Field of Schemes

A gem of a story about diamond mines--real and fake!

Malcolm McCallum: In 1973 I went to the first International Kimberlite Conference, in South Africa, and I brought samples from our research sites outside of Fort Collins. People were telling me that I was crazy--everyone knew that there were no diamonds in North America. Obviously, though, as soon as you have kimberlites, you recognize there could be diamonds.

Despite that, we decided early on that we weren't going to look for diamonds, because we'd lose access to our research sites. But in 1975 we were preparing kimberlite rock samples, and one of them chewed up a lap wheel at the USGS office at the Federal Center, in Denver. They called me and said, "One of your sections wrecked our lap wheel."

I said, "Don't touch a thing."
Dan Miller, director of Wyoming's Geological Survey, 1969-1981: Malcolm was working with a number of grad students at the time. He had them collecting small, bowling-ball-sized samples. The lab would then put them on a diamond saw--steel impregnated with diamond dust--and cut slices.

This one wouldn't cut, though. The saw kept bucking. It's like trying to saw a board with nails and the blade just keeps stopping. It would hit something and just bounce. The lab tech eventually became frustrated and broke his way through, ruining the saw. It just didn't register that there could be anything in the sample harder than the saw.

So next they tested it on a lap wheel--a horizontal steel grinding wheel, like a mill stone. And things just weren't grinding right. In fact, when the tech lifted up the sample, he found that gouges had been made in the steel. To a geologist, that's just inconceivable. There's only a couple things in the world capable of that.

They looked under the microscope, and there were diamonds. Minute, tiny diamonds. But there were lots of them.

Malcolm McCallum: Once this thing turned up in our labs, of course, we had to announce it.

Dan Miller: I was seated at my desk at the Wyoming Geological Survey building when the telephone rang, just like any old telephone call. The voice said, "This is Vince McKelvy." I didn't recognize the name at first, but he said, "You remember me; I'm the director of the USGS."

We chatted a bit, and then he said, 'I have something important to tell you. But you must promise not to divulge anything I say for at least three days--and that means not even to your wife. It will cause a great deal of excitement in a certain segment of the business community.'

Then he said, "Diamonds have been discovered in Wyoming."
The reason I couldn't tell anyone, of course, is that you can't imagine the rush it would cause. If a prospector reads in the evening paper anything having to do with the potential of a mineral discovery, he'd be in his car right now, dinner left on the table, and he'd be there by midnight. You cannot believe what the human mind is capable of in terms of greed.

As soon as I got off the phone, I made a quick phone call to the governor's office. At that time, it was an old friend of mine, Stanley Hathaway. I didn't tell him about the diamonds. I said, "I have some very, very important information that I can't tell you right yet. But I need to set up an appointment as soon as possible."

Three days later we met. At the end of my presentation I looked up at the governor, and he was grinning. He just kept grinning at me. Eventually, he said, "Now, Dan, you will take care of this problem, won't you?"

It's one of those things that an exploration geologist gets to experience once in a lifetime. We knew that as soon as the information got out of the room, all hell was going to break loose. And it did. People came from South Africa within 48 hours.

We had many, many phone calls. The phones rang steadily for a week, wanting details. Well, we didn't have any details. But people from South Africa wanted to know: What was the terrain where the diamonds were discovered? What was the climate?

In the fall of 1872, newspapers throughout the West offered daily speculation as to the location of the fields where diamonds and rubies lay scattered about like spilled marbles. Guesses ranged from sites in Arizona and New Mexico to ones in Colorado and Nevada.

Denver's newspapers touted the prospect of diamonds in the backyard, although nobody knew for sure where, exactly, that might be. "Colorado is just as good a place to hunt diamonds in as Arizona or South Africa," the Denver Times mused.

The Rocky Mountain News was more circumspect. "Let no green youth drop his implements of husbandry and hie to the Rio Grande or the farther reaches of Colorado in quest of sudden fortune in the shape of heaps of diamonds like pigeon's eggs in size and of the finest, rarest quality," the paper editorialized.

The city paid no attention. "Denver was ablaze with excitement. There were diamond headquarters here, there and everywhere," the Denver Tribune recalled a half-dozen years later. "Everybody was either president, vice-president or prospector of a diamond exploring party."

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