Oregon’s wildest lost-cabin gold mine story may be true … or not
May 20, 2020
By Finn J.D. John
Continued From Last Week
The curtain went up on Act Two about 15 years later, in downtown Portland. As with Act One, our sole source for the tale is an article published in the September 1900 issue of the magazine Oregon Native Son. The article’s author was Samuel L. Simpson, an Oregon poet, singer and raconteur who would have been more famous today had he not drunk himself to death in 1899 at age 54.
According to this article, Simpson had just gone into the practice of law and opened an office in Portland in the spring of 1868 when one of the other residents in his boardinghouse stopped by with a proposition: The two of them would spend the summer searching for a certain ruined cabin, deep in the wilderness south of Jacksonville, in a hidden valley boxed in by steep cliffs. Only problem was, Simpson’s visitor didn’t know exactly where the valley was – so it was possible that they’d search all summer and get nothing for their pains.
Simpson’s visitor, as you have likely guessed, was Ted Harper, formerly of Chicago. And after he showed Simpson that last letter, the one his cousin supposedly dropped dead in the middle of writing, Simpson agreed to the scheme. He was brand new in the law business, had no clients and very few prospects; a summer in the woods, a possible fortune – sure, why not?
The two of them set out on their quest a month later, in May, after the winter snows had melted out of the lower reaches of the mountains. They traveled to Jacksonville, and met almost immediately with an encouraging success. They found an old trail cutting off from the California road, lined with tree branches cleared with an ax; Indians would not have bothered, but a big party of prospectors leading half a dozen pack horses certainly would have. In fact, it was probably what led the Indians to them – if a habitually drunk lawyer-poet and a grass-green dude from Chicago could spot the trail when it was 15 years old, surely a party of Shasta warriors wouldn’t have had a whole lot of trouble following it when it was fresh.
Be that as it might, Simpson and Harper now followed the path to its end, where they found – to their surprise and delight – the mineral spring and landmark rock mentioned in Harper’s cousin James’s letters.
They rested their horses there for two days, then set out again.
But this time success was not to be so easily had. For weeks the two of them rode through the wild and rugged foothills, seeking that secret valley they’d read about in the letters of cousin James — but never finding it.
Simpson started experiencing a sort of disorientation as his dreams became indistinguishable from his daytime activities, riding endlessly through a trackless wilderness looking for a ruined cabin with its buried treasure trove.
Then one night, after they had made camp and Harper had fallen asleep exhausted, Simpson writes that he was visited by the ghost of a miner – tall, muscular, bearded, in a gray flannel shirt, with a ghostly Colt Model 1851 strapped to his ghostly side. The miner gazed sorrowfully into his eyes without saying anything.
Then Simpson woke up. It had all been a dream! … or had it? (Cue the suspenseful music: Dun-dun-dunnnn!) Because now, when Simpson cast his eyes for the hundredth time on the broken-off final letter penned by his partner’s cousin, there was new writing on it! Someone had taken a ghostly pencil and drawn what looked like two mountain ridges meeting at right angles, with a miner’s pick just below!
“Who had done this, and what could it mean?” Simpson wrote. “Was it the idle and unmeaning tracery of my own unconscious hand, or was it the effort of some superior power to direct us in our search for the Lost Cabin?”
In doubt of his own reason, Simpson said nothing to Harper. But two days later, when the two of them climbed a peak to survey the surrounding country, he saw the two mountain ridges that the ghost had sketched! And, just below, where the miner’s pick had appeared ….
Now very excited, Simpson told Harper all about his dream and the ghostly vandalism that had been mysteriously perpetrated upon his cousin’s last letter; and the two of them enthusiastically descended from the peak and made a beeline for the spot.
“On – on we went in a dream of wonder and future wealth, and nothing impeded our progress now, until at last we entered a narrow valley walled in by precipitous mountains and bordered on each side by a beautiful stream,” the poet writes. “We knew we were upon sacred ground; and along the shadowy fringe of the forest, where the fretted waters sang a barbaric tune, we rode, silent as spectres. A resistless magnetism drew us on, and not a word was spoken.”
A poet indeed!
Near the top of the little valley, the two searchers found the blackened ruins of their personal El Dorado:
“We turned a projecting angle of the wood, and a square, black object half buried in a tangle of weeds, was before us. … We had found the Lost Cabin! – nothing now but an empty pen of scorched and blackened logs.”
With, he adds, a skeleton inside. Apparently after killing Henry Wilson and scaring off James, the Indians had dragged Henry’s corpse back into the cabin and set it afire; but the logs, cut just a couple months before, were too green to burn.
The two Argonauts stepped past the slumping skeleton and grinning skull into the enclosure and started probing the floor in search of their golden fleece. The floor was hard packed, and Simpson drove his pick into it again and again. Finally the point connected with solid rock. It was the vault!
At that moment, a shot rang out behind him, and a terrible cry. Ted Harper had accidentally shot himself. He now lay there on the floor next to the bones of Henry Wilson – fresher than his cousin, but every bit as dead.
It was all too much for the sensitive poetic soul of Sam Simpson, who promptly fainted.
“Then it was night, a long, starless and dreamless night of clouded intellect and slumbering soul. When the cunning forces of Nature had repaired the fragile structure and the dawn of reason came, they were telling the story of a stage-driver on the Oregon and California route, who, many months before, had captured a nude and sun-bronzed wild-man – gibbering like a monkey, but harmless as a babe – near the boundary line, and sent him north to Portland.”
And now we come to the last act in our play: What are we to make of this crazy yarn of ghosts and lost gold?
Certainly anyone who would take it at face value is likely to already have put money down on some beachfront property in Arizona. But, in the true spirit of lost-gold stories, author Ruby El Hult has found quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to suggest that this expedition did happen – or, at least, that Simpson and Harper left together on some sort of prospecting trip in 1868. Or at least that Simpson did. Maybe.
If, that is, we stipulate the existence of both the cabin and James’s letters – there’s no source for either one other than Simpson’s article.
As Hult confirms, the dates line up; Simpson closed his law office in Portland in April 1868, and, other than the fact that he wrote his most famous poem (“Beautiful Willamette”) shortly thereafter, he’s not on record as doing anything else that summer.
But as Hult notes, there are a couple other factors that have to be considered.
First, there’s the fact that Simpson was a poet and a storyteller. And remember, he didn’t write this story till much later. After his failed attempt to get started as a lawyer, he went into journalism, writing for newspapers in Corvallis, Eugene, Salem, Portland, and Astoria. By the time he put pen to paper to tell this lost-cabin story (presumably in or just before 1899, since it was published after his death) his poems and stories of “colorful” Oregon characters were widely published and admired. And he was just as likely to add spicy little fictional details to his stories (you know, to make them more “colorful”) as Stewart Holbrook ever was. How much of the Lost Cabin story is spicy little fictional details, one wonders? All of it?
Second, there’s the fact that he was an alcoholic. This, as Hult notes, suggests an explanation for why he claims Harper just randomly showed up in his law office to entrust him, a complete stranger, with a very valuable secret. But, if the two of them had done some carousing together, it becomes very likely indeed that a story like that would be shared over a pint or two of rye.
And if the two of them were party buddies, other things become possible as well. Simpson’s description of dissociation while the two of them were riding through the wilderness, for example, in which he was never quite sure if he was awake or dreaming. Or the visit from the ghostly miner.
“Those who believe in ghosts will have no trouble here,” Hult writes dryly, “but I for one wonder how much liquor Harper and Simpson had with them.”
Plenty, of course. No alcoholic ever leaves home without a generous supply or plans for replenishing it as needed.
Chances are pretty good that the two of them spent that whole summer in a drunken stupor, just trying not to fall off their horses. They may have found the cabin, or maybe they didn’t. At some point, either Harper shot himself by accident, or Simpson shot him, or maybe he fell and hit his head. Who really knew what happened? The only witness was a gibbering madman found frolicking mindlessly around the stagecoach road the following week.
In fact, it’s even possible that Harper didn’t die at all – that he double-crossed Simpson, grabbed all the gold for himself, and disappeared. Maybe what Simpson remembered as a gunshot was the sound of Harper’s rifle butt crashing into the base of his skull. Maybe Harper took advantage of Simpson’s preoccupation with probing the cabin floor to clobber him – not quite succeeding in killing him, but badly rattling his marbles – and then dug up the gold himself and used Simpson’s horse to pack out the gold.
So once again, in answer to the question of whether this lost treasure trove is still out there, or if it ever even existed in the first place, we have the usual answer:
Almost certainly not.
But if your back-woods travels ever bring you to a pretty little secret valley in the Siskiyous, with grassy fields and forest and a little laughing brook running through it, hemmed in all around by forbidding mountain cliffs … you might consider spending a few days poking around in the bottomlands, just in case.
(Sources: Treasure Hunting Northwest, a book by Ruby El Hult published in 1971 by Binfords & Mort; “The Lost Cabin,” an article by Sam L. Simpson published in the September 1900 issue of The Native Son; “Samuel L. Simpson (1845-1899),” an article by Ulrich H. Hardt published Nov. 7, 2019, on The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Image: Google Books. The front cover of the magazine in which Sam Simpson’s reminiscence of the lost mine appeared.