimes it’s good to get away from behind the monitor and go exploring outdoors.

I’ve been writing recently about how search engines might mine data found on the Web and in their log files to learn more about the intent behind searcher’s queries. Still, I learned a little about a different kind of mining this past weekend with a local Gold Mining Camp Museum trip.

A scene from inside the Monroe Park Gold Mine Museum

The earliest history of gold mining in Virginia dates back to 1804, and miners dug ore out of Virginia’s mines until World War II, though many speculators moved out West during the California Gold Rush. In the early 1800s, Virginia and surrounding southern states were the major gold-producing region in the United States.

A fascinating sight at the Museum was a couple of devices known locally as “Hornet’s Balls.”

A pair of hornet's balls, used in the gold extraction process

These hornet’s balls were found at an old mine located about a mile away from the museum, and for some reason, they captured my attention. About 7 feet tall and 20 feet around, they would be filled with ore and rolled to help the ore break up so that gold could be more easily extracted from the rock.

These devices’ names came from the sound that they make when they are rolled around – like the noise made by hornets. I tried to find out more about the name but didn’t find much – the term itself appears to be a local one.

A hornet I ran across this morning while stopping to snap some photos.

The first printed reference to gold in Virginia was a 1782 discovery of a 4-pound gold-bearing rock by Thomas Jefferson along the Rappahannock River. The gold mining industry in Virginia was most active just before the California gold rush.

Toward the end of the Civil War, Union troops destroyed many gold mines to damage the South’s economy. During World War II, many mines were shut down so that labor could be focused upon the war effort.

There’s probably a lesson to be learned about how an industry can be tugged at by outside forces. According to a document (pdf) from the Virginia Division of Mineral Resources, gold production in the US has been increasing since the 70s and 80s after several innovations in gold extraction were developed that makes it easier to process ore at lower costs.

I don’t know if that means that gold mining might return to Virginia someday, though I’d love to see one of these hornet’s balls in action.

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25 thoughts on “Hornet’s Balls and Gold Mining”

  1. This is awesome Bill! You just inspired me to go looking for a local museum myself!

  2. They look more like grenades to me from a far. Very interesting creation from the past. I have been curious to different museums around the world. I hope to have a great time if given a chance. I can tell from your post that you did have great time with the things that you had seen. Bill, may I know what is the name of the invention of your first picture?

  3. Hi Donnie,

    Good to hear. There are a few other museums in my area that I haven’t had a chance to visit yet, and I’ve been kicking myself for not having seen them. Hope you have a good time.

  4. Hi Ernest,

    Their shape is pretty odd, and I was having a hard time trying to envision how they were used exactly until I read the plaque in front of them. It appears that they may have been attached on one end to a central column, and pulled around a circular track by horses. They are massive objects.

    I believe the invention in the first image is a surveying tool known as a theodolite, which is used to measure vertical and horizontal angles for triangulation, to measure the location of a point. It was invented back in the 16th century.

  5. Dear Bill,
    Great to hear that you took a while off from all the patent analysing. “Pause for A Bit”

    “Learn to pause… or nothing worthwhile will ever catch up to you.” Allow the Muse to whisper in your ear. 🙂

  6. All the old mining stuff really captures my attention. Around here, we have a iron ore range and abandoned mines and mine lakes. They are great for diving and you can find equipment still there from the 30s and 40s. Obviously, nothing like what you have found, as Minnesota is a little bit younger than Virgina =)

    Growing up in the area I have seen a lot of mining equipment but never anything quite as ODD as the hornet’s balls.

  7. Hi Bill,

    the hornet balls are really impressive. It is really not bad to do something different and visit a museum.I has been a very long time since i have been to a museum. Time to do this 🙂

  8. Thanks for the information, Bill. 🙂 Great Job. You really did your assignment. I did some research but did not find it.

  9. Refreshing content! Nice to take a break once in a while. I thought those hornet balls are grenades used to bomb the mines, I was wrong. But it would really be interesting to see them in action. Museums are really a great place to visit. They contain valuable lessons of the past and is the only memory left of history nowadays.

  10. Hi Brent,

    I’m a big local history buff, and really enjoy finding things that are pretty unique to a specific region. For instance, I’d love to tour the areas that you’re talking about in Minnesota, and see the equipment from the 30s and 40s.

    I’d guess that using something like hornet’s balls is more ideally suited for breaking up ore that contains gold than iron. I do know that it takes quite a lot of ore to get only a little gold – but the value of the gold makes it worth using an approach like hornet’s balls.

    I don’t know if hornet’s balls themselves are uniquely Virginian, but I do know that the name is a local one.

  11. Hi Parken,

    We had a chance to visit another local museum this past weekend, and it was a lot of fun. It wasn’t the largest museum in the world, but I learned a lot more about where I live than I knew before. Thank you.

  12. Hi Ernest,

    You’re welcome. I had a good idea of where to start researching based upon my trip to the museum – it helped. There’s something about being able to actually visit a place in person and see artifacts like in person that can make research enjoyable.

  13. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything other than about a patent or a paper or work, and it was nice to redirect to something completely different that I love as well.

  14. Nice post Bill. It is always good to get out from behind the screen and see the world again. Not only has technology come a long way, but mechanical engineering has evolved from rolling “hornets” around. Hard to believe people worked that hard.

  15. Hi Allen,

    Good point. The days of hornet’s balls looks like it comes from when horse power was measured in the number of horses you actually had dragging those things around. 🙂

  16. Bill, The hornet’s balls are so amazing! I’m pretty sure I know how they got that name. I live in the South Florida and we have a kind of wasp called a mud dauber, they make little mud nests identical in shape to these giant ones you photographed! They lay their eggs inside them and fill them with insects for food for the young to eat when they hatch out. They are the size of a finger tip and perfectly constructed to resemble little clay pots! Many people call them hornets but they are a kind of wasp. Thanks for posting these, I would love to see that museum some day!

  17. Hi Paula,

    One of the suggestions for the name on the plaque in front of the Hornet Balls was that they sounded like a swarm of hornets when they were rolled around. Your explanation sounds just as reasonable, and it’s possible that both might have had a role in the name they’ve been given.

  18. Hello all,

    My comments are about Ball Mills that have been used for proccessing gold ore. In 1933 my dad got permission from one of the owners of a gold mine in the Mojave desert to go out there and see if he could get any gold out of it. This mine had been closed down for many years, but all the equipment was still there. All this equipment had not been used for probably thirty years or so, and needed a lot of work to getting back in shape. To make a long story short, my three brothers who were not working, because of the depression went out there, and my 17 year old brother who was a mechanical genuis, was able to get it all working again, but the ore was so low grade, that was not worth all the effort they had to put out to make any money, so they left after a year and came home. The thing I wanted to tell about, was this mine had a huge Ball Mill in the shape of a large wheel about 30 feet in diameter that used large balls that would crush the ore as the wheel was turning. This thing
    did not perform up to expectations, so they gave up the whole project.
    Tom Robertson,

  19. Hi Tom,

    Thank you. I appreciate your stopping by and sharing your family’s experience with us. The Hornet’s balls that I saw were only 20ft in diameter, so the one that you’re writing about was huge.

    The balls in the pictures above were found about a mile from the mining park where they are located now, and I’m not really sure about their history. I don’t know how well they worked, but Virginia did have a thriving mining industry for a number of years, so they may have had some success.

  20. Hi Bill,
    That mine I told you about, was called the “Hamburger Mine”, named after Moses Hamburger who started the first department store in Los Angeles. eventually became the “Broadway” department store. When we went out there after the war, we found that all of the mine equipment had been sold for scrap metal to help the war effort. I was only seven years old in 1933, so can not remember much about how every thing worked, but I do remember this huge wheel that was mounted on a large reinforced concrete base, that still remains there today. There are pipes still in this base that would indicate that water was used in the proccess, along with the balls. My brothers told me that they were surprised how fast the balls wore down.

    Bill, I still go out there from time to time, just for old times sake, in fact I landed my plane on the dry lakebed along side the old mine site. I was surprised that I could get permission from the China Lake bombing range to enter their air space. I called the base on the phone first, and they said it would be alright, just radio them when I entered, and give them a call when leaving, it all worked out fine. By the way, this mine is still shown on the topo maps as the “Hamburger Mill Site”.


  21. Hi Tom,

    The plaque that accompanies the two hornet’s balls in my picture showed an illustration at how those balls might be set up for use, with a wheel like you describe, but it also admitted that they weren’t very sure about how they were used exactly. I’d love to see the wheel that’s in place at the Hamburger Mine. I’ll have to check to see if I can locate the mine on Google Earth.

    I’ve only been able to find one picture of the Hamburger Mill site online, and it really doesn’t show much:


    Again, thank you for sharing information about this mine. If I can find some images of the Hamburger Mill Site in Google Earth, I’ll post them here.

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