Lost Lode of the Sierra

By Bob Holton September 15, 2013 23:27

Stories of hidden wealth in our foothills have fascinated professional and amateur treasure hunters alike, but Tuolumne County’s Lost Lode of the Sierra has managed to escape notice and elude the pages of history for more than 100 years.

Just the other day, however, while rummaging through some old, yellowed documents in a foothills archive, I chanced upon the following information that was filed away in 1893 and forgotten.

An unspeakably rich deposit of gold-bearing quartz is said to be somewhere within a 160-square-mile wilderness bordered on one side by today’s Highway 108 and on the other by Yosemite National Park. Small wonder this hidden treasure was never found, as its original discoverers were robbed and murdered, leaving a crime scene so hideous that we will spare sensitive readers the gory details. More on this later, but first a word about lost gold mines in general.

Some of the following accounts are told as truth and some are outrageous lies, but the legend of Pegleg Smith is arguably California’s most celebrated humbug. Thomas L. Smith, 1801-1866, was an eccentric fur trader and mountain man who hand-carved a wooden leg from the branch of a cedar tree to replace the limb he lost when shot clean through the knee by an Indian arrow.

Smith claimed to have found a large cache of gold in Southern California’s Chocolate Mountains, but couldn’t or wouldn’t return to the site owing to his handicap, so for many years he sold treasure maps and bogus mining rights to other prospectors. Today, hundreds of Pegleg followers gather around a stone monument and official state historic marker erected in his honor near the desert town of Borrego Springs, where fans compete in an annual liars contest.

Shall we hear another curious story of gold gone missing? The Valley of Gold is far and away the Old West’s most enduring legend. This Aztec fairytale, if indeed it is a fairytale, dates back to the 18th Century or earlier.

Somewhere within the desert boundaries of Arizona and southeastern California, a mystical valley is said to extend five miles long and two miles wide, walled in on all sides by towering mountains, the slopes of which are so precipitous no human could possibly scale them. The only entrance into the Valley of Gold is through a narrow, cave-like tunnel guarded 24/7 by Indian elders who await the second coming of Montezuma.

According to two white men who managed to sneak into the valley and later granted an interview to The Washington Star, it is a “sacred paradise of flowers and beautiful trees, through the branches of which flit bright hued birds with strange golden markings.”

“Down the center of the valley, from one end to the other, runs a ledge of clear quartz rock varying in width from five to 100 feet,” they reported, “and seen in the rocks are numerous veins of pure gold that glisten in the sunlight like gigantic diamonds.”

But I have digressed. Getting back to the Lost Lode of the Sierra, here’s the story as best as we can make of it:

Louis Bartolli of Mariposa County had been sojourning at Cold Springs, Tuolumne County, when he claimed to have stumbled upon a fabulously rich prospect. This happened in the winter of 1892-’93. What he found, of course, was the Lost Lode. It had been discovered 30 years earlier by three Mexican packers who used to travel the old Mono trail with a mule train.

Ore of extraordinarily high quality had been brought to Sonora by the Mexicans, and many times they were shadowed by parties looking for their secret pile. One morning in the early 1860s, a pack mule strayed into a hunter’s camp above Strawberry. The hunter immediately recognized the animal as belonging to the Mexicans, so he tied it to a tree, thinking they would come calling.

The night passed, the mule was uncalled for, so next morning the hunter set out looking far and wide for its owners. By late afternoon he came upon a small ravine wherein lay the three mule packers’ lifeless bodies in a pool of blood – no signs of a struggle, no murder weapon, no mule train.

The killer was never found, nor was his victims’ mysterious gold mine, although fortune seekers for many years after combed the vicinity to no avail. At one point the Lost Lode was reported to have been discovered near Lake Eleanor. This proved false, however, as were Bartolli’s wild assertions some years later.

Fact or fantasy, now you know the legend of Tuolumne County’s Lost Lode of the Sierra – which begs the question: What is it about gold that causes good men to lie and drives others to desperate measures?

For more information on this all-absorbing subject, including a narrative on California’s elusive Gold Lake, visit seniorfan.com to read “Lost Gold Mines of the Sierra Nevada” from the Autumn 2010 issue.

But readers be warned: Forget the metal detector and topographical maps. Disturbing the ground without a permit in certain parts of our national forests is a federal crime punishable by huge fines and serious jail time.

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton September 15, 2013 23:27
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