The State Park and the Era of the Diamond Diggers

Finally, the State of Arkansas fulfilled the dream of those who had envisioned a public park centering upon the diamond field.  In March 1972 it paid GF Industries $750,000 for the big pipe and some 800 surrounding acres.[1]  Millar’s former tourist center served as the initial entry to the new Crater of Diamonds State Park.[2]


    Under State management, the Crater of Diamonds catered to two types of diamond hunters.  Most numerous were the casual visitors, those paying a modest admission to enter “the Mine” and either walk around a big plowed field or scratch the surface with small hand tools. These, of course, primarily supported the operation with their entry fees, tool rentals, and purchases in the gift shop.  The overall visitor traffic, however, still depended significantly upon the number and regularity of diamond finds, particularly large gems that could generate publicity for the park.[3]  And the “diamond count” depended heavily upon the labor and ingenuity of a relatively small but much more serious group of miners—the “regulars” and the other hunters who joined them as often as possible.

    Mostly, these hard-working miners were older men, often retired or nearing retirement.  A few specialized in surface hunting, and produced some outstanding gems, including the largest ever found at the park, the 16.37-carat white “Amarillo Starlight” (1975).[4]  Others usually scanned the surface after rains, and screened the surface gravels washed out by heavy downpours; but they concentrated on digging for streams of rock and gravel buried over the decades by wash from the diamond-bearing material in the field.

    These “regular diggers” contributed at least 90% of the approximately 25,000 diamonds found at the park, including most of the big ones.  The “Star of Shreveport” (1981) was an exceptional 8.82-carat white beauty.  The extremely rare “Strawn-Wagner Diamond,” a smaller but perfect gem found in a deep hole in 1990, also joined the list of record-setters.[5] 


    The diggers not only built the diamond count, they also served as the major tourist attraction at the park, entertaining and educating visitors in a unique way.  Although they generally considered tourists bothersome, they gained a reputation for courtesy-to some extent because most welcomed the opportunities to show their diamonds and make regular sales to help defray expenses.[6]


    Experienced diggers never wasted time working the undisturbed volcanic breccia in the field.  They learned early, and quickly, that such labor was futile.[7]  They always dug for “the right kind of dirt,” as James Archer told visitors repeatedly over the years.  That meant rock and gravel deposits containing various heavy minerals associated with diamonds.  Some of this was found out in the field in shallow buried drainage channels; a lot of it turned up in deep holes at the base of the southeast slope (an area old-timers called “the pig pen”); and even more came from a wide, ancient drainage cut on the west side of the field.[8]

    But the mother lode, including the diggings that maintain a respectable diamond count at the park today, lay within an ancient gully along the east side of the pipe. This cut had received most of the wash from the big slope long before John Huddleston’s discovery in 1906.  As in the pig pen and on the west side, the filled gully held a network of gravel streams at various depths.  At the bottom, ranging from nine to almost eleven feet deep, lay an original bed of rock and gravel packed so tight that diggers sometimes had to use crowbars or similar tools to break it up.  Here, they found several of the largest and best quality gems of the era, including the Strawn-Wagner Diamond.  Immediately above this bedrock ran streams of fine gravel within a thick layer of the original black surface material; and immediately atop that, an especially diamond-rich stream of gravel within a thin layer of pale green volcanic breccia.  This was the wash from the hydraulic sluicing of the old days.  Shallower runs of gravel contained few heavy minerals and very few diamonds.[9]    

    In any kind of mining, technological advances produce noticeable results, and that holds true for recreational mining as well as commercial operations.  At Crater of Diamonds State Park a major breakthrough came in 1980-1981 when an adventurer who had hunted diamonds in South America introduced a basic tool the natives used down there:  the suruca (sometimes spelled “saruca”).

    The round suruca, originally about two feet in diameter, had a medium-mesh screen shaped as a shallow bowl.  Filled with sized material and then properly shaken in water, it concentrated diamonds and associated heavy minerals in the center under the lighter gravel.  Much as the jigs used in commercial operations, this simple procedure eliminated the bulk of processed material and allowed miners to examine only the small quantity of concentrated “heavies.”  Unlike jigs, however, the suruca did not automatically separate the heavies from the bulk of lighter material; miners had to learn to flip the round screen upside down upon a soft, flat surface—usually a “suruca pile” made of accumulated fine-grain material from the processing.  Skillful flipping left the centered heavies on top, with diamonds exposed.  Left to dry for a few minutes, the other minerals lost their shiny appearance while any diamonds stood out.[10]

    Facilitating the procedure, old-timers at the Crater quickly converted the cumbersome South American tool into a suruca about fourteen inches in diameter.  The screen mesh was reduced, with some stainless-steel units now retaining diamonds as small as one-hundredth of a carat (one “point”).

    The impact was swift and dramatic.  In 1980, diamond finds had totaled 579; in 198l they leaped to 1,324, and remained at about that level the following three years.  At the same time, the total weight of diamonds increased much less compared with previous years, reflecting the thousands of tiny diamonds now being recovered.[11]


    In the early 1990s the diamond count finally started plunging.[12]  To some extent, this resulted from new restrictions imposed on diggers, making it more difficult to work holes. Most of the old regulars soon quit or began coming infrequently.  But the count also reflected the steady depletion of that network of buried deposits:  the endowment of the old surface layer was being exhausted.  The era of the digger was beginning to fade, gradually becoming just one more colorful chapter in the history of Arkansas diamonds.[13]



[1] Pike, Deed Book 103, 369-378, Warranty Deed with supporting documents, GF Industries, Inc., to State of Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, March 13, 1972.  The State also obtained a “Release of Claim and Covenant” from shareholders and directors of Diamond Properties, Inc., who held rights to royalties and other payments from GEM (Deed 104, 218, April 5, 1972).  Here, for the first time, a deed identified the principals involved in Diamond Properties:  J. B. Warmack, Faye W. Smith, R. B. Dettro, Talbot Feild, Jr., and Oliver M. Clegg.


[2] Sue McCarty stayed at her position.  The original office-visitor center on the east edge of the Ozark Mine, near the high ridge, remained the park visitor center until the State built the facility now serving that purpose.  The relocated VC sits on a hill immediately east of the big southeast slope (the plowed field known as “the mine”).  Remnants of the old Martin plant are just below the VC, on the south side.


[3] While basic, the diamond count was only one of several things influencing traffic at the park after 1972.  The park’s “Diamond Statistics Summary” for 1972-1993, distributed during the season of 1994, reflects the importance of novelty, general publicity, and convenient access to major highways.  Overall, the park’s remoteness in southwest Arkansas remained the biggest limitation.  Novelty evidently ranked next:  generally, only a small percentage of visitors returned a second time (interviews over the years found a consistent explanation—that the experience was unique and interesting for perhaps several hours, but that one day spent mostly out in a hot field satisfied curiosity).  Also prominent was an attitude that had persisted since the initial discovery of diamonds in 1906:  suspicion that the field was salted, that Arkansas diamonds were planted or were merely quartz crystals (to some extent a result of confusion over so-called “Hot Springs Diamonds,” high-grade quartz).

    By itself, the “Summary” for 1972-1993 seems to indicate that the number and size of diamonds had little effect on visitation; but they clearly helped generate publicity and traffic.  Those other factors simply carried more weight.


[4] W. W. Johnson of Amarillo, Texas, set the record in August 1975 (for a partial list of record finds, see  Even the National Inquirer picked up the story about Johnson’s good fortune (clipping, no date, but soon after the find, in Crater archive, IV.E.5).  The Inquirer described Johnson as a rather poor retired janitor who was renting out his $100,000 gem for exhibitions (at $300-$500 a week, said the tabloid). 

    Until his death in the early ‘90s, Raymond Shaw of Murfreesboro was known as “the Dean of Surface Hunters.”  He rarely missed a day at the mine, and almost always could be found up on Beatty’s Hill, the hotspot of surface hunting for decades.

    Beatty’s Hill, an area spanning a little over one acre, was named after an elderly gentleman who surface hunted there regularly before the 1980’s.  It lay at the upper northwest corner of the big slope, just below East Hill.  For almost forty years this area and the slope immediately below remained the main target of surface hunters—basically because Beatty’s Hill still contained its original black ground, untouched by hydraulic sluicing in the old days.  After 1985, the author monitored the area as the last of the black color disappeared, and noted the steady decline of diamond finds.  By 1992, the coloration was exhausted; diamond finds grew small and infrequent; regular surface hunters no longer bothered with Beatty’s Hill.  A few regular diggers, however, worked the buried gravel streams of the area until the mid 1990s, particularly at the base of the Hill, and recovered diamonds up to six carats.


[5] Website, ibid.; Murfreesboro Diamond, June 23, 1981 (described how Carroll Blankenship of Shreveport found the gem in his 10'-deep hole just as the park staff prepared to fill it because it was deemed unsafe).  The author was working nearby when Shirley Strawn dug up her icy white gem in 1990.  Parks and Tourism’s website comments on the Strawn-Wagner:

     The Strawn-Wagner Diamond (3.03 carats)–Discovered by park visitor Shirley Strawn of Murfreesboro, Arkansas, her white diamond was cut in 1997 to a 1.09-carat, round brilliant shape. It was graded in the laboratory of the American Gem Society (AGS) as a "D" Flawless 0/0/0 diamond. This is the highest grade a diamond can achieve. A diamond this perfect is a "one-in-a-billion diamond," stated Peter Yantzer, AGS Laboratory Director. The State of Arkansas purchased the diamond and it is on permanent display in the exhibit gallery at the Crater of Diamonds State Park visitor center.

    Also see Harry Harnish, park interpreter, “Gems From the Crater,” Murfreesboro Diamond, January 29, 1981, p. 7, explaining the dramatic increase of diamond finds at the time.  Although favorable weather conditions played a role, Harnish said, “More important is the fact that we have several people that are digging almost every day.  Whenever there is a group of regular diggers systematically searching the field for diamonds, we do not have to worry about our scales getting rusty.”


[6] These observations are based on both the author’s general experience in the mine from June 1985 until the fall of 1996 and his many conversations with old-timers such as Grady Snearly, Raymond Shaw, Ted Moore, and James Archer, about events of 1972-1985. 

    Selling diamonds in the Crater was always a problem for the park staff, who understandably wanted to avoid any suspicion that commercialization had crept into the program.  Although rules formally banned sales outside the gift shop, they were enforced laxly except for cases of aggressive salesmanship.  Apparently, everyone understood the little souvenir diamonds served as unique advertising for the park.


[7] No regular digger could recall anyone’s ever finding a diamond in previously undisturbed material.  The author monitored numerous tourists who dug holes out in the field, and never documented a find.  As all commercial tests of the undisturbed peridotite indicated, the yield per ton of material was far too low for successful recreational mining.  Experienced diamond hunters waited until heavy rains washed out gems, and then either surface hunted or screened the gravel deposits created by runoff. 


[8] Many of these buried drainage cuts could be traced by referring to the US Geological Survey map of 1916, made before many of the original cuts were filled (mostly during the ADC’s heavy hydraulic sluicing of the surface layer and then later by runoff from a bare field highly vulnerable to erosion).  Much of the ancient east drain was filled during the Martin venture of the late 1940s.

    The author mapped much of the digging in 1985-1996, correlating it with historical records.


[9] Maps and charts in author’s possession.


[10] Diamond, an extremely dense material, looks the same wet or dry.  It does not absorb water.  This is why grease tables work, if properly operated:  wet material passes over the grease while “dry” diamonds stick to it.  Some diamonds, however, have a natural coating that does get saturated; so the run from a grease table is usually double checked.


[11] Crater of Diamonds State Park, “Diamond Statistics Summary, 1972-1993” (distributed 1994).  For the entire period, diamond finds totaled 17,293.  By 2006 the number reached 25,000.


[12] Ibid.  Recent information indicates a declining count propped up largely by the continuing recovery of tiny diamonds along the old east drain.  To facilitate digging in that area, the park has started stripping off the top few feet of unproductive dirt fill.  If that were done also along the base of the southeast slope, where the fill runs to about twenty feet deep, the park probably could maintain a respectable diamond count for years.  Still, the buried drains will be exhausted in time if diamond hunting remains the focus of park policy.  Eventually the park will either work out a conservation plan or depend on the relatively few diamonds washing out of the pure peridotite.  Possibly, the park might reenact diamond processing, using limited hydraulic mining and plant washing to provide concentrate as well as educate visitors (much as the Diamond Preserve intended in 1950-1951).


[13] Digging will likely continue well into the future, but its central role at the Crater of Diamond can hardly be maintained as buried rock-and-gravel deposits are depleted.  Recognizing this trend, park managers are beginning to create a more balanced visitor experience, as evident especially at the new Discovery Center and water park.


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