As we topped Winslow Hill, both my parents called out they saw elk on the distant hillside. I parked in the viewing lot so they could study the magnificent creatures moving about with seemingly little care in the world.
“That one’s a bull,” my father announced as the monarch stepped into the field from the wood line. Being a safe distance away, I got out of the vehicle and set up the camera to take some pictures.
When Europeans arrived in Penn’s Woods, elk were common throughout the state. By the late 1860s, the only elk remaining within the borders of Pennsylvania roamed Cameron and Elk Counties and by 1877, they too were gone. These majestic creatures that roam the northern woods today are descendants of the one hundred and seventy-seven elk that were reintroduced into the area by the Game Commission in 1913.
While the region mostly draws in people to search for elk, there’s another reason that brings people into the wilds of Elk and Cameron Counties every year. According to word of mouth, there is a couple million dollars in gold bars buried somewhere in the nearby mountains. The legend of the lost treasure has been the failed dream of many treasure seekers. I must admit at one time the idea of finding the treasure was a dream of mine and I have been fascinated with the legend from the time I first heard it told.
Note: Before I go on, I’m going to state there are a number of versions of this legend. The version of the story I’m going to share is the version I was told growing up, so it has to be the correct one, right?
The year was 1863 and General Lee was leading the Confederate Army up the Shenandoah Valley and into Pennsylvania. In early June of that year, two freight wagons – each being pulled by four mules – and a group of mounted cavalrymen made their way northward into the wilds of Central Pennsylvania. Supposedly the party was to take twenty-six gold bars northward from Wheeling to Driftwood and then raft the gold down river to Harrisburg, followed by overland to Washington, D.C. to avoid the Confederate army. The group was led by a young lieutenant who was sick at the time.
At some point along the journey, they hired a civilian guide who led the group up the Clarion River to Ridgeway and then across the mountains to St. Marys. By the time the party arrived in St. Marys the young lieutenant was running a fever and was delirious. At some point he blurted out to his men that the wagons held a fortune in gold in a false bottom. They were carrying twenty-six bars of gold.
With the truth exposed, there was a fear among the men that locals would try to steal the gold, so they set out eastward and were never heard from again.
Except for the civilian guide.
Some time later he wandered into Lock Haven weak from the time he spent wandering about the mountains. While being cared for he told the story about being a guide for a secret mission he had guided through the mountains.
The guide claimed that after leaving St. Marys the wagons made it through the mountains and were traveling near present-day Hicks Run when they decided to bury the gold and flee the region. After burying the gold, they started for civilization and only the guide managed to make it out alive. He wandered into Lock Haven where he was cared for by residents. In his delirious state, he told of the buried treasure.
A search party left Lock Haven to search for the murdered men and the lost gold, but failed to discover any signs of the massacre. Meanwhile the army began to question the guide whose story changed in each telling. First the group had been ambushed. Later the men turned on each other as each wanted the gold they were carrying. Then he conveniently lost his memory. He was taken by the army out west were they could watch him, but he claimed he had no memory of the event, except when he was drunk and then he claimed he knew where the gold had been buried.
The army got the Pinkerton Detective Agency involved and a group of men were sent into the mountains to search for clues about the missing treasure, but failed to discover the treasure. The did discover a couple of dead mules that had an army brand on them. A couple years later some skeletons, believed to be some of the murdered soldiers, were discovered near Dents Run.
According to word of mouth, the army never closed the case and still sends people from time to time into the wilderness of Elk and Cameron Counties to search for the lost treasure. According to most versions, two and a half bars of gold were recovered in 1865.
As I stood next to the vehicle photographing the nearby elk, I couldn’t help but think of the story – as I do when I’m in the area. The simple story I had heard as a child has changed over the years. The young officer in charge has become Lieutenant Castleton. The guide is now referred to as Conners. The second in charge of the party has been given the name Sergeant O’Rourke. Even the treasure itself has grown in each retelling as the twenty-six gold bars has increased to the size of fifty-two in most versions.
I finished photographing the magnificent beasts as more cars entered the parking area. With all the people around, shouting at each other and pointing excitedly, I knew it was time to move on.
Getting into the vehicle, the thoughts of the treasure still bounced around in my mind – a treasure I wished I could find, but the only problem is…the legend is only a couple years older than I am.
Note: This article continues next week.