Field of Schemes

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

I basically knocked on every door between Boulder and Casper. Everybody looks for the romance. But mostly it was just going through a lot of pairs of boots.

Dan Miller: After a while, Cominco flew some of us from Wyoming out to their labs in Spokane, and we toured the facility. They were taking huge kimberlite samples out of the State Line region. Then they'd build special boxes--seven or eight cubic feet--and fill them with kimberlite and ship them out for analysis.

Cominco had found a lot of diamonds. They'd carefully hand-picked them out and put them on glass slides. Most were just the size of a pin. But there were dozens and dozens and dozens of them.

From that point on, they didn't tell us anything more than they had to. After about a year they submitted a statement saying there was sufficient reason to build a lab just outside of Fort Collins. Everyone was going berserk in those days.

In late 1872 geologist Clarence King, who seven years later would help establish the USGS and become its first director, was finishing up a huge project, leading the Fortieth Parallel Survey. Between trips to the field, he heard about the diamond rage and the riches being found at a mysterious location somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. "No one with normal senses could have missed signs of gem-stone fever during that hectic summer," King's biographer, Thurman Wilkins, wrote.

At the time, speculation as to the location of the mines centered on Arizona. But by calling upon his extraordinary familiarity with the West, King was able to do what thousands of speculators could not: Using only the meager clues leaked out by Arnold and others to the press, King nailed the site of the fabled mines. He later explained his geological gumshoeing:

"I knew from the condition of the Snake, Bear and Green the time unfordable, that [the diamond party] had not gone to Arizona, as alleged, and from the report of Janin I had learned that the discoveries had been made upon a mesa upon a pine timber. From a knowledge of the country, I was certain that there was only one place in that country which answered to the description."

King's detective work was soon confirmed by a pair of colleagues. Through sheer coincidence, five months earlier two of his geologists had been on the same train out of Rawlins as Harpending's party on its return from the diamond fields. Under the guise of professional curiosity, the geologists had pieced together scraps of information dropped by the jubilant prospectors. When they combined those tidbits with their knowledge of the land, they, too, had pinpointed the Colorado location.

On October 29 King met his fellow geologists at Fort Bridger and set out to find the gem fields. By then winter was fast approaching, and Colorado's weather had already turned bitter. Ice balls formed on the horses' legs during stream crossings and "rattled as they went like rude castanets," a member of the party wrote in his diary.

It took the trio six days to travel to the area that King had calculated as the probable site. They camped at the head of a gulch and rode in the following morning. Incredibly, after only fifteen minutes, King sighted a notice fastened to a tree claiming the rights to the stream and signed by Henry Janin. Within an hour the geologists had followed tracks to a windblown field. They dismounted and began to dig.

"Gemstone fever hit them hard, and kept them searching the sandstone floor as long as daylight lasted," Wilkins wrote. "Each discovered several rubies, but diamonds were harder to find. They found three diamonds between them."

But the second day of prospecting brought some unsettling revelations. For starters, King and his men determined that no matter where the gems were uncovered--most of the precious stones were found in anthills--they occurred in nearly identical proportions: one diamond per dozen rubies. Other diamonds were discovered in unlikely locations--perched on windswept, exposed outcroppings and jammed into crevices.

The men looked closer. Soon they observed that at the base of the anthills containing gems was evidence of small holes clumsily covered up; anthills without the holes held no diamonds or rubies. King ordered a systematic search of the area, instructing his men to dig to the bedrock, where, because of their specific gravity, diamonds ought to congregate. They found nothing.

Dan Miller: We finally got a letter from Cominco one day in 1986 or so, saying they'd decided not to pursue their State Line operations anymore.

Dan Hausel: Eventually everyone left. Except for Howard.
Howard Coopersmith: We had had short periods of excitement or enthusiasm. There are only about 4,000 known kimberlite pipes anywhere on earth, so anytime you found one it was significant. We usually opened a bottle of champagne when we discovered a new one. We eventually found thirty kimberlites in the State Line region.

But there were also periods of two or three years when you wouldn't find anything and wondered whether you should keep going. It got really depressing, particularly in the early 1980s.

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