Cowee Valley

Appalachian Corundum

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, North Carolina was an important source of corundum for use as an abrasive. Eventually it became more economical to produce corundum synthetically rather than from mining. During the days of commercial production, some gem quality ruby and sapphire locations were found. The Cowee Valley is certainly the best known of these locations.

            Today, tourists can visit mines open to the public for a modest fee and try their luck. Usually they buy a bucket of “ore” and wash this material in a flume. The technique is quite different than that used in Montana. A small screen is filled with the gravel and soil mixture and this is placed in the flume. The water rushing through washes away the clay that covers the gravel. Vigorous rubbing is required to ensure that all of the clay is removed and the surface of each stone is clearly visible. Since gravity separation is not used, the last step is to inspect each stone closely to see if it is corundum or another mineral of interest. The stones in North Carolina tend to be larger than those out west, but of a lower transparency.

            I have made two visits to Franklin, North Carolina to collect corundum specimens. On my first trip, I arrived in town fairly early and I had no map to the gem mines, so I stopped at the Ruby City Gem Museum. This building is half museum and half rock shop. The displays were very interesting including a giant 385 lb. corundum. It’s clear why this area was so important for commercial abrasives during its day. The rock shop part of the business has gem quality local rubies for sale if you cannot find your own – a likely outcome!

            Once I had a some information in-hand, I headed out of town to the Sheffield Mine. For me, it was important to collect native stones. As the resources of native material dries up, many mines are “salting” their gravel with much foreign material. This is indented to keep families with children busy during their holidays. However, as a collector, this was not acceptable.


Sheffield Mine




Ore before washing                                                    Washing in the flume                                                   No rubies here!


            I spent the greater part of a day at the Sheffield Mine without any luck. Others nearby were finding stones in the 20 to 40 carat range. Since I had no expectation to find a big stone, I was not terribly disappointed by my luck. Actually, it was a blessing because it would give me an excuse to come back someday! On my way home, I stopped at Burglen’s Natural Gems – a local rock shop.

            The proprietor of Burglen’s was quite a collector himself. He had corundum specimens from all over North and South Carolina. I spent at least an hour there fishing through glass jars filled with colored corundums from various localities. Like so many other rockhounds, I created a large collection of specimens instantly by the use of a credit card! When I was finally out of money, I had ruby specimens from as nearby as Cowee Creek and as far as India.


Cowee rubies from Burglen's

            My second opportunity to visit Franklin came about a year later. This time I visited the Cherokee Mine on the first day. This mine did not have a covered flume as the Sheffield Mine did, but it was in a more relaxing environment. My luck proved to be better here as well. I was able to find about 20 carats worth of corundum in a few hours.

                                           Cherokee Mine                    Ruby from Cherokee Mine 


            The second day of the trip included another visit to the Sheffield Mine. I managed to strike out again after a four hour visit. There were people all around finding stones, but I just couldn’t manage to do it myself. It is still a very enjoyable experience. Gem mining would probably be very appealing to those who like to gamble. The emotional appeal should be about the same and it is much cheaper in the long run!

            Before leaving Franklin this time, I made an extra effort to get back to town to see the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum. The museum building itself is small, but it is full of interesting displays. Of course the collection includes many specimens from North Carolina, but it also has others from around the world. It is definitely worth a visit for those with any interest in rocks and minerals.

            So far, my time in North Carolina has been limited. I know that there are so many other areas to visit to collect minerals. Currently, my interest focuses on corundum and that is why my visits were so limited. Besides minerals, this area has a beautiful landscape and plenty of outdoor activities. Eventually I’ll go back to spend some quality time there.




 Inclusions in Cowee Valley rubies






1. Franklin Chamber of Commerce


2. Sheffield Mine


3. Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum


4. Burglen's Natural Gems


5. Harshaw, L., 1973, The Rubies of Cowee Valley, The Hexagon Company, Asheville, 78 pp