Nearly twenty years ago, I met another rockhound who traded crystals with me. I was living in Arizona at the time, so I gave him copper-bearing specimens like azurite, malachite, and turquoise; in turn he presented me with Herkimer Diamonds from upstate New York. Tucked into hollow cavities in the dense gray rock were tiny, perfectly clear quartz crystals with points at both ends – a condition known as double-termination. It was love at first sight. I promised myself that someday I would go to Herkimer and dig some out of the ground with my own two hands.
The first to know about the crystals may have been indigenous Mohawk Indians, who collected them from stream sediments and became known as “People of the Crystals.” Early settlers also turned the crystals up in plowed fields, but their discovery is credited to workmen who were cutting into dolomite limestone near the town of Herkimer, New York. Inside the dense dolostone they found small solution cavities called vugs and larger pockets that measured up to several feet in diameter. Floating within the cavities were quartz crystals so pure they gained the nickname Herkimer Diamonds.
As luck would have it, my visit to Adirondack Park put me within a few miles of of the precious crystals. I Googled Herkimer Diamonds and found two commercial mines on New York State Route 28 in Middleville, New York, the Ace of Diamonds Mine and Herkimer Diamond Mine, both of which allow collectors to prospect for a nominal fee. After talking to a few other collectors in the area, I chose the Ace of Diamonds mine because they regularly cut into the dolomite with endloaders, excavators and bulldozers and deposit the rock in giant heaps of stones ripe for the picking.
I paid my $9.50 day fee, rented a geologists hammer, grabbed a pair of safety goggles and set off on foot to tour the site. Some rockhounds were sorting through jagged stones at the top of rock piles, while others hammered metal wedges into cracks in the stone ledge surrounding the site, hoping to expose large pockets where hundreds of crystals await discovery. I squatted down in the no-man’s land between the ledge and piles and began turning over rocks, looking for ones that had evidence of cavities. Within minutes I had collected three medium size boulders and began banging away with my geologists hammer. A few hours later I had amassed a tidy pile of rocks with pure quartz crystals sparkling from hollow pockets in the matrix. Oblivious to the sweat rolling down my forehead into my eyes and shoulders that ached from swinging the hammer, I carried the best specimens to the car and lovingly packed my booty away.
The next day I flexed my hands and winced in pain, but not even blisters that had raised overnight could deter me from another day of rockhounding. This time I headed for Barton Garnet Mine, located in the south central part of Adirondack Park. At the open pit mine our guide provided us with a brief history of the mine, which had provided the hardest garnet in the world until it flooded in the mid-1980’s, eventually forcing it to cease operations.
In bright sunshine, the cliffs on the opposite side of the lake, the giant boulders scattered around the site, even the crushed rock beneath my feet glowed ruby red. I dipped my hand in water at the edge of the lake and scooped up a handful of soil; dozens of chunks of brilliant garnet sparkled back at me. My tour lasted only an hour but it was plenty of time to collect a bag full of garnets, some of which were large enough and clear enough to be gem quality. The $11.95 admission includes a season pass that allows guests to return for free as many times as they wish and a $3 adult discount coupon is available on the mine’s website. Any rock and gemstones collected on tour are a dollar per pound.
Resisting the temptation to do a second hour at the mine, I headed back to the Irondequoit Inn to watch yet another stunning sunset from the front porch. I settled into a rocking chair as a sinking sun painted the sky blood red and stayed until a brilliant swathe of stars popped from a tar-black sky. Diamonds and rubies, by day and night.