Many of the threads about mines found and lost again have much in common including a tragic ending for the prospector

Editor’s note: In his twilight years, mining writer and former E&MJ Editor T.A. Rickard discusses several tales of lost mines in a series of articles that ran in Engineering & Mining Journal’s September, October and November editions of 1944. We have reproduced a few of those articles.

Many lost-mine tales are due, I believe, to the exaggerated ego of a prospector or supposed prospector. If one is of no particular consequence in a small community, what quicker way is there of gaining notoriety than to claim that one has either lost a mine or found a lost mine? The specimens that are shown in proof are not difficult to obtain. Miners who work either at the surface of underground in rich ore will often steal some pieces. Fancy specimens circulate from one to another by means of exchange, for a revolver, a pair of boots, a saddle or something of equivalent value.

When I was in Coolgardie, Western Australia, in 1897, a barkeeper showed me a handsome piece of gold-quartz. I noticed that the metal was beautifully crystalline, and therefore, the specimen had, to me, a special interest. I offered to pay for the full weight of the specimen; that is, to pay for the attached quartz at its weight in gold. The barkeeper refused; he wanted double the gold value and when I asked why, he replied “You could sell a mine with that.” True enough.

Such epic specimens are used to excite interest in a supposed mine. They awaken greed. I remember a mass quartz as large as a man’s head all spangled with gold, from the Gordon mine, on exhibition at Leadville, Colorado, in 1892. I saw men look at it while their hands trembled with the excitement of greed. Thus also a loafer in a saloon, when he pulls a rich specimen from his pocket, will arouse the covetous instinct, and induce somebody to grubstake him. Many specimens have served this purpose.

Moreover, the tale of a lost mine makes good conversation and adds interest to a locality as a possible place for mineral discoveries. The local people do not ridicule the story, because it may bring others thither and stimulate search in the vicinity. Individuals and localities alike win notoriety by aid of such yarns. Thus the lost-mine story flourishes like an evergreen, to decorate the annals of mineral exploration in the waste places of the earth.

Treasure in the Guadalupes

The tale of the lost gold mine in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico1 begins with a converted Indian from Tabira that, in the 17th century, guided a Spanish captain to a wonderful deposit of gold ore. The incident was without an appropriate sequel, because all the Spaniards in New Mexico were killed or expelled during the Indian uprising of 1680, and the guide disappeared when the settlement of Tabira was destroyed. The tradition of the gold mine survived, however. To the Apaches was accorded a knowledge of the place, because they had retreated to the Guadalupe Mountains, to share with the wild sheep a last stand against the encroachment of the white invaders.

One miner dared the risk and sought the gold of the Guadalupes in much later days. In 1862, Ben Sublett had been a prospector in the Rocky Mountains, where he had learned how to seek for gold, without, however, having much success in the finding of it. His wife died, and with two little daughters and an infant son, he turned back southeastward into western Texas. First he pitched his tent beside the small town of Monahans and tried to gain a livelihood by doing odd jobs on the railroad; bit it was not long before the lure of prospecting seized him. He saved a little money and bought a pair of horses, together with a rickety wagon. With these he started for the Guadalupe Range, and sought for gold. His neighbors warned him against the Apaches. He laughed at them. Many trips he had made, unsuccessfully. During intervals he managed to obtain enough work to pay for more supplies, both for his children and for his recurrent expeditions. Then he moved to Odessa, which was nearer the mountains. One daughter was now old enough to take in washing. Her earnings were most helpful and made it easier for him to go prospecting. He began to have some success; occasionally it is said, he returned with a small nugget of gold. His neighbors jeered at him. Still he persisted in his belief that someday he would discover the treasure in the Guadalupes, for he admitted that an Apache had told him the traditional story.

The years passed. He continued to make his exploratory trips into the mountains and became known as Old Ben, the crazy prospector. Then one day, he strode boldly to the bar of the principal saloon of Odessa, from which he turned to invite everybody in the room to join him in a drink. The barkeeper stood astounded; the onlookers laughed. Thereupon he drew forth a buckskin bag and poured nuggets on the bar. Great was the excitement! “Drink boys,” he said. “Drink all you want; I have found the richest gold mine in the world. Let’s celebrate!” They did; and later they began to wonder if they could also dip their hands into the pile of nuggets the old man had discovered. He refused to give any inkling of the whereabouts of his treasure-trove; he challenged them to uncover it. They followed him, they spied upon him, all in vain. He eluded them easily. Usually he started at night, unexpectedly; and even if they hurried to follow on his trail; they soon lost it. He fooled them every time.

As before, he made trips at irregular intervals, but on each return now he brought with him gold to the value of a $1,000 or more. The local banker and a rancher joined in offering him $10,000 for a share in the find. He replied, scornfully, that he could take that much out in a week. Thereupon they hired a man to follow him, but Ben dodged the pursuit and appeared in town before his pursuer. Evidently, it was said, he had not gone to the mountains, but to some cache on the Pecos River where he had stored the gold.

Eventually Ben relented sufficiently to tell an old crony, Mike Wilson, how to reach the mine. Mike found the place and filled a sack with as much ore as he could carry. It was a heavy load, and he came home very tired; but so jubilant that he went on a protracted spree, and afterwards he forgot the directions. His friend Ben Sublett only laughed at him, refusing to give him the directions afresh.

Later some men living in the Pecos Valley persuaded Ben to show them the mine, but the first night out, the party broke broke up, suffering from ptomaine poisoning. He asserted that somebody had tried to kill him, and refused to go farther.

Was he willing to take others with him for self-protection because a Mexican had found the place and endangered his possession of the gold? So said Louis Arthur, known commonly as Frenchy, who, in 1884, followed the two Mexicans, from across the border in Mexico. Each year one of them went to the mine and brought away a lot of gold ore. Frenchy had overheard some talk and he trailed the Mexicans, as he told Fred Hardesty, at whose ranch he had spent the night. The ranchman was impressed by the story and offered to equip Frenchy for his trip if he would admit him to partnership. It was so agreed. Six weeks later, Frenchy returned with a tale to tell. Also, he had gold quartz to show.

He said he had followed the two men and had watched them descend into a chasm by means of a rope ladder. He saw them haul up sacks of ore, and water also, which was needed for their horses. Frenchy was in need of water himself, and could not watch them as long as he wished. However, after a few days, the Mexicans left and he proceeded at once to investigate. The chasm was 100-ft wide at the surface and only 40-ft wide at the bottom, about 60 ft down. He had not sufficient rope to make a ladder, but he could see a cave and some freshly broken ore at the entrance. The piece of gold quartz that he brought with him was one the Mexicans had dropped. Frenchy rested for a couple of days; then with fresh supplies, including plenty of rope, he left again for the mine in the Guadalupes. He never returned. Did the Mexicans kill him?

Four years later, in 1888, Ben Sublett spent the night with a guide named Stewart, who was aiding some railroad officials to hunt for game in the Pecos country. Ben told Stewart that he was about to start for his gold mine at the point of the Guadalupes. He offered to take Stewart with him, but the guide refused to leave. Sublett returned late on the third day. After supper, when the others had gone to their quarters, Stewart asked him how he had fared. For answer, Sublett took a dried hide and put it, hair down, on the ground so that a fire threw a light over the leather. Then out of pocket, he pulled a small sack that had contained pipe-tobacco and poured nuggets of gold from it. Stewart ran the nuggets through his fingers and spread them over the hide so that they glistened in the firelight. “You don’t seem to have any small ones,” He said. To this Ben replied, “What would be the use of picking a small one when with one more rake in the gravel, I could bring up a big one?” In the morning, Sublett left. A few years later, Stewart heard of his death. That was 1892.

Now let us ask some questions. If Sublett made a discovery, why did he not locate a claim? Once in legal possession of his mine, he needed not to fear interference from anybody. He brought nuggets from the place; therefore it must have been an alluvial deposit. Indeed, the word “gravel” was mentioned. The Mexicans, on the other hand, obtained gold-quartz, as testified by Frenchy. Mike Wilson found “ore.” Gold-quartz is gold in quartz, or attached to quartz, and comes from a vein or lode, not from a river channel. The stories disagree. Ross Sublett, Ben’s son, when a boy accompanied his father to the alleged mine, so he said. He agrees with Frenchy in mentioning a rope ladder, by aid of which his father used to descend into the chasm. He himself stayed on top, but he could see pieces of ore in plain sight in front of the cave. One cannot recognize gold ore at such a distance. What was the cave? Was it the opening of a mine or a natural cavity? Nobody says that Sublett did any mining; that is, excavating. But Sublett brought gold with him from the Guadalupe Mountains and placed it in the bank. Had he happened upon a cache or a hidden store of alluvial gold, secreted by persons unknown? Whatever the explanation, the story itself is inadequate. It reads like a newspaper reporter’s yarn, of which nothing is less convincing. There many other lost mines especially in the southwestern U.S., such as the Padre, the Burro, and the Grizzly; though they have lived a long tradition, they have never been rediscovered, despite the eager search of hundreds of experience prospectors.

With his last breath, Hines, who had taken three arrows, urged Benson to leave him.

With his last breath, Hines, who had taken three arrows, urged Benson to leave him.

The Treasure of La Estrella

The Indian Province of Chiriqui in the isthmus of Darien is famous for the golden jewelry of its inhabitants in the days when the Spanish invaders looted and devastated this part of the world. The conquistadors enslaved the poor Indians and forced them to dig for the gold of which they had many bizarre trinkets. It is not surprising therefore that a lost mine has been placed in this region.

We are told that in 1903, shortly before the Republic of Panama came into being, two Americans, John Benson and George Hines, came to this part of Colombia. Benson and his friend had been working together in California, but with meager success. They decoded to seek some of the lost treasure of the older days. One of the Indians they employed as guide was Jose, of the Tabasara tribe. He was the son of a chief that led a revolt and killed the Spaniards at the celebrated La Estrella (the Star) mine, which had yielded gold fabulously. The only access to the mine was over a narrow stone bridge. Benson and Hines, so the tale proceeds, asked Jose to take them to the mine, but he refused, because foreigners were not permitted to approach it. He said that his father might grant the requisite permission. The two Californians went to the village of the tribe, met the father, and persuaded the Indian to permit them to visit the mine, under prescribed conditions. They were to leave any weapons in their possession, they were to be blind-folded while on the way, and they were forbidden to remove any of the gold. Strange to say, they might take their prospecting tools with them. To these conditions they agreed perforce. On arrival at the mine, all but one of the Indians disappeared. The two prospectors were left to their own devices for a day. Looking around, they saw a tunnel nearly closed by fallen rock. This was full of streaks of yellow quartz, “showing a decided north and south strike”—a pseudo-technical observation that has no significance except to be unsophisticated. They began picking at the quartz and soon broke away pieces “speckled all over with gold.” Shortly afterward they broke into a pocket “full of nuggets.” Such slips as this are common in such yarns. Nuggets of course, are not found in veins of quartz; they are found in water-worn lumps that belong to alluvial deposits. However, the pocket was full of gold, probably crystalline. Excited by greed, they thought of escaping the Indians and blazing a trail, so as to come back later with more men to gather more gold, but their only way of escape was the old stone bridge, which they had reason to believe was well-guarded. They entered the tunnel and groped their way for 150 feet, when they saw daylight ahead of them. They crawled over fallen rock and emerged at last on the other side of the ridge. On the mountain-side was a big pile of broken rock. They jumped upon it, and scrambled down, in a hurry to make their escape.

Benson heard a hissing sound and something hit the rock at his side. An arrow! Benson was hit in the back; he fell down, and tried to get under cover. Hines had been hit twice in the shoulders and then a third arrow entered the base of his neck. The jugular vein had been severed, and he knew he was doomed. With his last breath he urged Benson to leave him. There was nothing else to do; Benson rushed down the gulch and ran along the stream that eventually led him to safety. An old Indian woman found him lying unconscious beside the stream and took care of him until, four days later, he recovered his reason. After a few more days of rest, he dragged himself along until he reached an army camp, the wreck of a strong man. Safe once more, he collapsed and suffered a long illness, caused by the poison from the arrow. When his health was regained, he was determined to find his way back to the La Estrella treasure. Unfortunately he was killed in a skirmish before he could put his purpose to the test. This is a typical lost-mine story. The man that finds it comes to a sudden end and the mine is again lost.

A sequel to the tale of La Estrella was provided by sundry newspaper dispatches in July of 1937. It was reported that a Frenchman (probably an Alsatian) named Johannes van Steck, and his two companions Arring Thorpe, an American, and Anton Hill, a German, had found a great treasure—the gold of La Estrella! The international group of three prospectors was searching for something that might become a mine. They discovered some ore and decided to peg a claim. Van Steck, whistling softly, was driving a stake into the ground, when suddenly the hill slope gave way, revealing the opening to a dark tunnel. He slid to the bottom and his two comrades soon joined him in eager curiosity. He pointed excitedly at a pile of dust-covered blocks. All three hastened to brush the dust away, exposing bright gleam of yellow gold! It was an enormous treasure. They were spellbound. Each block was an ingot bearing the seal of the Spanish crown. Here had been stored for centuries the wealth extracted from a mine of fabulous richness. At the foot of the Santa Maria mountains these three mean had stumbled upon the product of the La Estrella mine. They were millionaires.

The news was reported to the government of Panama. Van Steck asserted that Hill, the German, had tried to kill him, and had chased him through the jungle. Thorpe denied all knowledge of the adventure. The chief of police arrived, and Van Steck prepared to show him the treasure. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I will enter the tunnel first.” He disappeared. There came the sound of a shot. The police entered the tunnel and found the Frenchman on the ground with a bullet through his head. No gold was to be seen. Had it been removed to evade the government tax? Was the whole story a hoax? Must the finders of lost mines always come to a fatal end before they can enjoy their luck?

A camel driver fi nds Lasseter raving with thirst.

A camel driver fi nds Lasseter raving with thirst.

The Lost Lasseter Reef

A recent story (1944) of a lost mine comes to us from Australia. It has served as the subject of an interesting book in which the author tells not only the mining tale, but also gives many excellent description s of native life in the very heart of the Australian continent.

We are told that, in about 1898, Harry Lasseter was prospecting for rubies in central Australia, near the Western Australia border on the desert fringe. “He had lost himself and found the reef,”2 The reef that Lasseter had found was full of gold, like plums in pudding. After stumbling on the rich vein of gold ore, Lasseter wandered without any sense of direction and his horses died one by one. “An Afghan camel driver found him raving with thirst and clutching a bag of gold specimens, and carried him to the surveying camp on the West Australian stock route.” He was brought back to health by the kindly help of a surveyor named Harding, who then suggested that “they both return to the reef,” but Lasseter at that time was in no mood to invade the desert again.

Three years later, however, he did go with Harding. They relocated the reef; but, on returning to Carnarvon, on the western coast, they were mortified to find their watches were one hour and 15 minutes behind the clocks. “This meant that if their time had been incorrect when they took their bearings at the reef their location was incorrect also.” Here we have a false note. If they ascertained exactly how wrong their watches were, could they not make the compensating correction in their calculations? Even that wasn’t needed. Why did they not retrace their steps? The desert will retain the tracks of man or beast for many days, even weeks and months. The author himself says: “Tracks in the desert country last a surprising time. Camel tracks have been known to last for years where heavy rain had fallen and tracks had not crossed loose wind-blown sand,”2 Besides, they had found the reef once; why not find it again? In those days, camels were used for haulage to the gold mines in Western Australia, and the Afghan drivers had been imported with them.

In any event, the two men made no effort to locate the gold reef, rich though it was. Lasseter joined the rush to the new gold fields—Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie—in Western Australia. Harding died. In 1916, we are told, the government of Western Australia sent two camel expeditions to find Lasseter’s Reef but it is not said that he himself went with them as a guide. Both expeditions suffered from attacks of the aborigines and were forced to return discomfited.

Fourteen more years pass, and then we find Lasseter asking John Bailey, in Sydney, to organize an expedition, “not merely to re-find a gold reef; it was to open a new gold field and develop a new state,” for the region was only partly desert; it had grass lands suitable for pasturage. Bailey’s support was won and a company named the Central Australian Gold Exploration Co., Ltd., was organized under his leadership in 1930. A party was to travel in two motor trucks with an airplane in support. The plane would maintain communications with the base and would serve also to search ahead, finding water and the most practical approach for the trucks. Alice Springs was the rendezvous. The oasis near the intersection of the 134th degree of east longitude and Tropic of Capricorn. It is in Central Australia, both politically and geographically.

Misfortunes dog the expedition persistently. The motor trucks break down several times, the airplane crashes, a second one comes to grief, and in the end, after many unsuccessful efforts to find the lost reef, Lasseter sets forth with Paul Johns, an experienced desert man, on camels, in pursuit of his lure, believing that he knows the approximate position, near the Petermann Range and close to the Western Australia border. Johns also has the gold fever, and Lasseter is suspicious of him. When near the place, Lasseter goes forward 20 miles alone, finds the reef, and returns smiling but silent. This irritates Johns; he and Lasseter have a violent quarrel and a terrific fight, which ends as suddenly as it began. They return to Ilbilba, an intermediate halting place, and Lasseter sends Johns to Alice Springs with a telegram and letter to his company. We are not told whether he explicitly announced the relocating of the reef.

Then “Lasseter, with two camels, sets off alone on his last ride.” Why did he travel alone? Obviously it was dangerous and dreary to do so. This is an arid region, but not altogether desert. Tracts of sand there are, and areas almost as bare, on which only spinifex and mulga grow, but here and there are grassy glades in which wild horses and wild camels, strays from the white man’s service, roam, together with groups of the so-called blacks, the aborigines. Water-holes in the rocks help to support life. An occasional lake or soak of alkaline water will lure the unwary. Rising above the wilderness, like reefs indeed, are rough rocky ridges, beckoning the prospector with the promise of possible mineral wealth.

We are told that several prospecting expeditions were in the region. They came from the south and west, also in search of Lasseter’s Reef. We hear no more of them later, although it might be supposed that one or the other of them would have been encountered as the partied searched for the lost mine.

Well, Lasseter was the only one to see it. That he did so is told on scraps of letter he wrote to his wife, these bits of papers having been found under a campfire. The reef was a treasure trove. “His heart beat violent at the sight of the yellow gold gleaming in the fractured rock. The reef was phenomenally rich; some of the stone was actually held together by threads of gold. Laughing aloud he held up a gleaming specimen.” He filed a bag with specimens, and then pegged his claim with care, He photographed the pegs in place as well as the reef. Those photographs, we must infer, were lost when his camels bolted. For that is what happened.

In the evening of the same joyous day, he was preparing to unload the camels, when first one and then the other rose to its feet and started to run. He tried to stop them, but was flung aside. He drew his revolver and tried to kill them, to save the water they were taking with them. On that water depended his life. He failed to stop them, they plunged into the stunted bush and appeared on the farther side, disappearing and reappearing until they faded into the ribboned sunset. He was a cast­away in the desert. Hardly had he realized the fact when a group of natives approached him. These aborigines were completely naked, dirty and ugly. He had to wander with them for 78 days, receiving such food, little enough, as they cared to give him. The utmost tact was required to placate them and avoid death at any moment from a spear thrust. He suffered from dysentery and underwent severe hardships while living with these primitive savages. In vain he held on to life, hoping that his friend would find him. At last several weeks later, in the Petermann Range, close to Western Australia border, Robert Buck, an experienced bushman, with camels and native helpers, found Lasseter’s tracks, and eventually his poor emaciated body, under a canopy of dried bushes. In the ashes of his last campfire were found letters written on scraps of paper, telling the story of his misfortunes.

But was the mine found? I think not. Although the author says that letters hidden within a corked bottle “described the locality of the reef” and the natives, and gave much other information.” Why was the reef not found? Because it was not there to be found.


1. J. Frank Dobie, “Coronado’s Children,” p. 158; 1930.

2. Tom L. Idriess, “Lasseter’s Last Ride,” p. 15; 1936.