Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In February 1905, four men entered a small brick building on Miner Street in West Chester and began a month of careful labor. Using cotton and fine wood shavings, they individually wrapped 35,000 mineral speci­mens with their handwritten labels, carefully placed them into boxes, nailed the boxes shut and hauled box after box to the West Chester railroad station. Newspaper reporters kept the public informed as the work progressed. By the end of March, two boxcars were loaded with minerals, their destination being the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. In eager bidding, Andrew Carnegie had per­sonally secured the collection for the institution that bore his name, in spite of the fact that “a Boston institution,” perhaps Harvard University, had later outbid the Pittsburgh museum by $5,000. The owner and collector of the min­erals, a quiet, unassuming banker named William Walter Jefferis, in a characteristic gesture, refused to break his contract with Carnegie.

Born January 20, 1820 in West Chester, William W. Jefferis was in a unique position to become one of the fore­most mineral collectors in the United States. Within forty miles of the town where he was born and raised, there were literally dozens of quarries and mines, many of them just opened in the first half of the nineteenth century. Chester County was a mineralogist’s paradise where the earth yielded an abundance of treasures. As early as 1683, the first lead miner in the area, Charles Pickering, was fined by the colonial government for making coins from the silver he produced as a byproduct of lead. Iron mining, one of the county’s most profitable early industries, began there in 1716. Later, miners worked deposits of copper, chromium, magnesium, zinc and even corundum. Modern mineralogists list pages of minerals and their localities to be found in Chester County and the surrounding area.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, William Jefferis did not grow up on a farm and get a smattering of schooling between harvests. His father was a banker with the Bank of Chester County and the family lived on High Street, several houses down from the bank. As the second child and oldest son, William attended the West Chester Academy where he received a firm grounding in science. Even after joining the bank as a teller in 1843, he continued his studies and was taking chemistry at the academy as late as 1859.

In addition to his formal schooling, there were other scientific influences that touched his life. The town of West Chester was comfortably close to Philadelphia, and Phila­delphia was, in fact, a scientific center. The science of mineralogy in particular was popular in the city, and Phila­delphia boasted of having two of America’s first mineralo­gists – Gerald Troost and Adam Seybert – both of whom had studied in France under the famed scientist Abbé Hauy. In 1812, scientists in Philadelphia organized the Academy of Natural Sciences with Dr. Gerald Troost as president, and Adam Seybert donated his mineral collection to the institu­tion. The first of many such collections to be on display at the museum, Seybert’s minerals can still be seen there to­day in their original cabinet.

The scientific curiosity and interest in collecting which existed in Philadelphia spread to the town of West Chester. Like many nineteenth-century towns, it had what was grandly called a “Cabinet,” an informal museum of sorts where valuable specimens rubbed elbows with freaks of nature. A typical cabinet, for example, might contain col­lections of local minerals and pressed plants, ancient coins, Indian artifacts, stuffed animals, two-headed chickens and six-legged calves.

In West Chester, members of the first Cabinet of Natural Science met at the Turk’s Head Tavern, a stone’s throw from the Jefferis house on High Street. Whether or not Jefferis himself ever attended a meeting of the cabinet at that location is unknown, but he couldn’t help but be infected by the scientific interests promoted by the group. Not only did Jefferis Jive near their meeting place and share their interests, but many of the active members of the cabinet held important positions in his father’s bank.

At any rate, in 1837 an incident occurred which changed the life of William Jefferis and ultimately affected the science of mineralogy in the U.S. In that year, Jefferis picked up his first mineral, a specimen of magnetite from the well-known “Magnet Mine” on State Road in East Goshen Township. It isn’t hard to imagine the effect that specimen had on the budding seventeen-year-old scientist. Magnetite, a black or silver-gray ore of iron, is a natural magnet. Not only will it attract steel pins and iron filings, but it can be used to magnetize strips of metal. William Jefferis was intrigued.

Whether or not he dragged his new mineral to the cabinet, now meeting in a room over John Marshall’s drug store, will never be known. It wouldn’t be long, however, before Jefferis was active in that local scientific organiza­tion, becoming with Dr. William Dell Hartman one of the apprentices of the group. The apprentices. in the company of Benjamin Everhart, ranged over the county in search of plants and mineral specimens to add to the cabinet’s grow­ing collection. Eventually Benjamin Everhart would special­ize in the study of plants and Jefferis in minerals. Dr. Hart­man chose to immerse himself in another field and became an expert on shells.

By 1839 William Jefferis was challenging experienced scientists in the feverish hunt for new minerals. That year, the first corundum mine opened near West Chester and Jefferis was on hand to collect specimens. In the scramble for corundum (used as an abrasive and occasionally found as the gems ruby and sapphire), the cellar of a log cabin near the mine had been partially excavated and explored. The walls had been dug away and the floor covered with litter, an evidence of the wild search for the mineral. Despite the efforts of others, William Jefferis, with only two years of collecting under his belt, walked away with the largest crystal of corundum collected at the site, a sap­phire specimen three inches long and one inch wide.

As the years passed, Jefferis continued with his col­lecting. Although not formally trained as a scientist, his methods embraced the best scientific techniques, and he painstakingly built a vast library or study collection of minerals. Jefferis was not content, however, to have merely one specimen of every mineral. He amassed, for example, seven hundred calcites, including examples of various colors of the mineral, crystal forms, crystals from different locali­ties and crystals associated with a wide range of other minerals. Visitors studying the Jefferis assemblage could gel a complete overview of one mineral, a complete story of its formation, development and occurrence. For this reason James Dana studied William Jefferis’s specimens when writing his famous System Of Mineralogy. In addi­tion to the breadth of his collection, Jefferis kept complete and beautifully detailed records of his finds in flowing script. One observer commented that after studying Jefferis’s col­lection it would be possible to write an entire book on a single mineral.

By the 1840s Jefferis’s reputation and his minerals were spreading beyond the confines of West Chester. Specimens were sent to other famous mineralogists such as Benjamin Silliman, Prof. George Brush, Dr. G. A. Genth and James Dana. Letters in Jefferis’s carefully filed correspondence record mineral trades carried out across the U.S. and even in Europe. One particularly interesting trade involved the exchange of newly discovered Pennsylvania “rock oil” for European minerals. Apparently, Continental mineralogists were wildly eager to obtain samples of petroleum. On a lighter side, another letter refers to a hairball from a calfs stomach sent to William Jefferis, no doubt because he was “chief cook and bottle washer” of the Chester County Cabinet.

Meanwhile, the collecting trips continued. Contributing to the interest of the Jefferis collection is the fact that William Jefferis was able to explore an important mineral area as it was beginning to open. As a result, rare specimens could be collected before being sent to the ore crusher. In addition, because dynamite was not as extensively used for mining in the early days as it was later, more mineral speci­mens survived intact to be carried out of the mine. As might be expected, William Jefferis was often on hand to spot minerals before they were destroyed. To better his chances of improving his finds, he even made a point of cultivating the friendships of mine owners in the region like Charles Wheatley, owner of the famous Phoenixville lead mines and a collector himself.

One of Jefferis’s most outstanding discoveries occurred in the year 1857. While exploring a chrome mine near New Texas, Lancaster County, he spotted a large piece of the mineral brucite near the mine’s engine house. Recognizing that the specimen was unusually fine, he returned to the mine with a freight wagon and bought the owner’s entire stock. The move proved to be a prudent one, for that New Texas brucite, which is now virtually unobtainable, is still considered to be the world’s finest example of the mineral. The chrome mine which produced the specimens, stopped mining brucite in the late 1890s.

This brucite find became the foundation for much of Jefferis’s later trading. Inquirees from around the world flooded into the home of the West Chester banker. In return for brucite and other Chester County minerals came hogsheads of minerals from Europe. On May 29, 1879 a local newspaper reporter breathlessly described contents of a shipment which had just arrived from Alston Moor in northern England. At a later date, Jefferis arranged some of the minerals on the table of the directory room of the bank. Scientists were startled to find a large quartz crystal formed in the shape of an urn and a wealth of fluorites, calcites and barites. A number of the fluorites were rumored to be better than some specimens in the British museum. Today, specialists recognize these British fluorites and calcites as among the finest the world has ever seen.

Even the Civil War and Lee’s march on Gettysburg failed to put a damper on the collecting activities of Jefferis and his friends. Showing no fear of Lee’s entry into Pennsylvania, Jefferis busily attended to bank business and continued to send out shipments of minerals to friends around the country. Thomas Rush, writing to Jefferis about a planned expedition that was interrupted, commented, “Lee’s invasion turned my proposed mineralogical expedi­tion into one of another kind not quite so pleasant, but having gotten through with that I feel still like exploring the Texas [Lancaster County] localities. Could you make it convenient and agreeable to take a trip there … ?” On the outside of the letter envelope William Jefferis com­mented that the trip was taken and that the collectors had in fact had “extra luck.”

By 1883 William Jefferis had been collecting minerals for almost half a century. His specimens had literally out­grown the house and were stored in a brick building on Miner Street, known affectionately to town residents as the “treasure house.”

As a mineralogist, William Jefferis could look back on a career studded with successes. He had located a large number of new minerals in Pennsylvania and, in 1852, found an odd specimen of mica which proved to be a new mineral. Appropriately, the mineral was named Jefferisite in his honor. Further, he contributed a wealth of informa­tion to James Dana’s System Of Mineralogy and had been appointed Professor Emeritus at the State Normal School in West Chester. In 1883 he left the bank, left West Chester and moved to Philadelphia where he was honored with the post of curator of the William S. Vaux mineral collection at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Back in West Chester, Jefferis’s friend Alfred Sharpless continued watch over the treasure house.

Perhaps it was during his Philadelphia years that William Jefferis became involved in yet another facet of the study of mineralogy, the field of micromounting. Philadelphia was the home of a pioneer in this area, a scientifically inclined pastor named Rev. George G. Rakestraw. During the 1870s, Rev. Rakestraw had become fascinated by tiny mineral specimens coming from the iron mines in Cornwall, outside of Lebanon. Because they could only be studied properly under magnification, Rakestraw developed an in­genious method of mounting them for study under the microscope. Called micromounts, these tiny mineral speci­mens were stored in small boxes for protection in such a way that an entire mineral collection could fit in a drawer. Today scientists value micromounts as an aid in mineral identification and crystal study. Smaller crystals, being structurally more perfect than larger ones, offer better specimens for scientific study.

Perhaps the lure of tiny crystals tempted William Jefferis. He admitted to a friend once that although he repeatedly made up his mind to stop collecting calcites and quartz, he always yielded when tempted by a sparkling array of crystals. At any rate, Jefferis too became adept at mounting microscopic minerals for study. At the time of his death, his collection contained several hundred tiny labeled boxes with their minute specimens.

After the turn of the century, Jefferis’s reputation con­tinued to spread, especially with his move to Philadelphia. His collection became the focal point of local speculation and reporters noted that the collection, if put under the gavel, would net a tidy fortune. Some, back in Jefferis’s home town, urged local citizens to buy the minerals for the Cabinet at the Normal School in West Chester.

When Jefferis finally decided to sell, national institu­tions began to jockey for position to purchase the collec­tion, considered at the time to be the most spectacular array of minerals assembled by a private collector. In Pitts­burgh, Andrew Carnegie had no doubt heard of Jefferis’s treasures. With his wide scientific interests, Carnegie was eager to obtain the minerals for the museum he had recent­ly established on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

By December 1904, the bidding was over and Carnegie had won. On February 25, 1905 William Jefferis wrote to his friend and fellow mineralogist George F. Kunz, “After enjoying the results of my labor so many years, I feel pleased and gratified to know they will be so well cared for in their new home, ‘The Carnegie Museum’ where they will do me the honor to perpetuate my life’s work.” William Jefferis died a year later on February 23, 1906. In Pittsburgh, the two boxcars of crated minerals that had arrived a year earlier had not yet been completely catalogued.

A portion of the Jefferis collection was put on display in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and kept on con­tinual exhibit for almost forty years. Then, because of demands for space, the minerals were taken out of their wooden cases and placed in storage.

Twenty years later, as part of the museum’s.capital funding drive, Pittsburgh’s Hillman Foundation, Inc. made funds available for a new mineral hall to house the Jefferis collection and the other spectacular specimens in the museum’s collection. After eleven years of planning and construction, mineral specimens from around the world were selected for display and the Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems opened on September 19, 1980. The hall itself, with its mirrored walls, glass cases and special exhibits, is a far cry from the cabinets of the nineteenth century. A working Geiger counter, all but unknown in Jefferis’s day, allows the public to explore the properties of radioactivity and a roomful of fluorescent minerals glow under black light.

In spite of the modern flavor of the haU, Jefferis’s in­fluence is felt everywhere. It is seen in the large star sap­phire which he found in the Black Horse Quarry in eastern Pennsylvania and in the lovely calcite “Butterfly Twin” crystal which he received in one of the many hogsheads which had arrived from Cumberland, England. Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems even has a special hands-on exhibit featuring micromounts, including several minerals collected by Jefferis himself. Using one of two large microscopes, visitors can view twenty specimens of tiny perfect crystals.

It is in the theater-like Pennsylvania room, however, that William Jefferis’s influence is most strongly felt. Ninety percent of the specimens in this exhibit area are from his personal collection. There are examples of the famous pale green burcite collected in 1857 in Lancaster County, bright green chrysocolla and brilliant yellow wulfenite. There are several shiny quartz crystals that so appealed to William Jefferis and even an example of the mineral Jefferisite, named after him. [t is almost impossible to believe that such a trove of treasure had its beginning over a century ago when a curious boy from West Chester picked up a piece of iron ore that had the curious ability to attract a steel pin.


The Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems is part of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History located at 4400 Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh (15213). It is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. and Sunday 1 to 5 P.M. For further information, please write to the Hall at the above address, or call (412) 622-3328.


Letitia S. Savage is project director for Conservation Con­sultants, a nonprofit, educational organization in Sewickley, and also does freelance writing. She researched this article while writing publicity material at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for their new Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems.