by Kerrie Hubbard
Situated in the Sapphire Mountains of Western Montana, 78 miles from Missoula, Philipsburg, Montana allows visitors an up-close glimpse into an era left behind.
Main Street claims almost 50 restored buildings, built from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. These beautifully preserved relics from history stand as a memorial to times past. (Local foundries produced bricks for many of the old structures.)
In the midst of the charm of this old west mining town, you can roll up your sleeves and try your hand at sapphire mining. Two options await you depending upon how dirty you want to get.
First is the Sapphire Gallery on Main Street. The brick building, built in 1887, originally housed a grocery and harness shop. It became home to the Sapphire Gallery in 1992 and currently houses thousands of sapphire gemstones to enjoy and purchase.
Walk through the gallery to check out the “mining” part of the business. Hunt for your own gemstones without all the mess. A bag of dirt costs $25, but comes with a small cut (ready to be mounted) sapphire as well as a guarantee that inside the bag you will find sapphires of your own.
After purchasing the dirt, mining caretakers dump it onto a screen and wash it in tubs of dirty water. Once the dirt is cleaned, the screen is dumped on a table and eager prospectors dig through the remaining pebbles with tweezers, hunting for light green or blue bits of translucent rock.
For the people who want a more hands-on experience, however, a drive 16 miles up the mountain just outside of Philipsburg is the solution.
Gem Mountain is a locally owned sapphire mining operation. Buy a bucket of dirt dredged from the mine for $12 and wash it yourself in one of the huge water troughs. After a short lesson in the finer points of “sloshing” to clean your gravel, stake your claim on one of the outdoor tables to sift through the stones. Surrounded by the towering pine trees in the middle of nowhere, the Gem Mountain experience is a little messier but worth it.
Both sites offer gemologists who will look over your finds to see if you have any potential keepers. They sift the non-sapphire rocks you collect from the real thing as well as checking for cracks and flaws. You are guaranteed to have at least a couple of keepers in your stash and like good business people, both sites also offer heat-treating and cutting services. You can leave your stones with them and in a few weeks they will mailed to you polished, cut and ready to mount.
Sapphire mining in the Philipsburg area began in 1892. Step back in time and try your hand at it. You will carry more than fond memories home with you. You’ll be able to show off your valuable souvenirs for years to come.
For more information on Philipsburg mining and the many other experiences the area has to offer, contact the Philipsburg Chamber of Commerce at (406) 859-3388.
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