The Crystal Tunnels of Diamond Ledge

Write By: tmmadmin Published In: Mineral Collecting Stories Created Date: 2015-01-22 Hits: 9111 Comment: 0

For decades, New England mineral collectors have been drawn to Diamond Ledge in north central Connecticut in search of the excellent quality milky quartz crystal plates and clusters for which it is famous. Those who have worked the site with grit, determination, and back-breaking labor have regularly been rewarded with significant specimens. And, those lucky enough to find pockets have sometimes brought home several 5-gallon buckets filled with these highly aesthetic and desirable plates of large-size milky quartz crystals. This well-known, prolific locality is in Shenipsit State Forest, in West Stafford, Tolland Co., Connecticut. It is a wooded area, giving plenty of shade even on a hot summer day, and at the bottom of the steep slope where collectors dig for crystals is a stream with a waterfall and ample pools of water for rinsing mud off of specimens or taking a quick bath.

The crystals found at Diamond Ledge are mostly milky quartz, and occur in pockets which resemble elongated, tube-like, crystal-lined "tunnels". Where the cracks in the host schist which were relatively small, they are completely filled with solid milky quartz. Where the tunnels are larger, the top, bottom and sides of the tunnels may be lined with crystals. In most cases, mud, dirt and debris now fill the entire pocket, and must be excavated to extract the crystals. In a few pockets there appear to have been multiple influxes of quartz, creating crystal plates which sloughed off the top and walls and became embedded in the mud and dirt on the bottom of the pocket, with more layers of plates piled on top. Sometimes these piles have 4 or 5 generations of crystallization. Occasionally, clear quartz crystal may be found in small, isolated pockets.

On good specimens, the milky quartz crystals are 1-2", but can reach over 4" in size. The relatively stubby crystals have a short C-axis and are frequently overgrown with smaller crystals. This gives them the look of corn on the cob, giving them the nickname "corncob quartz". Another crystal habit which collectors occasionally encounter is skeletal crystals, where the sides of the crystals did not fully fill in when the crystal grew, leaving a pockmarked, indented area on the C-faces of the crystals. Finally, in many pockets, collectors find slender "stalactites" of milky quartz which formed as encrustation pseudomorphs over slender, square natrolite crystals, which have long-since dissolved away. The natrolite identification seems to be fairly recent, as in the past these stalactites were thought by many to be overgrowths of anhydrite. Another alternative was mesolite, and there even was a specimen in the now-closed New England room at the Harvard Mineralogical Museum which labeled the stalactites as pseudomorphs after mesolite. Most Diamond Ledge specimens are found with coatings of iron oxide, ranging in color from pale brown to jet black. To expose the pristine white milky quartz underneath, collectors may remove this coating by soaking specimens in oxalic acid or Iron Out rust stain remover (used to remove rust stains from toilets, bathtubs, etc.).

Diamond ledge quartz occurs in hydrothermal veins filling cracks in metamorphic schist in the rolling hills of Connecticut's eastern uplands. This is called the Iapetos (Oceanic) terrane of the Connecticut Valley Synclinorium, which is made up of metamorphosed sedimentary and igneous rocks. These have been dated to the Middle to Early Paleozoic Age (350 to 500 million years ago), with quartz emplacement occurring at some later date.

The Diamond Ledge site is officially closed to collecting. Nevertheless, on a recent visit to the area to take photographs, there was evidence of recent activity as collectors had done extensive digging, uncovering new areas of ledge near the foot of the slope. Since the area is closed, and we can no longer find crystals like we used to during the heyday of collecting at this classic collecting area. So, here is the story of two collectors and their mining adventures at Diamond Ledge in 1998-9.




On a Sunday in late November of 1998 the Keene NH Mineral Club held its final field trip of the season, to Diamond Ledge in West Stafford, CT. After a quick 20 minute walk in, Dick Holmes (my long-time friend and digging partner) and I picked out what we thought might be a promising spot and worked all day to excavate an area that would reach deep enough to possibly encounter a crystal tunnel. This meant arduously shoveling out several yards of loose dirt, then prying pieces of ledge off the exposed wall, and breaking up and carrying the rocks out of the hole. Although we started digging about 10 AM, it wasn't until after 3 PM when we reached a depth of about 10 feet and encountered a relatively small two-foot long pocket. To this day, Dick loves to tell the story of how I stuck my shovel into that pocket, and, whenever we find other pockets in other localities, he never hesitates to ask me if I'm going to clean them out with my shovel. We collected a few nice clusters of crystals from the pocket (including some I didn't ding with my shovel), then resumed prying and cracking rock to go even deeper. We worked until 5 PM when the light faded and it became too dark to work, then packed up our finds and headed back to our truck.

It was mid-May, 1999 before Dick and I finally returned to Diamond Ledge. We arrived with high hopes for continuing our work from the previous fall, our winter-long dreams having fueled our imaginations with visions of bottomless pockets laden with crystals. We hiked briskly out to the site, and by 10 AM we were wending our way over and around the pits and deep holes that dotted the steep hillside. Our hearts sank when we immediately noticed the 8' tall dirt and rock root ball sitting in our hole, with a 6" diameter oak tree sticking out the top. Over the winter, the tree had come down from the overhanging bank, and was sitting squarely on top of our digging area! You can imagine our disappointment and crestfallen hopes. Undaunted, I produced a folding saw from my backpack and said to Dick, "Let's go for it - at least we know nobody else has dug here!"

We cut through the wooden trunk, sawing as close to the base of the tree as possible; this took considerable effort since the tree was sap-laden green oak. It took about half an hour for Dick and me, taking turns, to finally get through the thick trunk. Proceeding down the hill, we grabbed hold of the thicker branches of the tree and proceeded to pull the heavy top and trunk a few feet down the hill until it was clear of the root ball. Then, with the help of half a dozen friends who had accompanied us to the site, we managed using shear brute force to push the huge root ball away from the bank until it stood just past upright. After carving away some of the bottom of the ball, we gained barely enough space to get down and stand on the large mound of fallen dirt which covered the excavated pocket from the previous year. Finally the way was cleared and we set at the digging with considerable spirit.

We dug for endless hours in the warm spring air, our clothes soaked with sweat as we threw shovel-full after shovel-full of dirt and rocks up and out of the hole, and over the high bank we had created on the outside lip of the hole. Once most of the dirt was out we still had more work to do, since there was ledge rock which had fallen into the hole, and which blocked access to the pocket zone. Finally, at 2:30 PM, our backs weary and our arms heavy from the hours of shoveling, we reached the bottom level, now more than 10 feet below ground level and just even with the entrance to our pocket from last fall. After a water break, with our flagging energy revitalized by the enticement of nearby crystals, we renewed our work with a vengeance. We managed to gain access to the far end of the pocket we had already emptied, which seemed strangely empty. This didn't bother us until Dick pulled out a crumpled blob, shook it out and held it up: it was an abandoned digging glove. Oh, no - it couldn't be! Someone had cleaned out our pocket before the tree had fallen into the hole! We had done all that digging for nothing!!

It was about 3:30, and most of our collecting friends were heading out, shaking their heads at our foolhardy venture. Dick and I couldn't stand the idea that we had put in all this work for nothing - we clung to the thin hope that maybe whoever had left their glove had missed something, or maybe they hadn't extended the pocket all the way to the back. We took up our tools again and attacked the ledge, chiseling and prying out long, thin slabs of the native schist to expose the pocket area from the top. This area was about 4" high, 18" wide, and ran for over 6 feet under the rock we were removing. When we reached the bottom we discovered that the back edge of the pocket was indeed the back: it turned abruptly into solid quartz. We also found that the quartz vein pinched out as it ran along the length of the pocket. And worst of all, our predecessor(s) had effectively cleaned out all the crystals. There was nothing left in "our" pocket. A few choice four-letter words cut the clear air and rang through the forest, but didn't change the situation.

At this point, any reasonable man would pack up his tools and head home with a sore back and dashed hopes. But we aren't reasonable men - we're mineral collectors, and we were filled with the "grit and determination" mentioned as a requirement for success at the beginning of this article. So, crestfallen but undaunted, we pushed on, removing additional sections of the ledge to see if the pinched out quartz vein might open up again.

To our surprise and considerable enjoyment, about 2' above the original pocket zone we opened an isolated pocket filled with small crystals. Unlike the other huge pockets we have hit at Diamond Ledge, this pocket was only about 6" deep and 15" long and nearly totally filled with small ½" diameter crystals from 1" to 2" in length. Oddly, there were almost none of the "corncob" overgrowths Diamond Ledge is noted for, and none of the stalactite-like growths of quartz that are typical of the area. Other than a few loose crystals, this pocket produced no specimens. Hoping for a lucky break, we continued to remove slabs of rock, angling our way down and in to reach an area about 2 feet beyond the end of the original pocket zone. By now it was after 3 PM, and the last of our friends were packing up and getting ready to leave. We stayed. About an hour later, we heaved several large blocks of the native rock away, and revealed a small opening into a rubble filled area at the bottom of the original pocket layer. Here the quartz opened up, and we gently pulled away bits of debris so we could lie down and look into the small opening with our flashlights. I looked inside and drew by breath in wonder - hundreds of large, sharp milky quartz crystals lined the walls and ceiling of the cavity, and they sparkled in the beam of light. Dick elbowed me out of the way and took a look. I don't think we danced a jig, but we probably should have: We had finally hit a big pocket!

As the light waned in the late afternoon, we raced against the clock to excavate far enough into the pocket to determine whether we had a significant and promising find, or just another dead end. Filling the first few feet of the pocket were a mixture of quartz plates and course dirt (no clay), all tightly packed into a narrow rectangular "tunnel" that was 14" high, and 22" wide (imagine crawling into a heating duct filled with dirt, rocks and elongated clusters of crystals). Crystal plates appeared to have fallen from the roof of the pocket, and were lying face down in the dirt. Dick and I took turns wriggling our way on our bellies with a flashlight in hand into the slowly lengthening pocket. When we reached the working face, careful digging with a scratcher and probing and prying with a long screwdriver loosened the dirt and rubble enough so the long plates of crystals could be carefully removed intact. The size of these plates varied, coming out randomly in 6" to almost two foot lengths. Whoever was in the hole - the "digger" - had to gingerly excavate each piece, and then press his body against the left wall of the tube to create an open space on the right side, making it possible to hand the specimens back to the outside man. Even with a flashlight, the wet earth, foggy air and cramped space inside the pocket made it too dark to tell how good each piece we exposed really was. So, whoever had the role of the "catcher" (the guy who receives each specimen and tenderly brushes it off) would make appropriate "oooh" and "aaah" sounds to encourage the digger to keep working. The first pieces to come out were the ceiling plates, which were heavily coated with a near-black iron oxide coating. These were aesthetically peppered with 2" long near-perfect individual stalactites scattered over 2" undamaged corncob quartz crystals.

The floor of the entrance to the pocket was also lined with crystals, which fortunately were already separated from the matrix. But here the milky quartz crystals were nearly totally covered with masses of intermingled stalactites, giving them a somewhat blobby, blurred appearance. The plates lining the right side of the pocket were up to 14" tall and of very high quality. They somewhat resembled the formations which had fallen from the ceiling, except that the coating was colored light brown to russet. On this side the crisply formed and fairly large crystals were aesthetically adorned with interspersed individual stalactites. On the left side, the pocket pinched down to about 8" high, and though high in quality, the plates were smaller.

The deeper we went into the pocket, the more difficult it became to work. We had to squirm in further and further, and with no ventilation, the air became more fetid with every breath. By this point we had been digging for over 7 hours with only brief stops to woof sown our peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich lunches. We were exhausted, our muscles were aching, we were soaked with sweat and coated with grime, and our energy was seriously flagging. Summoning every bit of determination we could muster Dick and I kept going until we had penetrated about 3 feet into the tube-like pocket, and had filled three 5-gallon buckets with top-quality pieces. So far, our flashlight showed that there was no end to the pocket in sight, even at its farthest reaches. We speculated and wished that it might go on and on - perhaps for 10 or 15 feet or more, like a few pockets at Diamond Ledge have been known to do. At 5:30, exhausted and filthy, we decided to quit, immediately making plans to return at the earliest opportunity to finish emptying the pocket. As a precaution, we shoveled dirt and rubble into the hole, covering the pocket entrance with several feet of debris to try to conceal the entrance to the treasure-laden tunnel from even the most inquisitive diggers. Finally, we packed up our tools, grabbed our fully loaded buckets, and slowly made our way out of the digging site by faint moonlight. We both wore heavy backpacks filled with our tools and the specimens that were too large to fit into a bucket, and took turns carrying either two filled-to-the-brim 5-gallon buckets, or just one extra-heavy bucket, stopping every 50 or 75 feet to put down our loads and catch our breaths. I wasn't thinking any too clearly at the time, but I think it took us over an hour to hike the short 3/4 mile trail to the car. Other than setting down the buckets, the best feeling was the sensation of floating that came when we took off our overloaded backpacks. We called home so our wives wouldn't worry, and stopped only briefly to devour fast food hamburgers at a nearby restaurant.

The next Saturday, Dick and I returned to continue collecting the newly-opened pocket at Diamond Ledge. It's a special feeling when we return to a partially-cleaned out pocket. We'd had time to clean up our finds and confirm that what we had already found was of fantastic quality, some of the best we'd ever seen from the site. This added an air of palpable excitement to the hike into the sight, just knowing there was more great stuff waiting to be pulled out (unless some interloper had trespassed on our spot!). The final few yards of the walk was filled with trepidation, but mixed with the excitement of anticipation. This time good fortune was with us, and the dirt we had shoveled down to cover our pocket was untouched.

We dug in with exhilarated anticipation, and by 10 AM had reached the point where we had left off a few days before. Immediately the work slowed, as we again had to wriggle into the pocket by lying flat on our stomachs and scooting forward into the narrow tunnel. The pocket did not change much in either width or height, so it was the same challenge as before to clear out a dirt-and-rock filled shaft, working head-first into the debris. This was complicated by the fact that the "debris" was in fact made up of plates of quartz crystals lying every which way in the mess of dirt and stone, all packed tightly together in a compressed mass that had to be carefully pried apart. At some points we were able to scratch out piles of loose dirt with a small hoe, and then wiggled loose the larger plates of quartz, occasionally resorting to prying with a small crowbar. Because of the tightness of the tunnel and the lack of fresh air, Dick and I had to take turns digging into the unexcavated end of the pocket for only 20 minutes at a time, followed by wriggling back out of the pocket, removing good crystal plates, shovel away the muck pile, then repeat. Though this may sound tedious, it was in fact incredibly exciting, as we were finding plate after plate of fabulous, damage-free milky quartz crystals.

The highlight of the day's collecting (and for me, the highlight of all of my collecting experiences from my entire life to that point) came in the afternoon, as we cleared a long stretch along the right side of the pocket by removing debris that was piled ceiling-high. This revealed an intact four-foot by one-foot section that was totally pristine and exceptionally well crystallized. Though it appeared to be solidly attached to the wall, we managed to drive a chisel in behind the first section, and drove it in until a foot-long section popped off the bedrock. Soon, three more foot-long sections were pried away, and we were looking at a fabulous four foot long section needing only to be reassembled. Another exciting moment was the later discovery of a rare floater plate, with crystals on both sides (this was the first time either of us had seen anything like it from this area).

By late afternoon we had followed the cavity back until I could no longer fit my size 44 shoulders inside the tunnel. Dick, who is a bit smaller and a real trooper, kept working inside with me as outside support, coming out for air every 15 or 20 minutes. As we dug further and further back, the work became increasingly difficult due to the awkward working conditions and the scarcity of oxygen at the working face. By now we had pushed the back of the pocket so it was over eight feet in from the original opening. Twice we had to stop and remove slabs from the three-foot thick rock overburden atop the tunnel to make continued work possible, and ultimately cleared out about 122 feet of tunnel. Finally, we hit the back of the pocket (not to mention the wall of physical endurance). We were thoroughly pooped, it was after 6:00 PM, and we still had to get all the material we had collected out to the truck, which was almost 3/4 of a mile away! By this point we had filled six 5-gallon buckets with crystals, not to mention that we had 4 large plates that were too big to fit inside a bucket! We quickly realized that this was way too much for a single trip, and reluctantly concluded that we would have to make at least two round trips. On each trip we wore out overloaded backpacks as well as carrying three buckets between us, taking turns with carrying one or two. The hauling continued for three hours, until after 9:00 PM. After the last load was hefted into the back of the truck, we collapsed in our seats from sheer exhaustion. Dinner at a nearby fast-food joint provided enough strength for the hour-long ride to my house (and Dick then had another 45 minutes to go). During the ride home and for months and years to come we would reflect with great satisfaction on having finally found and emptied one of Diamond Ledge's fabulous crystal-filled tunnels.

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