Morrisonite "The King of Jaspers"
By Philip Stephenson
All serous collectors and hobbyists who have worked and shown Morrisonite through the years, will agree that it’s the most diverse and beautiful Jasper on the planet. But, there are a few things and myths they disagree on. One of them I can dispel once and for all. Jim Morrison of “The Doors” rock band never owned the mines and was never at the mines or ranch. It is not named after him. So, despite want you have heard over the years about the mines, the only true fact is that, Morrisonite, IS “The King of Jaspers”.
Sitting in a very small house in Boise, Idaho, my friend Gene Stewart of Stewart’s Gem Shop and I are talking to his 100-year-old mother, Alberta Stewart, about Morrisonite. His mother is bright-eyed and still very aware, but very hard of hearing. Sitting in a chair in front of her, Gene cups his hands and almost yells his questions. “MOM! TELL US ABOUT JIM MORISON. DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT DAD SAID ABOUT HIM?” With a fine shaky voice, she gives us short answers to our questions about the story behind Morrisonite. She opens her old black and white family photo album. The following is based on facts his mother related and what was said to Gene by his father Dudley Stewart
The Morrisonite story begins in early spring 1947. A Boise rock shop owner, Dudley Stewart, was prospecting in the Owyhee Breaks in Southeast corner of Oregon. While scouting, he came upon an small thin older gentleman living like a hermit in a stone, one room house along the Owyhee River. This was James Morison (no, it’s not misspelled. That’s the way he spelled his last name, unlike how it’s spelled today). Morison lived alone, never married and had no family. He eked out a subsistence living off the land on his ranch. In the months that followed their meeting, Dudley would often visit James while in the area and would take him back and fourth to the store for supplies. They soon became good friends. On his trips out to James’s place, Dudley would always pack in a sack of flour and sugar to bring out to him. Dudley and James would often have dinner at the ranch together, which consisted of what was either caught, killed or found growing that day. Many times, all they had was asparagus for all three meals. Dudley took James to Boise one Thanksgiving for dinner with his family and stayed the night. Alberta related that James, being used to his stiff rustic bed couldn’t sleep on the mattress bed at her house, so he slept outside in her backyard under a tree instead.
James Morison enjoyed looking for Indian Artifacts and found many pictographs on the rocks near his ranch. This area of the Owyhee desert teemed with a great diversity of animal life and plants, which made it a favorite hunting ground for the Indians. One late fall day in 1947, Dudley was working one of the cliffs and James came by and said “Look at this rock! Make something out of it.” Dudley looked at the amazing colors and patterns and exclaimed, “Where did you get this?” James showed Dudley where he discovered the Jasper and Dudley soon after coined the name, “Morrisonite” in honor of his friend James Morison. The Morrisonite madness began.
As word got out, people began showing up as early as spring 1948 looking for this amazing Jasper. Morison became irritated at all these unknown people starting to show up at his ranch and was thinking about closing the area off completely. So in 1950, Dudley remedied the situation by getting the word out that organized group rock hunting field trips would be made by the Boise Gem Club. Dudley was one of the founders and President. But, as the interest in this Jasper increased, so did the tide of people, trespassers and profiteers. Gene shows me one of the old yellow, pencil-written letters Morison wrote to Dudley dated August 26, 1951: “Dear Friend Dudley. Am sending you word as Troxel and Rathman are on their way out tomorrow. Yes the Boise Club has first filings on the Morisonite. Brookings, Roy Whipple and another member first filed the stakes, they filed before they came, I don’t know what it all means_Maybe nothing. I would think you could find out in their meetings what all it means, if anything. Brookins says the club is coming in Sept. They [unleagable] it’s to keep the California commercials out. Am waiting for further developments. Better come over if you can before the club comes. I don’t know too much about it. Morison” I asked Alberta Stewart and other old timers if they knew what happened to Jim Morison, but no one really knows.
As the years progressed, the claim owners changed hands a few times and mining became more intense. Blasting became necessary and heavy equipment was being used to wench the Jasper from the mountain and pinnacles. Morrisonite, it’s amazing colors, layered orbs, outstanding quality and high gloss finish make it the most sought after fine Jasper in the World and the uncontested title of the “The King Of Jaspers”.
As we talk back and fourth with Gene’s mother at her house, Gene recollects taking a trip out to the ranch in his father’s1950 Ford. He recalls seeing his father walking up to the mountain pinnacles with a makeshift backpack. The home made backpack consisted of a large square metal can strapped to his back, in which the rough was hauled down the mountain. During the conversation, Gene’s mother said, “Dudley never did make a claim there. Why should he, …he knew the owner”. It is getting late and his mother is getting tired. Gene sitting in his chair leans over and tells me, “You know my mother still has a good deal of Dad’s Morrisonite”. Surprised, I say, “Really?” He leans forward towards his mother, cups his hands and yells to her, “MOM! WHERE’S ALL YOUR MORRISONITE!.” A broad smile forms on her face and she says, “Oohhh… well…” and shakes her head a little. She looks at the both of us and chuckles…Then silence. Gene looks at me, smiles at his mother’s tease and shrugs his shoulders.
Some of the best treasures in the world are kept hidden from the public eye. I can only wonder and let my imagination go wild as to what Morrisonite Dudley and Alberta have kept privately for themselves.
It was a nasty, stormy, May 2006 morning, just the night before 60 mile an hour winds ripped though the Boise area, knocking out my electricity and pealed some shingles off my house. Not really the weather you would go out hiking in the middle of the Owyhee Desert. A friend of mine, Gene Stewart and I decided a few weeks prior to visit the Morrisonite mines in Oregon. Gene and his contracted diggers, the Caldwell brothers, mined Morrisonite back in the 70’s in what is now called Jake’s Place claim. For him, it was a trip he’d been wanting to make for years, before he was too old to handle the physically demanding hikes up and down the steep switch backs. He looked forward to it, reminiscing old memories of his childhood, when his father, Dudley, had taken his family and the Boise Gem Club members for rock hounding trips back in the 50’s. For me, it was the first time visiting the mines. My near worship of the stuff made this trip like going on my once in a lifetime trip to Mecca.
The rain hitting my Suburban windshield was not letting up, as I traveled to Gene’s shop in Boise to pick him up for our Morrisonite adventure. I was having my doubts if we would be able to go in this kind of weather. Not that rain bothers me. It’s just the back country roads in the Owyhee desert can very muddy and dangerous. Having picked up Gene, we headed West towards the Owyhee Mountains. We stop for Breakfast at the local IHOP. At 5:30 AM, the restaurant was deserted. We sat down and ordered. Then we discussed if we should go, because of the weather. Gene did convince me eventually, (after calling me a wussey) that we should attempt it. Having thoughts of what the weather was like the past few days, I still had my doubts. After eating and coming out of the restaurant, Gene pointed to the west dawn horizon, where clouds were starting to break and blue sky began to just peek out. The pilgrimage was on.
The Owyhee Desert is located in Southwestern Idaho and Southeastern Oregon. Sagebrush and mountain landscape dominate this pristine environment. Traveling west along a county dirt road, having turned off the main highway a few miles back, we roll down the windows and breathe the clean, “after a rainstorm fresh” sage scented air. As we sped toward our destination, the Meadow larks singing only added to the feeling of contentment of getting away from it all.
Looking at the topo-map we are just a few miles to the Jeep trail turnoff and the true test if we are able to make it to the mines. All of a sudden, two trophy Antelope, 100 yards away, go sprinting by. Traveling 1/2 mile more down the road, wild horses cross the road at a gallop and in the process scare up chucker and quail. Desert diversity at its finest.
We turn off on to the 3 mile long “Jeep trail” which leads to the top of mines. The road was somewhat dry, but was very rugged, with large rocks in the deep ruts, so we take it very slow hoping my city tires don’t blow out. It takes us 1 hour to travel the 3 mile obstacle course to the top of the table rock. At the top, we look down into the canyon and see the “cabins” which are located on top of a saddle. The switch back road going down is steep and I decide to park the truck and hike it. I had some concern about Gene, having just came off a heart attack 3 weeks back, and having had coronary stints placed. But Gene insisted on making the hike. Getting down to the cabins, we see that the structures were built into and under rock outcroppings. I think the most amazing thing about the cabins were that the glass picture windows were unmolested by rock throwing vandals. After walking past the cabins, we proceeded down the dirt road to the top of the next rim. Looking down, we see steep switch backs trails covered in small rocks…It was going to be tough and dangerous walking from here down. Gene wisely decided to stay up near the cabins, while I ventured down.
Walking down was very difficult, slipping and sliding on loose rock in places. I finally make it to “Jakes Place claim”, named after Jake Jacobitz one of past claim owners. Today, the claim is just a shallow hole that has been filled in at the base of a pinnacle. Volcanic tuff is everywhere with very small web like veins of Jasper. Past rockhound scavengers have cleaned the mine tailings bone clean, even though collecting and digging is not allow on the claims. While at the Jake’s Place claim, I see where tailings were pushed over the cliff side. Looking down the very steep cliff, I can see the tailings going down to bottom of the canyon. About 200 yards of nothing but tuff tailings ranging from the size of marbles to a VW beetle, reaching all the way down to the bottom. I decide to go on further down the trail, to the bottom, where the tailings end. Along the way, test pits can be seen where old miners were looking for more gemmy seams of Jasper and by the looks of it, were not too successful. Gene related to me before I went down, that back in the 70’s, he was paying his contract diggers three dollars a pound . Incredible!. I was thinking about this, as I struggled up and down the trail, trying not to slip to my doom. It’s hard for me to even imagine all that mining effort. Removing Jasper out of the ground, in a inhospitable environment, no trees or water, temperatures in the 100’s in summer, and then bitter cold in winter. It’s just unthinkable for three dollars a pound!. Recent Tucson prices are set at $250+ a pound… yes, but to haul it out for three, no way!
I continue down the trail, while carefully placing my steps, I get to the bottom of the “Jake’s Place” tailings and I see that it…does…not… look…too…safe. Rock boulders some in excess of 400 pounds are extremely unstable, and at this extreme angle, any slight movement could bring an avalanche down on me, so I don’t venture. It’s starting to get late and I left Gene at the top. I begin my long trek up the steep switch backs. Puffing my way back up, I find the footing easier. But at 4600 feet, it’s not as forgiving on the old 47 year old heart and lungs. I finally make it back to the top. At the cabins, Gene is sitting back outside sipping on a cold beer and taking it easy. “Where the hell have you been?”, he says laughing, “I thought I’d have to go down and get you.” Still trying to get my dry tongue and mouth to work right, I say, “Damn! I can’t believe you paid those guys three dollars a pound to pull rock out of there!” He gets a big grin and twinkle in his eye… hands me a cold one… raises his beer and exclaims, “Here’s to The King”!
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