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Saint David Gypsum Collecting

Last Updated: 4th Apr 2015

By Rolf Luetcke

My Gypsum collecting experiences started back in the early 1970's and continue today.
I moved to Arizona in 1971 and lived in Bisbee and started a business of manufacturing mineral collections, the kind that sold in rock and gift shops.
At that time I was looking through all the literature that showed places to collect minerals and the Gypsum deposits in St. David were close and I drove there and found the main collecting spots listed in the literature.
The early collecting years were mostly sifting the soils below the Gypsum bearing cliffs to seperate the smaller roses that were right for the collections.
Not much exploring in those early years.
In 1985 I had gone through a nasty divorce and moved to Saint David and found more places to collect Gypsum and found my new love as well. She had been collecting Gypsum in the same places with her family, who also worked with minerals. Our first date was to the collecting area we had both been to before just behind the Apache Nitrogen plant that has been manufacturing explosives for the mines for years.
Over the years we have explored many of the collecting areas of the St. David area and found some great Gypsum. Some of the best finds appear below.
We would drive our off road vehicle up and down the dirt roads and washes of the area, looking for new collecting places to find the desert roses and other varieties of Gypsum. On one of the trips I had taken with my brother in law we went to one small canyon that had no name but we gave the name waterfall canyon after a discovery that is still burned into my memory. Unfortunately the place was not easy to get to and on that trip a piece of sharp Creosote bush punctured the sidewall of my jeep tire and since I didn't want to do that again I didn't get back to this spot for a number of years.
What I found was amazing. There was a set of small hills that the steep canyon went through and narrowed at one spot where a hard layer of caliche above made for a fifty foot drop and had what on those rare occasions the wash ran, a great waterfall, hence the name we gave it. On that trip we had hiked a couple of miles and had only what we could carry in our day packs. I didn't carry a camera because it was before the time of digital and my 35mm camera was heavy and bulky. We walked up the steep walled canyon, formed by deep errosion of the soils of the area. The dark brown silt canyon was about 40 to 50 feet deep and meandered to the West. We came to a narrowing and saw it was going through a small set of hills. Ahead we could see the canyon came to an end for us, a sheer drop of fifty feet lay ahead. The canyon was shaded because of its steepness and it was not until we neared the end that we saw the most amazing sight. The errosion had worn through the silt layers and had exposed a several inch layer of Gypusm that was clear and polished by the silt carrying water of the rainy season and covered everything on the lower part of the cliff. We stood in awe and just looked at the wonderful sight before us.
Since we had walked such a distance collecting of any of the layers was out. It was also too beautiful to destroy. The bottom half of the waterfall looked like a frozen scene but out of Gypsum. The lower portion was layers of shelves of erroded harder and softer soil. Every inch of this lower area was covered with the clear Gypsum. Since I had no camera along the only photos I got were on the camera of my memory. We did explore the whole area of the waterfall and in one seam above the clear layer were Gypsum crystals up to several inches long. We collected those and they were the best loose crystals we had ever found in the area.
I returned to the spot a number of years later with my ATV but by this time the errosion had done its work and the layers of glass clear Gypsum were gone.
There was another find my wife and I made in another wash called California Wash. The access was steep and sandy and we had a VW bus at the time and could drive to the wash but since the sand was so soft we had to walk up and down to collect. We had found a spot to find large pieces of Gypusm about a mile or more down the wash and I had built a bicycle wheeled wagon I could pull with a load of the Gypsum to use back at our little store. We went down the wash to the spot of the large deposits and as we walked Mary found a nice hand sized piece of Gypsum that was glass clear and yellowish in color. We talked about the piece on the walk down the wash but saw no more of the clear material. We collected the material we needed and by the time we were back where we had parked I was very tired from pulling a hundred pounds of Gypsum up the wash. Mary had been thinking about the clear piece and while I rested she walked up the wash.
About twenty minutes later I heard her yelling for me to come down. As I reached her she showed me something I had never seen in the area, a 15 inch long yellowish piece of Gypusm that took my breath away. It was the largest and clearest piece we had ever found. I totally forgot I was tired and we walked up the wash to where Mary had found the one piece. There, in a small shelf at one corner of the wash was a group of the crystals sticking out of the bank. There had been a group of the crystals in one pocket that had been erroded out by one of the summer floods. Two crystals were still in place and I dug them out carefully. I could see the pocket had been a few feet across and had more of the crystals that were washed away. On the walk back to the car I found several more of the pieces that had washed down with the floods. The pieces were not badly damaged but slightly polished by the silt in the floods. In all we found about seven of the pieces and the largest was 17 inches long and about 4 to 5 inches wide and the same in thickness. The pieces had a bit of inclusion but were as clear as anything we had found here before and a yellowish color. The largest piece is still in our collection.
One occasion we walked a wash with our dogs where roses had been found. We were not on a collecting trip but just a nice walk when we rounded a corner of the wash to see a sight we had not expected. A recent summer rain had made the wash run with flood water and the flood had washed away the foot deep sand that covered the bottom of the wash to the gray, sticky clay-like mud layer beneath. This was the layer that one often found the desert roses in and there was about a hundred feet of this layer exposed and dotted everywhere were baseball and larger size roses partially exposed. We returned to the car and got our collecting gear and went back up the wash. The dogs thought this was great because they got two walks on one outing. In about fifteen minutes we collected about a hundred of the fist sized roses. The collecting method was with a crow bar and pounding in the short curve into the sticky layer and then popping the rose out. The roses were covered in the gray sticky mud and we were able to put the roses into a bucket with no damage since they were encased in the mud. The washing came when we got home and spraying with a hose, then letting them dry and repeating this for a couple of days cleaned out most of the gray silt.
After another rain and flash flood we returned to the same wash and thought the flood had erroded down a bit more. When we turned the corner we were again surprised to see that the sand was now back and completely covered the layers we had found the roses in. The nice thing for us was that now we knew exactly where the roses were burried and could go there and collect any time we needed more roses. Anyone else walking the wash saw nothing but sand. We found that in this case luck played a big role in the discovery of this particular rose layer.
We had one great discovery only about a hundred yards from the desert rose spot in the wash when we hiked the wash to see what was new. We again had our dogs and no collecting equipment. This was not a problem since the area was only ten miles from our home. If we found something we could go home and bring what we needed in about half an hour. As we neared a very hard layer of light compact Gypsum Mary looked for any exposed pockets. Very solid material and pockets were sparse but could be very nice. Mary saw a glint from the sun hitting something shiny in a small hole on the bank. Those glints often meant crystal faces. There was a small hole with silt filling it except for the top of a Gypusm crystal sticking out. We blew away the silt and saw the crystal was nearly clear. I pulled out my pocket knife and worked away the compact Gypsum around the mouth of the hole. After about an hour of careful work we exposed a cluster of the best clear crytals the thickness of our fingers we had ever seen. Many of the crystals were loose but had fitted together. We carefully packed the crystals in tissue and when we got home I reassembled the cluster. It was unlike anything we had ever found here before. The cluster is my wifes favorite find of Gypsum of the area. One of the larger crystals we still have loose because we never could find where it had fit into the grouping.
One other find that was in California Wash was one of my favorites. We had found sheets of the Gypusm that had started as crystals that had the original shape of a Gypsum crystal but had continued to grow outward and not maintain the crystal shape. Some were a foot across and a couple of inches thick at the center and when held up to the light you could still see the original crystal shape in the center. I would split the sheets along the cleavage and we sold the hand size or larger pieces that were nearly glass clear. One day I was looking at a newly split piece and saw odd inclusions in the crystal. I held it up to the light and it looked like elongated bubble inclusions in the massive Gypsum. When I moved the piece I saw something move. To my surprise there were water inclusions in the clear Gypsum with air bubbles that moved back and forth. I have had several of the pieces in my collection for many years and the water has not evaportated out.
One discovery was made by our brother in law and is on the other side of the valley where the Gypusm is actually rare. The main Gypsum beds are on the West side of the San Pedro River valley but he had been out on the East side and on one small hill found something unusual. We drove down the wash and he told me to stop at one spot that was just like all the other bends of the wash we had driven past. We walked up a spot in the bank where we could climb a small hill. In the saddle of the small hill were hundreds of rounded bladed roses but they were not clear or even the brownish colored Gypsum roses of the other side of the valley. They were sand included roses and were totally opaque and a gray color of the included sand. There were single roses and clusters up to the size of a football. I had never seen the sand roses in the area before and that is the only place we have been able to find them.
The last discovery was made just a couple of years ago and was in the wash with the roses burried under the sand. I was taking a group of friends to collect the roses when I walked a bit off my normal path on the way up the wash. Large sections of the compacted dirt had fallen from the walls above and I had circled one of the boulders the size of a car. I turned to call to the group and saw the teltale glint of crystal at just the right angle. If I had turned a bit sooner or later I never would have seen the glint, again the luck factor. I walked back to the boulder and on the side away from the wash was an exposed pocket. I could see it had a great potential for clear Gypsum. Since I was leading the group I let them work the pocket. The pocket turned out to be much better than I had expected. All got nice piece of the clear Gypusm and my brother in law got a fantastic piece of clear Gypusm on matrix. I mounted it for him and he was proud of his find. I was very happy for him because I told him it was the nicest single crystal I had seen in the area.
When he passed away recently the piece came back to me and it is now proudly in our collection. Fortunately his kids had interest in his other minerals but not the little Gypusm. Since I had been with him when he collected it I was the only other person it meant anything to and his kids understood that. It is a nice memory of Winston and the many collecting trips we went on together.
We have explored the area around Saint David extensively and there are many great finds but the ones above are some of the nicer stories we have or our over 40 years of collecting in the area.
There is a bit of an update from the area that happened in October 2013. Since we know the area very well we often ride our ATV from our home using back roads and trails to the Gypsum areas. We had been to one of the washes we often collected about two months before after the rainy season came to a close. One spot with the thick bladed crystals has a dirt wall about twelve feet tall. When we were in this canyon we walked by this area looking for any newly exposed Gypsum and as I have always told people, looked up. There was a very large section of the wall above the best area that looked very dangerous. We have always looked up at the walls before we do any digging to see what the walls look like. In this wash the section had a huge crack that looked like it was ready to come down. We didn't even walk along the wall to look at exposed Gypsum.
Just a week ago we heard news about a death in Saint David by a rockhound looking for specimens. We heard the report and knew it had been a collector and even thought we knew who had been out collecting. It turns out we did know the people who had gone out and it was at the exact spot we had avoided. The multiple ton section had come down in an instant and crushed the one person digging below. This is the first time we have ever heard of a death that happened to collectors in the area.
My wife remembers a time her mother and several family members had been out in the same region collecting roses and a big section had fallen while they were digging. In that case there were several fortunate things that kept them from being killed. The section had been undercut by people digging and the group was split, kids down away from the cliff and the adults digging under the cliff. When this section came down it was fortunate the group was a bit inside the dug out portion and only had minor injuries from the fall. Had they been under the direct fall they would certainly have been killed since several tons of dirt came down in that case also.
I have been out collecting here for many years and have often seen the danger of the cracking that takes place. I know that the excitement of new finds sometimes overrides the safety concerns but this recent death brings that right back to the forefront. I can't impress on people enough about the need to be sure that digging in this area can be extremely dangerous. This particular spot was clearly dangerous but sometimes the urge to collect is strong.
Please, if you do happen to go out to the Saint David washes to collect the roses look carefully before digging under those tall dirt cliffs.
There is an addition to the story from 2014. The California wash is only about 15 miles from our home so we often take the old rail bed to ride out ATV out there to see what the Summer rains we had did to the canyon and if new things had washed out. We rode out the rail bed and came to a big mud hole that was a low spot and it was still full of mud. We turned back because I didn't want to spend an hour cleaning the very sticky mud off of the ATV. A couple of weeks later I rode out by myself and the mud had dried out. I got to California wash and rode up to the spot Mary had found the large crystals years ago. The wash had run heavy and the spot that had the crystals was now several feet back. In the bank were more crystals, sticking out of the walls. I dug a few bags full out and rode home. Two days later Mary was ready to see where I had found the new crystals. We rode out to the spot and dug some more out. Two days later a friend wanted to go out with his ATV and we took him to the spot so he could dig some out. Another two days later a deaf geologist friend, Jeffrey Anderson, had stopped by and when I showed him the new gypsum he begged me to take him out to collect there. It was late in the day but since it was not that far I agreed. Jeffrey got on the back seat of the ATV and since I had been down the road 4 times already I knew exactly where the bad spots were to slow down I went a bit faster than normal to get enough daylight time in. Riding down a narrow and sometimes really rough old rail bed and dirt roads was not much for me since in my early days I had raced dirt motorcycles. When we got out there Jeffrey told me it had been his first ATV ride. I tried to apologize for going so fast but he is young and enthusiastic and said it was a blast. Jeffrey collected some nice pieces and then the light told me it was time to head home. I did ride back a bit slower so he didn't have to hold on so tight. On the way back we stopped at the canyon with the desert roses and the summer rains had washed more of those out also. Since we live close by it is easy for us to take the dogs and go for a hike to the various places we have found interesting gypsum. Sometimes we find newly washed out material, sometimes nothing at all. This last summer was good for collecting and produced some wonderful new material.
Rolf Luetcke

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