Tale of the Mystery Miner

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 13, 2013 10:00

Ross's marker at Mountain Shadow Cemetery, at Greenley and Lyons Bald Mountain roads in Sonora

In 1955, Kyle Atkins and two cousins found a dead man in a remote cabin near Jamestown. In the newly released Winter 2013/14 Issue of Friends and Neighbors, Atkins tells of that boyhood fishing trip gone awry. Fifty-eight years later, Chris Bateman picks up the trail to learn more about miner Joseph Ross.

Who was that dead man?

Secret agent? Holder of coveted U.S. military secrets? International man of mystery? Or just a gold miner whose luck had run out?

Last we read, the deceased was tied to a rocking chair in a ramshackle prospector’s cabin by the banks of Woods Creek, rotting, stinking and totally spooking the three Jamestown grade-schoolers who had chanced upon him during a 1955 fishing trip.

That much writer Kyle Atkins tells us in “Green Men, Mean Men and Three Kids,” his fascinating first-person account of the scary adventure (Friends and Neighbors Magazine, Winter 2013/14 issue).

Atkins, then 13 and now 71, writes of how he and two cousins ran from the shack in a panic after cracking its door open and seeing the badly decomposed body. As the frightened boys made their way out of the creek canyon, they became convinced that sinister forces – most likely space aliens or Russian spies – had tortured the miner to death in search of information he may have collected while serving in the Army during World War I.

After hitching to Jamestown, they called in a report and later led Tuolumne County Sheriff Don Vars to the cabin. Sure enough, a body was recovered.

A brief coroner’s register entry found that the dead man, identified by neighbors as Joe Ross, had died of “natural causes.”  It made no mention of his being tied to a chair or any even remotely untoward circumstances.

Atkins and his cousins at the time couldn’t believe the sheriff had overlooked the obvious and had so quickly ruled out foul play by commie operatives or even extraterrestrials.

My own attempts to thaw this coldest of cases were like trying to melt a glacier with a Zippo lighter.

“We love a mystery,” said Betty Sparagna, a genealogist at the Tuolumne County Museum, when I asked about Ross.  “But you have to give us something to go on – a date of birth, a middle name, a wife, survivors, something.”

The few records I dug up included none of those.

The dead miner’s name came from Jacksonville-area residents who told sheriff’s investigators that Ross had spent the last few winters working what was known as the Wild Horse Quartz Claim, at the confluence of Sullivan and Woods creeks.

The last date checked off son a calendar nailed to the cabin’s wall was Jan. 22, 1955.  This, and Ross’s level of decomposition – “Meat was falling off his face!” one of the boys had gasped after the May 28 discovery – led Vars to peg the prospector’s date of death as Jan. 23.

“About 65” was listed as Ross’s age on his death certificate, but this seems the product of conjecture rather than documentation. The certificate indicates he was born somewhere in Poland and was the son of Mataos and Mary Ross, but gives no date or town of birth, and no source for the information.

Which posed further problems for museum genealogists Sparagna and Ellie Day. “Ross was probably a last name he assumed after coming to the states,” said Sparagna. “His family name in Poland may have been something completely different.”

map of joseph ross cabin site now underwater

Arrow shows site of cabin, long buried by Don Pedro Reservoir waters

This elevated the task of tracing the mystery miner’s ancestry from difficult to all but impossible.

I called the Sheriff’s Office in search of the detailed coroner’s report this case would almost certainly have generated, and was referred to the county archives. But the archives didn’t have it, so I returned to the SO and made an official request for records. After more than a month, I was told there was no such report.

Of course this was the same agency Atkins and his fellow adventurers had six decades earlier suspected of covering up lurid, potentially explosive details of Ross’s demise.

According to news accounts, Bigelow Mortuary handled Ross’s funeral. I called Heuton’s Memorial Chapel, which in 1959 bought out Bigelow’s. Mike Heuton dug up Ross’s file, which indicated he was buried on June 4, 1955 at Sonora’s Mountain Shadows Cemetery.

The cemetery staff said Ross was laid to rest at Lot North 3, Block No. 83, and directed me to it. There, not far from nonstop Greenley Road traffic, was a marker reading “Joseph Ross 1890-1955.” I was likely the first to visit his grave in a while, but it answered none of my questions and added a couple of new ones.

You’d expect to find a cheap, expendable marker atop the grave of an indigent like Ross. Instead, his stone is a granite memorial which has endured the years gracefully and probably had cost a few dollars even in the mid-1950s.

Who might have paid for such a tribute to an all-but-unknown-miner? And why?

Other avenues in my search for Joe were also dead ends.

The brief Coroner’s Register entry included this line: “May be money in a bank in Sacramento.”  But if local authorities found a fortune earned by a miner who had quietly hit the strike of a lifetime – or hush money paid him by the government in return for keeping secrets – it was never made public.

The Union Democrat story on the boys’ gruesome discovery noted that deputies were to check with a friend of Ross’s who was reportedly with the prospector when he filed his quartz claim.  But if this was done, it was never noted by the paper.

Neither is there any indication in county recorder’s files that a Wild Horse Quartz Claim ever existed.

A Modesto Bee account of the boys’ discovery said “no identifying papers” were found on Ross, but reported that area residents said he “worked rice fields in the valley” between winter mining stints along Woods Creek.

A second Bee story said Ross “had worked last fall on the McCormack Ranch near Rio Vista” and that “ranch owners and officials were asked to help identify the body if possible.” There was no follow-up.

The McCormack Ranch, it turns out, is a more-than-century-old operation that is still a going concern in Rio Vista. But present-day proprietor Jeanne McCormack says five brothers owned five different McCormack Ranches in the Rio Vista area back in the 1950s, making the search for a lone employee incredibly difficult. “I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she said.

Making the search for Joe more difficult yet is his name.

“The problem isn’t that we can’t find Joe Ross,” said Atkins, who has done his own share of genealogical excavation. “It’s that we can find hundreds of them.”

A potentially good lead was a colorful “Rainbow Division” patch one of the three boys discovered in a knot hole at the base of a live oak near Ross’s cabin. Otherwise known as the 42nd Infantry, this division fought in several crucial World War I battles. Ross, who would have been in his early 20s during the Great War, may well have been a veteran.

But a search of WWI draft cards, Atkins said, yielded a dozen Joe Rosses in California alone. “Just too many possibilities,” he figures.

Isabelle Drown, Friends and Neighbors’ resident genealogist, found three Rainbow Division Rosses, but none were Joe. She also found three Joseph – or Giuseppe – Rosses who were born in 1890 and arrived in the U.S. from Italy in the early 20th Century, and one Josef Ross who came from Austria about the same time.

U.S. Census reports are often fertile ground, but not if you’re shuffling through hundreds of Joe Rosses. Worse than searching for a needle in a haystack, it’s like rummaging through a stack of needles and examining each to see if it might be the right one.

Drown, checking out census results in FamilySearch.org, found 20 Joe Rosses who were born in Poland between 1885 and 1895 and later came to the U.S.  The most promising, she said, was a New York City boarder who according to the 1940 census – the most recent to be made public – was a 50-year-old cook who had earned a grand total of $144 the previous year. But he was listed as married, and our dead Joe was not.

Atkins, “grabbing at the first temptation,” came upon a 50-year-old Joe Ross in the 1940 Census. This Joe was listed as a farm laborer and a lodger in Hanford, Kings County. But he gave California as his birthplace, and our Joe was supposedly born in Poland.

That either the New York cook or the Fresno-area farm worker 15 years later was searching for his fortune on the banks of Woods Creek is certainly possible, but not exactly probable.

So our Joe remains a mystery and might tempt a serious researcher to go back to what’s left of his ramshackle cabin and poke around for clues overlooked or dismissed by authorities back in ’55.

Kyle Atkins atop a Table Mountain promontory, 1955

Kyle Atkins, 1955, atop Table Mountain promontory; photo by Norm Carlton

Trouble is, you’d need scuba gear to do it: The cabin was inundated 42 years ago by rising waters that in 1971 formed New Don Pedro Reservoir.

Which brings us back to the conclusion a young Kyle Atkins reached after realizing that newspaper stories and county reports did not even hint at “the whole truth of the murder”:

“That reporters and the sheriff’s department were either incompetent, or were working in conjunction with the U.S. government to conceal the truth about flying saucers and Russian spies.”

From six decades out, Atkins almost certainly realizes that the commies and space aliens were the figment of the fertile imaginations of three very scared boys.

But what if they weren’t?

Sheriff Vars was almost certainly a stand-up guy who took pride in the integrity of his department. But what if President Eisenhower called him and politely asked that he bottle up that whole dead-miner business and quietly do away with any incriminating evidence that might have been found at the cabin?

Really, who could say no to Ike?

And who else but CIA agents bent on covering up a potentially embarrassing incident could make someone disappear as thoroughly as did Joe Ross?

Or did Joe actually leave us without a trace? Did you know him? Or anything about him?  Have you heard rumors? If so, let us know and we’ll tell the rest of the story. Email chris@seniorfan.com.

Chris Bateman, 67, is a journalist based in Sonora, California, where over the past 40 years he has covered everything under the Sierra Nevada sun. 

 Copyright 2013, Friends and Neighbors Magazine 


Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 13, 2013 10:00
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