Western Views: Are there diamonds in California?

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By Len Wilcox
WESTERN VIEWS

California is famous for its gold in the Sierra Nevada, just as Nevada is renowned for its silver bonanza and Montana for the richest copper mine in the world. Rich deposits have been pulled from the earth throughout the West, as well as lots of precious stones. But there is one rock that is conspicuously absent: diamonds.

We all know that they mostly come from faraway lands like South Africa. But there is a small deposit in Arkansas and a few other places around the country, and more in Canada. But not many people know that a number of diamonds were found in a California gold mine, and they were very nice diamonds of considerable value.

Cherokee, California, was a gold rush town founded by a group of Cherokee Indians that had joined the ’49 Gold Rush. They hit some rich claims and the town quickly grew. By the 1870s it was one of the richest districts in California, and as hydraulic mining took hold, the mines were consolidated into one: the Spring Valley mine.

Hydraulic mining was a very efficient process – but very destructive as it tears down the mountainside and washes it downstream. While washing out all that gold, diamonds showed up now and then in the tailings at the Spring Valley mine. Over the years a few hundred diamonds were discovered. They were excellent quality, but not worth nearly as much as the gold being produced.


But all good things come to an end. By the early 1900s the gold veins were playing out and the town dwindled to a ghost of its prior self. But there were those diamonds to think about. A man named M. E. Cooney did indeed think about them.

Article from the San Francisco Call, June 19, 1906. (Click image to enlarge.)

A San Francisco newspaper identified Cooney as a diamond expert from South Africa, and said he “has discovered a rock typical of diamond-bearing regions, not known to exist elsewhere in America.” The article said more than sixty diamonds had been found.

According to the website “Western Mining History,” Cooney set up a mining company and sold stock in it, then bought up some of the old mines at Cherokee and began operations. They found diamonds. The mine caught the attention of the large and powerful DeBeers diamond syndicate, which sent a representative to Cherokee. The events that followed are still a mystery.

Cooney suddenly decided the diamonds were industrial grade and of no real value. He shut down the mine, bought up all of the outstanding stock he could, and sold off the equipment. The mine never reopened.

Why did he suddenly decide the diamonds were worthless? Why buy back the shares to shut down the mine? Where did he get the money? Certainly, it looks like DeBeers paid to shut him down so they would not have an American competitor. But we will never know for sure. Cooney died in 1929, supposedly a pauper. If DeBeers had paid him to shut down, why was he broke?

Mysterious indeed. And we’ll never know.

I’m Len Wilcox and that’s the Western View.

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