Gold Fever

Gold Fever

"Thar's gold in them thar hills."

The Valley of the Kings is a rocky wasteland on the western bank of the Nile River, across from the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. In this valley most of the great Egyptian kings and nobles were buried in utmost secrecy to prevent graverobbing. The elaborate, clandestine schemes were to no avail; by the end of the 20th Dynasty almost all of the royal tombs had been opened illegally by professional thieves (probably with the help of the high priests). Plundering by tomb robbers was so thorough that most royal treasures had vanished long before early archaeologists arrived on the scene.

As usual there was an exception. In 1922, when Howard Carter peered through a slit he had made in a door, he was about to unearth the greatest treasure trove in all history. He had discovered the almost undisturbed and long—forgotten tomb of Tutankhamen, the boy king who died in 1339 b.c. at age 18. Although Tutankhamen was a lesser king, the total riches found in his burial chamber are mind—boggling. The mummy was encased in a nest of three coffins, the inner coffin being the most spectacular. Just over six feet long, it weighed 2,448 pounds and was composed of solid gold! As a work of art the coffin is priceless, but the value of the gold of which it is molded would be, at current fluctuating prices, over $10 million. Despite the tenacious permanence of gold, most of the royal gold of Egypt has disappeared over the millennia. But we can barely comprehend the incredible wealth that must have been buried with great pharaohs such as Ramses II. Almost all the gold was in the hands of the nobility. Because all precious metal immediately became the property of the ruler, gold has rarely been found with the remains of ordinary Egyptian citizens. Gold was the symbol of worth for royalty. It showed their kinship to the sun. Being encased in a body of gold after death guaranteed immortality.

Gold was a scarce commodity in Egypt. Except for the gold acquired from conquered nations, the mines of Nubia and the Arabian peninsula were the pharaohs' only sources of the ore. Gold is still a very rare element, with many uses; the demand always exceeds supply. The earth's crust contains only 3.5 parts per billion of gold. Distribution is worldwide, with important deposits in North America, South Africa, and Russia. Despite the gold found in the archaeological remains of many early civilizations, more gold was mined during the 19th century than during all the preceding 5,000 years, and over two—thirds of the world's known gold was mined in the 20th century. The total harvest of gold throughout history is about 100,000 tons. Because gold is durable and quite recyclable, most of the gold that has been discovered still exists. Your gold tooth or bracelet may have been a prized amulet of a Stone Age person, a headdress for an Egyptian queen, or an Inca statue.

Today ownership of gold is not restricted to royalty, so the lure of the most noble metal affects multitudes of people. In the American southwest, one of the common hobbies among outdoor enthusiasts is searching and panning for gold. Mountain and desert areas, with their sparse ground cover, are the most vulnerable to weekend treasure seekers. The effect on the terrain is disastrous; ground is torn apart by people searching, searching, and still searching. In the quest for gold, much of the California desert area has been claimed by individuals for potential mineral exploration. So a widespread search continues, the natural environment suffers, and the endangered and threatened species list gets longer.

In 1989 a hearing was conducted in Barstow, California, for officials to learn the pros and cons of the Desert Protection Act. Miners and prospectors, along with hunters, bikers, ranchers, and others who did not want their desert operations curtailed by government regulations, appeared in droves to register their opposition. One professional witness for preservation was a registered geologist who had been a mineral consultant for nearly 30 years. He explained that he had conducted mineral surveys on nearly 200 properties, usually for a person who had found a few flakes of gold on his or her property and was convinced that this was a true bonanza. Out of nearly 200 claims, only 4 had been economically sound. Because all the easy—to—reach gold had already been taken, it would cost far more to extract any remaining gold than the market value of the mineral. As the geologist pointed out to the audience, "Two nuggets do not make a mine!" His remarks failed to convince the rockhounds and prospectors, for whom the lure of gold was so intense that they were willing to sacrifice almost anything for it. Few would ever experience the thrill of finding the real thing.

Several years earlier a government geologist was conducting a geologic survey just outside Death Valley National Monument. He picked up a strange—looking rock, sort of green—black and out of place in the area. Noting how heavy it was, he tossed it into his pack for a more thorough examination later.

In the laboratory, the geologist picked up the two—inch piece of rock and turned it over for the first time. The opposite face was solid, smooth gold; his startled face stared back at him. As others have done, he convinced himself that "one nugget might actually make a bonanza." Unfortunately he was in Tucson, Arizona, a long way from the western slope of Death Valley.

A few years later, the geologist became a professor of geology at a California university. With him went the piece of gold with the mirrorlike surface, which now served as a paperweight on his office desk. On several occasions he returned to the place where he had picked up the gold. He traversed a large area, but no further gold was anywhere to be found. Apparently this chunk of gold had been carried there and dropped years before.

Knowing Death Valley was the area of the famed lost Breyfogle Mine, the geologist often considered the possibility that the gold was part of the treasure dropped by the unfortunate Charles Breyfogle as he tried to find his way back to civilization. People can easily become confused in the desert, even when they're used to the environment. Volumes have been written about lost mines and buried treasures. The deserts are pockmarked with the endless searches, and the results are very predictable: the discoverer spends years trying unsuccessfully to relocate the original find—with an almost 100 percent failure rate. That Charles Breyfogle was unable to find his way back to his treasure is therefore no surprise.

One spring day in 1862 the horse of a Pony Express rider racing across Nevada stumbled to his knees. While recovering his balance, the horse kicked loose a chunk of rock that caught the rider's eye. The man took it to Virginia City, where it was pronounced to be silver ore of extraordinary richness. Suddenly a great silver rush began around the present town of Austin, Nevada. When the news reached Los Angeles, three down—on—their—luck men, with neither funds nor means of traveling, determined to head for the Austin area and sure wealth. They were remembered only as McLeod, O'Bannion, and Charles Breyfogle.

Around June 1, 1863, the trio set out on foot for the silver fields that lay 400 miles to the northeast over forbidding, desolate mountains and deserts. The men carried scant provisions as they crossed the Mohave Desert, skirted the spurs of the Argus Range, crept across the glittering wasteland known as the Panamint Valley, and finally began the ascent of the awesome Panamint Mountains. From the top they could see to the east the unearthly basin known as Death Valley.

On the eastern slope of the Panamints they found water and decided to spend the night. The search for a place that was not too rough and sloping was almost impossible in this tricky mountainous terrain, but they finally settled in a small plot not far from the water hole. McLeod and O'Bannion laid out their pallet together, and Breyfogle found a bedding place about 200 yards down the slope. All prepared for a restful night's sleep by removing only their shoes.

During the night, Breyfogle awoke to moans, screams, shouting, and the sounds of clubs smashing heads. He realized that his partners were being attacked and doubtless killed by Indians, so he sprang from his blanket, grabbed his shoes, and, abandoning his other supplies, fled barefooted to the valley below. Wild with fear, he ran over rocks and thorns through the desert night, finally limping at daybreak to the bottom of the mountain and the floor of Death Valley.

By afternoon Breyfogle found a geyserlike hole containing alkali water. He drank it, the first water he had tasted since the previous evening, and it made him deathly sick. But it was moist, and he recovered, so it was better than nothing. Since his feet were too bruised and swollen for his shoes to fit, he filled them with the tainted water and went on. Still fearful of the Indians he continued walking toward the northeast for two days, with only the alkali water for sustenance, even though it made him sick and did little to quench his thirst. Near the mountains he saw a green spot that might mark a spring; he estimated it to be about three miles away. The shortest route was through an extensive sand dune area now believed to have been the dunes near Stovepipe Wells. About halfway to the green spot, he noticed, where wind had uncovered a layer of bedrock, a layer of soft greenish rock shot through with smoky quartz. Free gold showed plainly through the rock.

Breyfogle almost forgot his plight as he turned over a rock and stared at its mirrorlike gold surface. Unmindful of his fear of the Indians, his exhaustion from the tortures he had endured, or his craving for fresh cool water, he marveled at the promise of wealth that exceeded his wildest dreams. He gathered several of the richest pieces and wrapped them in his bandanna. Then he staggered on toward the green spot, which proved to be a low, bushy mesquite tree full of green beans. He ate ravenously of them, but they did not satisfy his intense need for fresh water, and he collapsed.

The next few days were an absolute blank to him. At the clear, fresh water of Baxter Springs, fully 250 miles from where he had emerged from Death Valley, Breyfogle became conscious. He remained there for two days, drinking freshwater and eating whatever edible vegetables he could find. When his strength returned he set out once again toward the silver strike area.

A rancher named Wilson ran across Breyfogle. For many years afterward his description of the human wreck standing before him was a fireside story familiar all over eastern California and Nevada. The most outstanding part of the description was the bandanna Breyfogle had stuffed in a shoe. It was tied around the richest gold ore Wilson had ever seen.

Breyfogle remained at the ranch until he regained his health. Afterward Wilson got him a job in a mine near Austin, Nevada. Months later Breyfogle, the manager of the mine, and six other men set out for Death Valley to find the treasure. They reached the Funeral Range and were about to cross into Death Valley, when they met hostile Indians. The treasure seekers wisely returned to Austin.

Almost a year later Breyfogle and his group set out again for Death Valley. He had no trouble getting back to the area where he had feasted on the mesquite tree. But many similar trees grew in the area, and so he wavered. He knew the gold had to be close by; the men frantically searched in every direction and nerves were frayed. They began to jeer Breyfogle, and curse him for having led them on a wild gold chase. Finally the men packed up and returned to Austin.

Breyfogle made several more attempts to find his hidden mother lode; party after party searched but to no avail. He died penniless in 1870, but the desert rats have continued ever since to search out his gold. George Hearst, father of publisher William Randolph Hearst, kept men in the field searching for the lost mining site for years. Others followed, but the treasure has never been found.

An incident happened just a few years after Breyfogle's death that could possibly explain why the gold has been so elusive. Near Yuma, Arizona, a shepherd girl found herself caught in a violent sandstorm. To protect herself she lay flat on the ground while the howling wind raged. She felt the sands being carried away around and under her until the surface she was lying on felt hard and rocky. When the storm abated the girl saw that the little rocks around her were solid gold nuggets. When she returned to her employer's ranch and showed the nuggets, horses were saddled in record time.

The ranchers never got to the place where the treasure lay, because another sandstorm hit. When the storm subsided the entire topography of the sand dunes had changed. The bed of nuggets now lay under one of the many sand dunes, and the gold was never rediscovered. Doubtless, while Breyfogle waited in Austin, cloudbursts and sandstorms also covered his rocks of gold.

What the desert sands cover one day they will uncover again the next. Someday a visitor to Death Valley, seeing a golden glint among the dunes around Stovepipe Wells, may rediscover Breyfogle's treasure. Minus, of course, one mirror—surfaced nugget that the geologist continues to use as a paperweight. Moreover, now that Death Valley has become a national park, Breyfogle's gold actually belongs to all of us.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning