Mining in the Mountains

Posted on September 4, 2016


One of guys working at the Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Gem Mine, a thin mountain man, with lots of beard and tattoos, slipped up on past the water slues with a pistol hanging from his hand. They guy weighed maybe 97 pounds, soaking wet, and gave new meaning to wiry. A cigarette hung from his lip.

We were up somewhere near Franklin, North Carolina, my wife determined to score some semi-precious metals in one of the many gem mines serving the tourists from Florida to Michigan and every state in between it seemed from glancing at the license tags.

She bought her $50 bucket of rocks and dirt, salted with a few sapphires, rubies, pyrite, and other stones imbedded in these ancient mountains, the Great Smokies, and was sloshing away in the sluice of water with her miner’s wire basket, assaying and separating the possible gems from just junk.

“These look like old stones to me,” I offered, holding two stones, while sipping a cold Coca Cola and keeping her company a bit.

“No, you just don’t know. Those could be—probably are—sapphires. Just put them in the sack.”

Later on I asked the “gemologist” of Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Mine while she was stuffing the refrigerator with cokes and soft drinks to sell to other thirsty miners.

She looked at them over her shoulder, “those are just common rocks,” and continued to stock her ice box.

I should have been a gemologist. I know a rock when I see one.

Nonetheless, hope springs eternal at gem mines dotting the area.

I’m told that Tiffany’s used to buy their stones in these mountains many years ago. Mount them nicely and display them on one of those lovely backlit display windows on Fifth Avenue at Christmas time in New York City. Wow, I bet you could even sell a rock!

Anyhow, the lean fellow with the tats, the cigarette and the pistol went up a few yards from where all the Forty Niners from all across the U. S. were washing their buckets of minerals in the sluices.

“What’s he doing?” I asked a fellow non-miner like me who had his family up from Orlando. We were in the shade watching the rest of the show.

“Someone saw a snake up in the creek at the foot bridge.”

It was only a few feet away from the miners so the shooter decided to eliminate the threat. The barrel on the pistol looked almost as long as his arm. No fancy 9mm Glock in this part of the woods.

I watched for a few minutes. The miners all moved a bit away from the area of action, kind of like a flock of sheep, but after nothing happened they went back to mining.

The shooter came back and spoke to the lady who I am guessing either owned or operated the mine.

“Anybody got a pistol?” she asked. The one with the ten-foot barrel obviously didn’t work.

A few more minutes passed while my new friend from Orlando and I chatted about snakes.

I told my wife to not get excited. “A guy may be shooting a snake in a bit. Loud noise you know.”

She looked at me as if I had warned her of an imminent meteor strike from space and returned to wash her next load of dirt in the sluice.

Then we all jumped as the thin man with a pistol or revolver that actually worked fired into the creek bed. Bam! The blast echoed through the mine and into the woods.

The snake was dispatched and everyone returned to the task at hand.

After an hour or so, we got back on the highway and wound down the mountain and rode the Blue Ridge Expressway to our RV parked in Asheville at the Bear Creek RV Camp.

My wife was disappointed with her little clear plastic sack of gems from the Mason Mine.

“Not like last time for sure,” she remarked on the way home to the RV.

We have visited the southern Great Smokies many times over the years, and she grades all mines against one closer to Franklin which really pleased her, staffed with an apparently real gemologist who for a price could cut and mount her new found stones.

Published as “In Search of Sapphires in the Smokies” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday August 14, 2016