“Have you ever been to Gardeau?” I asked, though I had already knew the answer. The day had been spent searching for elk in Benezette and then across the Ridge Road (located in Elk State Forest on the ridges between Routes 120 and 873) to enjoy the numerous vistas along the road before heading back to Benezette for the evening.
“I don’t think so,” mom answered.
“Good,” I replied as I veered sharply off Route 155 and onto a narrow back road.
“So what are we looking for?” my father asked. “A grave?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“There’s a cemetery,” mom offered as we passed a small cemetery that clung to the hillside. The cemetery was feet off of Route 155 – and all the times I had been past I never realized it was there and made a mental note to look it up when I got home.
“Not after a cemetery,” I replied. “Just one grave…trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.” Though I had only seen a couple pictures of the grave, I knew if it was along this road, there was no way I could possibly miss it. We continued up the narrow road and after a couple miles I began to doubt finding the grave.
I was convinced we had somehow missed it.
“It that it ahead of us?” my father spoke as we finally arrived in Gardeau, a small collection of houses in the southeastern corner of McKean County. The large mausoleum was only a couple yards off the road and seemed out of place in the fields and forest that surround it. No other graves or memorials exist at the grave site, which is located near where Parker Run empties into the Sinnemahoning Portage Creek.
“That would be it,” I replied as I sought a safe place to park. Not seeing any place to safely pull off the road and realizing I had not passed a vehicle since I started on this road, I stopped on the road. Turning the four-ways on, I got out of the vehicle to take some pictures and explore the area.
The large mausoleum was marked at the top “PARKER 1895.” The grass has overtaken many of the steps, so I walked up the recently mowed hill to the grave. The first thing I noticed was that the entrance was sealed shut, which I found odd. I would later learn that it was supposedly sealed up due to the number of times the door was destroyed by people breaking into the mausoleum.
“So what is so important about Parker?” my father asked as I climbed back into the truck.
“Noah Parker may have known the location of roughly five million dollars worth of silver,” I replied.
The story of the lost silver starts in 1811 when a Captain Blackbeard (not the infamous pirate Edward Teach, but another Captain Blackbeard) was commissioned by the British to raise the wreckage of a Spanish galleon. The ship had been a victim of a hurricane while sailing near the Bahamas in 1680. Though it had sunk, the remains were clearly visible in less than twenty fathoms of water.
Captain Blackbeard had managed to raise the galleon and discovered a fortune in silver on board. It was rumored the value of the silver at the time was close to one and a half million dollars. With the galleon in tow, he began the journey to the safety of an American port before preparing it to be shipped to England. The reason he headed to America was due to England being at war with Napoleonic France.
Captain Blackbeard and his crew arrived in Baltimore and debated what they should do. With the liquor flowing freely, one of the crew members revealed the cargo on board the ships. Imagine the surprise that Captain Blackbeard must have felt when Peter Karthaus, of the privateer Comet, revealed that he knew about the treasure.
The captain not only had to worry about the French, but now was faced with privateers wanting to claim the treasure. To add more worry to the captain’s plate were the rumors of America going to war with Great Britain. To take the treasure and try to cross the Atlantic was a suicide mission because the secret of his fortune was known.
He decided that the only “safe” route was to go overland to Canada. The route he decided upon was to follow the Susquehanna River, taking the West Branch to present day Keating. There they would follow the Sinnemahoning Creek and then the Driftwood Branch to what is now Emporium.
At Emporium they would have to load the silver onto wagons and go overland to Canoe Place (now known as Port Allegany.) There they would follow the Allegheny River to Conewango Creek (at present day Warren) and head north to Chautauga Lake in New York. From there it was a short overland trip and he would be on Lake Erie which was controlled by the British.
The captain had his men purchase a number of wagons and they were loaded with the silver and the crew set out. Somewhere along the way he received news that war had broken out between the United States and Britain.
Not knowing exactly what was going on to the north of him on the Great Lakes, Captain Blackbeard had to make a decision — what to do with the treasure. The thick forests of North Central Pennsylvania were taking a toll on his men and he began to have doubts about the loyalty of some of them.
He made up his mind that they would bury the silver bars and he would return once he knew it was safe to reclaim his treasure. Somewhere along the portage between Emporium and Port Allegany, Captain Blackbeard halted the procession and had his men dig a trench in which the silver bars were stacked and finally covered.
With the silver now hidden, the men set out for Canada.
Blackbeard made it safely to Canada and then back to Britain where he had to report that the treasure he had recovered was buried in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
Some versions claim that, before Blackbeard and most of his crew fled to Canada, he appointed Colonel Noah Parker to guard the treasure. Other versions claim Blackbeard sent Parker from England to guard the treasure. Parker not only kept intruders away, but he also managed to keep Blackbeard from regaining the silver hoard. Eventually, Blackbeard died and the treasure was soon forgotten, except for Parker who used the fortune to his own advantage.
After the Civil War, Colonel Parker opened one of the first spas in northern Pennsylvania, claiming that the salty spring waters could cleanse and renew the body. Countless people flocked to the region to relax and be told tales of the lost treasure. Their free time was usually spent searching the hills for the treasure. If Parker knew where the silver was buried, he took that secret with him to the grave.
“So are you going to go searching for it?” my father asked.
“I would, but there is a slight problem with the story,” I answered.
“Oh….him,” mom sighed knowing my feelings about Shoemaker and his writings.
The version of the legend of McKean County’s lost silver treasure that everybody knows can be traced back to one man – Henry Shoemaker. Shoemaker took many legends and stories and changed them to make them popular with his readers or he plainly made up stories. The article that appeared in many of Pennsylvania’s newspapers entitled “Blackbeard Treasure Cave is McKean County Mystery” is written by Henry Shoemaker and that story is the version that has become a part of regional lore.
The story had just enough truth to make it a good story. There was a Peter A. Karthaus, Jr. who lived in Baltimore and was a part owner of the noted ship “Comet” which was captained by Thomas Boyle. The crew of the “Comet” captured or destroyed more than twenty ships. Captain Boyle operated out of Baltimore, which was also the home of Peter Karthaus. If Blackbeard’s silver would have gone back to sea, Captain Boyle would have been bold enough to attack and attempt to capture it. During the War of 1812, Captain Boyle proclaimed in the British papers that his one ship was going to blockade the ports of Britain much like the British ships were blockading the American ports.
Peter A. Karthaus would purchase land in central Pennsylvania, where Mosquito Creek empties into the West Branch of the Susquehanna. A town would be erected in his honor.
Historically, Noah Parker existed and operated a hotel and spa in Gardeau. Unfortunately for the legend, Parker could not have been with Blackbeard’s crew; he was born in 1812, making him only a baby at the time the treasure was supposedly buried. Legend also refers to him as a colonel and states he served in the Civil War. I could not find any Noah Parker listed in the state Civil War records.
With little more to go on, I filed the legend away until I had the opportunity to explore the Gardeau area and the legend a little more. And then quite by accident I discovered a different version of the legend. While looking into the legend of the lost silver I stumbled upon a mention of another Henry Shoemaker story entitled “An Antique Dealer’s Romance,” which is found in Some Stories of Old Deserted Houses and is an earlier version of the same story before he romanticized it.
This version of the legend tells the story of Captain Thomas, a privateer, who stole a fortune in silver from the Spanish off of the coast of Florida. Fearing for his life, he fled northward and inland, eventually settling near present-day Gardeau. It is here that Captain Thomas hid his treasure and built his house at a spot that overlooked it. Noah Parker eventually purchased the land that once belonged to Captain Thomas and he discovered a diary that revealed the location of the treasure. Shoemaker ends this version with Parker disappearing without the reader ever knowing if it was ever discovered.
History reveals that Parker did not disappear, so I’d like to think he found the treasure and enjoyed living off the riches of the captain’s silver – if it actually existed.
Or maybe it does exist and is still out there waiting to be discovered.