Story and Photography by Richard Speights
They call Montana the Treasure State for good reason. I have no doubt from where I am camped high in the Sapphire Mountain Range, a fortune of gold lies within walking distance buried in the ground.We’re camped beside Sand Basin Creek, the banks of this mountain stream sparkling with iron pyrite. Fool’s gold is certainly beautiful. And although it is not gold, it is a good sign gold is near. Of course, many greenhorns have packed out all the iron pyrite they could carry only to discover they haven’t struck it rich but have wasted time and energy gathering a worthless metal.
Even prospectors who know the difference rarely strike it rich. Jack London ran off to pan his fortune during the Alaskan gold rush with a head full of know-how. He returned to California without gold but with a head full of stories, enough to earn him a million dollars in his lifetime.
Gold is hard to find. I’ve panned a little gold for fun; and, I must say, a little of this fun goes a long way. The water is ice cold, so my hands go numb after only a few minutes. My back and knees ache just as quickly for a few grains of gold I’m sure lie unrecognized in the bottom of my pan. I’ll leave prospecting to the prospectors and, like London, look elsewhere for my fortune.
Not only is gold hard to find, but it looks nothing in the ground like the refined product. It’s the same with gems. Unwashed in the dirt, a sapphire, for example, looks as plain as a worthless rock.
In the 1800s, prospectors discovered sapphires in these mountains not far from
Phillipsburg, Montana, just down the mountain from where we are currently camped. This discovery supplied the world with gems for a while. However, foreign mines have and continue to conquer the gem market. Between the costs of reclaiming the land to satisfy the State, the expense of the necessary equipment, and the wages for people to dig these gems out of the earth, it’s difficult for an American mine to compete.
So, if an American miner can’t make his mine profitable through one market, the miner must find another.
Chris Cooney, of Gem Mountain, has turned his sapphire mine, which would ordinarily do no better than break even in the international marketplace, into a going enterprise. Instead of paying people to mine the sapphires, people pay him.
For a price per bucket of gem bearing gravel, people flock to Gem Mountain for a share of the wealth.
When we visited the mine this July, about forty people were busy at just about all the available tables—a normal day. Although there’s always a chance of finding a precious rare gem of superior quality, there are no guarantees.
Patricia has been coming to Gem Mountain for a few years now. She enjoys finding these stones. This year, Chris has enhanced the experience by concentrating the load bearing gravel. Patricia noticed immediately, finding more stones of all sizes. After washing two buckets of gravel, she collected a number of larger and smaller uncut sapphires.
There’s nothing to the process. You pay for the number of buckets you want to wash and head for the gravel pile where a young person supplies all the tools you need (scoop, brush, tweezers, etc). You park yourself at one of a picnic tables covered with rubber mats, pour some of the gravel into a screened box, and head for the water trough. One of the young people who work at Gem Mountain for the summer, mostly college and high school students, will show you how to wash the gravel. It’s best to get some help the first time to see the process in action.
Sapphires are heavier than the rocks, so they tend to settle to the bottom of the screen box as you plunge it up and down in the water. Then, rocking the box side to side drives the sapphires to the center. Turn the box ninety degrees and repeat the process. After a while, you take the box to the table and dump the mess onto the rubber mat in one quick motion. Then comes the magic.
If you have properly washed the gravel, the majority of sapphires will have congregated on top and in the center of the flipped gravel. When wet, they are easy to recognize. You use the tweezers to collect and pop them into plastic film canisters supplied by Gem Mountain.
Through the years, Chris’s customers have found a number of outstanding stones of quality and clarity. Nevertheless, you may or may not find that rare stone. Rare stones are by their nature, well, rare. This trip, Patricia found several cuttable stones. There were plenty of smaller stones. She wants to set these as clusters on pendants.
Chris hangs out at our table as we talk. He seems an easygoing fellow, telling Patricia to spread the gravel with her hand. The gravel grips the rubber mat and rolls over so she can find more sapphires. As she picks through the rocks, he casually points out one sapphire after another.
“It is a little like gambling,” he says. “You might find something extraordinary, but generally people are paying about a dollar a carrot. My customers are happy that I’ve begun to concentrate the gravel. They are finding a lot more stones.”
He glances at the table and points out another sapphire. Patricia grips it with the tweezers and pops it into her film canister.
Once you have washed and searched all your gravel, you can take your sapphires inside to have them weighed and appraised. Patricia is pleased with her haul.
She’s not a gambler. She comes to Gem Mountain more for the fun than for the chance of finding that uncommon stone with which to enhance her retirement income.
She’s always happy with what she finds. This year, she’s a little happier for sure. If Patricia were a gambler, I have no doubt she’d have me out panning Sand Basin Creek for a chance at that gold somewhere near our camp. I’m glad she’s not; we’d probably just end up with a bucketful of fool’s gold anyway.
Dateline: Gem Mountain, Sapphire Mountain Range, Montana Oct 2012
Gem Mountain is approximately 90 miles southeast of Missoula. From Missoula, drive east on Interstate 90 to exit 153, then south on Highway 1. Drive six miles past Phillipsburg. Hang a right on route 38 (the Skalkaho Pass) and drive about 11 miles. The sign at the entrance of Gem Mountain is on the right and huge; you can’t miss it.
The season starts the week before memorial day and continues all summer through the end of September (the actual opening and closing dates depend upon the weather).Open 7 days a week, 9am to 7pm
PO Box 148
21 Sapphire Gulch Lane
Phillipsburg, MT 59858