Monday, May 24, 2004

A Great Gold Find

May 24, 2004 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

It is extremely difficult to find examples of gold actually being found in the Superstition Wilderness Area. This geographical region is not conducive to gold-bearing ore, according to most geologists. However, to all stories there are exceptions.

Charles Williams was a gold prospector who prospected the Superstition range east of Apache Junction in the years following World War I. Williams was a disabled veteran who had no job or means of supporting his family. He turned to gold prospecting rather than a full time job.

A man working ten to twelve hours a day could scratch out enough gold in the Gold Fields, west of Superstition Mountain, to buy beans, flour and salt. Times were really bad for most people during the “Depression” of the 1930s.

The topics of conversation in those days around the Apache Junction Inn focused on lost gold, cattle, the weather and the “Depression.” The “Inn” served as a watering hole for cowboys, prospectors and dreamers. Charley Williams was a dreamer on the horizon hoping to strike it rich.

Williams wasn’t always welcome around the Apache Junction Inn, especially when he couldn’t pay his tab. George Curtis, the owner of the Inn, would limit the amount of anyone’s tab according to his or her ability to pay. One day Charley Williams disappeared. This was on January 2, 1935, and Curtis figured he had just skipped out on his tab. 

The next time George Curtis heard about Charles Williams was on the front page of the Arizona Republic. The headline read, “Williams Lost in the Superstition Mountains.” This was on January 4, 1935. Maricopa County Sheriff J.R. McFadden organized a search party to try and locate Williams on January 5, 1935. Williams was originally reported missing in the rugged Superstition Mountains by his wife.

After four days of searching, most searchers believed the crippled war veteran was dead. Miraculously, on January 8, 1935, Williams stumbled into a prospector’s camp eight miles northeast of Apache Junction at 2:09 a.m. Charles Williams had survived a four-day ordeal in the rugged mountains.

Williams had been missing for eighty-five hours. The forty-one-year-old prospector was extremely weak, dehydrated and disoriented from his ordeal. He also appeared incoherent and incapable of explaining what had happened to him. The authorities found fifteen ounces of gold nuggets in his pockets.

The story Williams eventually told about his experiences in the Superstition range became extremely controversial. Old-timers examined his gold and claimed it came from volcanic debris. The largest nugget in Williams’ possession was one about the size of a quarter in diameter and [weighed] close to 3.4 ounces. Williams later claimed there was at least an additional twenty pounds of nuggets on the floor of the cave he had found in the Superstition Mountains. Charles Williams had found a bonanza cache.

For a short period of time, Williams became one of the most celebrated prospectors in Arizona. Can you imagine the significance of such a find during the “Great Depression” era? Newspapers around the country played up Williams as the man who had discovered the Lost Dutchman Mine. The national newspapers had just about made a hero of this broken-down World War I veteran when it was learned he had been indicted by the United States Department of Justice for the possession of more than five ounces of refined gold. The indictment was not popular among Arizonans. Those were real nuggets, not refined gold claimed Williams’ many friends and prospecting partners.

Charles Williams told the following story to his many friends. “I was following the clues of an old map I had over some of the roughest terrain in the Superstition range when I became disoriented and lost my way. I came up over a ridge and in the distance I saw a small cave near the base of a pointed peak. Tired and in need of rest I made my way toward the cave. Once inside the cave I cleared a spot to rest and this is when I discovered the floor of the cave was covered with gold nuggets, some of them as big as walnuts. In a frenzy of excitement over the discovery I began to gather the nuggets. I stuffed them in my pockets. I kept screaming, I am rich, I am rich. I ran out of the cave and turned around to run back in and I hit my head extremely hard on the roof of the cave knocking myself senseless. I wandered about the mountains for at least two days before I recalled what happened. I was resting on a rock near Weaver’s Needle when I realized where I was and what had happened in the cave.

“I then reached in my pockets and found the gold nuggets. Only a few of the nuggets remained because of a hole in my pocket. I looked for the cave for two more days and finally gave up. I walked toward the Apache Trail where Sheriff’s deputies found me. I decided, as soon as I returned to civilization, I would acquire more supplies, then immediately return to the approximate location of the cave.”

The Charles Williams story made front page news for a while. Then, on November 15, 1935, the United States Treasury Department seized all of the Williams’ gold claiming it was refined gold and not natural gold. The gold was sent to [a] Denver metallurgist who who identified the gold as refined dental gold. At this point, Charles Williams was arrested and reindicted for possession of more than five ounces of refined gold.

The final government adjudication of this case led to Charles Williams being fined $5,000. After the hearing Williams was released and the government kept the gold to cover the fine.

Did Charles Williams salt the cave with gold? It is very doubtful Williams had enough gold of any kind in [his] possession to pull off such a scam. Many people believe Williams accidentally stumbled on to somebody else’s cache of refined gold. Or maybe he accidentally stumbled on to some kind of scam and exposed the operation before the perpetrators had an opportunity to initiate their plan.

Stories are still told about Williams around campfires. He may have found a cave full of refined dental gold. The cache may still remain hidden in some cave deep in the wilderness. The real mystery to Williams’ find is who had the kind of capital in those days to perpetrate such a hoax. The treasury department hounded Williams for several years, but never found him to have a partner. Could it be he actually found a cave filled with gold nuggets and the government claimed they were dental gold or was he a victim of circumstances far beyond his control?

The Williams story still intrigues those interested in lost gold mines and treasure. Everyone who knew Charles Williams intimately believed he was an honest man and the United States government went after him to quiet his story about lost gold in the Superstition Wilderness Area. 

Stories of lost gold in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona continue to fascinate those who walk in the steps of “Coronado’s Children.”