In the Cargo Muchachos Mountains
By Delmer G. Ross
The name “kyanite,” derived from the Greek word, kyanos, means “dark blue,” but this useful mineral occurs in a variety of colors, including white, gray, green and brown as well as different shades of blue. It may even be colorless. It can be translucent, and as purity increases, transparent. On relatively rare occasions, rockhounds have found kyanite crystals that are both thick enough and sufficiently clear to facet into strikingly beautiful gemstones.
Most of the kyanite ore found in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains of California’s southeastern Colorado Desert is grayish- to greenish-blue colored, although some of the other hues are present in small quantities. When found in combination with blue, the relatively unusual black variety can be especially striking.
Collectible kyanite usually appears in the form of long, thin blade-like crystals. Although the illustrations in most mineral handbooks are sufficient to enable one to identify it easily, a scratch test with a pocketknife is another good way to do so. Kyanite crystals are measurably harder across their width (6 to 7 on Mohs’ hardness scale) than they are along their length (about 4 to 5 on the scale). Therefore, a knife blade generally will not scratch them when applied crosswise, but when applied along their length will do so with ease.
Kyanite, sometimes spelled “cyanite” and sometimes called “disthene,” is aluminum silicate. Andalusite and sillimanite are similar anhydrous aluminosilicates that have the same chemical formula as kyanite. They differ, though, in crystal structure and other physical properties. Along with andalusite, kyanite is heated to very high temperature to produce mullite and silica, both of which are refractories used commercially in the production of firebricks, kilns, boilers, spark plugs, and other ceramics and porcelains that need to withstand high temperatures. It is acid resistant. Moreover, because it does not conduct electricity, it is also used in the manufacture of electric insulators. As a consequence of such uses, where feasible, kyanite is mined commercially.
Operating two open pit mines in Virginia, the Kyanite Mining Corporation extracts some 90,000 tons of kyanite, with an unprocessed value of $12.7 million, per year. The company processes virtually all of it into mullite, producing about two-thirds of United States’ yearly consumption. Most of the remaining third of demand is met by C-E Minerals, Inc., a Georgia operation that manufactures synthetic mullite, which contains no kyanite. Although with its yearly production of 250,000 tons, South Africa mines more kyanite than any other nation, little or none is imported by American users. In fact, the United States has such ample reserves that the federal government has been selling its stockpile, which by 1999 had dwindled to less than 150 tons.
While small amounts of kyanite may be found throughout the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, it is concentrated in three fairly closely spaced locations along the southwestern flank of the range, near the once-busy little community of Ogilby. The three deposits, known as the Drifted Snow, the Ogilby Kyanite (also called the Bluebird Kyanite), and the Vitrefax, were mined jointly, originally as the Vitrefax Mine and, later, as the Bluebird Mine. The kyanite is found in quartz, quartzite and quartz-muscovite schist. The ore that was mined varied from about 15 to 35 percent kyanite..
Beginning in 1925, over the course of more than two decades of intermittent operation, the Vitrefax Corporation removed a minimum of 10,000 tons of kyanite-rich ore from its mainly open-cut operation really, a quarry on Vitrefax Hill. The ore was hauled by truck from the mine slightly less than three miles to Ogilby, and from there to Los Angeles by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Excavation ended in 1946.
Three years later, in 1949, the mine was acquired by the Aluminum Silicates Company of Los Angeles. Mining got under way again, and by 1956 an additional 21,000 tons of ore had been removed from various different quarries, including the Bluebird. Because of rising costs, the mine eventually was shut down, and all equipment was removed. Ultimately, even the mining claims were allowed to expire, despite the fact that by far the great bulk of the ore remains in place in the ground.
While the high hopes of the mine operators no doubt were shattered, what they left behind can be great fun for rockhounds. In addition to an abundance of kyanite ore, which polishes well and can be transformed into spectacular cabs, slabs and spheres, limonite-after-pyrite crystals have been collected from the flats below the mine. While it seems probable that most of those resting on the surface of the ground have already been collected, they still can be located. A friend found a perfect one in 2001. Collected on the flat immediately north of Bluebird Hill, it measured slightly more than an inch long. Quite a number are available in matrix on the west side of Vitrefax Hill, but it may be difficult to free them without damaging them. On the other hand, many find them quite attractive just the way they are. They will be surrounded by heavy rust stains in the kyanite ore.
The best time to collect Bluebird Mine kyanite ore is from late October to late March. Avoid the summertime because the temperatures often climb to well above the 120 degree Fahrenheit mark. Winter temperatures can be warm enough, sometimes reaching 80 degrees or more. Therefore, be sure to carry plenty of drinking waterand to drink what you carry!
Getting to the Bluebird Mine is not difficult. It can be accomplished in even fairly low-slung, two-wheel-drive vehicles. From Interstate Highway 8, take Ogilby Road also known as Imperial County S34 approximately 3.9 miles north to its junction with the American Girl Mine Road. The junction is two-tenths of a mile north of the railroad tracks for those with GPS readers at 32°49.082' N by 114°50.258' W. Angle eastward onto American Girl Mine Road. Although this road was carefully maintained by the mining company until 1999, with the closure of the mine such maintenance ceased. Because now it probably will be subject to unrepaired washouts and other problems, you should proceed with caution despite the width and smoothness of some stretches.
Approximately six-tenths of a mile from Ogilby Road you will drive past some small structures off to the right. They house pumps for the wells that supplied water for the American Girl Mine, a major gold producer. Some 2.3 miles from Ogilby Road the route goes between two low hills, then under some power lines. To the right, ahead, will be two hills that appear to be separate from the Cargo Muchacho Range. In fact, it is possible to drive all the way around either one. The easternmost, and by far the higher, is Vitrefax Hill. The lower one, almost straight ahead, is Bluebird Hill. About 2.7 miles from Ogilby Road, at 32°50.800' N and 114°48.583' W, on the east side of American Girl Mine Road you need to turn very sharply right and backtrack for about 100 feet. Then turn left onto the steep, rough road extending from the flat below Bluebird Hill to its top. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can probably drive the road to the top of the hill. Just take it easy. Another road, not so steep, reaches the top from the south end of the hill. Assuming you climbed up the steeper approach, at the top, at 32°50.803' N and 114°48.525' W, will be two roads going to the right. The first goes back down to the flat below. Take the second. It circles around the east side of the hill to the quarry at 32°50.755' N by 114°48.483' W. If you do not have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, just park alongside American Girl Mine Road or on the flat at the base of the hill. It is only a short walk from there to the mine. Some rockhounds prefer to walk anyway because some of the prettiest specimens have been collected from the weathered natural surface of the hill. Kyanite ore may also be collected from the base of the hill, on its eastern side, where it was bulldozed out of the quarry at the top.
Vitrefax Hill, with its many cuts and two still usable loading chutes, may appear very attractive to those who enjoy exploring. Because of loose soil above deep cuts and various other perils, though, it should be regarded as extremely dangerous and off-limits for children. Generally speaking, because of its pretty hue of blue, the kyanite ore from Bluebird Hill is more attractive anyway.
No services, supplies or accommodations are available at the mine location. If needed, most may be obtained at nearby Winterhaven, California, and Yuma, Arizona, about 20 to 24 miles southeast.
Copy by Delmer G. Ross, Professor of History, La Sierra UniversityPhotographs by Karen A. Ross
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