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Precious Opal At Whelan, Washington

Last Updated: 10th Jan 2009

By Daniel Russell


The Discovery of Precious Opal At Whelan, Washington

by Daniel E Russell

The first significant discovery of precious opal in the United States occurred in 1890, when a deposit was accidentally discovered on a small farm in Whelan, Whitman County, Washington.

In the summer of the year, William Leasure had a shallow well dug on his farm. At a depth of only 22 feet, the well-diggers struck a layer of clay and decomposed basalt that graduated into solid basalt. A New York jeweler named James Allen happened to examine some of the rock thrown out of the excavation, and was surprised to find that many of the cavities in the basalt were filled with precious opal. Gemologist George F Kunz, reporting on the discovery in 1892, describes James Allen as a “jeweler, of Yonkers, New York” (Kunz, 1892), while the New York Times, in a brief notice on the opal discovery, calls him a “jeweler of Moscow,” Idaho (NY Times, 1890a). The New York Times makes reference to a James Allen, jeweler, doing business on South Broadway in Yonkers in January 1890 (NY Times, 1890b); whether or not this is the same Allen is not certain.

Closer examination revealed that the opals occurred in the last 4 feet in the excavation. Kunz stated that the “good opals are often found embedded in so-called 'soap holes,' in a greasy, fine-grained, and very tenacious clay. Kernels of opal, all of good quality, are found in hollow amygdules in the rock, the cavities being generally larger than the opal.” The opal masses varied from the size of a pea to a walnut, and while Kunz described the material as “plentiful,” (Kunz 1892a) most of the gem-quality opals which were recovered were quite small. As Kunz noted, “the smaller nodules are very rich in color, but tho larger ones often have little or no play of colors.” (Kunz, 1892b)

The opal was white with a rich play of red and green colors. “...If properly worked,” Kunz pronounced, “it is likely to be one of the most promising of our precious stones, from a financial point of view.” (Kunz 1893). The cut stones compared favorably with the best of the precious opals that had been produced by the mines of Hungary (which throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries were considered to be the finest opals in the world) and with the newly-discovered Australian opals.

The announcement touched off a small-scale “opal rush” to eastern Washington. Soon, a mining camp called Gem City had sprung up. By June of 1891 a company named the North American Gem Opal Mining Company was organized with $250,000 in capital to mine the opals (Smythe, 1911; Beckworth, 1972, states that the name of the company was the North American Gem and Opal Mining Company). They began work in July of 1891, and by October had recovered about $3,500 worth of opal, with an expenditure of only $280 in supplies and mining costs. Some of the opals which they sold commanded prices of $30 to $55 a carat. A 3.5 carat opal succeeded in fetching the remarkable price of $500, while a 2 ounce mass of rough opal was sold for $1,200. Kunz stated “The work is carried on by about 20 men, and is much in the nature of an open quarry. As it progresses into the hill the top soil becomes deeper, but the layer of black basaltic rock next to it and over­lying the softer opal-bearing rock remains of about the same thickness... This spring, owing to the unusual weather, about three weeks' time was lost, and work was in­terrupted by water and snow three times; still, with an expenditure of about $1,200 up to date, the results have more than doubled in both quantity and quality.” (Kunz, 1892a).

The production of the opal deposit in the Whelan area was comparatively short lived, and by about 1904 work was largely abandoned. By 1911, it was noted that the stock of the North American Gem Opal Mining Company was essentially valueless.


(NY Times 1890a)
Opal In Idaho
New York Times 22 September 1890

(NY Times 1890b)
City And Suburban News
New York Times 10 January, 1890

Beckwith, John A (1972)
Gem Minerals of Idaho
Caldwell Idaho, 1972
ISBN 0870042289, 9780870042287

Kunz, George F (1892a)
Precious Stones.
Mineral Resources of the United States Calendar Year 1889-1890
Washington DC Government Printing Office 1891

Kunz, George F (1892b)
On The Occurrence Of Fire Opal In A Basalt In Washington State
Bulletin of the Geological Society of America
Volume II Rochester 1892

Kunz, George F
Precious Stones.
Mineral Resources of the United States Calendar Year 1891
Washington DC Government Printing Office 1892

Kunz, George F
Precious Stones
Mineral Resources of the United States Calendar Year 1892
Washington DC Government Printing Office 1893

Mythe, Roland Mulville
Obsolete American Securities and Corporations, Illustrated with Photographs of Important Repudiated Bonds
New York 1911

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