Biggs picture jasper and the discovery thereof played a vital role in the evolution of the lapidary field. Many a lapidarist would not be involved with this fine hobby if it had not been for their awe struck inspiration in seeing a polished slab or cab of Biggs picture jasper.. .no other jasper created such a “gold rush of excitement,” as did the Biggs jasper discovery of 1964. It is ingrained in my mind like it was last summer... I was just a tow head. I remember my dad talking with some other rockhounders/miners about how that country around Biggs Junction was made up of basalt, rattlesnakes and sage brush, with sporadic deposits of agate who would have ever thought such beautiful jasper lay beneath the surface of this rugged desert. The Biggs jasper discovery changed the lives of a lot of people as you will see in the following pages. I recall the excitement within my dad when he first saw a slab of Biggs jasper, he was hooked from that moment on!! !!! Everyone was fascinated by how the scenes in the jasper reflected so much the terrain from whence it came. From the time I ground out my first cab of Biggs picture jasper, I too have been drawn to its beauty. It has gained a highly respected throne in the royal realm of picture jaspers like all jaspers, Biggs has variety. Any lapidarist knows about the most rare, blue sky Biggs and blue Biggs jasper that demands $100.00 plus per lb. The old Biggs is another variety, black Biggs, Rufus Biggs, which tends to be harder. The most common is lace Biggs, strictly a landscape rock as there is rarely any pattern to it and it is plagued with soft spots. One can gather hundreds of lbs. of lace Biggs as it litters the hillsides all around Biggs Jet and Rufus...
To whom do we owe credit for the discovery? The first to ever make use of Biggs jasper was the Native Americans that lived on the Columbia. There is an old mine that they dug up on a mountain off highway 97; I have seen several arrowheads that have been found on the river made from Biggs jasper. Since then numerous old native American quarries have been located where they mined Dolphite agate for their gem points and Biggs jasper for their knives and scrapers. It would be 100 years before man would once again discover the magic of this jasper.
Isami Tsubota aka Sammi has one of the oldest running Biggs mines still in production. He purchased quite a bit of land in and around Biggs Jet. Back in 1987, Sammi was able to give me some first hand accounts of the famous Biggs jasper discovery. In his own words: “it was in 1964 that a road crew was constructing 1-84 and they,” the crew, “were staying at my motel and RV park”. Biggs was not discovered by the road crew while constructing the freeway like many have come to believe.” As Sammi explained: “a great flood came and destroyed the canyons from the John Day River drainage, the Rufus drainage and Biggs Junction drainage. Biggs Junction was totally marooned with no way in or out, except by air. The state relief would bring in baloney and bread.” It was around Christmas Eve and we had 75 people stranded at my motel...” luckily the road crew was already there working on 1-84 and they went to work rebuilding the washed out bridges. Sammi noted that the flood had washed out these unusual looking boulders that were scattered about. He couldn’t figure out why all the fuss over these rocks. His wife was becoming angry at the road crew as they would gather these rocks up and pile them next to their motel and RV park. She told Sammi to tell them fellows to be sure and take them rocks out when they left. Sammi laughed when he said that, better that than cry. Like he said now, there were boulders of blue Biggs and here he was telling the workers they better not leave them rocks!!!! Sammi shook his head and laughed and said “if only I had known.” It wasn’t until later that Sammi met up with a rockhound by the name of Hoot Elkins. Hoot soon became widely known for discovering the Deschutes picture jasper deposit..He showed Sammi a slab of Biggs jasper and Sammi fell in love with the jasper and was an instant rock hound!!!! Then he was out gathering up the washed out boulders. Soon he had a full scale rock shop running and was marketing the jasper. The flood had destroyed the old highway 97 that came in from the south and the road crew tackled that after the bridges were completed. It was then that rockhounds were able to see the huge exposed deposits of Biggs jasper. The flood waters had washed the dirt away that had concealed hidden beauty for millions of years. Rockhounds would get the Biggs from the road crews, some road workers became rockhounds themselves.., by then there was a chaotic rush to get this jasper as it was gaining international attention.
In doing my research I came across an article written in the Lapidary Journal in 1968 and was stunned to read this excerpt... “Biggs jasper, a silicified clay, and please, let us not call this material a jasper, no matter what its texture or coloring. Due to changes in its composition and lack of sufficient silica in some of its areas, this beautiful picture rock will never quite make the grade as top-quality cabochon material.” Wow! !!! Evidently the writer didn’t do his homework as some of the finest cabochons in museums today came from Biggs Junction. Is it silicified clay? That discussion came up one afternoon while visiting with Howard Dolph. He laughed and said “let me show you something,” he took me to his museum and I was awe struck to see a sliced chunk of Biggs with a fish fossil in it-so one can certainly say it is silicified mud! clay because if it was volcanic the fish would have been dusted. Howard Dolph, God rest his soul, was one of the first to get in on the Biggs digs. Some make false claims, but they just can’t fill those boots. Howard mined hard and cut Biggs constantly for decades... He also fished for salmon off the ramps at Celilo Falls right next to the Native Americans, before the dams covered the falls. Howard was a wealth of information on the history of Biggs jasper. Dolph left me wiser on every aspect of Biggs jasper and the history of the Columbia River gorge. There are many old-timers that were in on the first Biggs digs. Kop (Kopcinski) of Mitchell was one of the first to ever put Biggs jasper to a saw, Shirts Quant of Prineville dug tons of it, Hoot Elkins, dug both the Biggs and Deschutes picture jasper - and sadly there are some that are not worthy to list here because of their past, and continued dishonorable conduct. Biggs jasper used to be confined to the north half of “the rockhounders’ triangle,” from Biggs south to Wasco, then north to Rufus and west back to Biggs. Since this writing a new discovery has been made at Tygh Valley, some 25 miles S.W as the crow flies.. .it was also dug on the Washington side of the river for years until the corps and railroad shut down the digs.
Biggs jasper will always play a major role in the lapidary world and it has been my pleasure to share with you the stories of those that are worthy of being noted here. We now own our own Biggs jasper mine and I gladly welcome folks to come and dig, just drop me an email for instructions. Via HY GRADER 01/07