Saturday, June 27, 2009

Regional Minerals at the Smithsonian

Early this past week while in Washington , DC, I learned that my key interviewee for this week's scheduled post would not be available. With the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History and its mineral collection close at hand, I knew where to look for something else to cover.

With a time frame restricted because of other business to but an hour, I would seek out minerals on display from localities within a couple hundred miles radius of the DC area. The Montgomery County gold in quartz pictured above has long been one of my Smithsonian favorites. I've also similarly admired the Lynch Station Virginia turquoise crystals on quartz pictured at left as well as the pyromorphite shown below at right from the Wheatley Mine near Phoenixville, PA. All three are classics and the best specimens of their kind that I've seen or known about.

From the Hope Diamond right on down, classics are ubiquitous in the Museum of Natural History's gem and mineral rooms. Other specimens, if not classics, were presumably curated by virtue of how appropriately they serve to educate or otherwise capture the interest of viewers.

Very much on my mind was a specimen of apophyllite on prehnite that one of my older mineral friends and two buddies had collected at the Centreville Quarry in Virginia during the early 1950's. For one "study piece" each from the "Roebling collection," they had traded it to the Smithsonian, where it soon became prominently displayed near the entrance of what was at the time its mineral room. In more recent years, my friend learned from a credible source with close ties to the Smithsonian that in today's market this apophyllite on prehnite specimen could be priced as high as $250,000.00.

Any possible chance it could still be on display after all those years? Except for the possibility of oversight, my assumption is that it's packed away with the more than 350,000 mineral specimens comprising the Museum of Natural History's collection. Just about all have been catalogued and can be referenced by name, catalog number, country of origin and mine or quarry (if there was one) at the Museum's web site. Listed there are 1,063 specimens bearing apophyllite and 1,911 minerals with prehnite. Images of many of them, unfortunately, were absent.

The biggest nod I observed to regional bounty was a model re-creating a section of the Morefield Mine in Amelia County, Virginia. It featured a tunnel with pegmatite walls featuring enormous cleavages of turquoise hued amazonite microcline. Interestingly, the real Morefield Mine is accessible at specified times for a reasonable fee to collectors and by prescheduled appointment to clubs and school groups.

Otherwise, I managed to locate and photograph three additional specimens other than the three pictured above. Two were from Virginia. They were the columbite from Powhattan and the tantalite from Amelia, both pictured at left. The other was the brucite from Cedar Hill Quarry in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania near the Maryland State Line. It is pictured below at right. No doubt, there could have been other pieces from the general area that I missed.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Visiting the Maryland Geological Survey

Having been doing this blog for five months and the Maryland Minerals web site for over a year, a visit to the headquarters of the Maryland Geological Survey (MGS) seemed long overdue. As a scientific investigative organization, its role is to study Maryland’s earth resources and geological phenomena through various disciplines within the earth sciences field. In existence since 1896, MGS became part of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources when the DNR was established in 1969.

Before visiting, I spent some time perusing the MGS web site. Though informative and well organized, it offered little in the way of information related to mineralogy. For this, a visit to its Baltimore headquarters at St. Paul and 23rd Streets is more in order. The MGS is housed in a huge stone structure that's appropriately constructed of Port Deposit Gneiss and Ellicott City Granite.

What visitors will most likely notice first upon entering the building's lobby area are the minerals encased in display cabinets against the far wall. Most but not all of these minerals were collected in Maryland. They include several specimens donated by Bob Eberle as well as a few pieces salvaged from the former Maryland Acadamey of Science collection. More exhibits are on the second floor in the MGS Library, some in cabinets similar to those downstairs. One is completely filled with fossils. Another holds additional minerals and also samples of Setters Quartzite, Baltimore Gneiss, Cockeysville Marble and other kinds of rocks whose formation and differential erosion define Maryland's topography as well as its mineralogy.

The MGS Library’s main purpose is to house an extensive collection of geologic journals and periodical publications produced over the past one hundred years by the MGS, the geological surveys of other states, and U.S. Geological Survey. Regrettably, most publications of mineralogical interest are now out of print and absent from the shelves. Reference copies, however, have been retained and are available for in-house use.

The library extends into an adjoining room of metal drawers filled with maps. Time restraints unfortunately precluded me from requesting permission to look through them to search for the locations of whatever forgotten pits, adits, openings, and mining claims I imagined could be revealed therein.

The Maryland Geological Survey is both a State agency and a public facility. Visitors are welcome to view its exhibits, conduct geologic research in the Library, and purchase various publications that are for sale. Due to budgetary cutbacks and staff shortages, it is best to contact the Survey prior to visiting to ensure that MGS personnel will be available to assist you.. Hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. To arrange a visit, please call or e-mail Dale W. Shelton at 410-554-5505 or

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Uncovering Ruizite at Cornwall

Of all the reported finds in the Eastern United States during recent years, the occurrence in Cornwall, PA, of ruizite inside a boulder weighing approximately a half ton is surely among the most intriguing. Mineral News, in its Jan. 2008 edition, announced the discovery in a front page article about two months after it happened. The story behind that discovery was recently shared with me first hand by James "Skip" Colflesh, a prominent Hershey, PA jeweler and avid weekend field collector.

It all began at 9 a.m. on a late October morning in 2007, when Skip (right) received a phone call from his friend Bob Buckmoyer(left). At the time Bob was the foreman for Haines and Kibblehouse at Cornwall Materials in Cornwall, PA, where dumps from the earlier mining operation were being worked for crushed stone. He had become interested in minerals after observing that the rocks at Cornwall were quite different from those at the limestone quarries where he'd previously worked. One day Skip had showed up at Cornwall and approached Bob for permission to collect. The two men struck an arrangement where Bob would allow Skip to have special access if Skip would teach Bob about minerals and how to collect them. They became close friends.

Bob called because he had observed "something unusual" inside an 800 pound zoned boulder that his equipment had recently broken. He noticed a presence of apophyllite in the center of the boulder that appeared to be quite different from what Skip had taught him to recognize. Skip headed right over and determined that regardless of anything else, the apophyllite was worth chiseling out and that some of the other material associated with it looked interesting. He figured that a lot of tiny red crystals encrusting etched quartz amidst the apophyllite were probably hematite, and he was curious about an ubiquitously associated white fibrous mineral that resembled pectolite.

The plot thickened when Skip arrived home and had a look under his scope. No way those red crystals could possibly be hematite or any other mineral he could identify. He sent a couple samples to Lance and Cynthia Kearns at the Department of Geology and Environmental Science at James Madison University. Within weeks, their analyses determined the red crystals to be the second known occurrence of ruizite in North America, the first having been at the Christmas Mine in Gila County, Arizona. Otherwise, the only other known finds of this rare sorosilicate in the world were at two mines near Cape Province, South Africa.

Although most of the ruizite bearing material had been extracted on the day of that initial phone call, enough material remained in the boulder for the two collectors to invite a group of regional members from Friends of Mineralogy to visit Cornwall and chisel away. Among them was New Jersey collector and International Micromount Hall of Famer John Ebner, who sent another sample to a lab in Canada where he had connections. The Canadian lab reached the same conclusion as the Kearns.

More work is still required to identify the white fibrous material, a clinopyroxene that could prove to be a new mineral. Meanwhile, enough ruizite from this same boulder is in private hands that some has hit the market. A piece with a display face of approximately 4 cm. x 3.5 cm. was recently sold at auction on eBay by "MINERALMAN999" for $75.25.

My advice to collectors would be to try to get some of this Cornwall ruizite while it's still around. Haines and Kibblehouse is no longer working the dumps. They have removed the equipment necessary to break boulders of which the exterior surfaces bear no hints of what could be inside, and the dumps are now "off limits."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Delaware Mineralogical Museum Reopens

Thanks to the Gem, Lapidary, and Mineral Society of Montgomery County, Maryland for having their great monthly newsletter, The Rockhounder on the Internet for all to see. It was the recent May edition from which I learned that the Delaware Mineralogical Museum had reopened. Pictured above are two examples of specimens with aesthetics that blew me away.

Even now, a month after the re-opening, when searching the web with Google, my top two results after typing in "Delaware Mineralogical Museum" and "University of Delaware Mineralogical Museum" indicated that this reopening had yet to occur. A bit of persistence, however, directed me to a site that not only announced the reopening, but offered pertinent information.

There's much to like. First is the way the minerals assert their presence in the front room to all who enter Penny Hall. The fiber optic lighting is effective enough that every specimen can be fully appreciated. As museums go, the room itself is small, its walls surrounded by fewer than a dozen cases that are separated and uncluttered. This allows the visitor to take everything in, while larger museums can sometimes overwhelm with overload.

It was a true pleasure for me to unhurriedly zero in on the the likes of native lead from Sweden and what I suspect could be the largest Namibian descloizite crystals ever uncovered. Other highlights were a couple of aethetically amazing Tsumeb azurite crystals in matrix and a cabinet bearing an assortment of California spodumene (kunzite) that all but defied belief. I was also impressed to see an entire cabinet that used both drawings and minerals as props to explain the six crystal systems.

Blame it if you will on Delaware’s geology, but nothing collected in Delaware was present. A logical enough alternative proved to be a greater number of minerals from neighboring Pennsylvania than from any other state or foreign country. Among them were killer specimens of chalcopyrite from French Creek, pyromorphite from the Wheatley Mine, brucite from the Woods Chrome Mine, diaspore from Corundum Hill near Unionville, PA, andradite garnet from Cornwall, and a stunning malachite spray from Uniontown.

Just a few minutes from I-95, near the Maryland State Line, the Delaware Mineralogical Museum is a must see for rockhounds within a reasonable driving distance, or for that matter, just passing through.