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The Treasure of the Himalaya Mine by Veryle Carnahan 1960

Last Updated: 20th Oct 2010

By Scott L. Ritchie

Carnahan, V. 1960. The Treasure of the Himalaya Mine. Gems & Minerals magazine, November, pages 21-25, 55-57.

It all started here. This photograph was made in 1904 and shows the original ledge of the Himalaya Mine. The worked out pockets can be seen in the dike. Note the blocks of pegmatite in the foreground. (Courtesy of Ralph Potter.)

Many are the reports on San Diego's famous pegmatites, but none of them tell about the legends and lore of —

The Treasure of the Himalaya Mine

By Veryle Carnahan

President, California Federation

Miner removing debris from the old tunnel (1958). Tools, lanterns, and ore cars were found where the workers had abandoned them over 45 years ago. (Ralph Potter.)
  In the sleepy little town of Mesa Grande, in San Diego County, California, an unimpressive country road leaves the highway, bridges a creek, and then starts to climb up to the four thousand foot level where lies the treasure chest of the Himalaya Mine. This winding, steep and sometimes impassable road has been traveled by hundreds of rockhounds during the years the mine was open for collecting — rockhounds who, weary of the desert heat, found the cool, green pines of the mountain meadow a pleasant change of scenery. Here, in the shade of tall trees perched precariously on the sides of the Pine Tree dump, the collector could screen the debris of half a century's mining for the lovely tourmaline crystals that were missed by the haphazard methods of the early miners. The old dumps, reworked as many as eight times have reluctantly given up hundreds of specimens to treasure seekers for their collections or to be cut into attractive faceted stones or cabochons. At night the air is clear. The stars touch Mt. Palomar a few miles away. Sleep comes easily after a round of tall tales and legends told by the light of the camp fire. Many of the legends and myths are about the lost and buried treasures of the Himalaya Mine.

Many years before the discovery of tourmaline in California by Henry Hamilton on the slopes of Thomas Mountain in 1872, years before the first ledge was mined at Mesa Grande in 1898, the Indians valued the colorful and mysterious crystals. They searched for them in the cavities which erosion uncovered high on the mountain slopes. They picked them up as float from the ravines and gullies. The multicolored, oddly shaped, transparent prisms were buried with the dead, presumably as charms or amulets. Reports of these ancient burials were the basis of the earliest legends.

Entrance to the tunnel of the Himalaya Mine. When the old tunnel was reopened the tracks were uncovered for a distance of 528 feet. (Photo by Ed Porter.)

Who Has the Green?

During the reign of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi of China, which coincided with the peak production years at the Himalaya, pink tourmaline was in great demand for the exquisite carvings of the skilled Oriental craftsman. The empress regarded the pink stone as sacred and this contributed greatly to its popularity and high price. The almost complete lack of interest by the Chinese in importing the green variety of the gem was the foundation for another treasure story.

A clever miniature guillotine, a sharp knifelike arrangement, chopped the brittle, bicolored crystals in two, separating the desirable pink from the unwanted green. A great mystery has grown up around the disposal of the green gems. Herb Hill, a former worker at the mine and caretaker until his death in 1954, firmly believed that at least two tons of the green rejects were buried on the property, a huge treasure cache waiting for some lucky collector to uncover it. It is more logical to believe that this unwanted material was disposed of on the waste dump or an effort made to place it on the market.

One story told of the green pencils being packed in boxes and carried up to the mine for storage by the pack horses on their return trip from the sorting sheds. Another theory concerns J. Goodman Braye, who worked the mine for the Himalaya Mining Company. Once a month he made a trip to the nearby town of Ramona and on each occasion a trunk was seen in his buckboard, possibly filled with the green crystals. It is apparent, in retrospect, that the missing gems were shipped to the company's lapidary shop in the east and some undoubtedly found their way to Idar-Oberstein to be cut into cabochons and beads. Many of the crystals that reached the shop met a worse fate than the guillotine, being ruthlessly smashed to obtain the clear and gemmy areas.

Rockhounds used wire mesh screens to sort the crystal fragments from the rock and clay. (Photo by Ed Porter.)
A third tale of treasure is related. Its plausibility was debated often around the campfires during the years the property was open to collectors. It had its origin in the crude methods used to open the pockets, the gem bearing cavities in the pegmatite formations, and the inefficient way the stones were sorted in the early days. The abundance of particolored, bicolored prisms in endless combinations of green, blue, deep red, rose tourmaline; pink (morganite) and aquamarine beryl; spessartite and essonite garnet; and the unbelievable richness of the pockets made for very careless work at the sorting tables.

Where Were They Sorted?

The miners would extract the clay coated crystals from the vugs and put them in buckets. The remainder of the pocket material would be discarded with out being washed or screened. Sometimes the miners would squeeze the clay between their fingers, searching for the fine, needle-like crystals. Occasionally they would run into a pocket of microscopic tourmaline and the sliver-thin crystals would penetrate their fingers which would become infected. If this happened often, their hands became so sore they were unable to work and lost the three dollars a day pay. It became the usual thing for the troublesome pockets of the type to be charged with powder and blown out to be rid of them. The fragments were lost among the boulders. Many of the crystals, tourmaline and other gemstones and the rare minerals such as stibiotantalite, were missed in the clay of the carelessly mined pockets and were consigned with the debris to the waste dump. Many were dropped to become lost in the soft earth beneath the sorting tables. The site of this operation has aroused much interest and conjecture. But its location has never been determined.

The waste dumps of the Himalaya Mine have been screened as many as eight times by collectors searching for tourmaline. (Glenn Vargas.)

Later Day Treasures

But the greatest treasure of the Himalaya has been unearthed by Ralph R. Potter of Borrego Springs, California, one time rockhound, gold miner, coal miner, and now the most accomplished "pocket picker" in San Diego County. Mr. Potter purchased the historical and supposedly worked-out gem mining property in 1952 from Helen Quin Kong of San Francisco. She had inherited the mine from her father. Ralph has become an authority on the peculiarities and the inconsistencies of the mineralogist's "happy hunting ground," the pegmatite dike. He has also absorbed much of the legend and lore of the famous mine, gleaned from long conversations with Herb Hill and with Vance Angel, whose ranch adjoins the Himalaya property. We are indebted to Mr. Potter for sharing these interesting tales of a bygone era with us.

The elongated dikes or veins of Mesa Grande Mountain have been tapped in several places but only the Himalaya Mine became world famous and one of the great producers of gem tourmaline. It was not until July 1957 that Potter decided to attempt an opening of the original tunnel at the old mining site. The old-timers had warned him it couldn't be done, but discouraged with the results of other mining activity at the location, plans were made to tackle the "impossible job." The weather played a big part in this decision.

Opening a pocket in the Himalaya pegmatite. (Glenn Vargas.)
When the tunnel was first opened, at the turn of the century, the average rainfall was about 54 inches a year. But the years Potter had spent on the mountain had been years of drought. There had been very little precipitation for almost a decade and the ground and timbers of the old workings were about as dry as they would get. The mine was in a very dangerous and inoperative condition from the ravages of time and neglect. Water drained from the open cut above the entrance down into the mine for many years. The native pine, long used for timbering, deteriorated in four or five years. Many times they were not replaced regularly when the mine was in operation. In the course of fifty years much of the tunnel had caved in.

Many years ago a section, 350 feet from the entrance and 70 feet below the ground level, collapsed. The damage was apparent even on the surface, so great was the depression in the earth. The miners tried to repair the damage but were apprehensive about working at such a dangerous task. Finally, two Swedish "timbermen" from Minnesota said they would "catch it up." They finally accomplished the job, using forty cords of wood.

Four of five sets (a framed timber form used to support ground or rock) had come down. The timbermen had to drive spiling (sharp pointed timbers) ahead of them through the decomposed and treacherous rock, then dig out the debris under the logs. Four-foot sections of pine were used for the cribbing (a framework to hold up the roof) and for the timbers or legs of the sets. Heavy native oak was used for the lagging or cap timbers. The process was repeated persistently until the tunnel no longer continued to "come down" but the depression left on the surface can still be seen today.

The tourmaline and other minerals are embedded in a clay cushioning thoughtfully provided by nature. (Glenn Vargas.)

The Old Tunnel

Persistence won also for Potter and his workmen. A bulldozer was brought in and the debris of many years cleared away from the old entrance. With the discovery of the old tracks, a path through the silt and fill was indicated. It was followed a distance of 528 feet to the end of the tunnel.

Although the air shaft was covered in 1913 and the mouth of the tunnel had caved in in 1916, water running through the mine had deposited its burden of silt until the tunnel was completely filled for about 400 feet from the entrance. An obstruction of fallen rocks and timbers had prevented silting of the remainder of the diggings. Oddly enough, when the roof collapsed in many places, it could fall only a few inches to the top of the fill.

The mine had been closed down in 1914 when the bottom dropped out of the market for the massive pink gem material. It had been reported that production at the mine stopped in the middle of the day's work on orders of the owner, L. Tannebaum, a dealer in precious stones with offices at the corner of Maiden Lane and Nassau Street, in New York City. This report was substantiated by Potter for, when the end of the tunnel was reached and before the rubble of years had been completely cleared away, a pocket of gems was discovered. Evidence showed that production had indeed ceased in the middle of a day's work. Crystals, old tools, picks and shovels, little hooked bars called "pocket robbers," lanterns, ore cars and other relics of the past were found where the workmen had abandoned them over forty-five years ago. The far eastern market for the fine pink stone had collapsed but the Himalaya Mine was only resting quietly before again giving up more of her treasures.

It has been written that the "chemistry of the tourmaline is more like a mediaeval doctor's prescription than the making of a respectable mineral." This complex silicate of boron and aluminum does have one of the longest formulas of any gemstone: H9Al3(B,OH)2Si4O19

It is a strange product of nature's alchemy, full of magic and unusual phenomena. No witch's caldron is used to bring forth these multicolored crystals but the pegmatite dikes in which they are conceived are like a sorcerer's cloak, folded and wrinkled within the earth, its many secret pockets filled with hidden treasure.

A few crystals in the previous pocket shown above have been removed and new crystals exposed. (Glenn Vargas.)
The pegmatites are still an enigma in many ways but Ralph Potter has discovered some of their secrets. The dikes are generally uniform in thickness and follow the slope of the mountain. These on the Himalaya property extend for about 1000 feet and it is believed they burrow deep into the hill. Pocket pegmatites may vary greatly in size but some of the richest are no more than twelve to eighteen inches in width.

When mining operations began at the Himalaya, the open cut method was used. A great strike was made on the site of the Pine Tree dump, a great pocket which yielded, according to conservative estimates, as much as two tons of tourmaline. It took two weeks of activity to remove the bonanza.

The cavity was no more than thirteen inches wide but the excavation was continued for a great distance down the vein, until the miners had a thirty foot hanging wall towering over them. During the pause for the noon hour one day, while the miners were away from the diggings eating lunch, this wall of dirt and rock collapsed, burying all the tools and equipment with debris. Fortunately there was no loss of life. This was the end of the open cut at the mine and beginning of the tunnels.

How They Occur

The tourmaline and associated minerals are usually embedded in the clay cushioning so thoughtfully provided by nature within the pockets where they formed. Many of the crystals are doubly terminated and hemimorphic, forming freely in the mud and not attached to the matrix. The clay may be montmorillonite (decomposed feldspar), talc or mica or a combination which Potter describes as "a mixture with the consistency of cornmeal." The mixture will be richer in contents than the clay filled pocket. This packaging will cushion the crystals, holding them in a sticky suspension, against the shock of the dynamite charges used to break up the pegmatite.

The pick tip points out tourmaline in the sticky mud of a gem pocket. (Glenn Vargas.)
Above and below the dike the character of the material changes, according to the depth of the ledge. Near the surface, a layer of decomposed gabbro parallels the gem bearing layer. At greater depths the ledge again becomes solid rock. An earth auger is used to drill holes above and below the "peg" (pegmatite dike) to insert the charge to break it up or "kick it out." When a pocket area is suspected, the miners "load the bottom," putting the charge under the pocket area. These areas are worked with bars as long as possible and then charges used to crack the "peg" and work out the gem producing areas.

The pegmatite will usually crack through a pocket, this area being its weakest point. Very little tourmaline is lost with this systematic method but occasionally a charge will blow out an entire pocket. The pegmatite has tendency to break more easily from below than it does from above. If a piece of debris is too large to lift into the ore cars, the miners will hit it on the bottom to break it in two pieces.

The dike is watched very carefully. When large crystal shapes appear (quartz, albite, orthoclase and books of mica) the coarse grained material takes on a blue cast or other indications of the "core" are evident. Then smaller charges of explosives are used. The "live feldspar," as the blue ledge is called, is an especially hard material.

The old-timers used the presence of the lepidolite (lithia mica) as an indication of the mineralized area. They called it the "mineralized streak" and would follow it through the feldspar. When an abundance of lepidolite appeared on the walls of their tunnels they would stop and run a stope up through the purple rock and usually into a pocket. But occasionally a greater amount of lepidolite meant a smaller amount of tourmaline. Muscovite mica is also found at Mesa Grande, as is cookeite on tourmaline. Biotite is not found in the pegmatite but does occur in the country rock adjoining it.

Excavated pocket showing large quartz crystal and tourmaline. Electric lantern indicates size. (Ralph Potter.)

The Collector's Bonanza

The mineralized areas in the pegmatites are more or less in the shape of an oval, running up and down the strike of the ledge. Such areas may be one large pocket without interior separating walls or may be composed of a series of small pockets.

The small pockets have advantages and disadvantages. They have a greater variety in the color of the tourmaline. Each pocket is a little different in formation and tint and color combinations of the enclosed gems than its neighbors. The larger pockets will be richer in matrix specimens. Larger crystals are usually suspended from the top of the pocket in interesting combinations of microcline, quartz, tourmaline, cleavelandite and lepidolite. Small, transparent topaz, shimmering peach colored morganite, lavender apatite, all these and more, accent the matrix specimens or appear as single crystals. From time to time a pocket will yield one of the rarer minerals such as columbite-tantalite, stibiotantalite, cassiterite or allanite as inclusions in quartz. Almost every matrix specimen to come from the cavities makes a striking collector's item. Interesting also, are the microcline crystals representing three types of twinning: Baveno, Carlsbad and Manebach. Hambergite, the rare basic borate of beryllium, is also found in fine twinned crystals at the mine.

A pegmatite will sometimes give out a hollow sound if struck with a hammer. This could possibly indicate a pocket close at hand. It is not too reliable a clue, however, since a crack in the rock will also cause it to give out a hollow sound. There are many crevices in the ledges and water from springs in the hill finds its way through them and into the pockets. Sometimes it enters with such force the crystals are dislodged and carried along deep into the fissure. Crystals in these breaks have been found as much as fifteen feet from the nearest pocket. Some of the pockets are "dry," the pocket clay being swept away by the flow of water. Tourmaline in some of the pockets has been tumbled by the flow of water over a long period of time. One of these unusual natural baroques was recently found on the dumps.

Within the memory of an octogenarian living on a ranch adjoining the Himalaya property, there lived a small group of Indians in a camp at the springs below the mine. The Indian chief made a prophecy that the sacred colored stones would be found high on the ridges of the mountain as long as the springs flowed at its foot. Ralph Potter, with a twinkle in his eye, assures us the springs have not yet gone dry.

NOTE: The mine is closed to collectors due to present mining activity. Any change in policy will be announced in this magazine.

All photographs were taken from 35mm color slides made by Glenn Vargas, unless otherwise credited.

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