The Uses, and The Magic, of Our Sands

By Lauri deGaris

North Florida’s beaches are made up of three common types of sand grains: light minerals, heavy minerals and shell fragments. Quartz and feldspar eroded from the Appalachian Mountains make up the light minerals; they are translucent in color.

Heavy minerals such as magnetite (iron oxide) and ilmenite (iron titanium oxide) are mixed with zircon, rutile, garnet, tourmaline and others. These minerals can be opaque or translucent. If some of these minerals were larger than a grain of sand, they would be valuable gemstones.

The third type of sand found on our local beaches consists of carbonate sand. It is derived from the breakdown of shells such as cockles, clams and snails combined with other carbonate skeletal fragments.

Quartz sand magnified 40x from historic American Beach.
Quartz sand magnified 100x from historic sand dune “Nana” on American Beach.

Various combinations of wind and water separate the heavy minerals from the light minerals and concentrate them in patches of colored sand. Such concentrates are sometimes seen in the wind-generated ripple marks on the beach or where sand settles creating patterns around obstacles like shells and driftwood.

Quartz sand looks like “sugar” on the beach. Historically, dinosaurs ate it to break down stomach acid. It is used for water purification and in water desalination plants. When quartz is placed under pressure it produces an electrical current that is steady and constant. Hence the reason it is used in “quartz watches.” Quartz is used in microprocessors too.

Titanium oxide is mixed with other minerals like aluminum to produce strong, lightweight metal for the aviation industry. Titanium is also used to make prosthetics for knee and hip replacements for the medical industry. Zirconium contains an oxide layer that makes it resistant to corrosion by sea water and acid. It can hold up to high heat and is used to line furnaces. Because it is very hard, zirconium is used to make scissors and knives. It is also very popular in the jewelry industry.

In 1917, Mineral City was formed by Buckman and Prichard, Inc. in North Florida. The company acquired 18 miles of oceanfront property in what today is Ponte Vedra Beach.

The two engineers had discovered valuable minerals in the sands, including ilmenite, zircon and rutile from which pure titanium was processed for the war effort. They began mining operations and constructed housing for 200 workers.

Mineral City mining operation.

By 1919, when National Lead Company bought out the Buckman and Prichard Company, there were almost 500 miners, a post office and general store in Mineral City.

In 1930, the National Lead Company contracted with Telfair Stockton Company to manage their holdings in Mineral City. This led to the construction of the Inn, the Surf Club, the Golf Club and a name change. Ponte Vedra, a Spanish name meaning “old bridge” replaced Mineral City.

Ponte Vedra Resort and the surrounding area grew in popularity as highway A1A was constructed along the shore to St. Augustine in the early 1930s.

On Amelia Island, in the 1930s, a large portion of the south end was owned by the Drummond family. They were a part of the local community known as Franklintown. During WWII, representatives from Union Carbide convinced the Drummond family that they needed land to mine for the war effort. The Drummond family sold the land to Union Carbide for next to nothing.

WWII ended before Union Carbide mined on Amelia Island. However, Little Talbot Island and portions of east Jacksonville near the St. Johns River were mined for minerals. Union Carbide held onto its Amelia Island land for several decades. In the early 1970s, it sold those holdings to Charles Fraser, developer of Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island. Fraser developed Amelia Island Plantation, which is today known as the Omni Amelia Island Resort.

Glidden Manufacturing Company sought to mine Cumberland Island in the 1960s for valuable minerals. Many island families opposed this idea and united to stop the mining operation before it started on Cumberland. Charles Fraser also acquired a large tract of land on Cumberland Island, which he intended to develop like Hilton Head Island.

However, the U.S. government and the public at large had other ideas for Cumberland Island. Eventually, the U.S. government stepped in and purchased most of Cumberland Island, turning it into a National Seashore. No mining took place on Cumberland Island.

Today, when I walk the beaches of North Florida, I marvel at the endless abstract art patterns created by minerals in the sand. It is meditative to watch sand settle before the next wave rearranges the minerals into a new work of art.

Walking barefoot on the beach places pressure on the quartz sand, which in turn, sends tiny impulses of electricity into our bodies through the soles of our feet. It is no wonder we feel energized and refreshed after a long barefoot walk on the beach.

Sand settling on the beach.

The practice of “grounding” or “connecting” to the elements of earth in this way is healing to the body. I think this soul-soothing use of minerals found on our beaches is the most valuable use of all.

History is the tapestry of life woven out of nature.


Beaches Historical Cookbook Recipes Old and New – 1982. The Beaches Area Historical Society, Inc.

Giles, R. T., and Pilkey, O. H., 1965, Atlantic Beach and Dune Sediments of the Southern United States: Journal of Sedimentary Petrology.

Miller, James J., 1998. “An Environmental History of Florida.” University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

Pate, Jack, USN, Ret. 2006. “The History of First Coast Beaches 1562-2005.” Beaches Area Historical Society, Jax., Fla.

Schoettle, Taylor, 2001. “A Guide to the Georgia Barrier Islands.” Watermarks Publishing, St. Simons Island, Georgia.

Vanderkloot, William, 2000. “Cumberland Island in Time.” VanderKloot Film and Television, Atlanta, Georgia.


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Lynda Bell
Lynda Bell(@lyndabell)
1 year ago

Completely enjoyed this article!

Pat Stichweh
Pat Stichweh (@guest_68257)
1 year ago
Reply to  Lynda Bell

Thank you for this very informative article

Jane Collins
Jane Collins(@jane-philips-collins)
1 year ago

Very nice article! Thanks!

Wes White
Wes White(@wes-white)
1 year ago

Thanks for an informative article!

Hughes Tom & stacye
Hughes Tom & stacye (@guest_68251)
1 year ago

interesting and informative, thank you

Ruthellen Mulberg
Ruthellen Mulberg(@rmulberg)
1 year ago

So informative and entertaining!Thanks for highlighting this bit of “hidden history” of Amelia Island and the First Coast! Who knew!

Nodie Sullivan
Nodie Sullivan(@nmd8960)
1 year ago

Wonderful article!

Jimbo (@guest_68260)
1 year ago

How might these details explain the “coffee” color of our waves?.. if at all. Someone said its tannin from okee swamp.

-Clueless in Amelia

Lauri deGaris
Lauri deGaris (@guest_68262)
1 year ago
Reply to  Jimbo

This map, produced by SatCom illustrates rivers flowing from the mainland emptying into the ocean. These rivers separate many of the barrier islands, like Amelia and Cumberland. Tannins from decomposed organic matter in the rivers give water a “tea” color. This fresh water mixes with ocean salt water forming estuaries (salt marshes) or “brackish water”. The brackish water flows into the ocean impacting water color. Beaches along Amelia Island are impacted by water from the St. Mary’s River which originates in the great black swamp, Okefenokee. Note how white sand is churned up in the water along the beaches and in the inlets. As my friend MaVynne Betsch, the Beach Lady from American Beach would frequently say, “its all connected, baby!” I hope this helps.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_68301)
1 year ago

Ask oneself just where do we, on Amelia Island get our beach replenishment sand – and why it’s a necessary process. Also, just who “pays” for it, and how it’s done.

Candis Whitney
Candis Whitney(@candiswhitneygmail-com)
1 year ago

Awesome article by Lauri Degaris! I learned so much about the natural history of our island