By Emily Grey, Contributing Writer
Ensconced near the center of Virginia is a true gem of a place!
There are renowned caves and caverns in Virginia’s western highlands and Shenandoah Valley. Yet, who would suspect a world-famous vein burgeoning with semi-precious gemstones in this Mid-Atlantic state, not to mention the central region? After all, western America contains the bulk and diversity of our nation’s minerals.
Peaceful, rural Amelia County is a diamond in the rough of sorts. Approximately 70 old mines and prospects lie hidden beneath the vicinity’s upper crust. Similarly composed Rutherford and Morefield Mines, which both contain at least 50 different minerals, are found in this quiet venue.
Silas Morefield discovered the latter cache over 70 years ago. A trench dug deep into the wooded piedmont revealed a pegmatite rich in an untapped commodity.
Several entities including the United States Bureau of Mines and Seaboard Feldspar Company also operated the lode. Open to the public since 1985, the vast Morefield Mine is estimated to be 2,000 feet long and around 300 feet deep.
It is internationally known for the stunning bluish-green gem, amazonite. This is the ornamental feldspar that Morefield uncovered years ago. Among the mine’s commercially valued minerals are beryl, phenakite and the tantalum/columbite series. Mica, quartz, topaz and other assorted rocks, crystals and ores also abound there.
In 1996, Sam Dunaway and his wife, Sharon, purchased the Morefield Mine. It seemed natural that this former Surface Mining manager at Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources and Virginia native return to his roots.
Families, individuals and school groups from as far away as Tangier Island visit this unusual site. Excited youngsters and adults of all ages spend many pleasant hours digging in mine tailings for various crystals and precious finds embedded in the soil. They gingerly rinse their small treasures in a sluice (a long, sloping trough with flowing water and grooves in the bottom that separate minerals from sand or sod) and screen.
Be prepared to get downright dirty by dressing comfortably in shabby clothes and old boots or shoes. Tailored buckets and shovels are provided. Or, bring your own rock-collecting kit.
A minimal fee buys a day of burrowing and sluicing and a bucketful of bounties to keep. Shovelers may opt to have their gems cut or designed into special custom jewelry in the gift shop.
Outcrop digging is offered for advanced collectors. These individuals may want to acquire plentiful microcrystals from the mine for micromounting.
Picnic tables beneath tall shade trees and drink and snack machines accommodate visitors. Gratis coffee and doughnuts are available inside the store. One can browse through rockhound magazines beside a welcoming old stone fireplace.
Dunaway and his crew actively mine the shaft. His wife runs the gift shop that features geologic exhibits.
Most patrons are not allowed in the mine. But there is a glitter of possibility. Someday, the Dunaways plan to open their underground treasure trove to tourists and expand the recreational opportunities of their bejeweled nook.
Meanwhile, scientists and mineral buffs ponder over what else lurks farther down the Morefield Mine. Perhaps there is yet another non-renewable resource lodged beneath this mystical abyss. And, there is always hope for a diamond in the rough.
The Land Down Under
I learned about the Morefield Gem Mine while en route to another destination. Sam Dunaway granted me the rare experience of descending into the 45-foot pit. First he briefed me on security and what to expect beneath the earth. I signed a form which read that I had received this condensed yet thorough safety course.
Equipped with a miner’s hat, light, heavy belt and other essentials, we began the slow, careful climb down a series of long, straight creaky wooden ladders with multiple rungs. The cool, damp air felt exhilarating on this sweltering June day.
About 10 feet later, Sam and I stepped backwards onto a wooden platform and prepared for the next descension. Strong legs and upper body strength and excellent physical condition are a must for this somewhat strenuous activity. Proper attire such as pants, a long-sleeved shirt and shoes with good traction are vital.
As we neared the bottom, the ladder became slippery. Moisture trickles steadily in this dark environment. Pumps keep the mine shaft from flooding and provide water for the sluice line.
The Morefield Mine has two tunnel levels at 45 and 100 feet below the surface. The currently mined 45-foot level is approximately 6 to 8 feet high and 6 feet wide. The tunnel spans about 360 feet away from the sluice.
With the aid of a wheelbarrow and shovel, Dunaway performs most of the underground work by hand. A cable hoists a large metal bucket filled with rock to the top. This engineer/miner figures he has moved around 63 tons of rock by hand in one year and 122 tons were moved from the two mines in 2000.
We paused before touching the floor and marveled at deposits of amazing amazonite and other glistening gems. The tiny hole at the adit looked far, far away.
Where did the time go? I am expected in a village called Prospect in less than an hour! Further exploration of the up and down life of a lapidarist would have to wait. However, one of these days I’m gonna climb farther down that mine … mine … mine.
READY TO DIG IN?
To unearth more information, contact:
Morefield Gem Mine, Inc.
13400 Butlers Road
Amelia, VA 23002
Spring and fall, the mine is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer hours are the same with the additional days of Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It is closed on Sundays and Mondays and during the winter. Advance registration is required. Discounts are available for groups of 20 or more children.
Directions: From Richmond, head west on U.S. 360 across the Appomattox River into Amelia County. After 4.8 miles, turn left onto County Road 628. After one mile, turn left at the Morefield Gem Mine sign.