Why Do Tourist Towns Always Have “Gem Mines:” An Investigation

There’s a little “gem mining” shop on the route between Asheville and Brevard that always makes me laugh whenever I drive by it. “Gem mining” is one of those marks of a cheesy tourist town, along with saltwater taffy and fudge shops (and increasingly fancy popcorn shops) that always make me roll my eyes (good-naturedly, of course). 

The saltwater taffy and gem mines were on my mind because I was driving through Chimney Rock, a definite cheesy tourist town, last Friday. I don’t know if it has saltwater taffy, but it has its gem mine. It also reminds me more than a little of Lake George, New York, which in mind is the pinnacle of cheesy tourism (which makes sense since the Lake-George-based Last of the Mohicans was primarily filmed in Chimney Rock State Park). I know fudge, saltwater taffy, and “gems” are tourist town hallmarks, but saltwater taffy in upstate New York 215-ish miles from the shore always filled me with sort of a smug sense of glee. Gem mining, too—when I think upstate New York, prospecting for gold isn’t even in my top hundred associations. 

And so, the hows and whys of these tourist town phenomena were on my mind Saturday morning while driving through Franklin, NC, on my way to the Albert Mountain Fire Tower hike (and nice little hike I’ll recommend if you’re cool with going three miles on a terrifying, one-lane dirt road that hugs the side of the mountain) and passed six or seven “gem mining” outfits. “I’m going to investigate the hows and whys of these gem mines,” I thought to myself. Sure, mining was once prevalent nationwide, but there’s no way gem mining was this dominant.

 Now, I realize tourist towns are pretty paint by number (which is how beachy, summer vacation staples like saltwater taffy ends up on the shores of freshwater lakes near the Canadian border), but I thought I could dig deep and come up with something interesting.

”Why Do Tourist Towns Always Have Gem Mines: An Investigation” I decided I’d call this piece. I wrote the idea and title in a notebook when I stopped to grab a breakfast sandwich at a convenient mart hosting a 9 AM makeshift Jeep convention (that based on the bumper stickers and tee-shirts might morph into an anti-mask/vax/Biden convention at any time). In my head, I was going to subtly lampoon the way Americans want to be tourists without actually experiencing anything new, guised, of course, as some more profound sociological quandary. 

You know what I found out? 

Franklin’s website calls itself the “gem capital of the world” due to the rare rubies, and sapphires once found there. I also learned that North Carolina was the first state to have a gold mining industry. Now, if you got outside of the visitor-bureau sponsored websites, you’d find tell that the gem mining industry in North Carolina was “small, but colorful,” but…it wasn’t just plucked out of nowhere. 

And I guess that’s what I get for thinking I’m more clever than I am. The smugness is gone for now. 

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