Monday, July 11, 2011

The Road Not Taken Part II....The Sunstone Mines

After we left the town of Plush, we followed the line of vehicles out to the Sunstone Mines, roughly 18 miles on dirt roads. We did have a couple of stops, where the leader pointed out some interesting geologic features of the high desert around us. These features were all volcanic in origin. He also told us that Sunstones are feldspar combined with copper, created during volcanic lava flows. As rocks of a gemstone quality, on a hardness level they are an '8' compared to diamonds at a '10'. They most often are clear to a light yellow or gold, but sometimes can be found with a red, green or blue interior tint. Most common are gems around the size of your small fingernails, but some good finds are larger. The reason that these mines are in western Lake County, is because the lava flows are close to the surface here, and easy to access. This is the only place in the world where Sunstones are mined. Hundreds have staked claims, and we were told that there are claim jumpers and it is all taken very seriously. Sounds like the good 'ol days of the West, doesn't it? Our tour took us to three of the mines that are open to the public. Two of these charge the public to dig there. Our first mine was the Dust Devil Mine.

This is basically where the people live who own this mine. They have been there since the 80's.

And this is a Sunstone mine. Not what you were expecting? They look like large gravel pits. The large mines have invested a lot of money in equipment, such as cranes and conveyor belts. This mine charges you to dig here, or will charge a fee to let you look through their diggings on a conveyor belt. The fee runs about $100 an hour.

This is the owner of the mine, and he was showing our group some of the equipment and some of his better finds.

After a stop at a 2nd mine, we came to the Spectrum Mine, probably the biggest and most well known. The owners here let you dig for free and then pay for anything good you find. They also have conveyor equipment and you can pick through the diggings in more comfort for a fee. However, their equipment wasn't working, and they were feverishly trying to get it going, which didn't happen. This tour week-end, is the biggest money maker for them of the year, and it was a great loss that the conveyor wasn't operating.

This is a photo of some of their equipment. The Spectrum Mine has a tradition of serving a free lunch to all of their visitors, and a free outdoor dinner to any who are still there. The owner's wife had a nice buffet out under a few canopies for shade stretched between a couple of travel trailers. One they use for a 'rock shop' and the other is their living quarters.

We had brought a picnic lunch however, so availed ourselves of the shade and picnic tables and enjoyed a tasty picnic. They also provided a couple of outhouses out back, even a pink one for us ladies. (That sounds a bit better than it actually was however, and I was on the lookout for rattle snakes!) Our guide went ahead of us on the tour, with leg guards on scouting for rattlers, but never had to get any out of the way.

After lunch, we went down into the mine to do some digging. This is what the dirt and rocks looked like that lined the mine. Some of the lava flows are decomposing which makes different levels to work in. We noticed that one level smelled strongly of oil. The Sunstones you find are usually fractured or fracture easily. The guide told us this is because they cool at a different rate from the lava, which fractures them. The jewelry quality gemstones are big, with no fractures, so they can be faceted.

The insurance man and I dug a while on the wall of dirt, and found many little sunstones.

He would dig out an area, fill a bucket and search through it.

When he got out his pickaxe and got serious, I took a rest : )

He would take a bucket full up to Dad, and Dad would sift through it using the screens provided by the mines. Did I mention this was dirty work?? Some of the time Mom helped Dad with the screening, and some she sat down and dug in the wall close by.

Sometimes they would find a large clump of dirt or soft rock with sunstones imbedded all through it. They were easy to break apart.

Finally, we decided that we had had enough, and got our things and headed back to the pick-up. We had a little pile of sunstones, which they did not charge us for, as they were not valuable. They are pretty though. I did ask our guide if any of these mines were making money. He said that these owners had sunk their life savings into the mines, but most were not profitable. Several years ago they had been about to turn the corner when the Chinese found a way to synthesize the feldspar and copper. He told us they made the stones very cheaply and made around $100,000,000 before the deception was uncovered and stopped. Now the owners here are just hanging on. The economy also has played it's part. Recently an internationally known jewelry designer has moved to Central Oregon from Hawaii, to design specifically for sunstones and help get the word out. Her things are very pretty. They would like to promote this jewelry as 'homegrown', so that people who want to buy U.S. have an option here at home. Good goal.
We learned a lot about sunstones, the mining and this almost vacant area of our state. We brought the sunstones home, and are sending them to our grandson Samuel to polish up for us.

We left the Spectrum Mine about 3pm, and the insurance man had a new road all planned out for us to take home.

More adventures next time....

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