J. Alden Smith
J. Alden Smith was born in Maine in 1830, and after completing his formal education at age 14, worked in such areas as printing, wool manufacturing, stone cutting, and finally back to newspaper printing. His early fascination with minerals led to tutored studies in geology and mineralogy. By 1864 his expertise had brought him to Gilpin County, Colorado where his reputation as a consultant and assayer grew quickly.
Smith's most notable work was the first detailed list of Colorado's minerals and gem stones. After its publication in Black Hawk in 1865, it appeared in Ovando Hollister's 1867 classic historical work, Mines of Colorado, and was republished in 1870 and 1880. In 1868 he joined the editorial corps of the Miners' Register, where he was placed in charge of the mining and scientific department. He established the Central City Register office with his partner David C. Collier in 1863, and maintained a collection of ore samples taken from Colorado mines; they may also have provided assay results to miners. The "Register Collection" labels list the name of the lode or mine, the mining district and county, as well as the assay results for gold and silver content and other remarks.
In 1874, J. Alden Smith was appointed as Colorado's first Territorial Geologist and served until 1883 and again from 1885 to 1887. He is also recognized for several Telluride gold discoveries. He donated his valuable mineral collection to the University of Colorado, and died in Boulder County, Colorado on December 13, 1895.
Boulder County News, October 25, 1878, page 2:
The Mineral World in Miniature:
Ores, Precious Stones, Fossils and Shells in the Cabinet Collection of Prof. J. Alden Smith
Prof. J. Alden Smith, of this town, on whom has been conferred the honor of State Geologist, is possessed of a natural passion for the knowledge and collection of mineral specimens. It is fifteen years since he came to this country, all of which he has faithfully improved in making up his cabinet, a rare collection of about six thousand specimens, without counting duplicates, aggregating many tons in weight, and worth several thousand dollars. It represents in miniature the mineral wealth, the crystalline wonder, and the precious and beautiful gems of the world, besides meteoric rocks that represent the mineralogy of other planets, or strange spaces in the universe.
This cabinet of minerals is of special interest since Prof. Smith entertains the generous purpose of making a gift of the larger part now, and eventually the whole of it, to the University of Colorado. Thus will this institution of learning, almost at its beginning, be possessed of a mineral cabinet which will rank with those of the oldest colleges and universities in the United States, for it is not too much to say of this collection of Prof. Smith's that it is not only one of the largest, and most varied but one of the rarest in the world. With this foundation, the University of Colorado should make it a special object to possess the best cabinet collection of minerals in existence.
“I suppose,” remarked the Professor, “that if you write anything, you will classify and speak of the specimens in their natural order.” But the order in which he has arranged is the best for instruction. The black walnut case contains twenty-four drawers, filled by three thousand choice pieces of ore, metals, and precious stones, each specimen having by itself a snow-white paper box compartment, and looking as nicely in its dainty nest as “a love of a bonnet” in a new band-box.
The drawer of gold, and telluride ores of gold, was first opened, representing the American, the Smuggler, the John Jay, the Cold Spring, the Slide, and other mines of the telluride belt, the only important telluride belt discovered in the world. The first placed are pieces of the decomposed surface ore, the tellurium wasted away, leaving the gold with which it was once combined, as glittering native gold. The next are samples taken from a little depth, where the sylvanite is partially decomposed and then samples of solid sylvanite from the depths of the mine. By this gradation, mines are represented from top to bottom and metallurgical students of the University may more readily understand the changes wrought on ore by air; and better comprehend the composition of sylvanite and other tellurides, shown side by side in the same drawer, so that the eye can institute an instant comparison between them.
New to Science is the telluride of mercury found in the American mine, and fine samples are preserved in this cabinet which show globules of quicksilver on their surfaces. Here is also a sample of the telluride of lead, indeed, of all the known combinations of tellurium with other metallic substances, both in massive and crystalline forms.
Comparison with Transylvania – Posepny, an Austrian Government commissioner of Mines was once here and Professor Smith obtained specimens of the tellurides of Transylvania, which look poor and thin by the side of those of the Boulder belt. The Transylvanian scales of tellurium ore are from the thinness of paper to a fourth of an inch in thickness only, yet there they make money by working these narrow seams. In our belt the seams sometimes widen to six or eight inches of nearly solid sylvanite or is found disseminated in small or massive bunches through weins eight or ten feet between walls. This illustrates how incomparably more important is the Boulder than the Transylvania belt.
Being a skilled as well as enthusiastic mineralogist and having had charge of one of the most productive telluride mines in this county, from the time of its discovery and having been intimate with the discoverers and owners of all the other prominent ones, he has been enabled to get together a collection of the telluride ores from the surface to 500 feet in depth, that probably is not excelled, if indeed it is equaled by any other in the world.
And this cabinet illustrates the transcendent richness as well as abundance of our Boulder tellurides. Here is seen a sample of calaverite, 44 per cent pure gold. Placed beside this is a piece of raw sylvanite, exceedingly rich but showing no trace of native gold. Its other half has been roasted and is covered with globules of pure gold which the glass magnifies to great apples of gold. Here too, is seen the largest leaf or plate of sylvanite yet discovered and petzite and calaverite mixed containing $7 per ounce. But the most dazzlingly beautiful are the snarls of wire gold, perfect tangles of golden thread, some taken from the surface of the American mine and some from its deepest workings indicating that depth does not change the character of the mine.
One is impressed of the money as well as the scientific value of this collection on being shown a piece of rock as large as a man's hand, plated half an inch thick with pure crystals of glittering gold. The worth of the gold is about fifty dollars, but the specimen would sell for several hundred dollars by reason of rarity and beauty.
The golden age was represented in this cabinet by a characteristic sample of white quartz, interspersed with gold, but the owner of the mine, Mr. Walker, seeing the cabinet, said that the piece was not worthy of such brilliant company and sent another in which the weight of gold was equal to the quartz. This shows how easy it is for a royal cabinet to obtain the richest and rarest of specimens. To him that hath shall be given. The Golden Age samples are interesting as representing the only mine in Colorado whose ore is like that of California, hard, whitish quartz, plentifully disseminated with free gold. It is susceptible of the finest polish, the interlarded gold making a facing more beautiful than mosaic.
The Osceola [mine] of Sunshine at one time disclosed a vein the nearest to pure gold perhaps ever found on earth. This remarkable streak represented in this cabinet by a piece showing that this pure gold vein was three-fourths of an inch in thickness, with scarcely any admixture of other matter. Next to this royal work in Nature, was one of her rarities, leaf gold in galena, the leaves three-fourths of an inch long. Another wonder is a quartz crystal, tipped with shining gold; and other mineral singularities without parallel in the world. And gold in zinc blend, gold in mica slate, in fluor spar, something never before known.
Wonderful Freaks of Nature – Of Nature's marvelous works in gold, here is a mass of wire formed of three strings of octahedral crystals, the crystals joined by their points so that the whole closely resembles a chatelaine gold chain. Possibly the goldsmith that first made one of these chains got his idea from Nature. Another marvelous creation of Nature is the golden grasshopper, found in California Gulch [Leadville], the very image of a grasshopper, a solid gold maldoon except that one wing is gone. And next are pieces of copper linked to each other by wires of gold, the work of Nature too. Gold crystallized in arborescent or fern-like forms and all the wonderous crystals of gold. Somehow, among these rarities there has crept in a piece of ore from the American Mine, weighing six and a half ounces, no free gold visible, and yet by actual test containing in gold $42 and in silver $2.50 Such ore is a wonder in any other part of the world.
The Silver Drawer - Every variety of silver ore is here represented, chlorides of silver, ruby silver, bismuth silver ore and all the manifold associations of silver with base metals, two hundred differing samples of native silver from the Lake Superior copper mines, some pieces part copper and part silver, but the metal separated and what is strange, the copper containing not a particle of silver and the silver not a particle of copper, and yet bound in the same metallic mass, forever linked together and forever separate in texture. With these is a slab of polished ore with bars of native silver from the notable Silver Islet mine.
Nature's rare work in Silver – Here is seen wire silver in calc spar, a strange association; native silver in galena, also a rarity; native silver in zinc blende; also the most beautiful specimens of arborescent crystal of silver, presented from the New Jersey works at Caribou, in this county. Nothing can exceed the glittering whiteness, or the beauty of the forms of tracery taken by silver in crystallization.
The world of Gems – In no other department is this cabinet so rich as in the collection of crystals and precious stones. Prof. Smith has been a gatherer of gems for twenty years, laying all lands under tribute for this collection. Here is an African diamond, a perfect octahedral crystal; a Brazilian ruby and a Siberian emerald, presented by Generald Gadolin, Crown Mineralogist of Russia; a Montana sapphire; the Colorado, Brazilian, and Siberian topaz; the amethyst, the garnet, the zircon, and a moonstone from France, but the Professor would not warrant that it was the moonstone that Wilkie Collins wrote about.
Here too is The Sunstone, a beautiful gem; the goldstone; the Amazon stone and the turquoise of Colorado and of Persia; and fine specimens of opal from near and far-off lands, most of them from Hungary and Honduras; a wonderfully fine chrysophrase from New Mexico; rare chlorastrolites from Lake Superior and chiastolite.
Colorado gems are more plentiful and more precious than is popularly supposed. The Amazon stone is found here in crystals from the size of the hickory nut to those that are fourteen inches long, with prisms five inches square. Prof Smith spoke of Russia's disappointment at the Centennial Exposition, presenting there an Amazon stone that had been kept preserved two hundred years, and which compared but poorly with those of this State.
The moss agates of Colorado are incomparably the finest in the world, the most perfect specimens of which have a place in this cabinet.
Prof. Smith specially prizes an amethyst found at Nevada, in 1864, which competent judges have pronounced the nearest perfect one yet found in America. It is most pleasing in color and brilliant exceedingly.
The Cairngorm, or smoky quartz, cut for smoky topaz, as found in Colorado, exceeds that of any other country. The best has been obtained from near Pike's Peak. In this cabinet the crystals are seem from the size of a lead pencil and one inch long to 4 inches in diameter and 26 inches long. The Colorado cairngorm has been shipped to all parts of the world. It is the Scotch national stone, takes its name from one of Scotland's range of mountains, and is used as a gem in the hilt of the Claymore.
The beryl and the tourmaline are a joy to color loving eyes, red, green, blue, black, and all intermediate shades. And the onyx and epidote are beautiful. Nothing can exceed the whiteness of some of the quartz crystals, pure as “Young diamonds in their infant dew.” The phantom quartz crystal in this cabinet, crystals within a crystal is a marvelous mineral mystery. It is from St. Gothard, Switzerland.
Time would fail to mention the drawer of zeolites and the false topaz, a Colorado gem as big as a boy's head; the fossils and aboriginal relics; the graphites, corals and coal; the micas, asbestos, and mineral mountain leather, and the whole family of sounding ocean shells.
The foregoing notice of Prof. Smith's mineral collection, is designed to give a hint only of the treasure of which the University if Colorado is about to be endowed. It is not too much to expect that additions of specimens will be made until it becomes the best collection in the world. If Prof. Hill can build up in this country the largest ore reduction and smelting works of the world, certainly the State University should build up the best representation of the mineral kingdom, illustrative of the State's leading industry; and it would be but due honor that, as long as schools survive, it should be called the “J. Alden Smith Cabinet.”
ROLD, J.W., and SCHWOCHOW, S.D. (1988) History of the Colorado Geological Survey (1872-1988). Colorado Geological Survey, Denver.
Colorado Weekly Chieftain, July 30, 1868.
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