VERNAL — The legends haunt these mountains like ghosts: Vanished prospectors. Dead Spanish miners. Indian guardians.
There are skeptics, of course. Those who claim there is no gold in the Uintas of northeastern Utah. But Joseph Hicks isn't one of them.
Stepping carefully down a mountain path he has trodden countless times in his 78 years, Hicks stops at the mouth of a man-made tunnel that snakes into the rock.
Hidden somewhere behind this rock at a place called the Polecreek sinks, the retired science teacher believes, is an old Spanish mine laden with gold.
So what if any trace of the mine has long since vanished? Or if that tunnel — $100,000 worth of digging, drilling and blasting by men as convinced as he was — turned up nothing?
One man died here 19 years ago, blown up by dynamite as he blasted the tunnel meant to find the mine. Another may have died as an indirect result — his body broken by the disappointment of a lifetime's failed search.
Men don't look that hard for nothing.
"It's quite awesome," Hicks said. "I used to believe it was all nonsense. But based on the intensive work put into this place, on everything they went through, I believe it's here."
Stories of Spanish conquistadors unearthing gold in the Uinta Mountains still feed a frenzied legend of mysterious clues, Indian curses and — for those with enough bravery and luck — untold riches.
They are fueled by descendants of Mormon pioneers, who say the church struck a deal with a Ute Indian chief in the 1850s to reveal the location of a sacred mine to a church emissary, then buried the secret — and some of the gold — in the church's Salt Lake City vaults.
In the towns of Vernal and Roosevelt, along U.S. 40 on the mountains' southern flank, residents recite the stories in bars and cafes. Many have spent time looking for treasure themselves.
For some, the search is little more than a serious hobby. For others, finding the elusive treasure can be a lifetime quest.
"For some people, prospecting gets into your blood. It becomes an obsession. You can't think of anything else," said Hicks, who has been searching for the mines for close to 60 years.
"It's broken up more than a few families around here," he said.
The gold also has attracted professionals.
The Ute Indian tribe partnered with a treasure hunter named Jim Phillips in the early 1990s. Phillips claimed he had new technology that could locate caches buried by the Indians or the Spanish. After three months of digging and blasting massive holes in the dun-colored earth, the tribe pulled the plug.
One of the world's most famous treasure hunters, Mel Fisher, spent some of his last outings here before he died in 1998, lured by a clue about a Spanish treasure trail that reached from South America into the Uintas. Locals say he carried something out of the mountains by helicopter in 1994, but representatives of Fisher's company say he left empty-handed.
Fantasy vs. fact
With its vast empty spaces and long history of prospecting, the West is full of stories of lost mines and hidden treasure, and there are thousands of professional and amateur treasure hunters looking for them.
Most of these tales are more fantasy than fact, historians say, and there are few documented finds of any value. In Utah, there is little historical evidence of significant mining by Spanish conquistadors anywhere in the area.
But in the world of treasure hunting, the story of these mountains has all the necessary elements to raise them to the equivalent of solid-gold real estate: tantalizing clues, an element of historical truth, the promise of huge riches and mysteries that have yet to be fully explained by historians or scientists.
"I don't think anyone in Utah would say it isn't true," said Floyd Mann, a professional treasure hunter who lives in Salt Lake City and runs a Web site called LostTreasureUSA.com. "There is too much evidence out there to deny it."
Much of that evidence was compiled by one man who devoted his life to searching for Uinta gold and piecing together the clues that he hoped would ultimately lead him to a fortune.
Gale Rhoades became the mountains' foremost historian and his life a morality tale on the powerful grip of a legend.
The gold became an obsession, friends and family say. He collected maps, searched archives and talked to hundreds of people.
He scoured the mountains for more than 20 years and died in 1988 a penniless man, divorced, living on caffeine and cigarettes, those closest to him said.
Although he never found gold, his articles and books have inspired Web pages, discussion boards and more treasure hunters.
"I think he truly believed he would find the mine," said Rhoades' ex-wife, Beverly. "I think he went through his destiny writing the books and collecting the stories. That opened the door for so many others."
Growing up with his grandparents, Rhoades heard tales of his great-great-grandfather Thomas Rhoades, the Mormon pioneer who is said to have been the church's emissary to the Ute Indians and the Uinta gold.
Mormon patriarch Brigham Young had struck a deal with a Ute chief, Wakara, Rhoades believed. The Indians had been enslaved by the Spanish as they dug shafts into the Uintas in the 1700s. The tribe agreed the church could have the gold from a sacred mine as long as only one man knew about it — a deal that, after Thomas Rhoades died, was extended to his son, Caleb.
Through their own exploration in the Uintas, Thomas and Caleb found other mines as well, bringing the total of what are known as the Lost Rhoades' Mines to at least seven, Gale Rhoades believed.
The geology of the Uintas doesn't suggest that significant deposits of gold should be found there, scientists say. But prospectors marshal their own evidence.
The mountain is covered with what appear to be old Spanish symbols carved into rocks. Hikers and prospectors have found stone ovens that could be gold smelters and shafts that appear to be the remnants of old mines.
Searchers believe that the failure to find gold is only a testament to how well it has been hidden by Indian guardians (descendants of Wakara's band in some stories; spirits in others).
"Gale Rhoades once told me that the reason nothing is being found is that the bad spirits don't want good people to get the gold and good spirits don't want bad people to get it," said Patsy Sursa, a homemaker and longtime prospector near Roosevelt.
Still, the protection didn't stop Gale Rhoades from trying. He had several maps, one purportedly drawn on Caleb Rhoades' deathbed. He believed he came close several times and repeatedly gathered investors to explore promising sites.
"You'd find good areas, you'd have the documentation, but the people who had the money wanted everything in an instant. They'd find the cost of equipment, bonding, everything so difficult that it was hard to keep them working on it," Beverly Rhoades said.
The closest he may have ever come, she said, was the Polecreek sinks. A wealthy investor fronted nearly $100,000 to blast 88 feet of tunnel before giving up.
The site became the subject of a legal battle between Gale Rhoades and another family who also claimed rights. While trying to extend the tunnel, one of the family members, Wally Muir, died in a dynamite accident in 1986.
Gale Rhoades "was really, really convinced that was the sacred mine because of the description and the way it matched Caleb's," Beverly Rhoades said. "He promised he would never get obsessed with it, but over the years, he did. I tried and tried to get him to go back to work, we'd both go back to work and do it as a hobby. But he just wouldn't back off or give up. By then, it was a need rather than a goal."
Rhoades died of a heart attack while exploring yet another gold mining claim.
After his death, his maps disappeared. Someone apparently broke into his apartment, family members say, and the briefcase he always carried vanished.
Locals say some of those maps have since surfaced and are still being used to track down the gold.
The search continues
Arnold Ufford, who has been assaying gold from a backyard shop in Vernal for years, said he still doesn't know whether the stories are true.
During a busy summer, he sometimes gets three or four people a day who come to him with rocks or nuggets they collected in the Uintas. He can count five or six people who are working clandestine mines, hauling out rock on their backs, often at night.
Most of the rock is worthless, but there are a few samples that do indicate gold, such as a rock brought in recently by a hunter who said he found it in what looked like an abandoned mine shaft.
The gold "is coming from somewhere," Ufford said.
Bobby Chapoose, a Ute Indian, was one of the tribe members who accompanied Jim Phillips for three months as he explored reservation lands for the Lost Rhoades' Mines.
He watched day after day as Phillips dug and dynamited without finding so much as a nugget.
"I'm a realist," Chapoose said. "You show me or you don't.
"It's like my grandmother, she used to tell some whoppers," he said. "An archaeologist would come around and pay her $20 to tell her stories. After he left, I'd go up to her and ask, 'Are those stories true, Grandma?'
"She'd just smile and say, 'Now, let's go get some pop.' "
"During the past summer an old prospector and geologist, William Schaefermeyer of Maeser, has been checking on an interesting story of gold in the Uintahs."
..."So when the story of a find of a gold mine of fabulous wealth in the Uintah mountains came to his attention not so long ago, he checked on his source of the story." ...
The one responcible for the story had learned it while traveling a number of years ago in New Mexico. That mine was supposed to be in the headwater section of Dry Creek. He told Mr. Schaefermeyer the following story.
" While myself and companion were traveling in New Mexico with pack outfit we decided one day to stop at the first residence we came to and seek lodging and care for ourselfs and animal." ..."An old Mexican woman who lived in the the very neat hogan gave us welcome and provided for our stay." ..." During the conversations of the evening we spoke of going back to the Uintah Basin." ..."After learning our story the old woman confidentially and in a very convincing manner told us of a visit she had made when young to the Uintah Basin coming over the Escalante trail which then was the only known way of getting into the Uintah Basin."
..."When I was a young girl many years ago, myself and husband and other people, twenty in number followed the Escalante trail into the Uintah mountains. The country was wild and there were many Indians. We were anxious to keep out of their way. However they gave us but little trouble at the time. Following the Escalante trail we came to a large river which we had to ford. At this place there were many Indians, for it seemed this was their only crossing in that section. After crossing this river, we came to a black canyon. The Indians were watching our movements. After getting into the canyon, we followed it to higher parts where we discovered a large cave and decided to camp here for a time.
"While living there we found and worked a very rich gold mine. We secured much gold. There was an abundance of game. We packed the gold out to a settlement where there was a large lake." '(Spanish Fork only outside settlement at that time)'.
"The Indians watched us while the men were mining so we moved down to the mine. One day my husband and myself went out hunting. When we came back to our camp at the mine, the Indian in a battle had killed all our companions. We were the only two left. There were also a number of dead Indians showing there had been a fierce battle."
"We pulled and piled the bodies of our dead companions, also the Indians into the sloping tunnel of the mine and covered them with brush and rocks. We hurriedly left the country and brought sufficient gold with us to last until this day."
"After finishing her story the old woman gave us a map of the country which located the mine in the Lake Fork mountain and indicating the trail from the Indian ford across the Green River."
"In looking over the territory, Mr. Schaefermeyer found a cave which has been inhabited. The front part is about 90 feet long and 12 feet wide. At another opening in the same cave which he followed for more than a quarter of a mile, with many branches leading from both sides, he is confident it fit the description of the woman's story. This is strewn with river boulders and has been the natural course of water."
"He found natural bridges and many other evidences of having been connected with the story. In telling of the finds which he has thus far discovered, Mr. Schaefermeyer is led to believe the story is no myth and to his mind there someday will be found a place where gold has been taken from the hills. He does not expect the find will be in any degree as has been stated-fabulous gold- but that there is gold there somewhere to find."
There are several articles from the 1890's in the Vernal Express which tell of gold finds in the Uintah's, both on and off the Reservation. One from March 12, 1896, of the Park Record, reads as follows:
" A gentleman just in from Ashley says that the officers at Ft. Duchesne, under pretence of hunting bear, got out on snowshoes, and instead of looking for bruin, thoroughly prospected the gold ledges embraced in the Uintah reservation, bringing back with them samples of quartz that is fairly lousy with gold. It is intiminted that they stand in with the commision, and that as soon as the reservation is opened, the minions of the government, rather than citizens, will secure the most valuable mineral lands therein."
WELLSVILLE — When he was a young boy growing up in Utah County, backpacking became a “big intrigue” for Wellsville resident Guy Bartholomew. Any opportunity he had to go backpacking, he would go. That intrigue eventually lead to another intrigue for him: gold.
While Bartholomew was living in Washington state he received a book about Spanish gold mines hidden in the Uinta Mountains from his brother Max Bartholomew. As he read the book he began to become more and more interested in the subject of gold. He said over the next three or four years he wanted to go back to the Uintas. After searching the Internet, Bartholomew said he came across a map that leads to one of the mines. He realized the mine on the map was about 200-300 yards from where he camped as a boy and e-mailed the map to his brother.
In 2005, Bartholomew, his brother Max and his cousin, Leon Leavitt, hiked 15 miles up to where he thought the mine is located. Bartholomew said upon reaching the area they located a tree with markings that matched up with those on the map. The tree had the word “oro” carved in it, which is Spanish for gold.
Upon entering the mountains a dam had broken behind them and the forest rangers closed the trail. “We were wondering if our outfitters were going to be able to get us,” Bartholomew said
The outfitters did eventually find them. Although they had found the tree, after 10 days of searching, they left. While Bartholomew and his party were hiking down he said they ran into a man and his teenage son. He said the man told him he makes more in two weeks panning for gold than he does in the entire year working at his job.
According to Bartholomew, within a couple weeks of the dam breaking someone hired a helicopter and extracted “several hundred Spanish silver bars” from where the water level had fallen.
“Now that is an illegal act,” Bartholomew said. “If it really happened.”
Bartholomew said the legend of the gold mines goes back to when LDS settlers first came to Utah in the mid-1800s. He said Thomas Rhoades, a LDS prospector, was called back from Sacramento, Calif. by former LDS Church president Brigham Young. Bartholomew said Young appointed Rhoades to be the “go-between” with the Ute Indians for the right to mine gold in the Uintas.
“The gold that was used to plate the Angel Moroni on the Salt Lake Temple and the oxen in the Salt Lake Temple; that (the mines) was the source of that gold,” Bartholomew said. “This was all according to the legend.”
Bartholomew said people have been looking for the gold for decades and if somebody did find gold bars they probably wouldn’t say anything. According to the American Antiquity Act of 1906, “any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States, without the permission of the Secretary of the Department of the Government having jurisdiction over the lands on which said antiquities are situated, shall, upon conviction, be fined in a sum of not more than five hundred dollars or be imprisoned for a period of not more than ninety days, or shall suffer both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.”
Bartholomew has returned to the Uintas several times over the last few years, but has not found anything of significance. He said he now intrigued by the history of events. His gold fever is gone. He said he plans on returning again.
“There are so many other stories to follow up on in different locations,” Bartholomew said.