IN SIGHT OF THE OLD HOME TOWN
By Merrill O. Murphy
Strange indeed are the workings of happenstance!
This is a story of many parts, many times, many places. It began when there
were no Rocky Mountains in Colorado, when the present Garfield County was
a shallow inland sea inhabited by swamp vegetation and primitive water creatures.
Dinosaurs had yet to tread the land. Today, the Colorado River (once known
as the Grand River) runs east to west down a deep valley, and the little town
of Rifle sits about 5,000 feet above sea level and occupies both banks. US
Highway #70 parallels the river. To the south ten to twelve miles, the terrain
rises abruptly to a high ridge running east and west. Somewhat to the south
on this ridge, there is a volcanic pimple called Mamm Peak (or North Mamm
Peak). Mamm Peak soars upward to 11,123 feet above sea level, and most of
its area lies within the Grand National Forest.
To the northwest of Rifle is another mountain or high plateau rising nearly
vertically to about 9,000 feet above sea level. Its height would lead one
to think it a part of the National Forest. My road map, however, does not
so indicate it. It is a solid mass of shale reaching west into Utah and north
nearly to the White River fifty miles away. I have no idea how deep the shale
may penetrate below the river level. This region is locally called the Book
Cliffs, because of the layered structure of the rock and its tendency to form
cliffs dropping hundreds or thousands of feet nearly vertically. On some
maps, this high region may be named Book Plateau.
The shale of this huge area contains vast amounts of carbonaceous material
left over from the plants and swamp water creatures of ages ago. These once
living things are now a source of oil and gas in the shale. It has been said
that this mountain range contains more usable oil and gas than all the rest
of our nation, but the problem is to find a cheap method of extraction. The
rock is white to grayish-white and locally called oil shale. This same shale
extends to the south and southeast but isn’t so obvious as on the north side
of the river. Like most of the Colorado mountains, a phenomenon called plate
tectonics caused the Book Cliffs to be slowly raised upward. The same phenomenon
is still at work today.
To the north and northeast lies another range of very steep sandstone mountains
called the Hogbacks. The Hogbacks have no part in this story except to complete
the rude triangle enclosing the little town of Rifle. For many reasons, I
call Rifle my “old home town”. For one, I more or less grew up in Rifle a
long time ago. Then, too, two sets of grandparents and a number of other relatives
lived there when I was young. Even as a youngster, I was always interested
in gems and minerals. I found dinosaur bone and agate and other “stuff” that
never interested my father. Gold was his thing. Gold was the only thing that
could rescue his family from the terrible depression of the period between
1929 and 1940. In a way, Dad found his gold in the mountain range just to
the south. He found it in the form of exceedingly rare minerals that were
not a yellow metal, and he found it too early in time. In those depression
days, there was no demand for rare minerals, but Dad never gave up the hunt
for gold. When he was not working on local ranches, he was combing the mountains
for gold. Had there been any gold in our area, he surely would have found
As kids do, I grew up, married, and moved away from my “old home town”,
doing all this before I learned of the “sapphire” high in the mountains to
the southeast of town. One of Dad’s gold hunting cronies just happened to
mention it in the presence of one of my younger brothers. My kid brother
passed the information on to me. When I questioned Dad, he told me the little
he knew about the “sapphire”, but I still could not interest him in it.
Sometime after World War II, my little family and I visited our home folks
in the “old home town”. Of course, we had to go and take a look at the “sapphire”
far across the Colorado River, atop the rock slide. Though the slide was ten
to twelve miles away by air, its white color against the dark green background
made it quite visible from most of town. Four Murphys went, my next younger
brother, Lloyd, a still younger brother, Cyril, my youngest son, Raymond,
and, of course, I went, too.
We took a rather devious course. The location we were interested in was
within the Grand National Forest but isolated on all sides by ranch fences
bearing “PRIVATE PROPERTY, KEEP OUT” signs. (Not legal, I think.). Luckily,
I had gone through high school with a young lady who lived in a house close
by a gate in that east/west running fence. Her name was Mary Jane Von Dette,
and she or the Von Dette relatives probably live there still. Anyway, Mary
Jane just happened to have a key to the padlocked gate. We drove through,
heading south on a steep and rutted road. Had we been able to continue on
that route, we would have topped the ridge a few miles east of Mamm Peak.
Our old Ford pickup clawed its way only about a half mile before giving up
the climb. From there, we walked a more direct route angling southeast toward
the slide. If we had reached the ridge top in the pickup, I think we could
have driven east to the slide. There were no brush or trees on the ridge top.
The going was rugged and steep, as we hiked through brush and pines. Finally,
we topped the high west-to-east ridge no more than 50 yards above the head
of the slide. From there, it was awesome. Near the top, the slide was made
up of compacted, solid, shale-like rock cut horizontally by thin layers of
nearly black volcanic rock. Only far below was the rock face loose enough
to be truly termed a slide. There were indications that the slide was unstable
at the top and about to extend itself to the very top of the ridge. The slide
was no more than 30 yards wide at the top, widening to about 200 yards at
the bottom. We guessed the slope to be about 60 degrees. Dangerous? You bet!
Anyone trying to cross it near the top would inevitably tumble all the way
to the bottom, sliding about a quarter mile. IT AIN’T NO SKI SLOPE!
We skirted the slide well back from its top and immediately met a rough
trail down an intersecting north-south ridge. Down the trail, perhaps 100
yards, we found a spike of volcanic rock about 10 feet in diameter at the
base and rising to a height of about 15 feet. Along its base, we found a
few rude, elongated crystals, looking in length and width like inch-long
pieces of gray miniature bricks. Just lying there, the rough-surfaced crystals
were dull but appeared to be somewhat translucent. When looking down on specimens
and slowly rotating them, they suddenly flared with an internal blue-violet
light. Obviously, they were not sapphire. I guessed them to be cordierite,
also known as iolite. Obviously, others had preceded us to this site.
There were hammer-broken pieces strewn about. Many years have passed, now,
and perhaps my memory exaggerates sizes. However, it seems to me that some
of those broken pieces were over an inch on a side. Were they gemmy? Again,
I don’t know. I saw those pieces a few years before I learned to facet stones.
They were simply stored away in boxes for years with other stones.
As interesting as the presumed cordierite was, the small, adhering, bright
yellow crystals were at least as interesting. These were all about 1/ 4 inch
across. Although many years have gone by, I think it was John Sinkankas to
whom I sent specimens. He verified my guessed identification as cordierite
and said that the little yellow crystals were sodium harmotome. I did quite
a bit of bookstudy trying to find a sodium harmotome. I have never found reference
to any such mineral, but I think it is a possibility. Harmotome, I found,
is Ba (Al 2 Si 6 O 16) 6 H 2 O, a hydrous barium-alumina-silicate. Possibly,
a bit of sodium may substitute for barium to give us a sodium harmotome. At
any rate, harmotome is rare in the United States and not particularly plentiful
anywhere. Its hardness is only 4.5, and the color is white, colorless, or
slightly gray. Crystals are monoclinic and always form as interpenetrant twins.
Could a touch of sodium turn them to bright yellow?
Cordierite has a somewhat similar chemical makeup. It is (Mg,Fe)2 Al 4 (Si
5 O 18), a magnesium/ iron-aluminum-silicate with a hardness of 7. It is transparent
to translucent and is usually colorless, gray, yellow, or brown. It has a
very strong pleochroism, where faceting grades show straw to pale or deep
violet, depending on orientation. The index of refraction runs 1.54 to 1.55.
In good grades, it can be cut into rather spectacular gems.
In our younger lives, Jerry, the kids, and I moved around a lot. Somewhere
in the process, the rock samples from the top of the Mamm Peak Ridge did not
make the move with us. We have never been back to that slide area, and I
may be getting too old to go up there again. I decided to write what I know
about the strange and wonderful minerals “in sight of the old home town”.
Perhaps, Lapidary Journal would be willing to print it if I could get two
or three pictures. If not, our New Mexico Faceters Guild newsletter could
use the story. Trouble came again when I began to research the happenstance
that brought about the formation of those minerals. I now have maps that show
where prospectors dug for “sapphire” east of the location we visited. I wrote
letters several times to a Mr. Paul Pitman, whose ranch fences and locked
gates block access to those old diggings. Mr. Pitman will not answer me.
I do not think he wants me up there.
I then decided to begin the technical research. The most productive information
was found on several pages of Gems, Crystals, & Minerals written by Anna
S. Sofianides and George E. Harlow. The well-illustrated book was published
by Simon and Schuster in 1990. Chapter 28, pages 363 and 365 are devoted to
composition and were particularly informative. They describe the changes that
take place in “shale when extremes of heat, pressure, and ages of time” are
simultaneously applied to it.
Shale is mostly composed of clay minerals and tiny bits of quartz. These
clay minerals consist of aluminum, sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium,
iron, other minor elements, and carbonaceous materials, such as those remaining
when ancient plants and animals die and disintegrate. These clays remain stable
at normal pressures and temperatures at or below 300 degrees C. Few, if any,
mineral changes occur. At or slightly above 300 degrees C, pyrophyllite appears
from the reaction between quartz and the clay mineral kaolinite. If temperature
continues to rise to 400 degrees C, then the pyrophyllite breaks down into
one of the aluminum silicate minerals, such as kyanite or andalusite. The
shale rock becomes harder and more shiny and actually becomes slate. If temperature
(and pressure) continue to rise above 400 degrees C, then the slate rock
changes to phyllite. At temperatures between 400 and 500 degrees C, chlorite
and mica appear, and the rock becomes a schist. If pressure also increases,
then almandine garnet may appear. With pressure increasing and temperature
reaching 500 to 700 degrees C, minerals such as staurolite, sillimanite,
cordierite, feldspars, and quartz may appear. The rock then changes from
schist to gneiss. Thus, on the south side of the river, the rock we have
called a shale is really a gneiss. Geologists can derive from the minerals
and rock forms the temperatures and pressure levels the “shales” have experienced.
“Whoa”, you say! “We started out with a shale rock on the north side of
the river, extending into the high ridge on the south side. From whence came
all that heat and pressure?”
I would have to reply, “Remember Mamm Peak? Somewhere far back in time,
old Mamm Peak began to push up very hot lava. In the process, the shale rock
on the south side of the river was forced upward, with the help of plate tectonics,
to form the high ridge we see today, complete with pimple-like cone. Heat
and pressure are always paired. Heat causes pressure in closed areas.
Pressure in closed areas results in heat. The heat and pressure made a lot
of changes to the original shale rock, and the shale was more than pushed
upward and changed. Very hot lava was squirted between the horizontal leaves
that were an original characteristic of the shale. Remember that I mentioned
those horizontal, thin, black layers between shale leaves near the upper end
of the slide area? The tremendous pressure against the liquid lava can and
does force the lava into weaker areas of the base rock. This injected lava
can be found many miles from the central cone. In our case, the weak areas
are at the contact line between leaves of altered shale. Remember shale, heat,
pressure, and time! Taken together, they can build or move mountains. Remember
also happenstance. Consider the likelihood of a volcano appearing smack in
the middle of the largest known deposit of shale!”
So, what does all this mean? 1t absolutely must mean the presence of a huge
amount of rare minerals in the contact zones between lava and altered shale,
millions of tons of it! Cordierite we know is there with sodium harmotome.
Other strong possibilities are kyanite, andalusite, staurolite, and sillimanite.
Weaker possibilities are almandine garnet, amethyst, and harmotome. Consider
a like example. When hydrogen is mixed with oxygen and heated to ignition
temperature, water must result. In exactly the same way, certain gym minerals
must result when shale is heated to 500+ degrees C for a long time while under
high pressure. If billions of tons of shale is so treated, then huge amounts
of these strange minerals must result.
Yes, Dad found his gold in those mountains south of the Colorado River.
However, he was born into the wrong time. He thought in terms of yellow gold
because, in those depression days, there was no market for such strange minerals.
Today, the true worth of those rare minerals and gemstones is difficult to
imagine. In all probability, only a low percentage of stones will be faceting
quality, but a low percentage of the tons that are there still means a huge
amount. I believe that this area has the greatest gem and rare mineral possibility
of any place in the United States.
How would I get into this area today? I might go in by the route we chose
years ago but use a four-wheel drive vehicle. The Von Dette’s are probably
still there, and I think I could borrow the key that opens the fence gate.
To get there, one drives south across the river. The road reaches the first
sharp rise of the mountain and forks left and right. Take the right hand (west
bound) fork. The road soon bears south and climbs to Talkembaugh Mesa. From
there, the road you want runs due south. Follow that route to the Grand National
Forest gate. The Von Dette house is about 50 yards east along the fence.
But I am told that someone has built another home just inside the fence.
If so, there is no simple way into the Forest unless you can gain permission
from that homeowner. Check with the Von Dette’s and tell them that I knew
Mary Jane a long time ago.
Except for other locked gates, there is, possibly, an easier and better
way. Instead of taking the right hand fork to Talkembaugh Mesa, take the
left hand fork a few miles to a wide valley You could walk up the valley
easily enough to the slide base. There must be lots of specimens in the debris,
except that the Paul Pitman Ranch is beyond the fence. I am relatively certain
he will not give you permission to enter. The entire Grand National Forest
seems to be maintained for the benefit of Pitman and about a half dozen other
ranchowners. I think I know of one more entry possibility, but it will require
some special maps, planning, etc. Let us wait a bit on this one.
I mentioned why I call Rifle my “old home town”. There is more to the story
than I first led you to believe. The larger story explains where my people
came from. Perhaps you would like to hear what I know of it.
Obviously, the Murphys must have left auld Ireland and migrated to the U.S.A.
I think they entered by way of Baltimore, Maryland. From there, they must
have moved west in search of land they could claim as their own. They settled
down in Kentucky in the area haunted by the notorious Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.
In some way, they became involved in the feuding between the two families.
Fearing for their lives, the Murphy family fled first to Colorado Springs,
Colorado. Unable to find suitable land to prove up on, they moved to Rifle
in the late 1880’s, when Dad was still a youngster. There, they claimed land
northwest of Rifle against the Book Cliffs and right at the lower end of the
JQS Trail. That famous trail was the cattlemen’s route to summer grazing atop
the Book Cliffs. In those days, horses found it difficult to climb the trail.
Nowadays, a fearless driver can take a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the very
My mother was a Randolph. The Randolphs claimed Scotland as their original
home, but I am unable to find any Randolphs there today. The name sounds more
French than Scottish. Anyway, they migrated through Baltimore, settled for
a time in Iowa, then moved to a little farm about 25 miles northeast of Rifle
and behind the Hogback Mountains. There, they grew wonderful potatoes in
the rich black soil and sold them in Rifle. However, the winters were terrible.
Snow was deep, and the temperature often dropped to nearly -40 degrees F.
(Much colder than it gets there nowadays). The nearest neighbors were several
miles away. Wolves howled at night and followed the horse-drawn sled when
they went to country dances. Grandma Randolph often told me about all her
children. She had 13 of them, but only five survived the harsh land they
My mother and father worked terribly hard to make a living for my brothers
and me. Both my parents died in homes for the aged. Jerry’s mother and father
were also very hard working farm people. They, too, have been gone many years
And, that’s the way it was a long time ago.