Monday, November 22, 2010

Mr. Tyson's Chrome Pit


Perhaps Maryland's best known claim to fame in the mineral world is having been one of the world's leading producers of chromium in the mid 1800's. Responsible for most of the production was Isaac Tyson, the Baltimore businessman who after having studied mineralogy in France, discovered and began to mine chromite on his farm at Bare Hills in Baltimore County near the Baltimore City Line.
Soon thereafter, he was mining it not only at Bare Hills and Soldiers Delight in Baltimore County as well as at various locations in Harford and Cecil County. Less chronicled was the chrome mining activity for which he was responsible in Montgomery County near Patuxent State Park.
Ostrander and Price's Minerals of Maryland, published by the Natural History Society of Maryland in 1940, recognizes the Etchinson Chrome Mine as having "not been worked in many years," and notes "little of interest remaining at the site.” Minerals known to have occurred there were listed as "chromite, chrome ore (a chrome spinelo-picotite?) green chrome tourmaline, fuchsite, green margarite, rutile in reddish brown encrustaions, magnesite, amesite? manesioferrite?. (Shannon)." The Etchinson Mine also received mention in Lawrence R. Bernstein's 1980 Maryland Geological Survey publication, Minerals of the Washington, DC Area as having been "completely paved over." Also noted was the nearby "Lyde-Griffith property," referenced by footnote to Heyl and Pearre from a 1960 U.S Geological Survey Bulletin. Bernstein noted that the "mineralogy of the deposit was not described but probably similar to that at the Etchinson Mine, as both are in the same serpentine body."
Jeff Nagy, who is several years into updating Bernstein's work, visited the site of the Etchinson Mine several years ago and noted a nearby outcrop of serpentinite rock. Around the same time, he also found his way to the site of the Lyde-Griffith property.
Through research entailing nearly as much history as mineralogy, Nagy has determined that circa 1830, Washington Waters leased this locality from its property owner. Later, the owner sued Waters when the market for chromium declined drastically and Waters was unable to pay royalties. The contractual dispute focused on whether or not Waters was obligated to remove the ore he had mined from the property or simply from the ground.
By no later than 1869, the locality was known as Mr. Tyson's Chrome Pits. Nagy believes that an underground mine once existed and that Isaac Tyson's company operated the locality through pit mining. When Nagy last attempted to visit the locality during late spring, the briars and brambles were too thick to penetrate.
On a recent mid-November Friday, I had the privilege of accompanying Jeff on his second visit. Though even in late fall, the briars and brambles were formidable, we were able to access the remains of four pits, each between 300 and 400 feet long. They are south of the Patuxent River near where woodlands extending from Patuxent State Park meet a grazing field on private property. The only rocks not covered by more than a century's accumulation of soil and leaf mold were limited to an approximately 10 foot by 10 foot area.
Amidst these rocks were talc schist, quartz, and a grainy serpentinite. We found little that interested either of us with the exception of one handsize piece of quartz bearing a single quite weathered most likely cubic metallic brownish black metallic crystal about five millimeters in diameter that was embedded in quartz. Its identification stumped us a bit. For now, I'm going to guess "chrome ore," namely that "chrome spinelo picotite."
Though we had hoped to check out the nearby site that was once the Etchinson Chrome Mine, our time was running short. Of more interest to us was "an adjacent hill just south of the Etchinson site, " where Minerals of Maryland had noted that "quartz crystals are found in the soil." No mention of this hill appeared in Bernstein's book, and Jeff Nagy may have been unaware of it on his earlier visit. I hope that Jeff will take me along when he returns to check it out.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Maryland's Embarrassing State Gemstone

Six years have passed since then Governor Erlich signed legislation naming "Patuxent River Stone" as Maryland's State Gem. Meanwhile, many who are prominent in state gemological, geological, paleontological and mineralogical circles continue to express outrage. While the stone itself has merits, the grievances focus on a misleading official description of Patuxent River Stone as both agate and dinosaur bone. "An embarrassment to the State of Maryland" is the kindest language I've heard regarding the misrepresentation of a material that is in truth quartzite. Even the Maryland State Archives erroneously describe Patuxent River Stone as "agate, a cryptocrystalline form of quartz."

A look through the microscope at the slab of Patuxent River Stone featured in our title picture makes clear that despite appearances, it is neither agate nor fossilized dinosaur bone. Immediately apparent is an obviously textural rather than cryptocrystalline structure of sandstone metamorphosed into quartzite through tectonic compression.

The official web site (link provided in first paragraph) for this material, which labels it as Patuxent River AGATE, proclaims that a state gemstone should be beautiful, colourful, take a fine polish, be able to be fashioned into jewelry, and very notably be "rare but findable, existing in sufficient quantity to allow for a reasonable source of supply for local artisans." Agatized dinosaur bone is nowhere near that abundant in Maryland if it exists at all. For that matter, as the person responsible for the Maryland Minerals web site, I've never seen any kind of agate that was collected in Maryland and am unaware of any literature regarding its occurrence in the state, except in conjunction with "Patuxent River Stone."

Top help me research this post, a prominent local gem cutter drove me to a pebbly stream not far from I-95 in White Marsh. Twenty years ago, most of this area consisted of sand pits where quartzite pebbles were extensively quarried for construction material. White Marsh lies on the Arundel formation, which runs diagonally through the center of Maryland extending even to the Eastern Shore. Dinosaur fossils have been reported in Arundel Formation deposits, but they consist of neither agate nor quartzite.

We crawled about the stream bed on hands and knees looking for
colourful quartzite pebbles. They were scarce enough that searching for them proved an enjoyable but very easy challenge. Pictured at right are a few that we picked up. A presence of iron speaks for their colour, and no doubt they would polish beautifully.

Meanwhile, Maryland, unlike numerous other states, does not have a State Mineral or a State Rock. Since Maryland was once the world's second leading producer of chromium, a good choice for State Mineral could be chromite. Yet, what better choice for a Maryland State Rock than quartzite? And who is to say that quartzite should not qualify as the State gem if sufficiently graded for colour?

So why does our State Gem continue to be incorrectly touted as agatized dinosaur bone? " Those not into the hobbies could care less," my gem cutter friend replied." Then, requesting for political reasons that I not use his name, he added: "To guys like you and me it's an embarrassment, and even worse, you've got all this false information being passed on to school kids."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Southwestern Maine Gem and Mineral Localities

Two days of a recent New England vacation largely devoted to food, foliage, and hiking, were booked to collect minerals in Maine. On the first of those days, rain fell in torrents that made seeing for more than a few yards while driving a challenge. Needless to say, it deterred me from collecting, but not from six hours of driving through the southwestern part of the state to plan an itinerary for once the weather cleared. This driving ultimately spared me from time-consuming wrong turns the next day, when conditions had become conducive to collecting. They were so bad that first day that I even managed to drive by, look for, and not even see the little sign along Route 26 near the high school heralding the Poland Mining Camps.

Founded by the late Irving "Dudy" Groves (1919-2005) and taken over by his widow, the engaging and hospitable Mary Groves (left), it is the ultimate destination for anyone serious about collecting the gem and mineral bounty for which Oxford and Adroscoggin Counties are renowned. Though tourmaline is king, a myriad mines, prospects and quarries in this part of Maine offer up a vast variety of minerals desirable for just about any collecting niche. My friends Robert and Stephanie from the Baltimore Mineral society spent a week at Poland Mining Camps during the summer of 2009. They were kind enough not only to load me up not only with printed material about the local mineralogy, but also facilitate my visit to the camp and an opportunity to confer with Mary Groves.

My agenda was to visit the Tamminem and Harvard Mines mentioned in our Mineral Bliss post of August 15, 2009, which was based on a talk by Nancy Millard at the recent Atlantic Coast Gem and Mineral Show in West Springfield, Massachusetts. The two pegmatite localities are in walkable proximity to one another and among a minority of localities in this region that are open and accessible to the public. Even before I arrived at Poland Mining Camps, Mary had placed a call to assure that I would be welcome to collect.

While both The Tamminem and Harvard Mines are destinations for the Camp's field trips, they have been mined to a greater extent than other localities that Poland Mining Camp either owns (Mt. Apatite is one of them) or enjoys exclusive access. Information that also lists the minerals known to have been collected at each locality and even includes a map is available through a link on the the Poland Mining Camps' web site. A Collector's Guide to Maine Mineral Localities by W. B. Thompson, D.L. Joyner, R.G. Woodman, and V.T. King is also available on line, courtesy of the State of Maine. It offers additional information that includes specific instructions on how to reach many of the localities.

From the Poland Mining Camps, I found my way to the parking area for Tamminem and Harvard Mines on Richardson Hollow Road less than a mile from its intersection with Greenwood Road in Oxford County. The Tamminem Mine is but a short walk downhill from the parking area. It yielded me plenty of unremarkable schorl and some decent clevelandite. Because Mary had specifically instructed me to look for it, my most rewarding find was the micro blue apatite pictured at right. Knowledgeable collectors with properly trained eyes stand a chance of finding rare pollucite crystals here along seams in petalite, which though said to be common, can be difficult to visually differentiate from feldspar.

A visit to the Harvard Mine entails a hike of about a half mile up the side of a mountain on a blazed trail that sets out directly across across Richardson Hollow Road from the parking lot. Although known for having produced fine fluorapatite crystals as well as some lustrous cassiterite, I found not a trace of either. A magnificent view and abundant pickings of showier schorl than at the Tamminem along with plenty of reasonably attractive almandine crystals made collecting at the Harvard a lot more fun than the Tamminem.

My destination for the evening was North Conway, New Hampshire, to which I headed via a circuitous route that passed not far from the Lord Hill Mine near Stoneham in Oxford County. It is open to the public and is known for giant quartz crystals, large blue as well as colourless topaz crystals, and also many of the rare phosphate species for which the Palermo Mine in North Groton New Hampshire is famous. Getting to Lord Hill entails navigating a potentially confusing array of dirt roads and then hiking for a little more than a mile. I did not reach the vicinity of Stoneham until too late to get to the mine and back by dark.

Next summer, I hope to return to this part of Maine and if a long enough time frame proves feasible, look forward to the Poland Mining Camps being my base. Either way, a visit to Lord Hill will be on the agenda.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Franklin-Sterling Hill Gem and Mineral Show

The 53rd Annual Franklin-Sterling Gem and Mineral Show, at least during my four mid-day hours there on Saturday, Sept. 25, drew serious mineral aficionados from far and wide. The most extensive action was out-of-doors. Ambiance was friendly, almost festive.

My only previous visit to the Franklin, Sterling Hill, Ogdensburg area in New Jersey was three years ago while heading home after squeezing as many different New England pleasures as possible into a week. All too briefly, I had toured the great Franklin Mineral Museum with its 5,000 minerals, then hammered away at a few rocks on the dumps below. Two years later, I became more intrigued with Franklin/Sterling Hill after inexpensively acquiring the micromounts pictured in the photomicrographs at left. Note that the accompanying contents of their labels declare combinations of such incredibly rare Franklin treasures as jarosewichite, flinkite, sclarite, and gageite. Do NOT hold me accountable for these identifications. I'm hoping that knowledgeable attendees at the 54th Desautels Micromount Symposium next weekend (Oct. 2, and 3) will share their thoughts. Meanwhile, input from readers relating to accuracies/inaccuracies are welcomed and solicited.

Before heading to Milford, PA, to spend Friday night, I first detoured through the Franklin, Sterling Hill, Ogdensburg area to gain bearings. At Franklin School, the show's site, a few vehicles were parked in a closed off parking lot. One was a van with its open rear hatch encircled by hunched over men, most likely dealers. In less than an hour, you could have found me hunched over the Bar Louis beneath the Hotel Fauchere in Milford, sipping a cocktail made with rye, stone pine liqueur, apricot cordial, pine buds, and lemon oil while waiting for my dinner of codfish stew and watercress/duck salad to arrive.

Saturday morning, dealer tables lined the paved area behind the school and extended well into the field adjacent to it. Nothing fancy, but reasonable prices and plenty of Franklin and Sterling Hill material for those passionate collectors who specialize in this niche---and plenty else of course. Indoors, the dealers were equally busy and would probably have been busier except for the unseasonably summery weather outside.

There was additional action at the Sterling Hill Mining Museum: it's garage sale with areas of $3 tables, $5 tables, and $10 tables. Most of the specimens laid out on these tables in old boxes and dusty plastic cases appeared to have long been in storage. Many were sans labels. Amidst a lot of junk were numerous true bargains awaiting collectors and low end dealers aware of what to look for.

Dinner with an auction was slated for Saturday night with the show resuming on Sunday. I missed all of that. So did Fred Parker, the only other Baltimore mineral person I encountered. He had set up shop with other dealers along the paved area behind the school. Later in the afternoon, he planned to leave in order to work a table closer to home the next next day at the Gemcutters Guild of Baltimore's 46 Annual Atlantic Coast Gem and Mineral Expo at the Howard County, Maryland Fairgrounds,

That's where I was at some point this final weekend of September the last two years and would have been again on Sunday morning except for not wanting to share a cold that came on overnight. On Sunday afternoons, however, I'm refusing to allow minerals to usurp whatever the Baltimore Ravens are up to, at least for the time being.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Unique Collector: Amazing Breathtaking Collection

Words fail me in describing this recent interlude from a family visit to San Francisco. It all started back in Baltimore when my friend Harold Levey played for me a DVD commemorating Jack Halpern's 90th birthday. Loaned to Harold by our mutual friend John S. White, it was about a man proud of his "addiction to beauty." In addition to an endless variety of roses and orchids gracing not only the entire back yard of his West Portal home, but that of a next door neighbor, is his mineral collection. To simply say that it's "world class" is an understatement.

The sole premise of this extensive collection is beauty on a level exceeding that of any other assemblage of minerals I've enjoyed the privilege of viewing. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, you say? This collection clearly goes far beyond any such cliche. Aesthetically, Jack Halpern's collection is mind-boggling. If the tanzanite that graces the cover of the September-October, 2009 Mineralogical Record and the California gold next to it speak for the high end, nearly all the myriad specimens (catalog numbers approaching 4,000) are comparably breathtaking in different ways. I didn't observe a single piece that failed to impress.

Despite appearances of extravagance, this isn't a collection that was driven simply by money. Over lunch in a nearby restaurant to which we drove in Jack's aging Buick, he even shared that his income was "not much." He credits the financial acumen of his late wife, Leslie, in managing what spare cash they accumulated over the years for his ability to purchase such minerals. Like the $15,000 home now worth nearly a million dollars that they purchased together over a half century ago, the blue chip stocks into which that money went fared just as well.

None of the specimens in this amazing collection are labeled. Labels would usurp additional display space and distract from the beauty of the minerals. Instead, all are marked with numbers pursuant to which they're catalogued in files bearing current as well as any previous labels that previously accompanied them. In glassine pouches with these labels are the names and contact information of potential future owners who one day will be given the first opportunity to buy specimens in which they have expressed interest,

Over the years, Jack has donated many fine minerals to the much renowned California Academy of Sciences, from which he laments that many of the best have been pilfered. He also laments that this museum's wonderful mineral collection is neither on display nor are photographs available for viewing. "I've written to the chairman of their board about this," Jack informed me, "but nothing has happened." During this recent trip, I had planned to contact the California Academy of Sciences with hopes of devoting an upcoming Mineral Bliss post to the Academy's collection only to be informed that "environmentally controlled cases must be constructed" before the minerals could be shown.

Perhaps I could have persisted and showed up at the California Academy of Sciences to inquire in person. However, after after seeing Jack Halpern's collection, I suspect the fruits of such an effort would at the very best have proven anti climatic.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Minerals at Roanoke, Virginia Farmers Market


In just about any city or town, I tend to link the presence of a downtown farmers market to all that's positive regarding its vibes, heartbeat, and bounty. My first impression, while typically paramount, was particularly so on a recent Saturday morning in Roanoke, Virginia. Located front center at the intersection of Campbell and Market Streets and visible from more angles than any other location in the Roanoke Farmers Market was Ben Crooks and his Hanging Rock Mineral and Fossil Company. That’s Ben wearing the blue T shirt in our title picture. Both visually and verbally, he presents a colorful persona, but requested not to be photographed at closer range.

If the weather is good, you can count on seeing Ben for sure on Fridays and Saturdays, and often on Thursdays when the crowd size picks up in October. He’s been at it for 14 years, having previously been “a geologist working as a mining inspector at quarries, coal mines---if you put a hole in the side of a hill, I was there.” His selection of worldwide minerals and fossils, mostly in
flats, includes its share of specimens collected by Crooks himself in Virginia and North Carolina. He sells them at bargain prices.

The hitch is that not a single specimen is accompanied by a label. "We did that one year," he tells me, "and it just got expensive." Somewhat more to his credit, he added: "We try to price a lot of stuff so kids can buy it. Kids are 75 per cent of my business. A lot of what's here goes for 50 cents and on up from there." For sure he's doing more than most of us mineral people to lure youngsters into a constructive hobby that we all wish would engage them in greater numbers.

Despite no labels, Ben's prices were too reasonable for me to resist making a few purchases, while taking notes on his verbal information regarding their localities. You may have noticed how more time than usual has elapsed since the last Mineral Bliss post. That's because I've been trying to reach Ben by telephone---he doesn't do computers or email---to confirm the contents of my notes. As best I can decipher from them, the two pieces at left, running top to bottom were given as peridot and dog tooth calcite, both collected near the village of Copper Hill in Floyd County, Virginia. Though not yet tested, the latter piece looks to me more like sphene or axinite/ferro-axinite. Neither R.V. Dietrich's Minerals of Virginia nor MINDAT notes a presence of any of the aforementioned minerals in Floyd County. Thus it would seem that either I misread the notes scrawled into my pocket sized day-timer---something that happens all too often---or that Ben is in on a very significant Virginia find.

No less fascinating to me were the two slabs of fluorite pictured below at right. As Ben tells it, while driving through Cherokee, North Carolina a few years ago, he found himself behind a truck that was dispersing road ballast. Amidst the rocks being scattered were chunks fluorite of which these were pieces. Ben does not know where it was quarried. With a wink, he confesses: "I stole about 200 pounds of it."

Ben also had several boxes of doubly terminated Virginia quartz crystals resembling Herkimer diamonds such as shown at left. Most were quite large for the genre with a few scepters thrown in. He claims to have collected them from the wash in a gully near Bath County, Virginia. Of less eye candy appeal, but great for lapidary enthusiasts were extensive quantities of massive Virginia blue quartz being sold at giveaway prices. "It's all over the place around Boone's Mill in Franklin County, Virginia," Ben told me, and I feel confident that my notes recorded this bit of information correctly.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Discovering Quartz Crystals Near Burkittsville, Maryland

Increasingly when driving, I’ve taken to pulling over when feasible and safe for a quick look at roadcuts, rockpiles, construction sites, and whatever else relating to rocks arouses my curiosity. The practice hasn’t yet led to many interesting finds.

This past Friday, however, during a quick trip to Roanoke, Virginia, I enjoyed the good fortune of finding myself parked adjacent to a field where the soil yielded a few quartz crystals. The original attraction had been the presence of several small piles of excavated rocks and dirt in the northwest quadrant where Route 340 meets Route 17 (Burkittsville Road) in Frederick County, Maryland. Burkittsville is the named locality for some of the most spectacular quartz crystals I’ve ever seen from Maryland, such as the specimen pictured in the image below at left. Collected many decades ago, it is currently in the collection of Fred Parker. Although the specific spot in or near Burkittsville that yielded it is a big question mark, I know that Fred and others have collected near Burkittsville in recent years. Fred has shared two significant pieces of information about the area, both which were quoted in a previous Mineral Bliss post: first that "quartz crystals are present in the soil beginning near Thurmont and extending soutwesterly (past Burkittsville) almost to Harpers Ferry;" second "that paleozoic sediments beween the Wakefield marble and the precambrian metavolacanic Catoctin and Braddock Ranges are a souce of excellent quartz veins near where these mountains approach the Potomac River." It appeared that I was in a good place to take a look

After exiting off 340 to 17, the presence of a wire fence and a steep embankment ultimately discouraged me from checking out the rockpiles. Meanwhile, the recently harvested cornfield on the other (south/west) side of Burkittsville Road beckoned quite invitingly. Just about all of the rocks protruding from the soil in this field were quartz, an occasional few showing evidence of crystal facets. Within ten minutes, I'd pocketed the approximately one inch long crystals shown at right and a severely plow damaged larger piece of quartz that suggested a previous presence of small crystals, some colorless, some smoky, with many features similar to the one shown and others in the Parker collection.

This was not the first cornfield in the Burkittsville area where I've briefly paced back and forth with my head down in the past year, but it's the first and only that's demonstrated any promise. Though broken rocks speak for a myriad destructive plowings, the general location shows potential and deserves to be explored farther---with permission of course from the landowner.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Checking Out the East Coast's Biggest Show

Though a far cry from all that goes on in Tucson, the East Coast Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Show, which happened August 13-15 at the Better Living Center in West Springfield, Massachusetts, is as big as it gets here in the eastern part of the United States. A great overview of what the show was like, expressed mostly in photos, is the subject of John S. White's 597th post at Jordi Fabre's FMF Minerals Forum and Discussion Board. Photography has to be the quickest and easiest way to communicate the essence of a show. As for me, once through the door and past the 50 case exhibition of minerals from Bill Larson's (Pala International) collection, I quickly became too loaded down with rocks for dealing with the camera.


My favorite of the 50 Bill Larson cases appears in our title image featuring topaz and aquamarine crystals from Burma (Myanmar). Because of a schedule that limited my attendance at the show to Friday, I had to miss Bill's talk on Satruday entitled "Mining, Minerals, & Gems from the Legendary Valley of Rubies, Mogok Burma." Much of the mineralogy---and for that matter the cuisine---from that country fascnates me. I'd be curious if Bill discussed when and how such a seemingly endless supply of great stones get out from under the oppressive military dictatorship that rules.


It's easy enough to imagine, though, how someone could smuggle out the faceted .047 carat johachidolite pictured at left. Purchased from my friend Cassandra at the Dudley Blauwet Gems booth, it reflects my penchant for acquiring species I've never heard of and still intrigues me more than a week later.

Despite emphasizing gems thus far, one of my favorite aspects of the East Coast Mineral, Gem and Fossil Show is its preponderance of mineral specimens over gems and fossils. On occasion and for a variety of reasons, even ugly minerals sometimes grab my interest. Should anyone deem it to be ugly, the reason for my most sizeable purchase this year, the 5" x 5" x 1" chunk of fluoro-potassichastingsite shown below at right, was that Alfredo Petrov convinced me that it could be the biggest specimen ever collected of this rare amphibole. Its type and only known locality is the Greenwood Mine, an old magnetite mine about a three mile hike through the woods near Woodbury Township in Orange County, New York. Fluoro-potassichastingsite is not, by the way, the longest mineral name I've ever encountered. Last October, my eBay store, Jake's Minerals sold a protomanganoferroanthophyllite micromount to a collector in France. Such rare amphiboles are generally not very expensive. Alfredo was also selling a protoanthophyllite piece of which the only known specimens were taken from a Japanese drill core sample. "Much of the value," says Alfredo, "is in getting it tested."

Meanwhile, and as this is written, another Martin Zinn Show, about which people in West Springfield were expressing tremendous enthusiasm, is happening in Cartersville, Georgia. Much as I'd like to be there, my office is in the process of becoming buried under rocks. I don't understand how the collectors and dealers who do so many shows with such frequency find the time to sort out all the booty that inevitably results.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Collecting at Manham Dumps with Pat Haynes















The second week of of August this year found me, as it did last year, in Massachusetts, spending one day busting rocks on the Manham dumps at Loudville and the next enjoying the East Coast Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Show at West Springfield. The stories relating to each of these two days differ from one year to the next, however, especially where Loudville was concerned. Last year the Manham dumps at Loudville rated two separate posts at Mineral Bliss, which were prompted by a taste of beginners luck bordering on the miraculous.

Auspicious beyond luck this year was an opportunity to comb them with a field collector as accomplished they get, namely Pat Haynes. He has to his credit the discovery of eight new minerals and hopes soon to add number nine to the list. With most of his experience having beem in the Western U.S. and often underground, I was interested in how he would approach a locality such as Manham. Though Pat had brought along a 2001 edition of Rocks and Minerals featuring a map that showed where the dumps were, he made a special point of first knocking on a few doors. Although everyone we spoke with was pleasant and friendly, the only directions we received landed us all but lost in the woods. So we hiked back to the car and headed to where I'd parked last year at a pull-off uphill from the bridge on Loudville Road from which a short trail leads to the dumps. With my right hip awaiting replacement in a week, and no loupe, I'd hobbled the hundred yards down to the stream and crawled about the pebbles on the near side for less than an hour. Two of the half dozen I brought home to smash up because they were vuggy, ended up revealing wulfenite, pyromorphite, linarite, and cerussite under the scope.

The vast majority of the Manham Mine dumps are on the other side of the stream, their presence somewhat obscured at first by lush summer woodlands and the contour of the land. It is public land, and collectors are welcomed. Much of the rock cosists of galena bearing quartz that's often crystalized and blessed with numerous vugs occasionally revealing cerussite and anglesite crystals when viewed through the loupe. A few rocks show a bit of earthy light greenish brown weathered pyromorphite (not to be confused with lichen) on their surfaces. Broken open, small amounts of more colorful pyromorphite sometimes occur. When in vugs, the pyromorphite is likely to have formed needle-like crystals as shown in the photomicrograph at left. Wulfenite, linarite, malachite, and chalcopyrite sometimes accompany it. Collecting at the Manham dumps is all about breaking open the different rocks and looking at them through the loupe. I suspect that any dumps that could lie beyond the posted collecting boundaries noted on signs attached to trees are much the same and no more prolific. Though the number of rocks we each broke up and examined was probably about the same, Pat found most of best ones. Chalk that up to to his well trained eye pitted against my red-green colorblindedness.

When we were done, Pat left with two flats , while for the second year in a row, I departed with six rocks in my pocket. Pat chose to keep those that were particularly rich in galena as potential giveaways for students, Boy Scouts, or kids at shows. Were I to bring home that much material on a regular basis, it could end up taking over my house. If I knew where to find enough kids or whomever else to take them, I'd lug home more.

Being but a 20 minute drive from West Springfield, it amazed me how the day before the show, we had these dumps to ourselves. A collector named Dan from Texas, who had driven over from his summer home in Maine showed up for a while, arriving and leaving with only his hammer. He expressed more interest in exploring the area than looking for micro-minerals. Having mentioned that smithsonite was one of his favorite minerals, he joined us for a couple minutes to check out a splash of sphalerite Pat had uncovered in a piece of quartz. I would observe the next day at the show, which will be covered in the next Mineral Bliss post that Dan wasn't kidding us about his interest in smithsonite.

I am truly grateful for localities like this, where people are free to collect without having to pay fees and can collect interesting minerals. Signs attached to trees announce the kind of rules---no explosives, no commercial collecting, use hand tools and have fun---that the collectors who visit obviously respect. One rule states: "If collected samples are displayed or publicized, we want attribution to the New England Forestry Foundation." You've got it, and thanks again.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Back to Asheville and on to Little Pine

My first order of business on Saturday, July 24, was to maneuver through the ongoing merriment in the streets of Asheville to visit Rusty James at the Cornerstone Minerals tent. It was on the sidewalk less than a block away from the Cornerstone Minerals store at Lexington and Walnut. The jewelry here along with plenty of relatively inexpensive rough gems and minerals, some with metaphysical connotations, was selling brisquely. They were in a different league, however, from the ajoite and papagoite included quartz crystals from the Messina Mine, Limpopo Province, Transvaal, South Africa, that Rusty had waiting for me to check out down the street at his store. He was too busy to leave his tent right then, which worked out just fine. Mad Tea Party was playing "ukebilly" music but two blocks away at the Haywood Stage. That's Ami Worthen, Asheville's ukelele rock star, in the picture at right.

Two hours later, enough people were staffing the Cornerstone tent for Rusty to accompany me to the store, which was almost as busy as the tent had been. From under the counter he pulled out several flats from which I purchased two small ajoite included crystals , one loose, the other in matrix. both relatively free of the difficult to remove white material that frequently encrusts them. Rusty has been to South Africa four times to purchase crystals from the owner of the mine. On his most recent visit this past December, he received permission to dig and believes he's the only American ever granted that privilege. Ajoite and papagoite included quartz crystals occur nowhere else on earth. They command astronomically high prices that could go much higher, and Rusty questions how much longer the Messina Mine wil be able to continue producing them.


With business to deal with back in Baltimore on Tuesday, I left Asheville on Sunday early enough for a visit to the renowned Little Pine Garnet Mine (almandine), in Haywood County approximately 25 miles northwest of Asheville. Rick James Jacquot's book Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina provided good directions for getting to the parking area for the mine on Robert's Branch Road. Immediately past the parking area, the road forks. Blocking the road heading left was a sign stating that the garnet mine was closed and could be visited by appointment only. Therefore, I followed the main road to the right hoping to reach some dumps the book had mentioned and soon found myself heading up the driveway to the home of a farmer. A third road, overgrown enough this time of year that its presence hardly seemed apparent at first, heads from between the other two roads 100 yards into the woods to these dumps. Once there, I managed to dig from the top three inches of pleasingly soft soil a few loose crystals similar the one pictured below at right.

To make arrangements to visit the Little Pine Garnet Mine, collectors should first go to the Sandy Bottom Trail Rides establishment reached by turning from Little Pine Road onto Caney Fork Road a short distance north of its intersection with Roberts Branch Road. The people there couldn't have been nicer. After I signed a waiver, they readily granted me permission to visit the mine.

Without so much as a flashlight, I did little more than stand at the entrance to look inside the mine. My impression was that even with proper equipment, going in further could be problematic for one without experience. Every inch of the walls and ceilings that I could see had been worked and showed markings where crystals had been extracted. Rusty James' associate Greg, pictured next to Rusty and wearing a blue T shirt in our image from the Cornerstone minerals tent, had informed me that as recently as two years ago, he had chiseled some attractive crystals from the walls of a little "crow's nest" just above and to the right of the mine entrance. Perhaps not for the younger and surely more limber Greg, but for the likes of me, attempting to climb up there and whack away with a sledge hammer and chisel could very likely spell big trouble. Therefore, I opted instead to crawl around and dig amidst the schist and soapstone in the dumps immediately adjacent to the mine. While unsuccessful at locating any appealing crystals, either loose or in matrix, I found significant amounts of the kind of rough almandine once mined there to be ground into sand and used as an abrasive for industrial purposes. At different times, the site is said to have been mined for this kind of material as well as gem garnet.

The Little Pine Garnet Mine remains a popular spot for collectors prepared to work underground (or perhaps in that "crow's nest" that Greg mentioned) and willing to undertake a lot of extremely hard work. At this point, I would be curious as to the quality and quantity of what they are able to collect.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Asheville and Beyond

The Colburn Museum in Asheville, North Carolina was closing for the the next three days in deference to the surrounding gleeful madness of Bele Chere. That was why I beelined it to town via the Blue Ridge Parkway in deference to the joys of digging at one or two of the numerous collecting spots along the more curcuitous route. In early June, I'd snail mailed the Colburn to question whether the straw colored inclusions within the polished quartz stones pictured at left were really cacoxenite. My contention was that they were not cacoxenite; rather they were goethite. It would appear that either they ignored my letter, or I was wrong.


The dubious inclusions are most prominent in the smaller piece at the top, less so in the rounded stone below it. The lower one appears to be material often touted within the metaphysical world as "super seven," and frequently said to bear inclusions of lepidocrocite and various other minerals. Never mind that The Book of Stones by Simmons and Ahsian credits goethite with "past-life recall, connection with Earth, healing through grief, enhanced soul life, and artistic creativity." I should mention that regardless of labeling, both stones are attractive, and nomenclature should have little bearing on their value. My interest in them arose after purchasing a "cacoxenite in quartz" brooch for my wife this past February from a huckster at Electric Park in Tucson.


The following day, Friday, with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees, I left Asheville and Bele Chere to drive 60 miles to Franklin, North Carolina, which was just as hot, to visit its 44th Annual Gemboree. As in the past, this event features four locations quite close to each other. Much as we described it this time last year in Mineral Bliss, it featured few dealers not oriented entirely toward jewelry, gems, and lapidary rather than minerals. At the outdoor location across from the indoor one in the Macon County Community Center, however, I was fortunate enough to find one dealer with an eclectic selection of mineral specimens from old collections at appealing prices. The smithsonite from the 79 Mine near Hayden, Arizona ahown at right is one of several items I purchased from him. It's an old-timer, collected 31 years ago in 1979. Although the dealer knew as well as I did that apple-green (rather than darker green) crystalized (rather than botroydal) smithsonite from this locality is known to be very dear, he was kind enough to sell it to me as part of a volume deal for an extremely attractive price.

My late afternoon arrival back in Asheville allowed for time to catch the Trainwrecks playing their unique version of "dirty funk" at a stage just a block from my hotel. From there it was a five minute walk to Limones at 13 Eagle Street to sip a Maya Margarita made with mezcal, tamarind juice, orange juice, and cointreau followed by a plate of seabass with parsnip puree, haricot vertes, mango salsa, and passion fruit chipotle sauce. I then passed on dessert to walk two blocks south to catch Southern Culture on the Skids close down the day's entertainment.

The next day (Saturday) and night, I spent in Asheville, before leaving the merriment behind on Sunday in time to visit to the Little Pine Garnet Mine in Madison County about twenty miles northwest of town. The next Mineral Bliss post will cover those two days.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Quick Drive from Baltimore to Asheville

Much like Jazzfest in New Orleans the end of April, so Bele Chere in Asheville has become my favorite late July destination. My preferred manner of transportation to both cities is to drive---from Baltimore. Doing so provides a rare opportunity to sit still, listen to music, photograph appealing scenery along the way, check out interesting restaurants, and especially make a stop or two related to minerals.

As time permits, I like to spend as much time as possible first on the Skyline Drive and then the Blue Ridge Parkway. Enhancing my trip down the former was a glossy gift shop book entitled Geology along Skyline Drive: A Self-Guided Tour For Motorists, by Robert L Badger.

This book included a trail loaded with remarkable geological phenomena and afforded a great opportunity to monitor the extent of my recovery from last year's hip replacement. It was the 1.2 mile Bearfence Mountain loop with its awesome but reasonably safe rock scramble. Setting out from a trailhead at Mile 56.4, the first several hundred yards reveal rocks that quickly change from sandstone to phyllite to conglomerate to quartzite, until metabasalt takes over just before the scramble begins.

That's where some columnar metabasaltic joints, which curiously head out in two different directions raise questions regarding how they were formed millions of years ago. The Bearfence Mountain summit with its wonderful views and numerous comfortable perches for enjoying them is about a third of the way through the scramble and as far as some opt to navigate. Beyond the summit, the oppotunity to scramble continues in a southerly direction blazed by blue markers until reaching the Appalachian Trail.

Along the way, a volcanic breccia covers much of the metabasalt. Within the breccia are occasional air vesicles filled with minerals said to include feldspar, hematite, epidote, quartz and chlorite. Visually, they could almost pass for weathered black garnets.

After Bearfence, I next stopped at Mile 74.5 to check out the slickenlines and a few relatively colorful epidote pods adjacent to the Loft Mountain Overlook pulloff. My Skyline Drive geology book described slickenlines as "parallel lines or narrowly spaced shallow grooves formed by the movement of one mass of solid rock over another---commonly found on faults or in zones where the rocks were stressed." They were easy enough to find, and an example of what they look like is shown at left.

  The epidote pods, at least colourful ones, required a bit more searching Though epidote is common in this part of the Blue Ridge, its presence is often obscured (unless you bust open rocks) by lichens, moss, dirt, and general weathering. The most colourful example I was able to find without breaking open any rocks is shown in the photo at right.

Arriving in Roanoke early enough for dinner meant having to leave Skyline Drive about 50 miles further along before it becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway and then speed west across I-64 for about ten miles then southwest down I-81 for another hundred or so. My dinner was apt reward for this effort. Traveling solo, I ended up sitting at the bar in the Metro Cafe, one of Roanoke's more upscale and envelope pushing dining establishments. What really impressed me---I used to blog about exotic food before moving on to minerals---was that its appetizer menu featured chicken feet. Chicken feet are common fare in New York's or San Francisco's Chinatowns, but even in these cities I have yet to observe them on the menu at a "new American" style restaurant such as the Metro. Messy for sure, and I had to request a finger bowl, but what a great prelude to the BLT featuring pancetta and heirloom tomato slices that followed.

The next morning, inspired by the Falcon Guide book, Best easy day hikes: Blue Ridge Parkway by Randy Johnson, I departed Roanoke via the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore the Rock Castle Gorge hike. Its trailhead is reached by turning left from the Parkway on VA Route 8 at Milepost 165.3 and heading downhill to turn right on VA Route 605, then driving to where it dead ends. Attracting me to this hike was the following quote from Randy Johnson: "Sycamores and copious quartz outcrops are everywhere (the six sided quartz crystals prevalent here reminded residents of castle towers, hence the name of the gorge)." The section of the trail noted for its sycamores and quartz outcrops, however, left me somewhat underwhelmed and hardly enthusiastic about looking for a place to dig. Blame it if you will on a heavy cover of forested vegetation. Soon after returning to my car and reaching I-81, I observed quartz outcroppings that really did seem to be everywhere in the in hilly open fields to my left. Tlhough tempting locations in which to dig, doing so would entail parking illegally along the ramp of this major interstate, climbing a barbed wire fence, trespassing, and moving earth on someone's property in the presence of a myriad motorists, some of them surely police.

Asheville was still 200 miles away. By dark I was checked in at the Skyland Inn near Little Switzerland at Milepost 331. Close by is the North Carolina Mineral Museum, which features mining history much more so than minerals and their localities. Also nearby are resorts, gem oriented gift shops, a couple of salted "gem mines," and some great views. I stayed at the Skyline Inn, an older and somewhat rustic establishment, which comprised all these things in one package along with restaurant and a tiki bar.

Although the Little Switzerland area is completely tourist oriented, the route from here to Asheville along Routes 226 and then 19E passes near more varied and accessible mineral collecting localities than does any other stretch of highway I'm aware of in the United States. There are at least a dozen places to collect, and all the information needed to find them and know what to look for is in the book Rock, Gem, and Mineral collecting Sites in Western North Carolina by Richard James Jacquot, Jr. Depending on the amount of walking necessary, combing two or three of these localities in a day should be realistic. At some point, perhaps this fall, I look forward to returning for a week to check out as many as possible.

The more direct route to Asheville that I took continues to follow the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its scenery is breathtaking in spots, and along the way, a 1.2 mile roundtrip hike to to the Craggy Pinnacle summit from the parking area at Mile 364.5 proved to be an inordinately pleasant a leg stretcher. Aware of 98 degree temperatures in Asheville, my stroll through quasi-Arctic vegetation to a vista where with 360 degree views and 65 degree themperatures couldn't have been more pleasant. Asheville was next. The rest of my trip will be chronicled in the next Mineral Bliss post.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Masters Mineral Gallery and More

Long on my mind has been to make the trip to Elizabethtown, PA, for a visit to the Masters Mineral Gallery in the new Lyett Wing of Elizabethtown College's Masters Center for Math and Engineering. It is part of the legacy of Frank Masters, the renowned construction engineer and mineral collector, who funded the building itself and provided numerous specimens from his personal collection for its mineral gallery. Though mineralogy doesn't much figure into the cirriculum at Elizabethtown College, its mineral gallery is delightful space in which to linger.

Walk down the steps from the adjoining lounge area with its comfortable furniture, and sensors light up the elbaite-included quartz from Minas Gerais in the nearest exhibit case. This is one of five free-standing cases. The others each showcase one or two relatively large specimens. The largest holds a three foot cluster of Arkansas quartz crystals. Amethyst geodes and specimens bearing quartz, calcite, and fluorite inhabit the other free-standing cases.

Four much larger wall cases hold the majority of the collection. One case is devoted to different varieties and habits of quartz, another to fluorite. A case filled with worldwide minerals includes a list of the chemical compositions of each species therein both in writing and symbols. Most interesting to me was the case of Pennsylvania minerals. Some of them, for instance the orangish brown nodular goethite from Franklin County, I found to be quite spectacular. Others, such as the Phoenixville pyromorphite, impressed me significantly less.

Regretably, I missed and then learned later about the fluorescent case where at the push of a button, light changing from incandescent to longwave ultraviolet to shortwave ultraviolet cycles over the minerals within. Against a far wall were two more cases, one with a selection of gem materials polished into more spheres, bowls, and eggs than allowed room for labels. Another, devoted to paleontology, featured material ranging from petrified wood to dinosaur eggs.

My favorite aspect of the Masters Gallery was its inviting feng shui. Conveniently, John S. White, the former Curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian's Division of Mineralogy, played a major role in planning, organizing and developing the space, lives halfway between the Gallery and my home in Baltimore. By taking him up on an earlier offer to stop by if in the area, I soon found myself where the feng shui was yet more pleasing. Here the focus was less on the placement of minerals than space for gracious living surrounded by magnificent flower gardens. The neatly kept areas where John and wife Merle, who's Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal, nurture vocation and avocation are present but not apparent.

Later over dinner with John and Merle at a the Blue Heron, a new French bistro in York, PA, John summarized some highlights of his role in developing the Masters Gallery. He related how years earlier, when in London, he had disliked the metal and glass encased mineral display at the British Museum enough to rant about it in an article in Mineralogical Record (of which he was founder and original publisher). That the Masters Gallery also has cabinets of metal and glass reflects John's acumen regarding mistakes to avoid when working with these materials. Another important feature attributable to John is how the minerals in the wall cases are displayed on "steps" covered with fabric to which velcro bottomed labels comfortably attach. John also held forth on the ingenuity of mounts used to display the specimens. They were fabricated by David Graham.

Though not remotely comparable to the number of mineral displays with which John is familiar, I have seen enough of them to form judgmental, if not highly knowledgeable impressions. Many are too cluttered, a few too sparce. Some of America's most renowned exhibits are lighted inadequately to be appreciated. I do not know of an exhibit where the minerals are displayed in a fashion that pleases me more than at the Masters Gallery.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Beach Reading and Catching Up

Not enough time to read? Give up something to find the time? Is it practical and feasible to do so? Not always. The past couple of summers, a week at the beach has proven for me to be a great opportunity to catch up.

It's that time again, only this year we're not at the beach. Meanwhile, two stacks of reading material neatly piled up on the floor in the corner of my office had both reached a height of over a foot. I recently knocked a couple of inches off by removing about a dozen Mineralogical Record's with articles I had been waiting to revisit.

For a few months last year, Mineral Bliss offered a podcast that attempted to briefly summarize the contents of Mineralogical Record and Rocks & Minerals soon after they arrived through our mail slot. To produce this podcast in a timely fashion, I found myself skimming through these periodicals and moving on before enjoying them in the manner for which they were intended. Ultimately, the podcasting went by the wayside.

Any beach time this summer will not be long enough in any one place for very much reading. However, finding myself with an unexpected block of time during the relentless heatwave that is baking Baltimore, the confines of a well air-conditioned office proved more appealing than nearby beaches for revisiting some of the features in Mineralogical Record that most intrigued me over the past several years going back to July, 2007.

Here are a few highlights:

  • I've long enjoyed Wendell Wilson's editorials in Mineralogical Record. The one that left the strongest impression was entitled "Photographs: A Priority for Museums" from July-August 2007. It ranted about the myriad specimens stashed away at various museums, never to be seen, admired, studied or researched. Is this what those who donated or bequeathed them intended? Or is it what the museums intended by accepting them? Wilson makes his point as to the value for all concerned that phtographic documentation can provide. Is it that the museums lack the time or human resources? Give me a place to stay and a couple of unwanted specimens to take home, and we can talk about it.

  • Most collectors have their varied quirks and niches. Vintage micromounts are one of mine. What a pleasure once again to drool over the pictures and re-read the article in the March-April Minrec by Wendell Willson, Rock Currier, Carl Francis, and Sugar White: "George Washington Fiss (1835-1925) and his micromount collections."


  • The "American Mineral Treasures Issue" of June, 2008 recalled some great memories plus a lot I'd missed when an emergency on the home front mandated an early departure from that year's Tucson Show, which was one of the best, perhaps the best ever. Of course, now both a book as well as a movie have been produced about this amazing exhibit of the known best minerals from the 44 greatest localities in the United States.

  • The five part series spanning Mineralogical Record's last two editions of 2008 and first three of 2009 by Rock Currier entitled "About Mineral Collecting" is in my opinion a masterpiece. It covers all the bases of the hobby and the different kinds of players involved in it. No way I ever could have described myself as accurately as Rock did, even though we'd never met.

  • Being from the East Coast, I particularly like the way Mineralogical Record has kept readers abreast of productive localities in New Jersey. There was the Wendell Wilson piece with amazing images from May-June 2007 regarding the magnificent zeolites being collected at Millington traprock Quarry in Somerset County. More recently (November-December, 2009), and soon thereafter (March-April, 2010) appear picture packed articles(zeolites once again) by Frank A. Imbriacco, II covering the Braen Quarry in Passaic County and the Fanwood Quarry in Somerset County. With so little---at least that I'm aware of--- coming out of the classic Northern Virginia localities once known for similar material, it's great to know about recent action in New Jersey.

My next day-long read will lighten the piles in my office by about the same number of Rocks and Minerals editions. If the heatwave continues, this will probably happen sooner rather than later.



Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Remembering Larry Krause

Baltimore, Maryland lost its premier mineral dealer and a lot more with the June 2 passing of Larry Krause. Just about every local collector was both a customer and a friend. Dealing minerals was only one of the many hats Larry wore. Most of them extended far beyond the interests that bind us mineral people together. Regardless of the hat he was wearing, what most lingers in the memory is of Larry himself and the spirit that drove him. He was gentle, kind, opinionated, motivated by challenges, driven by ethics, civic-minded, cultural minded, good-humoured, and he had a great marriage.

Larry and I go back nearly 33 years, most of which had nothing to do with minerals. My earliest memory is when he as publisher and Alice as editor---they would marry five years later---engaged me as a writer for the Baltimore Chronicle. We spent many hours together over weeks, months, perhaps even a year before Larry mentioned that he collected minerals, which had been my hobby as a child. Soon thereafter, he took me to collect iridescent siderite at Arbutus Canyon along Washington Boulevard (long since paved over by Home Depot). As enjoyable as the experience was for me, a lifestyle encompassing two jobs, two children, and two acres precluded me from resuming this hobby that had been all but forgotten for 25 years.

Larry had a lot of other responsibilities as well during this period. They included publishing at least five community newspapers, two magazines, and a book. He also founded two nonprofits, and had prominent roles with more than several other organizations, among them the Baltimore Mineral Society, which he served at various junctures as secretary, vice president and president.
I stayed in touch with Larry, writing for four of his publications and serving on the boards of directors of two of them. In 1989, I began writing a weekly column entitled "Jake About Town" for the Chronicle. It related to everything that was offbeat about Baltimore's culinary scene.

"Jake About Town" became so much a part of my life that in 1992, I sold the home service brokering business which had been my livelihood for 21 years and launched a company to produce a line of extremely exotic canned soups. Though the soup business never made me rich, it replaced the worries associated with responsibility for thousands of jobs taking place in peoples' houses every year with a level of happiness and a sense of fulfillment I'd never before known. Were it not for Larry, this probably never would have happened, and I mention it only because of the role he played in getting me back into minerals, which became the next chapter.

During the final decade of his life, Larry gradually transitioned from publishing community newspapers to devoting more time to his mineral collection and Octahedron Minerals, the sideline business started years before. It wasn't long before the enormous two-room basement of his and Alice's house was filled with minerals from floor to ceiling. His personal collection was in one of the rooms, Octahedron's inventory in the other.

Around the time I sold the soup business in 2004, to earn more money in real estate and start thinking about retirement, Larry invited me to accompany him to a meeting of the Baltimore Mineral Society and encouraged me to purchase some minerals from him. By this time, I was telling people that minerals were "something to pursue when I get older." Though my life continued to be crammed with other commitments, Larry had soon sold me enough minerals to justify creating a space in the basement to display them. Shortly thereafter, the childhood passion that 45 years before had given way to sports, girls, and other adolescent distractions reinstated itself full force.

After learning that he had cancer, Larry began to sell off in earnest the inventory of Octahedron Minerals as well as his collection. He did so mostly by inviting specific collectors, usually in small groups, to come to the house and shop. Though receiving more than my share of invitations, and wanting to be there, I was out of town on most of these occasions, but recall all too clearly the one that I resisted. Our house already had more rocks in it than we had appropriate space for, and I wanted to see more of them moving out---a slow and tedious process when selling them on line---than coming in. How secondary that concern proved to be when realizing now the opportunity I missed to have had just a little more time hanging out with Larry.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

An All But Forgotten Maryland Gypsum Find

Among the most spectacular mineral specimens known to have been collected in Maryland are the blades and rosettes of gypsum (referred to as selenite when crystallized) that have been plucked from clay along the St. Mary's River banks at Chancellors Point and at Fort Washington in Prince Georges County beneath the bluffs of the Potomac. Lesser known, arguably more spectacular, and all but forgotten are crystals collected approximately 50 years ago from a deposit near Fort Foote in Prince Georges County about three miles down river from Fort Washington. For the second recent Sunday afternoon, a row, I had the opportunity to accompany Jeff Nagy on another drive to Virginia, this time to Strasburg for further research on his project to update and republish the 1981 Maryland Geological Survey publication Minerals of the Washington, DC Area by Lawrence Bernstein. Specifically, his mission was to meet and learn about the find from Gary Allard, who with his brother Brian, now deceased, had discovered the deposit.

For its year and a half of productivity, the site was the secret domain the two brothers. Gary appears in our title picture holding a rosette and the most spectacular crystal blade of the find, which is the largest crystal of selenite I've ever seen from Maryland. Amazingly, its appearance suggests that it could once have been part of a rosette. It is the same crystal that Gary was photographed holding 49 years ago in an article entitled Crystals by the Ditchful that appeared in the June-July, 1961 edition of Rocks and Minerals . At present, we are awaiting permission from Rocks and Minerals new publisher to post a reproduction of that earlier picture. If granted, one will be inserted herein soon thereafter.

Over less than two years, the two brothers pretty much cleaned out most of the crystals, using some for a science project at school and selling a others to classmates. Then they notified Ellsworth Swift,who authored the article in Rocks and Minerals. By then, the ditch had become less a source of crystals than what Swift referred to as "a challenge to discover the nature of the deposit and a chance to speculate on its formation."

He noted in the article that the Fort Foote crystals occurred in the Patapsco Clay, which also hosted other gypsum finds reported from the region. He described this clay as formed in the Cretaceous Age and variegated (in colour). Gary Allard recalled that the crystals occurred in a a "purplish" clay that was darker than the crystal bearing Patapsco clay at nearby Fort Washington. The crystals that Gary and Brian collected, whether rosettes or single crystals, were generally larger and less stained by clay than most of the better known material collected at Fort Washington and in St. Mary's County.

Particularly interesting was that while riverside bluffs had yielded the Fort Washington and St. Mary's crystals, those from Fort Foote were collected about a half mile inland in a ditch intended for drainage alongside what was soon to be paved over as an extension of River Bend Road. Just as noteworthy was their confinement to a 125 foot section of the ditch. Swift suggested that this could mean the crystals "concentrated along structural features such as joints," or that this particular deposit was "irregular in shape with the ditch merely cutting a cross section through the crystal patch.'" He explained further how the crystals were most likely formed when groundwater from the Piedmont that contained sulfuric acid from decomposing pyrite flowed eastward and mixed with the lime bearing beds of the Coastal Plain at Fort Foote.

Gary Allard now lives in the Shenandoah Valley near Strasburg, Virginia. He said he moved there because it had more kinds of rocks than than "that boring Coastal Plain" where he grew up." He still loves to collect minerals and prior to his recent retirement was a jeweler and metal engraver. One of his recent finds that amazed Jeff and me was the green quartz crystal pictured at right from near Front Royal in Warren County, Virginia. The book Minerals of Virginia, by R.V Dietrich, 1991, noted nothing like it from Warren County. The only green quartz the book mentioned was presumably massive and from another part of Virginia with coloration "probably due to included amphibole or chlorite." It too, Gary discovered along the side of a dirt road albeit not in a ditch.