The hopeful descend on Crater of Diamonds

CRATER OF DIAMONDS STATE PARK, Ark. -- In one hand I carried a white plastic bucket strapped to a couple of wood-framed screens.

In the other I held on to a small shovel. My camera hung from my shoulder. I should have watched where I was going.

Instead, my eyes stared into the soft brown dirt, occasionally darting from side to side, searching for something, anything, that sparkled.

After all, this was Crater of Diamonds State Park, the eighth-largest depository of diamonds in the world -- a 37½-acre carpet of diamonds.

Better yet, it's finder's keepers. I might just find a retirement gem.

It could happen. A couple of days before I arrived on a warm morning in late September, Richard Burke of Flint, Mich., walked away with a 4.68-carat white diamond worth, well, who knows how much.

Why not me?

A little science might be in order about now. Crater of Diamonds sits over an extinct volcano where diamonds began to form more than 3 billion years ago, 60 to 100 miles below ground. About 100 million years ago gas and rock blasted to the surface through a volcanic vent, carrying the diamonds along.

In 1906, farmer John Wesley Huddleston found the first diamonds, including a 2.65-carat blue-white sparkler. Not surprisingly, Huddleston's find set off an Arkansas diamond rush.

Over the years several people tried to mine diamonds commercially, but all were unsuccessful, thanks in part to lawsuits, fires and, most notably, inadequate production. A mine shaft went down 60 feet but didn't produce any more diamonds per ton than above ground. And i''s a heck of a lot easier to find diamonds above ground.

More than 75,000 diamonds have been discovered since Huddleston's find, more than 27,000 of them since 1972, when Arkansas bought the land for a state park.

The biggest? A 40.23-carat rough diamond found in 1924 by an employee of the Arkansas Diamond Corp. The Uncle Sam diamond, as it was called, was cut to 12.42 carats and still ranks as the largest diamond ever found in North America.

Since the state park was established, the biggest find was the Amarillo Starlight diamond, which weighed 16.37 carats and was cut to 7.54 carats. The 3-plus carat Strawn-Wagner diamond, found in 1990, was graded flawless by the American Gem Society and turned into a 1-carat diamond ring. It was valued at $33,000.

This doesn't mean diamonds are going to just jump out of the ground and into your hands. Darn it.

"To find a diamond, you have to have a little luck and perseverance," said Bill Henderson, the park's assistant superintendent. "The more people come the better their chances.

"We do have people come and say, 'I'm going to find a diamond,' and they stay until they do."

Last year 170,000 people -- a record -- visited the park. More than 1,000 diamonds were uncovered. Attendance is down about 25 percent this year, Henderson said, probably because of higher gas prices and the slow economy. Still, Richard Burke's big find was the 612th discovered so far this year.

Fall is a popular time to hunt, particularly October, when people travel through the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas to see the changing colors.

"And we're just as busy in November, around Thanksgiving," he said. "The campgrounds are full."

The day before my arrival, four diamonds were found -- three white diamonds weighing 7, 10 and 14 points, and a less-valuable 24-point brown diamond. One carat equals 100 points.

"We can't promise everybody a diamond," Henderson said, "but we can promise a family outing that you can't find anywhere else in the world."

I was ready to hunt. As I headed to the field, he offered a final piece of advice: "If I were here for only one or two days, I'd look in the ditches and crevices, where Mother Nature has already done a lot of the washing."

The field didn't look too promising, to tell the truth -- more like a piece of brown Arkansas farmland. In the distance a bulldozer was plowing, turning over the surface to enhance diamond finds.

Dozens of hunters were scattered across the property. Some were walking methodically back and forth, scouring the ground. Others were sitting in the dirt, or were on their knees, scratching through the surface with their fingers. Some people were standing, bent over as they dug into the ground with a shovel.

Where to start?

As I neared the bulldozer, I decided one spot probably was as promising as another. So I picked a spot, pushed the shovel into the ground and filled my bucket.

Besides searching on the surface, diamond hunters can dry-sift with screens to find their gems, or wet-sift. I had decided to try my luck with the wet method.

I trudged down to a covered area where about 15 people were carefully sluicing through the dirt in huge troughs of dirty water.

I had two screens -- one with a larger mesh than the other. I placed that one on top of the other screen and filled it with dirt. The idea is that the larger rocks -- maybe even the "retirement diamonds" - would stay on the top screen while the smaller rocks would sift through and settle on the smaller screen. Only the dirt was supposed to sift through both screens.

It wasn't that easy, though. The dirt often came in hard clumps and didn't dissolve quickly in the water, so it stayed with the rocks.

Henderson had told me that dirt doesn't stick to diamonds, so they'll stand out, kind of oily, among the other pebbles and rocks. But I didn't see anything that looked at all shiny. No diamonds, agates, garnets, amethysts or any other of the valuable gems found here.

I started over with a new shovelful of dirt. This was starting to feel a little like feeding a slot machine. With each unsuccessful screen of dirt, I was growing less optimistic. And after awhile, as I scrutinized every little pebble in my bent-over stance, my back began to ache.

I headed back into the field, following the bulldozer again. I filled my pail and began another round. With the same luck.

As near I as could tell, nobody else was hitting the jackpot, either. The other fortune hunters bantered good-naturedly with one another, comparing their finds.

Denny Bradley of Peoria, Ill., was perhaps the most serious in the group.

After all, he'd been here before, and he'd found a diamond.

"It was the size of a head of a pin," said Bradley. "No, you could put it on the head of a pin. I didn't even bother turning it in."