Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, off the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, is the Spruce Pine Mining District one of the richest deposits of gems and minerals. Of these minerals, over 300 varieties are on display at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals including emerald, amethyst, sapphire, garnet, kaolin, quartz, mica, and feldspar. Interactive displays address the history of geology and mining in the region.
The Spruce Pine Mining Area is a particularly unique part of the Appalachian Mountains geology. These mountains formed 480 million years ago—in comparison, the Himalayas formed around 50 million years ago. Over time, these ancient mountains–which are thought to have once rivaled the height of the Alps and Rockies–have been warn and weathered into the smoother and forested slopes of today.
While the Appalachians may be better known for the coal veins running from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, the Spruce Pine Mining District is uniquely rich in gems and minerals. The mining district’s remarkable geology is the result of tectonic activity 380 million years ago. Friction between African and North American plates forced rich molten rock up through cracks in the crust to form the veins of gems and minerals that are mined today. The result was the 25-mile-long district, spanning Mitchell, Yancey, and Avery counties. Along with the molten rock, the absence of water in the area meant that the quartz has very few impurities, which makes the quartz so desirable for semiconductors and fiber optics.
The wide ranging and rich deposits of the Spruce Pine Mining District have drawn varied mining operations with shifting focus as uses and demand for different commodities have shifted. In the early days, mineral laden rock was mined, sorted, and loaded on rail ways by hand for manufacturing in Ohio, Tennessee, Connecticut, or New Jersey. By 1940, a road allowed trucks to access the mines, traveling along Crabtree creek and falls so that, even today, minerals travel “down the crabtree.” While emerald, amethyst, sapphire, and garnet draw and sell well to visitors, the true moneymakers of the district were and continue to be mica, feldspar, and quartz.
Mica is mined for everything from insulation, tires, to sparkly paint. Even 2,000 years ago, American Indians dug tunnels to collect mica, used in bead, belts, and currency. As settlers moved into the community and found such a plentiful supply of mica and uses for it, there was a boom in mica mines in the area from 1860s until the 1960s. In 1910, a pound of sheet mica sold for 11.5 cents. Large pieces of mica would be set aside by miners for sale, but children often roamed scrap heaps to collect small, overlooked pieces of mica for spare money. Mica miners even found exemption from the draft in WWII as mica was needed for radio tubes. Yet, Mica production wained shortly after WWII, as solid state electronics replaced mica dependent technology.
Feldspar is a similarly versatile mineral in the Spruce Pines Mining District. The light, powdery mineral is used in glassmaking, ceramics, plastics, and rubber. Feldspar had been used by Native Americans for centuries in their pottery. It was discovered in the area by William Dibbell, at the Flat Rock mica mine. The early 1900s saw the rise of feldspar for use in commercial pottery. Even the celebrated English producer of fine china, Wedgwood, used the “Cherokee Clay” in their blue ware as early as 1867. by 1917, North Carolina was the largest producer of feldspar in the states. Even today, feldspar is minded to improve hardness and durability in glass, lowering the melting temperature of ceramics, and other purposes.
Spruce Pine’s uniquely pure quartz has become a particularly desirable mineral for recent mining operations. High quality quartz is mined for silicon chips in computers. Indeed, the quartz is of such unparalleled purity that most computer chips from around the world use Spruce Pine quartz. Pick up any cell phone, tablet, or computer, and the odds are high that it has some Spruce Pines quartz in it. As of 2009, Spruce Pine quartz could be sold for as much as $50,000 a ton.
While a relatively small museum, the displays at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals are fresh, informative, and highly engaging. Many specimens of gems and minerals at the museum are sourced from the Spruce Pine Mining District, while others can be found here. Visitors lean about these rocks from the global scale of plate tectonics, which shaped the Appellation Mountains, to the microscopic level, as atoms form elements. Displays analyze properties of assorted gems and minerals, from conductivity—a metal’s ability to conduct electricity—, radioactivity, to phosphorescence.
Along with its coverage of local geology and mining, the museum has a small display commemorating this regions roll in the Revolutionary War. Gillespie Gap was an important stop for revolutionary fighters on their way to the Battle of Kings Mountain, where the left wing of Cornwallis’s army was defeated—a noteworthy turning in the Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaign. Every September, the museum plays host to historical actors portraying “Overmountain Men,” the Eastern Tennessee and North Carolina men who collected in this mountain gap and marched to Kings Mountain.
The museum is a quick but engaging stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Mining in the Mountains
After visiting the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, take an opportunity to drive north west on 226. From the highway, one can easily view a massive mining operation on Pine Mountain. One cannot get much closer to the mine site than the highway but the view still conveys the awesome scale of this operation. This is one of the major mining works for feldspar and quartz in the area. The high purity quartz mined here is used in electronics around the world.
To Learn more about mining in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, we recommend reading Down the Crabtree by