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Newletter Archive > April 2013 - Port Orford Meteorite and Rhodochrosite

April 2013 - Port Orford Meteorite and Rhodochrosite

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Port Orford Meteorite: Fact or Fiction?

Somewhere in the thickly forested Coastal Range of Oregon lies a chunk of intergalactic rock worth well over $300 million. Or . maybe there isn't. Maybe it's all an epic hoax. Either way, it's a great story that has captured the imagination of Oregonians for well over a century.

In 1856, the U.S. Department of the Interior hired Dr. John Evans, a New Hampshire medical doctor, to conduct a geological reconnaissance of southwestern Oregon. Evans was not a trained geologist which does lend credit to his lack of recognition of what he claims to have found. Evans got involved with geology when he happened to discover some very important dinosaur bones in the Midwest in 1848. Apparently, this was enough to qualify him for the mission.

Starting at Port Orford Evans traveled northeast through rugged terrain collecting specimens along the way. While examining Evans's collection of specimens a few months later, Harvard chemist Charles Jackson found that several of the small specimens were fragments of a pallasite, an extremely rare type of meteorite. Pallasite is the substance that forms at the borderline between the nickel-iron core and the rocky mantle of a small planet or large asteroid. When that heavenly body is blown apart by a meteor strike or other force, the chunks that result can be rock, metals or pallasite - pallasite is by far the rarest of the three.

In an attempt to track down the meteorite's origin, Evans was questioned and reported to Jackson that he had hammered off pieces of rock from a partially buried boulder that lay exposed on a grassy slope near the summit of a place he called Bald Mountain. News of the "10-ton meteorite" provoked widespread publicity, and another expedition was proposed, with Evans at its lead. Unfortunately, Evans died of pneumonia on April 13, 1861, just before the expedition could begin.

Evans did not leave a specific location of where he found the sample which would have made it easy to confirm or discredit the meteorite's existence. And as it turns out, there are a number of "bald" mountains that could have been temporarily deforested in 1856 making it nearly impossible to pinpoint the supposed location. The area also is prone to landslides, and it's entirely possible that the whole grassy slope slid down into a creekbed with the meteorite now at the bottom of tons of earth. The search was abandoned until 1929 when geologists from the Smithsonian Institution set out again to search Evans's route to no avail. Evans's field journal contained no maps, no mention of the boulder or Bald Mountain, and no record of the specimens.

Even with little evidence of its existence Oregonians continued to search for the meteorite spurred on in part by claims of its value. In 1920, the samples where donated to the Smithsonian Institution and upon closer examination were found to be nearly identical to the meteorite found in Chile in 1820. Now as it happened, Dr. Evans was in serious financial trouble at the time. Some suspect that Evans left with a sample of the of the rare material in his pocket, a sample that he picked up from an 1859 trip crossing the Panamanian Isthmus where samples were sold as curios. He then pretended to find the meteorite in the most remote and trackless part of the Oregon wilderness, hoping to generate a buzz and inspire financial backers to solve his financial problem by commissioning him to go back and spend years looking for it.

The story of the Port Orford meteorite seemed to all but disappear until 1937 when the Portland Oregonian published an article reliving Evans's story. Soon after, a miner named Bob Harrison stepped forward and claimed the meteorite was on his nickel-mining claim, in the Salmon Mountains. He said the debris field from the meteorite's landing had effectively salted his mine with chunks of nickel, and he'd been making a living scrounging them up.

A scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey asked him to send a sample for testing. He did and the sample checked out. Bob Harrison's nickel chunks were indeed of extraterrestrial origin. But is it possible they were from the pallasite strike? Now very interested, federal scientists asked him to send more. Harrison disappeared. Now, given the dollar value of the meteorite if it's found, this tends to argue against Harrison's claim to be in possession of the rare meteorite. After all, what miner would not want to cash in mineral wealth found on his claim?

So that's where we stand today. We have no idea if the meteorite is real or not. If it is real, we don't really know if it's buried at the bottom of a landslide under eighty feet of silty clay loam, or parked in a forest someplace waiting for someone to stumble across it. Someone like you, perhaps! Or perhaps it is one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of all time. We may never know.

Featured Gemstone: Rhodochrosite

This spectacular Rhodochrosite specimen, known as the "Alma King", is the largest known Rhodochrosite specimen measuring 14x16.5 cm. The perfect rhombohedron was recovered from the Sweet Home Mine near Alma, Colorado.

Sweet Home Mine was originally opened as a silver mine in the 1870's and was mined until the 1960's. Rare red Rhodochrosite specimens were found along with the silver ore throughout the mine's lifetime but not used commercially. In 1991 the mine reopened as a Rhodochrosite specimen mine.

Rhodochrosites from the Sweet Home Mine are gem-quality crystals because of their translucent cherry-red color. When calcium, magnesium, and especially iron ion impurities are substituted for manganese, a pink and more common Rhodochrosite results. Many experts acclaim the Alma King as the finest and most valuable mineral specimen ever mined in North America.

The Alma King can be seen in the permanent display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver, Colorado.

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