Written by Pamela Silbert special to Post-Dispatch
Happiness, of course, can come in many forms. For a rock dog — and I know this all too well, being one — all this is guaranteed by time spent patiently sifting through the ground in a mine somewhere, hoping to discover a treasure where the gems are known to be hidden. And when a hand shovel or other digging tool detects something smooth and shiny in the mud, it’s as good as it gets.
We’ve had success in many places: at the sapphire mine in Montana; a fiery opal mine in California; three amethyst mines in Ontario, Canada (where in one of these mines, in heavy rain, the best time to dig, I discovered a heavy purple crystal that our friends nicknamed “Knob”); Mine beryl (aquamarine) in Virginia; And the mountainside opal mine in Idaho, to name a few. The only place we hacked was in a diamond mine in Arkansas (maybe better luck another time).
But Arkansas is also home to the state mineral of Arkansas: quartz. An inexhaustible supply of six-sided crystals, many of which are pure tap water, and often appear in clusters, appears to occur in the loose, red-clay soils of the “quartz belt”, a roughly 30-mile-long patch extending west from the Hot from Springs to Pencil Bluff in the rugged Ouachita Mountains. The crystals are decreasing in size as the belt moves westward toward the end of the vast sediments (much of it is now under Lake Ouachita, a 40,000-acre recreational lake created in the 1950s).
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Arkansas quartz crystals, especially large groups, depending on their size, clarity, complexity, and condition, can be of great value. So it is not surprising that there are many commercial mines in the area.
Commercial miners, who use heavy equipment to move the soil needed to reveal new material, may be the ones who discover the rare clusters. But that doesn’t mean that those looking for fun won’t make some unusual discoveries.
We first heard about your Arkansas quartz pits on a visit to the Natural State 30 years ago and were recommended to the Wegner Crystal Mines (five miles south of Mount Ida).
Richard Wegner, who operates the 40-acre Crystal Forest Mine and the 40-acre Phantom Mine, says he came here from Chicago decades ago “to escape the winter and grow vegetables.” But while he was plowing his land that first year, he discovered a quartz crystal and was intrigued. With the help of a neighbor familiar with the buried local treasure, he discovered the “mother ludes”, and in 1981 he opened the mines to visitors.
Wegner taught us a little Arkansas Quartz 101 (first, wear old clothes to dig; spots red clay). He explained that most of the quartz, which was deposited by super-hot water about 300 million years ago, is a “milky” substance. But the shale or sandstone in it is also pierced by cavities containing clear, flawless crystals and crystal clusters snugly protected by viscous red clay. The cavities, or pockets, may contain several hundred pounds of crystals, or even a few tons.
Wegner says that regardless of crystal size, if quartz has six sides, though they can vary greatly. One side might be too small to detect, but you can be sure it’s there.
He mentions the unusual specimens that occasionally appear from the Phantom Mine. While most crystals are clear quartz, one is sometimes found with a ghostly, gray-purple manganese that takes on the shape of the crystal, albeit smaller in size.
Visiting the mine show room is a real pleasure. Hundreds of clear, perfect clusters and individual spears carefully dug and cleaned here, from skinny toothpicks to the size of a baseball bat, are lined up on tables and shelves, glimmering in the light in an array of colors filtered through many fine prisms. If visitors choose to “dig” here instead of at one of the mines, the crystals are for sale.
The mine, which is a 10-minute drive from the headquarters – Wegner provides transportation – is open year-round Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years). Two-hour digging tours are offered, $18 per person ages 6 and up. Excavations are also available all day from 9:30 a.m. to about 4 p.m., $40 per person, all ages. You keep whatever you find, no matter the value.
For many, the first trip to a quartz mine, a bucket and tools at hand, begins a lifelong love of digging. Think of a 20-foot-high wall of shimmering crystals shooting out in all directions. Then think of the fun of preparing to work to free some of them, and make them your own. (Before COVID, Wegner offered free use of the tools. Now you can either buy them or bring them yourself.)
Two hours passed and the digging was over. But by then our buckets were loaded, and among the pretty things we picked up were two amazing large ones (which now decorate our living room).
Since our first quartz drilling, we’ve been back in the Wegner mines, but we’ve also excavated at other sites in the area. Our favorite is the Ron Coleman Crystal Mine in Jessieville (14 miles north of Hot Springs).
It’s been commercially mined since 1906, but it also allows visitors to dig in tailings, says Mackenzie Coleman, who with her husband Josh represents the fifth generation of Coleman involved in the mine. It was owned by the US government, called Blocker Lead No. 4, or Old Coleman Mine. Josh’s great-grandfather, Charlie Coleman, dug up quartz crystals here in the 1930s and was the first to hire the mine.
World War II created a huge demand for high-quality crystals for use in radio and radar equipment, and geologists considered Coleman quartz to be the best; You have set the global standard. In 1943 alone, the government used about 100 tons of Coleman quartz. Jan Thiel, a miner we met here years ago, told us that when a boy living nearby during World War II, carrying water for miners, saw “flawless crystals the size of a watermelon thrown into the crusher for the oscillators.”
Charlie Coleman was succeeded by his son Frank, and later grandson Ron, who bought the mine from the government in 1987. Four years later he opened it to the public. The company is now run by his son Kevin and grandson Josh.
Mackenzie Coleman noted that “99 percent of the quartz drilled in the United States comes from Arkansas, and the Ron Coleman mine leads the production.” The 30-acre mine, which is now about 250 feet deep and sculpted on several levels, is staffed by two full-time workers. Most of the thousands of pounds of micro-crystals they retrieve are either sold at the mine’s retail store and wholesale showroom, or trucked to Tucson for the huge annual gem and mineral shows there.
But tailings – or tailings – still contain a lot of good stuff. They are transported by dumper truck to a flat area the size of two football fields and piled in dozens of small mountains.
This is where visitors come to dig in, cost $25 a day for ages 16-54; $20, for ages 55 and up; And $5, for ages 6-15. They can dig in as long as they like, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day, and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Labor Day through Memorial Day. Closed Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The cavernous retail store in the mine offers hundreds of crystals and clusters, cleaned with acid and sparkling, as well as many other precious stones and minerals, jewelry, and a variety of gifts. And in case you do not find any “keepers” while digging, you can choose a crystal worth the digging fee in the store. Bushel baskets loaded with about 40 pounds of unclean crystals are also on sale, from $100 to $125, depending on quality.
Colemans recently added another attraction: a quarter-mile zip-line that runs over the mine, $33/ride. Packages that include a tour of the large shed where crystals are cleaned and the process explained, a pit pit and a zip line ride are available, $55 per person.
ron coleman astrologer, 155 Crystal Ridge Lane, Jesseville, Arkansas; 1-800-291-4484; colemanquartz.com. Mine also includes Crystal Ridge RV Park with 24 shaded sites, $25 per night for full hookup (water, electric, and sewer), and $20 per night for the tent site; Book in person or at campnative.com. For information about the campground, call 501-209-9933.
Wegner Quartz Crystal mines, 82 Wegner Quartz Crystal Ranch Road, Mount Ida, Arkansas; 1-870-867-2309; wegnercrystalmines.com.
Other mines welcome visitors:
Mount Coleman Miller Mine (belonging to Ron’s brother Jimmy Coleman), 350 Bigolle Road, Jesseville, Arkansas; 501-984-5752; jimcolemancrystals.com.
Fisher Mountain in Avant Mining, 11 Logan Gap Road, Mount Ida; 870-985-9988; avantminingmtn.com.
Arkansas Minerals 129 Watkins Lane, Mount Ida; 501-620-9178.
Jay Bonanza, 1024 US 270, Mount Ida; 870-681-0145; Offers prospecting for gemstones and gold
More information: For information on lodging, food, and other mines in the area, contact the Mount Ida Chamber of Commerce; 870-867-2723; mtidachamber.com. For information about lodging, dining, and other attractions in the hot springs area (including Jessieville), contact the visitor center; 501-321-2277; hotsprings.org.