Colorado Lost Treasure, La Caverna Del Oro (The Cave of Gold)
Marble Mountain of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Marble Mountain is located in the Sangre de Cristo mountains range in southwestern Colorado about 11 miles from Westcliffe, Colorado.
How I heard the story of La Caverna del Oro (The Cave of Gold)
As a young boy growing up in Denver, Colorado in the 1960's and 1970's I never could even imagine the prospects of owning a computer, smart phone or an Ipad. I did not even see color TV until my grandparents got a color set when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I played outside, read books by flipping pages and I would always listen to stories that were told and passed on by the older generation. By far my favorite stories of my youth were those told to me of lost treasure and ghosts.
The first time I ever heard the story La Caverna del Oro (The Cave of Gold) it was told to me by a stranger, an older gentleman while we were both waiting to get our haircut at Stoney's Barber Shop at Federal and Hampden in Sheridan, Colorado south of downtown Denver I was clutching my $1.25 which also included the tip that my Mom had sent with me to pay the barber "Old Man Stoney". As we waited the older man waiting for his haircut began the tale.............
Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Spanish for the Blood of Christ)
Sunset near Marble Mountain
In the beginning....
Caverna del Oro, 13,000 feet high upon the present day Marble Mountain and long before the United States was well the United States a tale, a legend was passed down by generation after generation of the local Indians of a cave that was protected by demons high up on the mountain just above timberline. What the demons protected they did not know, but all that would venture into the cave never returned. The Indians thought the cave was evil and ate their loved ones.
In 1541, 3 monks from the Spanish Coronado expedition while exploring in what is now present day Colorado (Spanish for the color red) heard and recorded the tale told about the mysterious cave high up on the mountain from the Indians. Intrigued the monks doing what, monks did during the 15th century did, they enslaved the Indians and forced them to locate the demon cave. Upon discovery of the cave the monks also found what they were truly looking for and that was gold. Gold and riches beyond belief. Forcing the Indians now into forced labor the Indians mined the gold from the demon cave, The cave being located high above timberline could only be mined in summer months due to heavy snow during the winter. So the Spanish whipped and beat their slave Indians to try and get them to work faster and harder.
Revolt and massacre
After being enslaved and beaten by the Spanish monks for that long summer the Indians revolted and attacked the heavily armed Spanish and all the Indians were killed except one who had escaped to tell the story of what had happened at the demon cave high up on the mountain.
But during the Indian slave revolt the Indians inflicted some damage on the Spanish and killed 2 of the monks. The remaining monk whose name was De La Cruz and the surviving members of the expedition packed the gold on their pack animals which was in those days a vast amount of gold and returned southward to Mexico before the cold and snow of the harsh mountain winter came blowing down from the north.
The Spanish never returned to La Caverna del Oro, it was said that De La Cruz the only surviving monk of the ill fated expedition was the only one who knew the exact location of the demon gold mine in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of what is now southwestern Colorado caught a fever upon his return to Mexico and died. Maybe he brought the demon back with him or maybe it was justice in the end that prevailed.
The Indians also never returned to La Caverna del Oro (The Cave of Gold) or as they thought of it as the demon cave where so much pain and suffering had been inflicted upon their loved ones.
Over the years the location was forgotten, but never the tale.
Primitive gold bars
Nuggets and gold bars discovered
In 1811, 270 years later a man named Baca while exploring in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the vicinity of Marble Mountain stumbled upon a stash of mined gold nuggets and some rugged and primitive made gold bars. Which in my mind raises the question did in fact De La Cruz the Spanish monk and the surviving members of the expedition make it back to Mexico?. If the first part of the story is true, where did the already mined nuggets and primitive gold bars come from?
Baca had heard the story La Caverna Del Oro from some local Indians and continued to search for the location of the demon gold mine, but he never did find the location or entrance to the mine. Baca recorded his find in his expedition journal.
Human remains found
Spanish breast plate
La Caverna del Oro rediscovered?
In 1869, A man named Elisha P. Horn while he was exploring Marble Mountain discovered a cave. And according to a reporter and Elisha own journal of the event he supposedly found a skeleton near the cave’s entrance clad in Spanish armor. Elisha also observed an arrow that had pierced the armor, apparently killing its occupant. Had he stumbled upon the lost La Caverna Del Oro the cave of gold that the monks and Indians had died for and its golden riches buried deep down in its throat? It was never recorded if Elisha tried to explore the interior of the mine or even if he had even heard the tale of the La Caverna Del Oro or demon mine.
The cave, gold, secrets and demon guardian were once again lost to the passage of time.
Winter is brutal above timberline
Spanish encampment and the cave of gold found once again?
In the year of our Lord 1880 a man named J.H. Yeoman discovered an ancient fortress at the mouth of a small cave on Marble Mountain. The walls of the fort were constructed of rock and timbers and rifle pits had been constructed for it's defense. Which will led one to suspect that the original story of the Spanish legend and the 3 monks was in fact a true telling of an ancient but not forgotten story.
Upon further exploration J.H. Yeoman found a much larger cave several hundred yards higher than the abandoned fortress. Was this the demon cave or La Caverna Del Oro? Was he only several hundred feet away from the gold, demons and a legend?
That night after finding the fortress and the much larger cave it started to snow and forced J.H. Yeoman down the mountain and to safety. There is no record of J.H. Yeoman ever exploring the interior of the cave.
Red Maltese Cross
Another attempt in 1920
In 1920, Paul Gilbert a forest ranger learned of the legend of La Caverna del Oro from Apollonia Apodaca, who was a direct descendant of the first Spanish explorers that had explored the area around present day Marble Mountain. Apollonia told Paul of the Indian revolt. She went on to explain that as a young girl she and others of her family, even visited the cave and were afraid to enter because of a constant wind that blow upward and outward from the mouth and the entrance of the cave. Believing that the wind was the demon who guarded the cave they never returned. She did tell Paul that at the entrance of the cave there was a red Maltese cross painted on a rock near the entrance.
Paul Gilbert enlisted some of his fellow forest rangers to try and locate the cave and the following weekend they believed that they did. They did indeed find a very dull red Maltese cross painted on a rock near an entrance of a cave. They also confirmed the mighty wind that blow from the opening, but determined to explore further they entered the mouth of the demon cave and explored the first level in which they found a pit that headed vertical down a shaft. Not having the proper equipment they could not explore any further and vowed to explore another day.
Shortly after Paul Gilbert first and only attempt, he died suddenly of unknown causes
Frederick G. Bonfils
Legend to reality!
In 1929 the legend of La Caverna Del Oro (The Cave of Gold) was told to one Frederick G. Bonfils, who happened to be the co-founder and publisher of the Denver Post. Bonfils became fascinated with the story and decided to finance an expedition of two men to locate and explore the cave.
To explore a cave above timberline at 13,000 feet you have to remember that the cold and snow is present even in the summer months and the weather is never your friend. The weather pattern at that altitude can change in a moments notice making such an expedition a very dangerous endeavor.
Bonfils 2 man expedition did find the cave with the now very faint Maltese Cross and started to explore. They expedition reported that the cave did in fact have a ceaseless wind that howled from the mouth of the mountain and the howling wind was cold, very intense cold. The first level was reported to be very steep and muddy with icy spots and very difficult to walk on. The wind with its cold froze the 2 men's wet gloves on their hands. The always present wind was so loud they found it difficult to speak and to be heard in the cave. As they explored they found numerous passage ways and too many to give an exact count. At the bottom on one deep pit they found a log that was wedged in between 2 walls and a ladder made of chain fastened to the log which gave credence to the fact that the Spanish had indeed been in this cave for the Indians at that time had no knowledge on how to make iron or metal. The chain was very ancient and rusted through and not useable. The men were surprised at the number of passageways and worried about getting lost and stranded in the deep and dark abyss. This also helps in my belief that is why the earlier Indian explorers never returned. They could have simply gotten lost and died of exposure. After discovering the vastness of the cave tunnel system the men soon realized they were ill equipped for such a dangerous expedition. They also reported of not seeing any gold or any type of mining activity. I believe it would have been difficult to recognize any primitive mining activity when the passage of time had been 388 years.
Tired, hungry and hands frozen the 2 men made a hasty but a safe retreat to the entrance of the cave. Outside and away from the roaring wind that bellowed from the depths of the mountain the 2 men could finally speak and hold a conversation. Both spoke of feeling an eerie presence and an overall sense of unease within the confines of the mountain cave.
La Caverna del Oro legend adds a new wrinkle
In 1932 another expedition that was better equipped was launched in an attempt to understand the demon caves mysterious past.. In this expedition into the vast cave tunnel system and deep into heart of Marble Mountain the team of explorers found in a bottom of a deep pit a skeleton with a metal strap around its neck and chained to the wall. This poor fellow had been left to die.
And the legend grows
The following weekend after finding the skeleton chained to the wall in 1932 and a lengthy article in the Rocky Mountain News a group of seven men included some of Colorado’s best cavers and spelunkers made the trip to Marble Mountain.
During the week between expeditions someone had tried to dynamite the entrance of La Caverna del Oro in a feeble attempt to close it down. Who did this is still a mystery today.
The group of seven very experienced cavers found several Indian arrowheads at the ancient fortress which supports the legend that the Indians did in fact attack the Spanish Monks.
In one deep pit the seven explorers found ancient logs with chains attached to them to use as ladders. No nails were used to build the ladders and seemed ancient in design.
They also located a wooden structure that spanned the top of one of the deep pits that was estimated to be 250 feet deep and this structure they believed was used to hoist ore up from the bottom of the pit.
This expedition also reported finding 2 wooden doors at a bottom of one of the pits. What were the doors for and where did this new passage led? There were just too many passages and pits to explore in the short amount of time that they had to explore. Not really solving the mystery of the cave, but adding to the already growing legend of La Caverna del Oro.
The seven too were stunned by the vastness of the cave system inside of Marble Mountain and also experienced the bone chilling cold of the mighty wind that seemed to come not just from one but ever deep pit within the cave. The seven also reported of a feeling of unease and the presence of something just beyond the reach of their flashlights and torch's.
Even today the cave resist all that breach the entrance. In all the attempts to explore La Caverna del Oro from the 15th century into modern history something has gone wrong from the death of the early explorers to modern cavers become sick, or simply forgetting their caving techniques. All attempts to solve the mystery surrounding the cave have only added more mystery to the ever growing tale. What we do know is that most of the legends now seem believable, but what about the lost gold? Why didn’t any of the expeditions, find evidence of mining? Why were some left to die all alone and in the dark? Where does the howling wind come from? Is there a demon that lives in the rock and the walls of the cave?
In recent times the search for the answers to the mystery of La Caverna Del Oro (The Cave of Gold) have diminished and it is my belief that is because in all the modern expeditions no gold was ever discovered which just adds to the mystery. All the expeditions found new puzzles, but no real answers to what really happened over 400 years ago inside the abyss of Marble Mountain.
As a young boy waiting to get his hair cut I heard this story and from the very first time and the story has never left me. And the little boy that still resides within my body is grateful for that.