2007 MINING UPDATE (The Summer of the Gremlins Continues)

By Joseph L. Dorris

The following article appeared in Mineral News Vol 23, No. 10, Oct 2007 Issue.

Although the article appears as printed, I have added additional photographs, most of which can be clicked and enlarged.

September 19, after nearly 30 months, I was finally poised to begin mechanized operations on Topaz Mountain Gem Mine. You may recognize this mine as the two placers that Walt Rubeck formerly operated as a fee dig site before in spring 2005 he passed away. Topaz Mountain Gem Mine is located on the edge of the Tarryall Mountains in Park County, Colorado, about 8 miles north of Lake George. I initially operated the claims for Walt's wife Georgia, but later was able to purchase them. Although not practical to conduct a fee site due to the multi-thousand dollar annual special use fee charged by the Forest Service and the even higher cost of insurance, I hoped to begin a successful mining operation. Unfortunately, although I had collected topaz elsewhere, I had only marginal knowledge of the potential of these two placers.

I intended to sample the mine to determine its specimen and economic potential. Unfortunately, similar to the summer amazonite digging operations, (Crystal Peak Update, Mineral News, August 2007) the mining gremlins must have been given a heads up-in no time they appeared, playing havoc with our operation. Nevertheless, I completed a mostly successful exploratory dig and now have a better picture of the Topaz Mountain deposit.

Bringing the claims to operational mine status was exceptionally difficult. After taking over operations in March of 2005, I submitted an updated operations plan to the Forest Service and notified the Colorado mining board regarding the changes. Later, when I purchased the claims, having not heard from the Forest Service, I submitted a second operations plan. In the meantime, although there were no changes to the disturbance area, Colorado doubled my reclamation bond before approving the operation. The Forest Service authorized "hand digging only" while completing its arduous review. Consequently, I was unable to complete any significant sampling. I had found a few topaz, including one that cut a beautiful bi-color stone, but not enough to give me any good data.

105 carat bi-color topaz found by Tim Dorris
and cut by Ron Boyd
A couple of sherry colored topaz crystals

Unfortunately, during this time, a number of unscrupulous individuals took it upon themselves to begin systematically highgrading the mine and stealing topaz. It seemed the vultures had been waiting until Walt passed away and now they poured out of the woodwork intent on helping themselves to anything they could find. I was only marginally effective in policing the area and the County sheriff seemed always to have excuses as to why he couldn't swing by. Soon dozens of holes appeared, and once when I drove up, a dozen individuals scattered for the woods, some dropping their tools along the way. This, despite the signs I had posted. One individual who had overstaked the mine even went so far as to bring in a small backhoe and begin new digs on "his" claim. This ended when I notified the Forest Service. They shut him down-not for claimjumping, but for operating without an operations plan. Finally, I enlisted the help of a caretaker to help combat all the claimjumping.

(Allow me to ask for your help. As a mineral collector, it is certainly ethical for you to question the legitimacy of field-collected specimens offered to you for sale. True field collectors are great people. They are honest and take great care to get permission and they acquire their material legitimately. But there are some real scoundrels out there as well. They make their "living" stealing from others. For a fact, many fine Colorado topaz are found or mined legitimately. I certainly don't have the only producing mine; however, I did claim losses with the County sheriff for over $35,000 in topaz. My recent test dig has substantiated that this amount was too low.)

While I was waiting for approval, many people did request permission to dig for topaz. Often, I received calls from people from out of town who had heard or read about the mine and had driven many miles only to find the claims were closed. Not wanting to disappoint them, when possible, I'd set up a day for digging. Additionally, with the help of my caretaker, I hosted several mineral clubs this past season. I built and brought out screens for their use and on two occasions even rented a portable toilet and set up a sun canopy. My requirements for visitors who wanted to dig were twofold: I had to be present, and as the mine owner, I reserved the right to "first pick." Even so, almost everyone took something home and usually I allowed the finder to purchase what he or she found at a very reasonable price. (For next season, this will change since I am now using mechanized equipment and operating under a new plan of operations. The mine is not intended to be a concession; nor is it open to the public. However, you may contact me for possible digging opportunities.)

Jon Voelter showing a day's take from
hand-digging during the winter
Memorial Day weekend and numerous visitors Linda Himes displays a nice topaz crystal

Now, after nearly two and a half years of headaches and topaz thieves, I was finally ready to do some serious work. It was a beautiful autumn day; the backhoe was on site; my friend Chuck Borland from Bozeman, Montana had arrived to help; we were underway! You can imagine my thoughts when after two hours, we had our first break down. All I could think was, "They're back." Those beastly little mining gremlins had found me yet again.

Undaunted, by late the first day we were back operating. Unfortunately, five days later we again broke down. This time, we had to call in a mechanic from Colorado Springs; subsequently, we were down for two full days and most of a third. Even though the problem was minor and fixed within an hour (it could have been far worse), the bill was over $1,000. Ouch. The gremlins had almost done us in.

Chuck Borland and me in the new pit just dug with a backhoe Broken down

Partly because of this, I extended the dig for a few more days. I had intended to sample two specific sites and had only completed one satisfactorily before breaking down.

To test variance, I selected two sites in different areas of the deposit. Topaz Mountain Gem Mine is both a colluvial and alluvial fan composed of decomposing Pikes Peak Granite (Redskin Granite stock) covering about 1.5 acres. Most of the topaz originated from miarolitic and pegmatite cavities within the surrounding cliffs and were washed down with the broken rock. Other topaz originated much farther up the valley, upwards of 2 miles away, and were deposited by stream action. Some of the alluvial topaz are completely rounded. It appears the stream meandered through the narrow valley in the past and helped create a poorly-defined terrace on the valley's northeast edge. Other material washed down onto this terrace, forming a rather thick deposit of poorly sorted fractured granite, some gravel, but mostly soil and subsoil. The most recently deposited topaz are found in this colluvium and can be pristine, sharply terminated crystals.

My intent was to mine a sufficient sample to give me good data on quantity of sharply terminated crystals (specimens) and good quality cutting rough in comparison to the total amount of topaz. Most of the specimens, as would be expected, occur within 2 feet of the surface. The more abraded and rounded cutters occur in small seams of deeper gravel embedded amongst the large boulders. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, although the deposit in places extends12 feet deep, the topaz is largely confined to the upper 6 feet.

In relation to the grade of the slope, a heavy clay deposit is also found between 6 feet and 8 feet deep. This clay rests on red, decomposing granite. Although the granite has been largely reduced to gravel and can be dug using a backhoe, it is completely barren. Nevertheless, there is a chance some pegmatites will be located in this granite. I found two small pegmatite stringers at one location that produced small smoky quartz crystals.

To conduct the sampling, I used a combination of screening systems and careful hand raking. I built double screens on rockers that I patterned after the screens I used when mining sapphires in Montana. The only difference was the bottom screen was larger, allowing topaz less than 3/8 inch to fall through since they had little value. I also wanted to dry screen and a smaller mesh would have constantly clogged. Even so, the moist, upper soils frequently clogged the screens, and it was impossible to screen any clay.

I used the backhoe to scrape the topsoil down to what appeared to be the first area of deposition, forming a small "bench" across the width of the excavation. We raked this loosened material with a standard garden rake to check for topaz. Occasionally, a topaz turned up in this layer but most were found somewhat deeper.

We continued "benching" about 3 inches deep by 3 feet wide at a time, raking the new, loose material thoroughly each time. When we eventually hit gravel, we tested the yield by running several loads through the screening system. If we found topaz, we stockpiled the material. If not, we kept raking a shallow layer at a time. When we eventually hit the clay layer, we ceased operations and began a new bench. Although we tested material below the clay layer, we never found topaz. Eventually, we stockpiled about 12 cubic yards of gravel for future processing.

I'm working by hand to pick out the
topaz-bearing gravel from under a boulder
The main trench showing the working face In full operation. Screening samples to
check for topaz-bearing gravel
Chuck running a sample while I'm
shoveling more from the pit
I'm loading a screen for Leonard Himes
and Martin Zinn to screen
A rare sight. A nice topaz in the wall of the pit

Production was sporadic. We recovered almost nothing the first two days. On day three, we had our first significantly productive day and produced 24 good topaz and 38 small fragments. Sometimes we'd go an hour or more without finding a topaz. Other times, we'd turn at least one up on each screen. On one particular morning, when my operator I were working alone, we scratched a few inches off the end of a bench and scattered five crystals and several fragments of beautiful blue topaz across the bottom of the excavation. It seemed everywhere we looked we spotted another topaz. We quickly dubbed it the Easter egg hunt. Wow. What a beautiful sight.

Over the course of 12 days, we produced 435 topaz crystals and fragments totaling 4,750 grams. We recovered 30 well-terminated specimen-quality topaz totaling 582 grams (12.2 % of weight). The largest specimen is a bi-color, mostly pale pinkish orange crystal, 1.75 inches tall by 1.5 inches wide, weighing 109 grams. Cutting material was separated into "A" and "B" qualities, with "A" being the top quality. These were clean stones, and most were pale pinkish orange, pale blue, or a combination of the two colors. Others were colorless, pale yellow or pale green. We recovered 122 "A" quality cutters totaling 1,514 grams (31.9 % of weight). The largest cutter is a stunning bi-color rounded crystal weighing 95 grams that should produce a 200-carat cut gem. In sum, about 44 % of the yield has commercial value.

I also expect we'll recover about 90 grams of small topaz from each cubic yard of gravel we stockpiled, approximately another 1,100 grams. I'll assess this estimate as I complete screening this winter.

Three large topaz, averaging over 400 carats each From totally abraided to untouched Three very fine topaz crystals. Red, white and blue

Although the gremlins did their best to get in the way of my completing the sampling project, I'm satisfied the numbers are adequate to complete future projections for the mine. If all goes well, I'll begin work on a washing plant to process all the material. Due to the dry screening process used, many smaller stones, as well as a few large ones, were certainly overlooked. For a fact, one day Chuck stood on the edge looking down into the pit. "Well, Joe, aren't you going to pick up that cruddy quartz you're standing on?" I reached down at my feet and picked up a 90 gram, gemmy blue topaz crystal, one of the best specimens found.

Currently we are cutting some of the larger topaz to be set in jewelry. The better quality cutting rough and some specimens will be offered to collectors at Tucson.

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