Bower Powers: Black is Beautiful

Steven C. Chamberlain


Revised – 2008, 2016


        What is it about the black tourmalines from the Bower Powers Farm near Pierrepont, NY, that makes them so desirable?  I guess I’ve never worried much about it during my obsessive quest to have them all, or at least as many as possible.  I have good to excellent specimens in my collection from C. D. Nims, Bill Pinch, George Robinson, George Vaux, John Legro, C. U. Shepard, Vern Phillips, Charlie Bowman, Scott Wallace, Mike Walter, and many other collectors, as well as a few I’ve collected myself.  This locality is a great place to take visitors.  I remember taking the late eminent British mineralogist and collector, Dr. Robert J. King, there many years ago.  He had collected at the look-alike British locality at Bovey Tracy, where good specimens are like hens’ teeth, and was just amazed that reasonable specimens were just lying around all over the place.

        After a long and productive day collecting, Bob King and I stopped at the Pizza Hut where the state route from Pierrepont joins Route 11. In those days, Indian curry shops and fish and chips shops in Great Britain had not yet been replaced by American chain restaurants, and it is likely that Bob had never been inside a Pizza Hut before.  As we were looking at the menu, I excused myself to wash my hands because I was getting the menu dirty.  Upon my return, Bob happily informed that he’d ordered our pizzas—two super-sized taco pizzas.  I ran to the counter and changed the order to one large taco pizza.  When it came, Bob was flummoxed.  He had no clue what the mound of shredded lettuce in front of him was.  In the end, however, we really enjoyed it.  I’m not certain he ever believed me that this menu item was new and that I’d never had one either.

        In all my days spent happily digging somewhere on the Powers farm, I’ve only found a half dozen really superb tourmaline specimens, if you don’t count the single xl thumbnails.  I particularly like these, and have collected hundreds of world-class single xls.  Those that are strongly tabular and those that show hemimorphic development are my particular favorites.  Silver-pick collecting, however, has always been a particularly good way to obtain great specimens from this locality.



 Black tourmaline cluster collected in 1890 by C. D. Nims.


        The quartz from Bower Powers has always been interesting.  Pre -1975, most of the quartz specimens showed a tapered habit and the small ones reminded me of little hedge hogs.  Compared to the tourmaline, quartz was clearly an also ran.  Then in the mid 1970s all that changed.  Nick Rochester discovered the vein of smoky quartz of exceptional quality that cut diagonally across the top of the hill in the middle of the most popular collecting area.  Some of the best early specimens went to Harvard.  Later George Robinson was able to pry some of these loose, and I now own several from this first big find.  Numbers of excellent specimens were produced.  This vein is clearly much younger than the rest of the deposit because the quartz formed in open spaces rather than frozen in marble.  Indeed, some specimens show calcite crystals that co-crystallized with the quartz.  A few of them are so dark as to constitute morion (black quartz), whereas some of them are so light that they appear colorless.

        I spent a fair amount of time digging in the quartz trench and personally collected some of the best smoky quartz specimens I have.  (I must admit, however, that the very best specimen I got from Russ Behnke, and it’s a stunner.)  During the two summers when I frequented the locality to dig for smoky quartz, I was continually impressed and irritated by human-driven erosion.  One could leave the trench open with smoky quartz showing at the bottom on Sunday and come back the next Saturday to find it filled with 3 or 4 feet of debris.  When dug out again, the very same material you left was still there to be collected.  Several times I witnessed this phenomenon in progress.  Collectors would come upon the excavation, which by this time was 50 feet long and up to 8 feet deep.  Finding interesting quartz fragments on the debris piles, they would proceed to dig in the piles without ever looking at the bottom of the trench to see where the discards were coming from.  The result was to fill the trench with debris.  This tendency of some collectors to be mindlessly swayed by the first bauble they find has always puzzled me.  Stopping to take stock of where that first bauble might have come from seems to me to make sense both in a working quarry and at a collector site like Bower Powers.  Others, I have observed, don’t seem to do it that way.

        The other comment I should make about Bower Powers is that very unexpected and unusual things turn up there.  If you’re not expecting that possibility, they are easy to miss.  Some very nice scapolite crystals have been found along with even more interesting serpentine/talc pseudomorphs after scapolite.  Some of the talc pseudomorphs after quartz are really world-class, but easy to miss in the search for shiny black tourmaline crystals.  Other interesting pseudomorphs include quartz after pyroxene, amphibole after pyroxene (uralite) and talc after pyroxene (rensselaerite) and pyrite after pyrrhotite collected by Mike Walter.  A very few titanite crystals have been found, as well as chalcopyrite, pyrite, and magnetite crystals. 

        This is a great locality for collecting.  The only hazard to collectors hasn’t been in evidence for many years.  When the current owner’s father was still alive, he sometimes had a few goats in the pasture that includes the locality.  Many of us lay down a piece of newspaper to lay our crystals on.  The first few times I collected there, I had to chase away goats who either ate the tourmaline crystals off the newspaper or grabbed the newspaper, dumped my specimens, and walked away chewing the newspaper.  Goats, I have always thought, are a bit strange!

        Probably my most memorable experience collecting at Bower Powers occurred on the day Paul Desautels died.  I had been digging on top of the hill under several trees and was finding some very fine uvite specimens.  I decided to invite two of my students who had been wondering what mineral collecting was about along to increase our manpower.  Eric Hornstein (now a neuroscience professor at UCSF) and Joe Licameli (now a bioengineer working in industry) joined me in my two-wheel drive Dodge pickup truck.  We spend the day digging and sieving and by early evening had excavated a considerable pit and filled many egg cartons and Pepsi boxes with specimens.  As I looked at the large stack of boxes that waited to be carried out, I decided, stupidly, to drive my truck into the locality.

        It was already an experienced and battered field collecting vehicle, so the small scratches from branches on the way in didn’t register.  What did register was the fact that my attempt to race through the swale with the small stream ended up with the truck hopelessly mired in the mud.  Mud is sort of like snow, only heavier and slimy.  Since Joe was a native of Syracuse, and Eric had done his share of winter driving too, we teamed up to extract the truck successfully.  Then, after taking a break, we trekked the boxes a much smaller distance from the diggings to the truck.  It was dusk by the time we were ready to leave.  Since there were some other significant road hazards between us and the entry gate, I decided that backing out would probably result in our getting mired in mud again.  Unfortunately, the track was very narrow, and turning around was almost impossible.  Eventually we surveyed about a hundred feet of track and chose a place where the trees were all saplings small enough to back the truck over.  With Joe and Eric directing me, I began to maneuver to turn us around.  Alas, the saplings didn’t give bend as easily as I’d like.  I took a deep breath, gunned the engine, and rammed the truck backwards into the trees.  The saplings indeed gave way, but the soil got very soft and when I tried to pull forward, nothing happened.  Detailed inspection revealed that I had backed the rear axle onto a boulder and both rear tires were now off the ground.  Having just spent all day digging and breaking rock, we enthusiastically set about digging around the boulder.  Eric and Joe took turns working under the truck with Estwing gem picks and entrenching tools.  The more they dug, the larger the boulder got, until we had to conclude that it was an outcropping and not a boulder.  Plan B was immediately activated.  We would chisel off the top and lower the truck enough to drive out.  Many hits with a four-pound crack hammer later we had bruised hands, sore arms, and many insignificant rock fragments.

        I realized that it was 10PM and that I needed to walk to a phone and call Helen.  Our standing agreement was always that if I weren’t home by midnight, she would call the police to initiate the search.  By this time, I had already realized that both Joe and Eric were “city boys” and not very comfortable in the dark in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere.  We had between us, one flashlight, but it was clear and nearly full moon.  Finally it was agreed that Eric would remain with the flashlight at the truck and Joe and I would walk about two miles to the nearest house in the moonlight.  All went just fine until we encountered two untethered German shepards.  I am not afraid of dogs, even when I should be, but Joe is terrified of them.  As we were surrounded by barking dogs in the dark, Joe almost literally climbed onto my shoulders to get away from them.  After a few minutes, I had them calmed down to the point that they walked down the road with us for about half a mile.

        We got to the nearest house to find that the family was sitting in the living room watching a horror movie with the windows open and the lights off.  We walked up onto the front porch and then I said, “Excuse me (may we use your telephone).”  Nobody heard anything beyond the first two words because there was screaming from inside.  I had spoken just at a very scary part of their movie and the parents, son and girlfriend had all totally freaked out.  They were ecstatic at the “scare” and were very helpful.  When I called, the line was busy, so I had the operator break in to the call—something I’ve never done before or since.  When I finally got Helen on the line, I found out that she’d just been talking to Marie Huizing who had called with the news of Paul’s death.  Having taken care of that problem, we were confronted by another.  As a reward for the great scare, the father and son wanted to drive their garden tractor out to the site and pull our truck out.  After looking at the garden tractor, I decided that a mess could easily be converted into a total flaming mess with their help and managed gently to decline, emphasizing that the truck was now unstuck, but we just needed to bend a few trees out of the way and we’d be free (not true at all, but I had my fingers crossed in the hand that was in my pocket). 



Nice cluster of black tourmaline crystals collected in 1985 by Vern Phillips.


        After milk and cookies, we were on our way back through the dark, past the dogs, to the truck.  We arrived to find that Eric had seen “eyes” and was locked in the truck and scared to death.  As I was walking around with the flashlight trying to figure out how to get us out of this mess, I fell backwards over a log that somehow none of us had noticed before.  The log turned out to be an old piece of telephone pole.  I have no idea what it was doing there in the woods.  Eric suggested we try brute force and we picked up the telephone pole segment, put it under the rear bumper and easily lifted the truck forward off of the outcropping.  I got in and drove it into the track, now facing the right direction and we were home free.  Needless to say, I drove out with extreme “aggressive caution”.  We stopped at Longway’s Diner at the I81 exit about 2AM for dinner and nobody seemed to think anything of three guys beyond filthy chowing down.  The final little glitch was that I was so exhausted from exercise and tension relief that I didn’t think I could stay awake to drive home.  The guys were fine, but neither could drive a stick shift.  We flipped a coin and Joe lost.  We somehow managed to get the truck onto I81 south without destroying the transmission.  The next thing I remember was being awakened as we were coming into Syracuse by the question, “Steve, what do I do now?”  I replied that the brakes still worked fine and that we’d switch and I’d drive the final off-highway leg.

        We saved a piece of the outcropping we’d chiseled off and mounted it on a wooden base, which we signed and dated on the back.  This mounted rock fragment is specimen #9861 in my collection!

        Collecting at the various sites on the property continued to be productive for years until around 2005, when Mike Walter and Scott Wallace began to further excavate a pegmatite dike Ron Waddell had discovered in the late 1960s.  As their heavy-duty, professional specimen mining proceeded, it became clear that Ron had barely scratched the surface.  Before this period of very productive specimen production ran its course, three more nearly parallel pegmatite dikes had been discovered and excavated. I was very lucky to have been around as the massive outpouring of black tourmaline and some unusual other minerals proceeded.  Among my favorite unexpected discoveries was the expanded quartz pseudomorphs after phlogopite that Mike Walter collected in the Phosphate Vein.  These looked like mud-covered pine cones when first collected.  Had they not been altered to quartz, they might not even have survived.  A few years later, when all the dikes has been excavated, I was at the site with Drs. Lupulescu, Bailey, and Kelson and some undergraduate students.  As I was standing on the grassy edge of the Waddell vein waving my arms and talking a blue streak, the grass gave way and dumped me head-first into the bottom of the trench.  As spectators held their breath, I started laughing and slowly managed to climb out.  Fortunately that end was filled with autumn leaves and cushioned my very lucky fall.



Late-stage quartz crystals on an expanded quartz pseudomorph after phlogopite from the Phosphate Vein, collected in 2008 by Mike Walter.



        A bit later, Donnie Carlin dug out the old smoky quartz trench and recovered more very nice smoky quartz specimens as well as calcite twins, chalcopyrite crystals, malachite, and unusual barite crystals.  This second opening of the vein ended up the same way as the first one-largely filled in my other collectors digging on the dumps at the edges.

        Most of the best specimens of the past few years appear to have come from the classic site at the top of the hill.  Despite having been dug and re-dug for more than a hundred years, more black tourmaline awaits discovery.

        Finally, this year a team of six of us published a book on this locality.  We tried to answer some of the lingering questions about this extraordinary locality.  Three examples are: C.D. Nims did not discover the locality as long believed; a teenager from Richville, R. T. Cross was the first collector at the locality.  C. D. Nims saw some of the black tourmaline Cross collected and tracked down the locality after that.  The black tourmaline is dravite on the outside, but fluor-uvite on the inside, i.e. it is compositionally zoned.  The occurrence is a pegmatite.


For more information:                                                            

Chamberlain, S. C. (2007) Excavation of a pegmatite dike on the Bower Powers farm, Pierrepont, St. Lawrence County, New York.  Rocks & Minerals 82:233-234.

 Chamberlain, S. C. , Robinson, G. W., Walter, M. R., Chiarenzelli, J. R., Lupulescu, M. V., and Bailey, D. G.  (2016) The Collector’s Guide to the Black Tourmaline of Pierrepont, New York. Schiffer Books. 128 p.

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