I like to think of myself as a treasure hunter. In my dreams.
In reality… unfortunately for me… I am about as far from a treasure hunter as one could be.
Back in the 1990s, I had heard people were finding opal in Vernon Parish, south of Toro and a bit northwest of Anacoco. Intrigued and tempted, I searched a bit in the area… a bit being about an hour or less. And with only limited knowledge of exactly where to search, I covered, say, 200 yards in my very cursory search. I thought it would be easy. Not hot, boring, tedious and extremely vague. Well, actually, it was not tedious, for I looked about the way I look for a lost this or that at my house… just glancing around.
And so, like my earlier quests for arrowheads and later for prehistoric shark teeth along the southeastern banks of Toledo Bend, I came up empty handed in my search for precious opal. Also, by the way, I never was able to find any gold bars believed to have been buried or hidden in our area by bandits in the 1800s. In all, I figure I’ve spent a good five hours of my life (seven or so if you add the drive time) searching for treasures of any sort whatsoever in our treasure-rich geographic area.
I concluded I probably would not know an opal if I found one. Nor would I know an arrowhead (I must have retrieved 30 or more things that looked like they could be arrowheads, but I was told by people supposedly more knowledgeable than me… who shall remain nameless due to their cruel buzz-kill thrills’ nature… that I was pretty far off from having actually found an arrowhead and had only collected a few “basic, pointy rocks”).
Furthermore, I’m pretty sure now that I would not have found a shark’s tooth if it was staring me straight in the eye (those things blend in perfectly with the sand, or so I thought).
I would, however, recognize gold bars if I saw them. I’m pretty sure. I think.
Basically, I am impatient and I become bored way too easily… and because of that, I have no opals, no sharks’ teeth, no arrow heads, and no gold bars to call my own. Nothing. Na da.
I’ve digressed a bit before getting to the juicy stuff… The following article was published in The Alexandria Town Talk newspaper in November 1990, written by Town Talk staff reporter Richard Ryman.
Oh, and by the way, just as a buzz kill in case any one wants to set out to go hunt for opal, I have heard that that would be a losing quest… that the land where the opal was discovered is private land (that cool theme park they speak of in this article never materialized, I guess) and is well guarded. I’m just clarifying this so that hopes don’t get unnecessarily elevated only to be cruelly dashed. As mine did once before… and twice and more.
Vernon opal mine could be tourism bonanza
ANACOCO — Deep in the hills of northwest Vernon Parish, at a place called Monks Hammock, four men and a puppy are mining what they say is this country’s best opal supply.
They are digging in a hillside along a creek bottom about a quarter of a mile from the end of a sandy road. Except for the barking of the puppy, the place is peaceful and pleasant, but it is also an economic and tourism bonanza in the making, says Keith Griffin.
Griffin, who leases about 50 acres from Boise Cascade Corp., named it the Hidden Fire Opal Mine. He plans on surrounding it with campgrounds and gem washes, turning it into a mecca for lapidary hobbyists, known to one another as rockhounds.
“There is no opal mine in the United States that can claim they dig up 100 percent cutable material. We can claim that,” he said, showing the site to state Rep. John Smith, D-Leesville, and a delegation from the Vernon Parish Tourism and Recreation Commission.
Griffin held up a penny-sized polished black opal which he said was appraised at $1,000 a carat. He said it weighed about three carats.
Australia is the only other known source of such quality material, he said. In addition to the black opal, Griffin has uncovered myriad other combinations, which he has been naming at his discre-tion.
“No one else has ever found anything like this,” he said, holding up a “Christmas” opal, “so we can call it what we want,”
Tales of mining in the area go back to early French explorations, said Martha Palmer, chairman of the Vernon Parish Tourism and Recreation Commission. She said French Catholic explorers reportedly found silver and lead in the area, and in the early part of the 20th century one man was sending “rainbow rock,” possibly opals, to New York jewelers, receiving $5 gold pieces in return.
Gary Moore mined some opal in the area in the late 1970s and 1980s before his source played out.
Griffin, who has operated emerald and other mines in North Carolina, said he was vacationing in the area, hunting fossils, when an acquaintance showed him the site. Griffin said he immediately knew he was on to something.
“The biggest question about this formation was how was it formed?” Griffin said. “If I don’t know how it was formed, I don’t know where to dig.”
He said some speculated the area was a prehistoric lake bed, but evidence indicates it is instead laced with prehistoric creek beds. It is in those former creek bottoms that he is finding his opal.
Much of his find is quartzite sandstone laced with flecks of blue, green, yellow and red fire opal. The most common is brown opal with green fire.
He said quartzite and opal is the hardest mixture of quality opal in the world. That is good, but he expects better.
“As we follow this back, we will get to the area where the water came out of the ground to form the creek. Then we will get into clay soil and should find the real precious opal,” he said.
Griffin said black rock laced with red fire is called black opal, and is the most valuable. He said rock laced with blue or green fire is called blue opal.
Four pockets have been found so far, each yielding “about a double-handful,” Griffin said.
He said he plans to open a full-service campsite with gem-wash in the spring.
“Arizona is known for its petrified wood, Arkansas for its diamonds and North Carolina for its emeralds. This will put Vernon Parish on the map,” he said.
Lapidary, the cutting, polishing and engraving of precious stones, is one of the largest hobbies in the world. Griffin said lapidary magazines are among the few that have more wanted-to-buy than for sale ads.
He said that by having control over most of the opal supply in the area, he will be able to make the project financially feasible.
“People have tried to market this material for years, but the problem was they had no control over supply,” he said.
Griffin, who lives in Lafayette, said he has been “into rocks and tourism my whole life.”
“The old adage of ‘Son, walk with your head up,’ is not for rockhounds,” he said.