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The deserts of the American southwest have long been the discussion of lost mines and buried treasures. For hundreds of years, man has scoured the desert floor searching for any signs of the countless tales of lost riches. Some have claimed to have found the elusive treasures but only to be lost again, while others grew old or died trying. None the less, the legends live on as they are passed down from generation to generation. Maybe you will be the lucky one...

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By James E. Mulkey

From page 58 of the January 2000 issue of Treasure Cache magazine.
Copyright ©2000, 2000 Lost Treasure, Inc.
Gold In The Dunes

The doctor, who was the stranger who appeared with Willis at Rodenbaughs store, fully believed that the story was true as he had seen the gold with his own eyes; indeed, the old prospector had paid for his medical services with gold nuggets! The search would be expensive, that much the doctor knew. Yet, he was confident of finding gold in the dunes!

In 1917, an experienced prospector was crossing the Great Sand Dunes west of Winterhaven, Calif., on his way to the Cargo Muchacho Mountains when he lost his way in a blinding sandstorm. He managed to get out with his life, and 17 pounds of gold nuggets he had picked up on a bed of hardpan during his crossing of the dunes. The experience was so devastating to the mans health that he died as a result. The Cargos, as they are known locally, are located east of the dunes. Just before he died, the man drew a map to his gold discovery and handed it to a friend.

In 1917, 0. T. Willis, a Yuma, Ariz., well-driller and his companion, a total stranger, walked into G. A. Rodenbaughs general store in Winterhaven, just across the river from Yuma. Willis told the storekeeper that they needed to outfit themselves for a few weeks of prospecting, explaining that they were going to hunt for gold nuggets in the sand dunes.

"Nuggets," Rodenbaugh asked. In the big sand dunes? The storekeeper knew Willis as a hard-working, honest man, but the stranger didnt look as if he knew anything about either hard work or prospecting.

The stranger nodded his head up and down and told Rodenbaugh that there were nuggets in a pass in the dunes and that he had seen some of them and that he had a map to their location. Then he became silent, fearing he might have said too much.

The storekeeper shrugged and began filling the order. Rodenbaugh knew from experience that gold was where you found it. He had heard it many times in the past from more than one of the old-timers who had traded at his at his store prior to heading out into mining country. After all, there were plenty of rich gold mines, both placer and lode, in all directions of the compass from Winterhaven. The fact that gold was where you found it was proven again and again by one or another of the prospectors who bought their supplies at his store; this, in spite of the fact that geologists claimed no gold could exist in locations where it was found. Often as not, the prospector proved his theory and the geologist reluctantly recorded another condition under which gold could be deposited.

But gold in the Great Sand Dunes? Not even the most sun-baked old-timer would look for gold there! Stretching more than one hundred miles in length, with some of the dunes being located in Mexico, and as much as 20 miles wide, the sand dunes (which can be several hundred feet in height) were looked upon then as now as the Great American Sahara. Common sense told the prospector that even if he did find gold there, most likely it would be covered over with the coming of the next windstorm and there were plenty of those. It was also reasonable to assume that any gold deposited on the mesa where the dunes had built-up would be buried under deep piles of sand.

Later, Rodenbaugh learned why the stranger, who turned out to be from Los Angeles, was so certain that gold nuggets were to be found in the dunes. It was in June of 1917 that a friend of the strangers had left Mexicali with a pack burro for a prospecting trip into the Cargo Muchachos, about 50 miles to the northeast. The friend reached the western slopes of the dunes at an old well known as Grays Well and turned north instead of following the plank road, which had been laid through the sand dunes along Highway Pass a year or two earlier. The prospector struck in an easterly direction through a low pass, supposedly one mile north of Grays Well as Rodenbaugh remembers it; however, as the late Carl Walker of Gold Rock Ranch heard it, it was the second pass north of Highway Pass, both of which have been popular with off-roaders in more recent years.

At any rate, according to the account given by the old prospector to his friend (the stranger) as he lay dying, when he entered the dunes on that blazing hot June day, a sand storm hit him. He lost his burro, his water, his food and his equipment. The burro was never found. The old prospector figured he wandered around, half-out of his mind, for a long time, because he was nearly dead when he made his way to the tiny Southern Pacific Railroad station at Ogilby, located just southwest of the Cargo Muchacho Mountains. Today all that remains of Ogilby is its pioneer cemetery.

The prospector regained his senses and recalled that at some point during his fateful trek across the dunes, perhaps after he lost his burro and after the wind had abated, he came to an open space within the dunes. He found himself standing on hardpan. Scattered across the hardpan were gold nuggets. He had gathered up 17 pounds of nuggets and kept them in a gunny sack all the way to Ogilby.

The telegraph operator at Ogilby took care of the prospector until he was strong enough to board a train to Los Angeles. For his effort, the operator was given two of the largest nuggets. The prospector arrived in Los Angeles with gold worth more than $5,000 (at the then going rate), however, he did not recover from his trek through the dunes.

Before the old prospector died, he drew a map showing the location of the nuggets and gave it to his doctor. When the doctor arrived in Yuma, he looked up 0. T.. Willis, a man who often served as a guide to those wishing to explore the region around Yuma, and explained the situation. The doctor, who was the stranger who appeared with Willis at Rodenbaughs store, fully believed that the story was true as he had seen the gold with his own eyes; indeed, the old prospector had paid for his medical services with gold nuggets. The search would be expensive, that much the doctor knew; yet, he was confident of finding gold in the dunes.

From Rodenbaughs General Store in Winterhaven, the two men took the main road out of town and turned north onto Ogilby Road (Highway S-34 today) which led them to Ogilby and the hills southwest of the Cargo Muchachos. They crossed the railroad at Ogilby, then left the road behind them and headed into the sand hills, a distance of some six miles to the southwest, in order to back-track the prospectors trail.

They drove along without mishap for two miles, then came to a sand-filled wash. The Los Angeles doctor had hired Willis to drive his truck, an old Ford with oversized tires, for the purpose of traversing such washes as it was reported to be the best vehicle in the Yuma area for driving into the Great Sand Dunes. Things went fine for a while with Willis driving along at a leisurely pace through shallow, tree-lined arroyos between low hills of sand; in fact, the two men made it safely to the area shown on older maps as Dry Lake. A dry lake had formed wherever water had stood for any length of time, creating a hardpan, much like that where the old prospector found his gold.

They soon came to an area of low dunes which had to be crossed in order to reach another shallow wash; one which appeared to lead toward the pass the doctor wanted to investigate first. After traveling for a 100 feet into sand, they became stuck up to the axles. Willis suggested they walk and the doctor agreed. The high dunes were still a couple of miles away, however.

Walking is a good way to explore the sand dunes, but it would take weeks to check out even a small portion of those dunes., The two men found no nuggets on that first trip. The doctor returned in 1918, and again in 1919. Each time he hired Willis and his truck and they outfitted at Rodenbaughs store, and each time they explored the region north of old Highway 80. Each time the

There are clay and caliche beds all through the great dunes wherever pockets of rainwater have collected. The evaporating water cements the fine clay with the calcium carbonate and gypsum from the sand, and lays down its own water-tight lake-bed. A highly experienced and well-known old-timer, Ed Rochester, a prospector who made his living in the region by finding placer gold, told Harold Weight that gold nuggets could not occur naturally in the dunes. If gold is there, it must have come from the rich placer deposits in the nearby Cargo Muchacho Mountains.

Until recently, gold was actively mined in the Cargo Muchachos at the American Girl Mine, in a typical carbon cyanide-leach operation, on the west side of the mountains. Placer gold in the form of nuggets was mined by concentrating gold-bearing gravels up Jackson Gulch at the base of Stud Mountain on the southeast side of the Cargos. It was a two man operation. A well-known author and professional nugget-shooter, Pieter Heydelaar, wrote in his book, Successful Nugget Hunting, about his success at finding nuggets in Jackson Gulch. Pieter provides a detailed map of the region where nuggets can be found. As far as is known, the commercial operation up Jackson Gulch has closed and the area is open to detectorists.

The Spanish mined for gold in the Cargos as early as 1775. Hardrock mining began around 1870 and there was plenty of placer and hardrock mining throughout the Cargos during the Great Depression years. Any of these deposits could have contributed to the placer deposits found in the Great Sand Dunes west of Winterhaven as found by the old-timer so many years ago. Their discovery awaits only the winds of change and a modern-day detectorist.

Gold In The Dunes

The Treasure:
Tens of thousands of dollars worth of gold nuggets to be found on hardpan in the Great Sand Dunes west of Ogilby, Calif.

How to Find It:
From Yuma, Ariz., head west on Interstate 8 and turn north on Highway 34. just before you cross the railroad at a point about six miles north of the freeway, a tiny cemetery will be found a few hundred feet toward the west. This is Ogilby and the jumping-off place for nugget hunters. The dunes are located toward the west and can be seen from the cemetery. The Gold Rock Ranch is located 10 miles north of Interstate 10 on Ogilby Road (S-34) and is directly across the highway from the old mining camp of Tumco, which is located in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains. Visitors can tour Tumco, Gold Rock Ranch and the ranchs museum and mineral display at no charge. Full hookups are available at the ranch for overnight camping as are a limited number of cabins.

- James E. Mulkey