Sunday, May 17, 2009

Franklin, North Carolina

In the environs of Franklin, North Carolina, numerous spots exist where the soil abundantly yields crystals of ruby, sapphire, garnet and beryl. Consequently, gem mining opportunities for tourists are everywhere. Mostly they play the game lined up beside flumes of running water in which they sieve gem-bearing reddish dirt that's purchased by the bucketful. At a few of the spots, customers are given the opportunity to pan in creek beds or dig at the actual mines. Though the mines themselves have long ceased commercial production, plenty of rubies, sapphires, beryl crystals and garnets are present. That's because usually the dirt in the buckets, in some cases the dirt in the actual stream beds, and sometimes even the mine dumps themselves has been "enriched" or "salted" with crude gems imported from the other side of the world. Personally, I confess to having "mined" at a couple of these places in years gone by. The thrill was akin to playing the slots.

At a few spots, customers can sluice and sometimes dig with assurance from management that the dirt in question has not been salted. While the gem "pickin's" are likely leaner, it makes the mining experience itself a bit more realistic, even if a backhoe has scattered naturally occurring gem material from its original resting place in the interest of rendering the soil more accessible and easier to dig. During the drive home from my recent New Orleans trip, I checked out three such operations, namely Mason's Ruby and Sapphire Mine, the Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine, and the Sheffield Mine.

Mason's Ruby and Sapphire mine is open from 8 a.m. to 5 pm and charges $30 for as much digging as a customer wishes to undertake in the course of a day. At a pavilion adjacent to the flume, customers are given shovels with empty buckets they can carry to the mine and fill with dirt to bring back to the flume and sluice as often as time permits. An associate at Mason's named Judy told me that she'd never observed a hard-working customer who in the course of a day failed to uncover at least one legitimate gem to bring home. She boasted that the biggest find so far in 2009 had been a 73 carat sapphire.

From Mason's, I drove eight more miles through the Smoky's to another allegedly unsalted operation, the Cherokee Ruby and Sapphire Mine. Unfortunately it was closed, perhaps because severe weather was predicted. Just a couple miles from the Cherokee Mine, I detoured up a steep and windy road leading to a parking lot. Below was the Sheffield Mine, which is pictured at left. In addition to offering salted buckets, customers here can dig at the actual mine, which like at Mason's and Cherokee, is touted to be unsalted.

Were it not that flooding torrential rains were expected to begin any minute, my personal choice for prospecting would have been a non-commercial locality, namely a stream where alluvial corundum washes down from the closed and inaccessible Corundum Hill Mine. The 47 pound ruby pictured at the beginning of this feature is from this mine. The site is highly recommended in Richard James Jacquot, Jr.'s Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina. Parking is available near a bridge over the Cullasaja River. About 300 yards east from here, a feeder stream empties into the river from the mountain above after flowing through the inaccessible site of the long closed Corundum Hill Mine. It's supposed to be a good spot for panning.

However, I believe that the bad weather served me even better by encouraging a visit to "downtown" Franklin as opposed to trying to collect at any of these sites. In Franklin I first checked out the Ruby City Gem Store and its museum. Ruby City claims to be the largest mineral and gem store in North Carolina. It also houses a museum of gems and minerals, from both nearby and various worldwide localities.

Just around the corner from Ruby City is the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, to which an all too short visit highlighted my day. Occupying the the building that formerly housed the Macon County Jail, the museum is operated as a public service by volunteers from the Gem and Mineral Society of Franklin, North Carolina. I refer to my time there as "all too short" after making it to only two of eight exhibit-filled rooms prior to the 4 p.m. closing hour. The first housed among other local gems and minerals the 47 pound ruby from Corundum Hill, which I spent most of my time there photographing. The next room I visited displayed several minerals from each of the 50 states. Being from Maryland and responsible for the Maryland Minerals website, it interested me that our state was represented by specimens of coalingite, prehnite, and picrolite, all from Hunting Hill. With 15 minutes remaining, rather than try to dart through additional rooms, including an international gem and mineral room, fossil room, fluorescent room, Indian artifacts room, and glass room, I opted instead to chat with the two Franklin Gem & Mineral Society volunteers who were working that day, John and Mary. This proved to be time well spent.

They shared with me a perspective about the Franklin area gem scene that far surpassed what I'd been able to infer from Jacquot's Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina or rushing by a few of the spots mentioned therein. From John and Mary I heard the stories behind some of these places and how the local landscape has changed over the years. More important, John was kind enough to provide me with information that could ultimately lead to the opportunity to dig in least one unspoiled site far removed from the tourist circuit. It's been tested just enough to demonstrate that rubies and sapphires are present and very likely plentiful.

Already, I'm booked in the area the last weekend of July for the Bele Chere Festival in Asheville and the 43rd Annual Macon County Gemboree in Franklin, sponsored by the Franklin Gem & Mineral Society and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce. Now it appears as if this weekend could also include a guided excursion to that site. I look most forward to the prospect that this could happen.


  1. let's see some pictures of your finds - inquiring minds want to know ;)

  2. Sorry, no finds in the Franklin area. The weather was bad, and I had a lot to cover in one day, so I just drove around to see what the spots looked like.

  3. I have yet to make it to the mines west of Asheville though right around Asheville you can find the Crabtree Emerald Mine and the Little Pine Garnet Mine, both of which were fun and fruitful. Some day I'll make it to the gem mines of the far western tip of NC.