Monday, March 29, 2010

Monument Smith's Gold

March 29, 2010 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Tortilla Flat, 17 miles northeast of Apache Junction on the Apache Trail, has long served as a base camp for prospectors, treasure hunters and writers. This interesting stop along the Apache Trail primarily serves tourists today. Visitors come from all over the world for a little taste of the Wild West. This pseudo-Western road stop has acquired quite a reputation over the past thirty years for its food and novelties. The wall of the cafe is plastered with dollars bills and other currency from around the world.

Tortilla Flat at the turn of the 20th century.

Prior to 1950, Tortilla Flat served as a base camp for many prospectors and treasure hunters who believed the Lost Dutchman's mine was located in the mountains immediately south of the road stop. John Chuning and "Monument" Smith were two such men who spent a considerable amount of time at the old stage stop.

John Chuning arrived in the area about 1905, while working as a driver for one of the stage lines that operated on the Apache Trail delivering mail to Roosevelt. Chuning had a keen interest in the area south of Tortilla Flat that included Tortilla Mountain, Malapai Mountain and Peter's Mesa. He believed Jacob Waltz had worked a rich gold mine a short distance from the road stop. The topography south of Tortilla Flat is some of the roughest terrain in the Superstition Wilderness Area.

Monument Smith lived in a small crude stone cabin a short distance up Tortilla Creek from the road stop. Smith had one important clue as to the location of the Lost Dutchman's mine. That involved what he believed was a Mexican trail up Tortilla Creek, over a trick and into Peter's Canyon, then on up the east side of Geronimo Head Mountain. Smith was convinced this was the trail Jacob Waltz used to travel back and forth from his mine in the Superstition Mountains. Smith walked this trail many times searching for and pointing rock cairns that were trail markers in his opinion.

The spring of 1944 temporarily changed things around Tortilla Flat. The rain had been extremely heavy that year resulting in a lot of flooding along Tortilla Creek. A massive flash flood washed away most of Tortilla Flat, including Monument Smith's crude stone cabin near the confluence of Tortilla and Mesquite Creek. Smith recovered nothing from his cabin. Russell Perkins, the owner of Tortilla Flat at the time, gave Monument Smith a few things so he could keep up his prospecting activities.

You might say Perkins grub-staked old Monument Smith. With a small pick and a gold pan Smith began to work Tortilla Creek and many of its small tributaries. Smith told Russell he had been panning in a small tributary of Tortilla Creek, somewhere above its confluence with Peter's Canyon, when found a considerable amount of color. Russell Perkins was not too impressed with Monument Smith's' discovery, but another man in the store was. He was none other than Barry Storm. Storm believed the Lost Dutchman mine and the Peralta Mines were one in the same.

Storm was so impressed with the fine flakes of gold Smith had found he tried to encourage him to take him to the source of the gold. Smith refused to share his secret with Storm and told him Russell Perkins was his partner. All Smith ever told Storm was the source of the placer was near Hell's Hole in Tortilla Creek. Smith probably told Storm this story to keep him out of the area he was working in. Storm walked up and down Tortilla Creek several times trying to find Smith's source for the placer gold.

Who was Monument Smith? There are few if any existing records as to who Monument Smith was. One source claimed Smith was an ex-con that had served time in Florence. Another source claimed he was a poet. Some research indicates Smith may have worked for Dr. Robert A. Aiton at the Miller Mines in the 1920's. When the promotion of the Miller Mines failed in 1933, Smith moved on. Smith allegedly arrived in Tortilla Flat around 1934. He built his crude stone cabin along Tortilla Creek about 1936. Smith might have worked on the Horse Mesa Dam construction in 1926-27. He received a small check of some kind he picked up at the Tortilla Flat post office monthly. Most of the sources claimed Smith never strayed far from Tortilla Creek all the years he lived in the area. I am sure some day a researcher will find adequate documents to prove old Monument Smith's existence. Did he really discover placer gold or was it just shiny Biotite flakes?

During the past one hundred and five years Tortilla Flat has served as a jumping-off place for many prospecting ventures into the Superstition Mountains. The exact role Monument Smith played in the legend of the Dutchman's Lost mine is not clear, but he did spend a considerable amount of time in the area telling stories about finding placer gold along Tortilla Creek somewhere. His tale fired the imagination of Barry Storm and probably convinced the author-treasure hunter there was a rich gold mine in the Superstition Mountains.