(Updated Sept. 19, 7:36 p.m.)
Mining accident claims life of man who found
largest cut emerald in North America
By MICAH HENRY
Gem hunter Terry Ledford, who found the stone that became the largest cut emerald in North America, has died in a prospecting accident in Hiddenite.
On Wednesday afternoon, September 17, Ledford was digging on land owned by Mr. Lynn Sharpe located at 509 Hill River Road in Hiddenite. Sharpe had given Ledford permission to dig there, said Russell Greene, Alexander County Emergency Services Director.
Ledford, age 57 of Spruce Pine, was working alone that day, which was unusual, said Greene, because a friend usually assisted in the digging.
Greene indicated that Ledford dug at the northern end of Sharpe’s pasture and had exited the trackhoe after doing some excavating. He had told others he intended to leave to get fuel for the machine.
The last anyone heard from Ledford was about 3 p.m. that day when he spoke
with someone on his cellphone, said Greene.
Later, about 5:15 p.m., Sharpe returned to the area to check on his cattle. He went to the area where Ledford was previously working, finding Ledford’s vehicle but no sign of the gem hunter. However, Sharpe felt of the trackhoe and found the engine to be warm. Looking around, Sharpe observed that the soil had appeared to be collapsed in the area below. He called out to Ledford, but heard no response. Sharpe then called the individual who usually assisted Ledford in digging, but found that person was in Hickory and was not with Ledford. Due to these findings, Sharpe called 911.
Greene said that Hiddenite Volunteer Fire Department, Alexander Rescue Squad, and later, Claremont Rescue Squad members responded to the scene as did Mark Earle, Alexander County Emergency Services Assistant Director. As the effort to find Ledford soon changed over into an effort to recover his remains, as he was believed to be dead, Alexander County members of the American Red Cross and the Hiddenite Fire Dept. Ladies Auxiliary responded to provide canteen service to the emergency workers.
Before rescue personnel could go into the large open pit area where Ledford was last seen, they had to make the scene safe, said Greene. A trackloader and small excavator were used to slope the banks and make it safe for rescuers to descend into the pit. First, the Alexander Rescue Squad went into the pit. Later, the local rescuers were relieved by a team from Claremont Rescue Squad.
Ledford’s body was recovered about 3 ½ feet below the surface of the soil, said Greene. He believed that Ledford probably was crushed by the weight of the falling soil.
Alexander County Sheriff’s officers were on hand to oversee the body recovery efforts and the Medical Examiner also responded to the scene. An autopsy was scheduled to take place Thursday.
Crews were on the scene until about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Greene said that personnel from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Mines came to Alexander County on Friday, September 19, and visited the scene where Ledford died. The federal investigators were very complimentary of the capable recovery efforts of local rescue workers.
“Our prayers and best wishes are with the family in this tragedy,” Greene stated.
Ledford's biggest find
In 2009, Hiddenite resident the late Renn Adams and prospecting partner Terry Ledford dug up a large green gemstone on Adams’ farm, they knew it had the potential to be really big.
Weighing in at 310.07 carats, the emerald was found at a depth of about 14 feet below the surface on the Adams Farm. This area was operated commercially as a mine in the past.
According to C.R.“Cap” Beesley, president of ARD Analytics in New York, whose services were secured by Adams and Ledford, the original crystal was studied for several weeks in North Carolina and New York.
The analysis led the owners to have a professional attempt to cut the largest gem possible. Jerry Call, experienced cutter, faceted the Adams-Ledford stone into a “fancy mixed cut” that weighed 74.66 carats.
The gem was named “The Carolina Emperor.”
Later, the Carolina Emperor was re-assessed, and it was decided to re-cut the gem into a hexagonal shape with the services of expert cutter Ken Blount of the firm Nassi & Sons.
It is now similar in size, shape, and clarity to the “Catherine the Great” emerald of Russia, which dates to the 1700s, according to Beesley. (The Catherine the Great stone measures in the 60-70 carat range and was sold at auction by Christie’s Ltd. in April 2010 at approximately $1.65 million.)
Ledford told The Times in 2010 the Carolina Emperor was being called the largest cut faceted gem found in North America.
Beesley, in his analysis of the stone, said of emerald, ruby, or sapphine, the Carolina Emperor is “by far the largest [faceted] gem ever recovered from North America and North Carolina.”
The Carolina Emperor was bought by an anonymous collector later. Then, in 2012, it was one of four very large emeralds donated by a collector to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
In comparison, the largest cut emerald previously found in North Carolina was the 18.88 carat, pear-shaped “Carolina Queen” and 7.85 carat oval “Carolina Prince” from a 70 carat crystal found in 1998, Beesley related. This stone was found at what was once known as the Rist Mine, now called North American Emerald Mines, operated by Jamie Hill of Hiddenite.