Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bob Eberle's Baltimore County Digs

During the years since family and career responsibilities replaced his rockhounding agenda, Bob Eberle’s reputation for field collecting prowess has become almost legendary in Maryland mineralogical circles. At the Baltimore Mineral Society's March 18, 2009, meeting, Bob brought in some of his top-shelf finds and shared the stories behind them.

Many were from sites that Bob discovered himself. At some, the opportunity to collect was temporary. His "Harbor Tunnel Digs," for instance, was a former dump consisting largely of dirt, oyster shells, and gravel that had been excavated during the 1960’s construction of Baltimore’s Harbor Tunnel. The debris was later hauled away and dumped on land now covered by a sprawling commercial complex near where Nursery Road meets the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Amidst it all, Bob extracted some of his finest treasures. They included the magnificent 2 inch by 2 ½ inch almandine garnet at left; a pencil sized apatite crystal extending from a book of mica; and a sheet of mica bearing a flattened schorl tourmaline crystal next to an unflattened almandine garnet crystal in golf club/golf ball configuration.

Another temporary locality from the early 1980’s was a former Owings Mills hillside that was dug up and leveled to make way for the mall and rapid transit stop there today. The primary pickings here were beautifully faceted almandine garnets occurring in a "greenish talc-like schist." Some of these pieces have since found their way to collections around the world. In addition to the garnets, Bob, along with fellow Maryland field collectors Bob Meny and Larry Krause, located and painstakingly dislodged from a large quartz boulder what could be the finest kyanite ever collected in Maryland. The kyanite was a one time find.

No less impressive was the goethite from Oregon Ridge in Baltimore County. One summer afternoon, as his wife and kids enjoyed the public beach and swimming hole that for many decades has occupied this former iron mine site, Bob slipped away to the facility’s storm drains. The area appreared promising enough to inspire return trip at a later date. On that visit, after investing a couple of fruitless hours, he began digging out of boredom at an unpromising looking rock that was jutting from the soil. The more he dug, the larger and more resistant to removal the rock proved to be. Bob's persistence resulted in the specimen pictured at right.

Among his other finds were the drusy quartz stalagmites tipped with opal pictured at left. That specimen is from a long since built over construction site near the intersection of Route I-70 and Johnnycake Road. Another unlikely score was from a feeder stream to Loch Raven Reservoir. From it, Bob extracted a rock whose quartz surface had been smoothed down by nature to leave behind a remarkably unweathered curved schorl tourmaline crystal.

Not far from Loch Raven is Hunt Valley Mall. One of its entrance roads intersects York Road near Valley View Farms. From amidst the limestone excavated to construct this road, Bob collected pyrite. While pyrite is hardly uncommon in Maryland, a solid eight pound chunk like Bob found is presumably unheard of in these parts. Later on, from the ranks of boulders remaining today piled up near a restaurant where the road ends, he brought in and showed us a large diopside crystal that fluoresced a beautiful sky blue.

The most exciting story was saved for last. It happed along the north side of Washington Boulevard near I-695 where former embankments once yielded iridescent siderite and petrified wood was easy to find in the sand pits. Before givning way to sprawl a couple of decades ago, Bob found a dinosaur bone in the sand pits. He contacted the Smithsonian about it. Upon seeing a picture, they were interested. When Bob requested an appraisal, the Smithsonian refrained, citing the potential for disputes with the taxman. So after he donated the fossil, the Smithsonian expressed appreciation by presenting him with a custom made replica of the dinosaur bone and arranging a VIP tour of the Museum of Natural History for the entire Eberle family.

The kids are getting older now, and Bob gives every indication that his interest in collecting minerals is rejuvenating. If so, that he'll stumble upon new and undiscovered localities is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Hopefully, after enjoying first grabs, he'll be willing to share them.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Mountain View Lead Mine in Frederick County MD.

The above photographs show microscopic occurrences of anglesite (left) and smithsonite (right) from rocks that were collected at the Mountain View Lead Mine years ago.

The opening is located several miles southwest of Union Bridge in Frederick County. Worked during the 1890's, it marks the only fully documented site in Maryland ever mined for lead. The Natural History Society of Maryland’s 1940 publication Minerals of Maryland, by Charles W. Ostrander and Walter E. Price, Jr., names the "minerals to be found" at this locality as follows:

Galena, white cleavage barite, chalcopyrite in masses and octahedral crystals, bornite, green transparent and gray opaque sphalerite, specular hematite, calcite crystals, orange colored calcite cleavages, pyrite, epidote, chalcanthite, quartz crystals, and traces of malachite and azurite. Also cerussite and sulphur (Williams)

After an earlier excursion to obtain special permission for the visit, my son Dylan and I maneuvered our way through some quite thorny terrain to the Mountain View Lead Mine openings on the chilly overcast afternoon of March 13, 2009. The surrounding area was deeply buried in leaves, which obscured any traces of dumps that could remain. What appeared at first to be tailings consisted instead of slate/shale eroded from an embankment.

We searched for minerals by penetrating the cooperative soil near the openings with the chisels on the back of our hammers, then looking carefully through mud covered rocks beneath for any that seemed inordinately heavy or whose surfaces had a rounded and/or weathered look. Such rocks, though scarce, when broken open, bore generous amounts of galena. They were the same kind of rocks that yielded the anglesite and smithsonite micromounts pictured above

Though we failed to locate any anglesite or smithsonite, we did note in these galena bearing rocks small amounts of chalcopyrite, bornite, sphalerite, hematite, malachite, and azurite, and micro quartz crystals. In other rocks, we observed some of the white cleavage barite, orange colored calcite cleavages, and epidote as mentioned in Minerals of Maryland. The only minerals named by Ostrander and Price of which we did not find evidence were chalcanthite, along with the cerussite and sulphur they stated had been reported by Williams.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Kicking Off the Mid-Atlantic Mineral Season

The weather is improving, the ground moist and easy to dig up. Tailings are fresh after the ravages of winter, and unwanted vegetation at a minimum. Otherwise, increasing numbers of shows beckon where the inventory is fresh from Tucson.

The sale on March 7, 2009, in West Chester, PA, of the late Bill Yokom's mineral collection was my first mineral event after a late February return from Tucson. Bill, who was once curator of the mineral museum at West Chester Universities, had also assembled a personal collection of worldwide minerals as well as fossils and lapidary slabs. As an afficianodo of Pennsylvania minerals, I'd been particularly intrigued over the likelihood of their presence for picking over. Though many of the best of them appeared to have been scooped up before my arrival, I did manage to score a Wheatley mine piece bearing an unusual abundance of red Wulfenite crystals amidst a crust of weathered pyromorphite and also a well-proportioned thumbnail sized specimen of zaratite and chrome antigorite from the State Line Pits.

However, my big deal of the day was the multicolored smithsonite from Sinaloa, Mexico, that's pictured beneath the title bar of this post . Only a few times a year does a mineral specimen come into my possession that excites me as much this one did. I was all but amazed that someone else hadn't already nabbed it.

Within 20 minutes, my flat was full and the amount of cash in my wallet insufficient to cover a celebratory lunch of alligator gumbo and an elkburger at the Half Moon Restaurant & Cafe in Kennett Square. Next stop was the Delaware Mineralogical Society's annual March Show at at Delaware Technical and Community College.
Business here appeared to be brisk, at least where the price was right. Things were going so well at Eric Meier's table that I hardly had a chance to catch up with him. Eric, pictured at right, trades as Broken Back Minerals and is a very active field collector of Phoenixville material from the dumps at the Brookdale, and Chester Mines. He gathers enough to offer some pretty nice pyromorphite, cerussite, galena, and anglesite (after galena) from these localities at very attractive prices.
Phoenixville specimens were well represented in one of numerous exhibits provided by the DMS for all to see. All of these were informative, and often regionally relevant as well. One exhibit featured mostly Phoenixville minerals, including the first cabinet sized vanadinite piece I'd ever observed from this classic locality.

One thing that really impressed me about the Delaware Mineralogical Society's show was its Junior Booth for kids. Put together to engage the interest of young people, it was the busiest part of the entire room. Its tables were loaded with minerals and fossils for sale, some donated by club members others collected on field trips. Among them were dozens of quite large rocks covered with beautiful light green nodular wavellite from the National Limestone Quarry in Mount Pleasant Mills, PA, that were selling 25 cents a piece. Nearly all of them were more attractive than the best I'd succeeded in digging up over the course of four hours on a Baltimore Mineral Society field trip to that locality in June, 2007.

It seems to me that we are living in an age where the allure to young people of natural history has become increasingly overshadowed by more temporal pursuits, and I find the situation to be regrettable. That was certainly not the case here today, and the Delaware Mineralogical Society's success at getting all these kids involved is just one more thing they're doing right.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


O.K., soon enough Mineral Bliss will find its way closer to home, namely Baltimore, Maryland. That's after conception during a period of travel, which produced this and the past several features. Staggering the posting dates has allowed time to reflect and chart a course.

The travel entailed two weeks of driving to and from Baltimore to Tucson and back to enjoy two weeks in between at the biggest annual mineral gathering on earth. Despite a shattered economy, enough went on in Tucson from the end of January until Feb. 15 to keep Mineral Bliss posting for a lifetime. If you've never been, Manhattan megadealer John Betts's timeless overview makes for an apt quick introduction.

With the wheeling and dealing in motels and tents still happening, each year's action comes to a head Thursday through Sunday the second weekend of February at the "main show" in the Tucson Convention Center. For both looking and purchasing, this is where the largest selection of world-class minerals comes together under one roof. Each year's main show has a theme. Year before last, the theme was the Minerals of Australia. Last year it was Minerals of the United States. This year the theme was "Mineral Oddities."

Except at the shows themselves, much of this year's Tucson talk related to how the global economic crisis would impact this year's extravaganza. The cost is considerable for dealers with their rocks, helpers, and display materials to travel here from all over the globe, set up shop, then tear down and head home. As predicted, the number of attendees was less than in past years. Most of the dealers with whom I spoke, however, were upbeat. Consensus was that overall sales were down a bit from last year, but no more so than expected.

As always, prices varied enough that the difference between a $25 specimen and and a four figure piece could occasionally appear subtle. For the most part, asking prices seemed about the same as last year. I like to think of minerals as hard assets, just like precious metals, which of course are extracted from minerals and often---as in native gold and native silver---mineral specimens in their own right.

If my thinking is on target, compared to the way precious metals prices were soaring at the commodity exchanges, Tucson this year was a bargain.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jerome, Arizona

Perched on Cleopatra Hill around the site that was once Arizona's largest copper mine is the former mining town of Jerome, Arizona. Though prostitution, gambling and substance abuse once earned it a reputation as "wickedest town in the west," a tourism web site touts Jerome as "America's most vertical city" and also "the the largest ghost town in America." Other literature refers to it as "the most unusual and interesting town in Arizona." Otherwise, Jerome has become best known over the last 20 years as an art town.

Founded in 1876, Jerome's population ultimately grew to 15,000 by the 1920's. Mining operations slowed thereafter first during the Great Depression and again after the end of World War II. By 1953, all the copper, silver, lead, zinc, and gold mining operations had closed. Though approximately 50 souls remained, many buildings (including the jail) had succumbed to the town's steep slope, and Jerome became best known as a ghost town.

By the 1960's, Jerome became a popular destination for hippies and artists. Their presence began to attract new inhabitants, who along with those few remaining mining era holdovers, were eager to see the town preserved. Through many of their efforts in conjunction with the Jerome Historical Society, Jerome became a National Historic Landmark in 1967.

Notwithstanding the preservation, enough old buildings continue to dislodge and slide downhill to keep alive the legacy that continues to attract ghost town aficionados, history buffs, ever more artists, a few eccentrics, and plenty of just plain tourists. So why not more rockhounds?

Mineral collecting is not among the myriad activities that Jerome touts to visitors. Except for a few ore samples in Jerome's Mining Museum, minerals don't seem to be a very big deal here. Regardless, the museum is a must-see for any visitor whose curiosity is at all aroused.

Of just as much if not more interest to rockhounds should be the mile or so drive heading north to the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town (once the “suburb of Haynes). On either side of the road, the tailings and dumps are everywhere and often appear to be quite accessible. The Gold King attraction itself is the bastion of Don Robertson, its eccentrically colorful, engaging and opinionated caretaker and his wife. Don pursues a mission of maintaining and keeping running as many as possible of the area's abandoned vehicles and machinery with help from the proceeds of tourists.

"Don was glad to share with me that directly downhill from the parking lot, where the dirt road becomes paved, the rockpiles along the side of the road could prove interesting to rockhounds. I checked them out and found plenty of “peacock ore (bornite, chalcopyrite, chalcocite and whatever else)” malachite, and some small drusy quite oxidized nodules that suggest austinite or conichalcite. At left are images of either side of a rock that bears a maximum of all the characteristic material.

After heading on to Tucson for two weeks and not observing a single rock from Jerome, I ran an Internet search and found two pertinent items. Listed on eBay from a seller in France was a cab referred to as “Eternalite,” the description of which somewhat described the aforementioned "peacock ore." More interesting to me was a micromount of cuprite (var. chalcotrichite) offered by Dakota Matrix Minerals for $3.50. Sight unseen, I ordered it, and paid twice again the cost to cover the shipping component. It awaited me upon my arrival home from Tucson and is pictured at right. I'm delighted with it.