In Search of The Lost Spaniard

In one respect, this tale begins around 1986 with a birthday gift.

Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of my birthday, and there are not many birthday gifts that I remember. But during one of his visits to Seattle after starting his stint in the Air Force, J-W Smith bought me the most remarkable gift for my birthday.

It was a book.

And it was used.

While we were at the University of Washington together, J-W had of course learned all about my interest in wilderness, backpacking, and the outdoors in general. He also knew about my passion for Westerns and ghost towns. So while he was browsing through titles at one of the used book stores on The Ave in the U District, he ran across a first edition of Ruby El Hult’s Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest.

He knew I must have it.

When he gave me the book I was kind of stunned. First, J-W likes birthdays even less than I do, so the fact that he even acknowledged the general concept was highly unusual. Second, I’m pretty sure it’s the only birthday gift he’s ever given me.

But most remarkable, Lost Mines was, for me, quite honestly, the kind of gift one dreams of: something so totally appropriate and unlooked for that it just seems a bit of magic dropped from the air. I’d never heard of the book.

What was better, I’d never heard any of the stories told by Idaho’s El Hult.

As I lay in bed a few nights later I read a tale that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up: the story of the Lost Spaniard Mine.

In short, El Hult recounts the story of a Spanish prospector who, in the late 1800s, would periodically appear at The Dalles with a pack train and nuggets of gold. Reportedly, the source of his raw ore was somewhere at “the headwaters of the Lewis River” in the wilderness between Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. The best description anyone ever got of the mine’s location, prior to the Spaniard’s disappearance, was that it was “on a ledge behind a waterfall.”

At reading those words, I gulped.

“I think I know where that is,” I thought.

Followed by: “And I doubt I could ever find that spot again.” I knew for a fact that the area had been wiped out by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. The roads on that side of the mountain were, in fact, still closed.

Rewind with me now about 25 years, to where this story really begins.

After we moved back to Seattle when I was six, our family had an annual tradition of late-summer camping trips at various backcountry campgrounds in the Lewis River watershed–barebones dry camps with good old-fashioned outhouses. I’m not sure how my dad latched onto that area as a favored destination, but we’d roost at spots like Council Lake for several days, swatting mosquitoes, avoiding yellowjackets, getting sick, eating burnt pancakes, and picking huckleberries.

LOTS of huckleberries. Which would transform into pancakes and pies over the ensuing winter months.

We’d also very often visit exciting places like Ape Cave and do a lot of fishing, too, and have fun around the campfire at nights; but these trips were very often over Labor Day weekend, which usually co-opted my birthday. Hence part of my dislike of celebrating my birthday–which rarely felt special in the way that other kids’ birthdays felt worth a celebration of their very own.

One of the destinations to which we paid a repeat visit was Clearwater Campground on Clearwater Creek, a very small tributary of the Muddy River on St. Helens’ east slope–and part of the upper Lewis River watershed.

The campground was small–maybe twenty or so campsites–and heavily forested with old-growth conifers. Late in the summer, when temperatures could get in the 90s, the mature canopy provided welcome shade along the meandering Clearwater–which, although fairly dry at the end of August, was still wide and deep enough that a ten-year-old couldn’t cross it without getting pretty wet.

So along about 1972, we were camped for the second time on the Clearwater. One afternoon, Bob and I decided to follow it downstream to see where it went. Well below the campground, we came across a large tree that had fallen directly across the wide bed of the Clearwater, bridging it both cleanly and safely. The bole of the tree was both wide enough and clear enough of branches to walk it without fear of falling.

Across we went while Elane waited for us. She didn’t think we should cross without telling Mom and Dad. Bob and I told her we’d be right back.

Into the old growth on the opposite bank we went. After a brief rise from the bank of the stream, the ground was quite level and completely bare of undergrowth. Aside from trunks of trees themselves, which were quite thick and stout, you could easily see for a hundred yards or more. And off in the distance a little ways upstream, Bob and I could spy something that looked an awful lot like a cabin.

We approached excitedly and cautiously.

We were soon close enough to see that while the structure was indeed built of forest materials much after the fashion of a modest log cabin, its design was more like a carnival hot-dog stand, with large window-like openings on three sides. We could easily see no-one was home.

Home!

My gosh! Someone was actually living out in the woods! How cool was that? My mind raced with visions inspired by Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and My Side of the Mountain. I felt so jealous.

Bob and I quickly returned to where Elane awaited and reported our find. We rushed back to camp to tell Mom and Dad, too.

The adults were naturally skeptical. Surely Bob and I must have elaborated a glimpse of some collapsed old settler’s cabin. I, after all, had quite a colorful history of UFO and Bigfoot sightings.

In quite a miraculous turn of events–one of those fortuitous coalescences of bandwidth and good humor–the entire family agreed to return to the site with Bob and I to investigate further.

Yes, Mom was committing to cross a stream on a fallen tree. What an amazing adventure for a child!

Back into the forest we ventured.

A close examination of the cabin showed that Bob and I had not exaggerated. And the facts were even more interesting than we had imagined.

Whoever had built and stocked the cabin appeared to have disappeared rather suddenly. While the structure was designed mostly for summer use–hence the open-sided construction–it was also designed to keep the owner’s belongings safe throughout the winter. Cupboards had closures and were well supplied with pots, pans, cooking and eating utensils, and various dry and canned goods. Flour, sugar, and Crisco. Cinnamon and other spices. Pancake and biscuit mix.

Yet some of these things had been left out on countertops as if the owner had expected to return shortly from a hike. From the look of things, though, he had been gone for days, if not weeks.

We decided to investigate further.

A bit to the north of where the cabin was situated, a dry streambed ran up from the Clearwater to the east. In that streambed, the cabin-builder had constructed a stone-lined bathtub of sorts–also now dry. It was supplied with soap and a toothbrush, both in classic 1960s-style plastic holders. Just above the pool was a water-cooled “refrigerator” of sorts: a stream-side shelf on which pickles, mustard, and other condiments were stored. Most of them had spoiled. Clearly, the owner had been gone some time.

Bob had gone ahead upstream a little bit. I think he was looking for dead body.

He shouted back about another discovery: a length of white plastic pipe strung along the bank of the dry streambed, heading upstream.

The mystery just got deeper.

Up the gentle slope the family went, following the plastic pipe trail along the bank of the stream, which bent a little bit back to the south, and straightened out again to the east. After a couple hundred yards of walking, we saw that the stream approached a great rock wall–a bit of sheer cliff, over which the trickling remnants of the summer stream dripped.

At the base of the cliff was a large galvanized washtub, partially filled with gravel and standing water. The upper end of the plastic piping lay nearby.

It was at this point that Dad finally put two and two together.

Our cabin-builder was a prospector.

Some of the utensils we had seen downstream were for the prospector’s small-scale panning and sluicing operation via the hydraulic pressure created by the downhill flow through the narrow pipe.

My imagination was fired. Earlier in the summer we had visited Sutter’s Mill in California (not to mention Fort Clatsop and other historic sites in Utah), so I understood the scope of this miner’s adventure.

I looked up the cliff. Where had the prospector gone? Up there, to get more ore?

Up beyond where the water dripped, it looked like there was a shelf and a second cliff. Bob agreed. A spot where maybe the man fell to his death?

The possibility was too much for Bob and I to resist. While Mom, Dad, and Elane waited below, we scrambled up the hillside to the left of the cliff. It was steep, but manageable for a ten-year-old and a thirteen-year-old. When the ground leveled off, we cut back to the right and found the streambed again.

We had come out above the second cliff. At the terminus of the nearly-dry streambed, we gazed down upon a rocky shelf–just as we had guessed. During the spring and early summer, this would be quite a waterfall! But now it was dry, and all we could see below us was broken rock. No additional man-made materials, much less a dead body.

Mom called for us to come down. As we scrambled back down the slope, my childish mind was already conjuring plans to come back and investigate further.

Investigate? Heck. I was gonna run away and go live there.

Some day. Live the dream.

And dream I did over the coming years. I often came back in my mind to that summer day and that magical walk through the forest.

As I grew older, though, I imagined that I had elaborated the memory, just as Mom and Dad had thought Bob and I had embellished our initial tale of the cabin.

The guy had probably not really built a tub. It was probably just a pile of rocks that my imagination turned into a tub. The rock wall was probably just fifteen feet or so high, not some forty-foot dropoff you could properly call a cliff. As much I might like to believe otherwise, there was probably not room on that shelf above the waterfall to build a cabin. Or even walk.

It was all, yes, undoubtedly just another equivalent to a UFO or Bigfoot sighting. A juvenile fantasy.

Until…

Until J-W plopped Ruby El Hult’s book into my lap and I read about The Lost Spaniard.

I had to know more. If my recollections were correct, had I in fact stumbled on the site?

That was an extraordinarily difficult question to answer.

Amazingly, both Dad and Bob confirmed the basics of my memory, but there was still the problem of access. I had to wait another year before roads into the area even re-opened. When reconstruction of the Muddy River bridge on FR 25 was completed in 1987, I took a reconnaissance drive through the area on a jaunt to Ape and Lake Caves with Randy Sartin. I’d visited the blast area a couple of times before, but it was still awe-inspiring to see the mud-flow level on the river-bank trees some twenty or thirty feet above the river bed.

And I confirmed that all of the pre-eruption roads into the Clearwater Campground area north of FR 25 had been wiped out.

So the second problem would be: how to determine the location of the old prospector’s camp when Clearwater Campground, which had been the point of reference, not only no longer existed but no longer even showed on Forest Service maps.

In 1988, it wasn’t like you could Google the location.

I also did not have satellite imagery at my disposal. The best I could manage was a topographical map from REI and some good guesswork. There were a couple of streambeds that branched off from the Clearwater, and it wasn’t too hard to figure out where the exposed location of the old campground must have been.

So the final piece of the puzzle was figuring out how to get close enough to the spot to launch off into the woods.

By 1991, I was ready to explore. I had also talked Dad, Dave Stark, Mark Stevens, and Randy Sartin into joining the expedition. We loaded up camping gear into two cars and planned two nights for the trip. If we were successful in locating what I believed to be The Lost Spaniard on our first full day, we’d then move on spelunking at Oley’s Cave. If not, we’d have a second day for exploration.

When we arrived on the scene we located a logging spur that jumped off the top of the ridge from FR 25 and down toward the Clearwater. It looked like it had been created to clear debris from the eruption–but had not been maintained in years. Enormous gullies ran down the center of the dirt track as it snaked steeply downhill, and our Volkswagens were ill-suited vehicles for the jaunt.

This made perfect sense for Dad and I, though, as we often took passenger vehicles where they had no business going.

After ten minutes of harrowing driving, lo and behold if the logging track didn’t terminate on an abandoned stretch of asphalt that must have been the pre-blast route of FR 25. We consulted the topo to guess about where we should stop for best access to the Clearwater, and made camp for the night. It felt very odd to be sleeping on tarmac with no worry of being run over by a truck.

We really had no idea what to expect when we launched off into the woods the next day. I had no illusions about finding the old prospector’s cabin, or even the campground; but I did imagine that the terrain would at least be recognizable.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

First, the mud flow that wiped out the campground left such a massive mess of debris that the Clearwater really didn’t even exist anymore. What we found when we descended into what should have been the streambed was simply a massive bog–hundreds of yards of what one would expect if an army of beavers had dammed the stream a decade prior.

Second, that pristine old-growth forest–still, silent, and brown–had been replaced by a Paleozoic jungle. The trees were just as massive, of course; but the layer of volcanic ash that descended after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens had entirely changed the chemistry of the forest floor. Where once not a green leafy thing would grow, we were fighting our way through a stunning variety of brush ranging from three to ten feet high. Visibility was about nil.

We were also there on a stultifying August day. Soaked with sweat, we decided to fan out and look for any trace of a streambed heading uphill to the east. We pushed on through the brush toward the north.

It wasn’t long before we came to what was most likely the first of those Clearwater tributaries that showed on our topo.

And, almost unbelievably, here once again were not just one but two strings of PVC piping heading up the gully.

Even when the area was officially closed following the eruption, some enterprising prospectors had still been working this stream.

The expedition was already a success. After 20 years, I was once again standing on the edge of discovery! The mood was electric as we turned upstream.

Mark and Dave found a network of game trails along the south bank of the stream while Randy and I beat the brush along the north edge of the gully. Where two decades before we had had an easy walk along a bare boulder-strewn stream bed, Randy and I now struggled to keep our footing on mossy masses strangled with devil’s club and creepers. Dad slogged along in our wake.

But true to memory, the streambed bent to the south, and then back again to the east. Randy and Dad and I joined Mark and Dave up on the game trails–and then we saw it.

The cliff.

It was even bigger and more imposing than I had remembered. The gobs of moss and fern that now clung to its face conjured the scene in The Mission when Robert DeNiro scaled the cliff with his armor and weapons slung across his back. It was at least 40 feet high. Wet and slick. Twenty-year-old deciduous saplings sprang tall and lithe parallel to the face.

And there, still at the foot of the cliff, was that washtub–now rusted and bent, with a large hole in its side. And here, also, the PVC pipes again originated.

Where as a ten-year-old I had no idea what to look for, my now-trained eyes found other tell-tale signs. Large bread-loaf sized chunks of rose-colored quartz. Signs of human endeavors: discarded bits of tools and various debris.

Clearly I was not the only one over the years to be convinced of the site’s gold-bearing potential.

But the foot of the cliff was not really the point of interest. According to the description in El Hult’s book, the mine lay on a ledge behind a waterfall–not at the foot of a waterfall.

The shelf above was the key, as I thought.

Astonishingly, both Dad and Mark set out to scale the cliff. I guess Dad, at 55 years old, was not about to let himself be outdone by someone half his age.

Randy and Dave and I, meanwhile, replicated the route Bob and I had taken decades earlier. This time, however, we bore closer to the right so that we wouldn’t miss a potential entry to the left side of the shelf.

We soon found what we were looking for. An awkward traverse across twenty yards of so of duff-buried boulders brought us onto the shelf. As both Mark and Dad came over the lip of the cliff at about the same time, I could see that the spot was much bigger than I had guessed–forty or so feet in width and thirty to thirty-five in depth. A good bit of water trickled through the middle of the shelf in a narrow stream which found its source in a spray of free-falling water. Sun streamed down through the gap in the canopy overhead.

And there, behind that twenty-foot cascade, lay a ledge of rock. I stepped slowly and tensely up the ledge.

But let’s bring this narrative to a screeching halt, shall we?

Since 1991, I’ve learned a lot more about gold mining, and the associated terminology.

In prospecting, a “ledge” is a lead or vein of ore. It’s not something one walks on to get to one’s mine.

So it turns out that all those years since J-W handed me that book as a birthday gift, I had been seeing, in my mind’s eye, an “adit,” or tunnel entrance, accessed via some kind of stone ramp behind a waterfall… because that’s how I had interpreted tales of the Lost Spaniard sourcing his gold from a mine on a ledge behind a waterfall. Further, “mine” in prospector parlance simply means “the place I picked up my nuggets.” It doesn’t necessarily mean an excavated hole in the ground.

On that summer day in 1991, I stood on a ledge behind a waterfall… and I was baffled. There was no mine in sight. There were no timbers, no sign of excavation. No tailing pile. No collapsed mine entrance. Not even a trace of gold flakes in the water that filtered through that shelf of rock.

The expedition had been a success… but it had also been a failure.

Or had it?

I did think so at the time. We all broke out our lunches, sprayed each other with water to cool off, and mused about how our search had gone so wrong. I snapped some photos, and Mark explored a bit of a clamber up the south side of the shelf. It turned out that an old abandoned road bed lay just above, and it led after a couple of hundred yards, due east, to the very stretch of tarmac upon which our previous night’s camp had been pitched. In a very short time, we were back in camp and planning the next day’s trip to Oley’s Cave.

With the search over and done with, the puzzle of The Lost Spaniard quickly left my mind.

You, dear reader, however, may be quicker on the uptake than I.

The ramp of stone that I had stood on behind the upper waterfall on a nameless creek in the Lewis River headwaters may not have been a “ledge behind a waterfall”… but the source of those breadloaf-sized chunks of rose-colored granite at the foot of the cliff sure was. Most definitely was.

I am now convinced that, back in the day, the Spaniard of the tale (or someone quite like him) had discovered a vein of gold-bearing quartz at the foot that waterfall above Clearwater Creek. And since that time, the secret of that mine had been passed down from prospector to prospector, leading eventually to the builder of the cabin that Bob and I had discovered and, following the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, to other prospectors who had hauled in even more PVC pipe for sluicing the gravel from that streambed.

How long did it take for this to dawn on me? Until I sat down to write down this story. That summer day in 1991, though, I was so focused on the shelf between the waterfalls that I completely missed the significance of the clues down below.

By the time a few years had passed, the Forest Service had blocked off the logging roads down into the Clearwater from FR 25 with enormous mounds of dirt. The only way to get gear (or other materiel) in or out of that location now is a pretty rigorous trek on foot… or on ATVs, which I have seen plenty of signs of skirting those mounds of dirt.

Yes, without even knowing it, I think I did find The Lost Spaniard.

Perhaps I’ll go back again some day to test my theory. Anyone care to join me?

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. These blog entries will be more akin to the newsletter columns I wrote for Normandy Christian Church and Puget Sound Christian College in the "old days" than my more recent journalistic work at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog. They will also be of a more overtly spiritual nature than most of my recent work.
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