Granite Mountains

Angel Agates Then

uranium country
Uranium country.

During my childhood, I spent much time in the wilds surrounding Jeffrey City.

  • the cold war was hot
  • this country needed uranium fueled bombs
  • it could be found there
  • Geiger counters were bought
  • fortunes were made
  • and no one wanted left out

Uranium prospecting became a weekend occupation for my dad.

For a child, uranium prospecting:

  • was a boring business
  • in a hot, dust, unattractive land

But splashing in the Sweetwater River or hunting for agates, jade, and petrified wood was much more interesting.

So, while my dad inspected outcrops for different kinds of uranium grunge, the rest of us went looking for real treasures and acquired:

  • buckets of agates
  • the odd piece of jade
  • a pile of petrified wood
  • some Indian artifacts
  • and other mineral treasures

Among those treasures were angel agates. They were just a translucent greenish-gray chalcedony with a white rind. I though them rather plain at the time.

My friends had plenty. We traded rocks like city kids traded baseball cards. So, I got my angel agates from them, as they were found farther east than my father prospected.

As a young man,  I took up wrangling light aircraft. When flying to and fro, I often flew out over that desolate country. Looking down it was routine to see a dozen or more vehicles encamped around a shallow bluff.

They were digging holes, looking for those once abundant angel agates. From the air, the scene resembled an ant hill.

I wondered why anyone would spend much time digging for such a plain agate. That is, until I saw them under an ultraviolet lamp. They were brilliantly yellow-green with a dull red coating.

I thought about digging a few of my own. But as the diggings were about 100 miles away, I somehow never got down there.

Angel Agates Now

sweetwater country
Sweetwater country.

Now, here it is, 35 years later. With a map, shovel, and rock hammer, I’m headed for that angel agate deposit.

This is a tough country. It’s:

  • high
  • very dry
  • hot in the summer
  • cold in the winter
  • and high winds blast area this most of the time

Global warming hasn’t been kind to this area either. The temperatures are even more extreme. And with a decade long extreme drought, what little vegetation remains, is browsed, blasted and cow burnt almost to oblivion.

Cattle grazing was the primary use of this land in my youth. Hundreds of cows lived a wild and lonely life on the open range. While splashing in the Sweetwater River as a child, we’d pretend startled cows were bears which were infrequently found there.

Today, the Sweetwater River is just a trickle. There are few willows. And not enough of them to hide anything but a bird.

I only saw one cow and it looked lost. This area is just a shadow of what it was in my youth. It’s depressing from that aspect.

Access, off the highways, is much tougher than it used to be. There were no fences, when I was a child. Access was anywhere you wanted it with historical cattle trails and seismic roads providing unrestricted access.

Today, the highways are bounded by gated fences. And the gates are seldom anywhere near most of those old, historical roads. It’s actually hard to get off the highway and into the dirt where you want.

The gate wire I need to open is banjo tight and rusted. No one was in there in a long time. Glad I have my pliers with me.

After a half hour drive down an untraveled path, I recognize the hill. It’s just as nondescript on the ground as it was from the air. And there’s not another vehicle in sight. It’s an ominous sign?

Chalcedony Angel Agate. Jeffry City, Wyoming.
Angel agate, from the seam, in natural light.
Chalcedony Angel Agate. Jeffry City, Wy.
Agate above under short wave ultraviolet light.

A quick inspection shows a thin seam of angel agate outcropping near the top of a hill. Most of the early collecting occurred in the eroded material, on the dip slope, below the agate seam.

Once this material was gone, the agate seam was harvested. Then, as a final act, the seam was followed into the hill.

Eventually, the brow of the hill collapsed from all that digging. And  covered the seam with 15′ of debris.

A few attempts were made to dig a slot through the debris and reach the center of the deposit. But apparently most didn’t think it worth getting buried or spend days digging for.

After a little walking, I find a small, thin, horizontal extension of the original seam. It’s sporadic and just a few centimeters thick.

Decades ago, someone found it before me. That’s about all that’s left of this deposit.

What have I got to loose? Out comes the pick and shovel. After an hour digging, I’ve got a hand full of small, lower quality, angel agates.

  • it’s hot, in the upper 90’s
  • it’s dry, the humidity is around 10%
  • and it’s dusty

The dust, formed from evaporates in the unconsolidated sandstone, has an acrid nature. My digging and the wind stir it up.

Cool water, a washed face, and shade away from the scorching, sun is worth much more than a few more low grade angel agates. I fill the hole I’ve dug. And head back to the truck.

It didn’t take long to look over the angel agate deposit. A few hours and I’m done.

But while I’m in the area, I think I’ll head farther west to my old stomping grounds.

Sweetwater Agates Then

toward agate flats
Toward Agate Flats.

About 40 miles west of the Angel agates, is a 100 square mile area called Agate Flats. Both the Oregon and Mormon trails crossed this area.

Many pioneers noted the abundance of agates there. Some pioneers even had enough energy to carry a few of them to the west coast. And people have been picking them up ever since.

Jade is also found there. During my high school days, a few individuals made small fortunes off of the jade deposits in this area. Back then, jade was a rare gemstone. Good quality jade was scarce worldwide.

Later, large deposits of low quality jade were found in Canada. And a large, high quality jade deposits was found in Australia.

The markets were soon flooded with high quality jade. And Wyoming jade, which once was exported to China, now filled gas station jewelry.

The value of jade has never recovered. But it’s still as beautiful as it always was. And it’s still a nice find.

Rubies, petrified wood and other kinds of agates were abundant here. But uranium was king. And Jeffrey City was the center of much of this activity. It was a company town and sprang up overnight when uranium was discovered. Thousands of people lived there to mine it.

When uranium demand and prices collapsed at the end of the cold war, Jeffrey City disappeared as fast as it appeared. Just another western mining ghost town left behind when fortunes and hope moves elsewhere.

All that’s left is a church, a few houses and a large, new and expensive, but empty school. The few remaining residents drive 50 miles one way to buy anything including gasoline.

During its prime, Jeffry City residents were mostly westerners who came to make a fast buck, and a few marginalized people evading the law. They were outdoor and consumption oriented.

As a result, that parched, but delicate land, suffered. What wasn’t used was abused.

Another big impact came from the caravans of rock hounds. Many were retired folks from back east. They came west in the newer version of the covered wagon.

But rather than moving through this land, they parked those Airstreams and Winnebagos near any live water and the few springs in the area. Some stayed all summer. Some were commercial men who hunted rocks and sent truckloads of the stuff back east.

A few local rockhounds also profited from the agates. While hoping to strike it rich with a superb uranium or jade find, they would pay the gas bill by selling tumbler polished Sweetwater agates. At the time, a dozen nice, polished Sweeterwater agates could be purchased for $1. And that included postage!

These agates were found in the desert pavement on a dip slope erosional surface. The wind had sculpted and polished them into ventifacts. So they were easy to spot and collect.

As a child, I didn’t pick every agate up, but looked only for the largest ones with the most interesting dendrites.

Later, as a young man, I worked the area as a geologist. By then, exposed agates were gone. A few were still found in the draws and gullies when exposed by seasonal erosion. But to find a good one required digging. Rototillers were often used to dig them up.

The angel agate deposit was less than a square mile in area and was completely pillaged. The Sweetwater agates were found over a much larger area. I wonder what it’s like now?

Agate Flat Now

An hour later and I’m on Agate Flats. It’s hard to believe, but the land is even more parched than that at Crooks Gap. Even a horny toad(horned lizard) would have a tough time surviving here.

Unlike the angel agate location, access is easy. The BLM has constructed a two lane, all weather, improved gravel road. And a large sign announces that if the agates are worth digging up, then the holes are worth filling up. Or the government will make sure you pay for the difference. 🙂

But there’s not a vehicle in sight. Not another one in way over a 200 square miles! But then there’s not a sign of anything even resembling a Sweetwater agate, either. Not on the flats. Not in the draws. No where!

How could a bazillion tons of agates just disappear in my life time? I honestly can’t imagine that so much jewelry, curios and collections could just completely consume such a resource.

I could get out the shovel. But I’ve shoveled enough for today. As a geologist, I knew something most people collecting on Agate Flats didn’t. I knew the rather complex geology of the area. And I knew the source of the agates:

  • they were formed as a jasperoid in a fault complex to the south
  • then they were eroded out
  • deposited in a conglomerate to the north
  • most of the conglomerate was again eroded to the south
  • and they were deposited on Agate Flats

A few remnants of that original conglomerate still exist about 20 miles farther north.

The agates in the conglomerate don’t look like any of those found on Agate Flats. These are covered with a dark brown bark or rind. There’s only one small problem. All the rocks in the conglomerate are covered with that same bark.

Chalcedony Sweetwater Agate. Jeffry City, Wy.
Sweetwater Agates.
Chalcedony Sweetwater Agate. Jeffry City, Wy.
Sweetwater agates fluorescing.

The Sweetwater agates aren’t common in the conglomerate. But when they are found, they are large and of the best quality. It just takes a lot of whacking to find one.

More dust and back to a single track through the sagebrush. This conglomerate outcrops in a few shallow exposures without much erosion potential.

The outcrops are small. Hummm…, I’m not the only one who understands the geology. Almost every rock that could conceivably contain a Sweetwater agate was chipped, cracked or wacked. Some more than once!

One final look. I walk the shallow draws hoping that erosion has uncovered a rock or two that I can wack for myself.

After an hour walk, the images above show the two rough agates I found.

Someone busted one in half and threw it away. It’s a poor specimen. The others is a small but adequate agate.The polished agates are some I kept from my youth.

Fortunately, even the most unpromising Sweetwater agate can shine under the UV lamp. They may not rival those agates I picked up decades ago. But they are nice mementos of a enjoyable adventure.

Rocky Thoughts

I love getting out and about in this land:

  • the vistas are boundless
  • there’s beauty and solitude
  • the experience is energizing

But the rock collecting sure isn’t what it once was.

Out west, most people viewed the resources as boundless. Those that have been here awhile know better. Today, we reap the sad results of that perspective, not only in rocks and minerals, but also with our water and the environment.

It’s one thing to look around and find all the Sweetwater agates are gone. It will be another thing, one day, to look around and wonder where the water has gone. When it’s gone so will be the people.

I think we humans operate more like ants than we think. And maybe that birds eye assessment, made years ago, wasn’t so far off the mark.