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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

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Sherpa Guides > North Carolina Mountains > The Nantahala Mountains > Gem Mines of Macon County Area

Mining has a long history in Western Carolina, where rich deposits of a wide variety of minerals and gems have attracted prospecting and mining activities for more than 170 years. Gem Mines of Macon County Area

The Franklin area has long been known for its rich deposits of minerals. The region is popular with gem hunters, and an important tourism industry has developed around the mineral resources of Macon County.

The first commercial mining in the area was conducted in the late 1800s. Prior to that time, residents of the Caler Fork section of Cowee Valley had known about the red stones that commonly occurred in the creek's gravel beds. In 1893, however, a Tiffany's of New York representative named George Frederick Kunz produced a report on the value of the valley's rubies, which created great interest in the area. Many local people began sending their stones to Tiffany's for cutting and polishing.

In 1895, New Jersey mining expert W. E. Hidden began supervising work on Cowee Valley lands and old claims that were newly purchased by the American Prospecting and Mining Company. The company intended to find the source of the rubies and sapphires by digging experimental shafts and test holes uphill and away from Caler Fork. Similar testing was performed by the United States Mining Company and other mining interests. Despite these attempts, the source for the gemstones was never located.

In 1912, the state of North Carolina conducted a geological survey of the area and confirmed the presence of corundum, the mineral of which rubies and sapphires are the red and blue gem varieties, respectively. Because corundum approaches the hardness of diamonds, it was used for abrasives, bearings, and watch movements, as well as for gemstones. Neither the survey results nor the expensive mining company explorations revealed significant commercial quantities of corundum, though the mineral was mined for a time. The development of less expensive synthetic abrasives ultimately reduced the demand for corundum. The mining companies, therefore, halted their Cowee Valley operations early in the twentieth century.

Rock hounds and the tourism industry are the main beneficiaries of these early prospecting activities. Today, numerous old mines have been reopened and adapted to the desires of visitors wishing to mine their own gems. Some of these mines offer digs for native minerals only, while others offer "enriched" stream sediment, which contains minerals from other parts of the state or world. At some of these mines, visitors search for minerals from the creekbeds, while others sell buckets of stream sediment for washing and sieving at a flume.

Ruby City Gems

[Fig. 32(10)] Ruby City Gems, a retail gem and jewelry business in Franklin, features an astounding museum display of gems, minerals, and stone carvings. The extensive exhibit includes minerals from the Franklin area and from around the world, as well as North American Indian, Columbian, and pre-Columbian artifacts. The museum is open to the public at no charge, and the exhibit is displayed in a single large room located downstairs at the rear of the store.

Two features about this exhibit stand out. A number of the stones on display are giant-sized. One amethyst geode stands several feet tall and weighs more than 800 pounds. The lavender-tinted crystals inside the geode are several inches in diameter. Other large minerals and stunning agates are also on display here.

The second unique feature of the museum is its collection of mineral spheres. These large, highly polished spheres are derived from many different rocks and minerals. The elaborate patterns seen within the minerals were created not by artists, but by nature's own remarkable processes. The spheres themselves were masterfully created by the late Earnest F. Klatt, the founder of Ruby City Gems. His son, also named Earnest, continues to operate the store and museum. Visitors will also enjoy a store-level display of ivory carvings, jade sculptures, and huge polished slabs of red rhodochrosite. In addition, an adjacent room contains a wide variety of lapidary tools and equipment for sale to those interested in cutting and polishing their own minerals and gems.

Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum

[Fig. 32(11)] Gemologists and rock hounds will enjoy a visit to the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum in Franklin, with its collection of countless precious and semiprecious stones found in this mineral-rich region of North Carolina as well as other areas in and out of the state. The museum, housed in the old Franklin jail building, opened its doors to the public in 1976. As visitors enter the small lobby from the street, they are greeted by a volunteer host from the Gem and Mineral Society of Franklin. Gems and minerals are organized by rooms such as "The North Carolina Room," "The States Room," "The Indian Room," and "The Fluorescent Room."

Step into the fluorescent room, press the button, and listen to a tape describing the minerals that respond to long- and shortwave ultraviolet rays given off by the black light. Behind the glass, visitors are treated to a truly dazzling display of beautiful colors and phosphorescent effects produced by the various minerals.

Upstairs, an authentic jail cell holds a display entitled "Rocks Used to Make Glass," while other rooms contain worldwide minerals, as well as fossils from plants, insects, ocean-dwelling organisms, and even mammoths. There is also a display case interpreting famous stones of ancient Greece and the Mideast. Souvenir minerals can be purchased, and information can be provided by the volunteer hosts.

Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory

[Fig. 32(30)] Established in 1934, Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory is a unit of the Forest Service's Southeastern Research Station. In cooperation with more than 130 scientists throughout the nation, it helps determine the effects of human use on forest growth and ecology. Visitors can drive through the experimental forest for most of the year to see forest-management practices in hydrology, engineering, and silviculture. Silviculture is the tending of forests from an ecological standpoint and involves efforts such as regeneration and management practices for sustainability. A self-guiding brochure is available at the station office.

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