Monday, July 28, 2014

Our Desert Lands

July 21, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The City of Apache Junction has become one of the most unique areas in the Salt River Valley in their attempt to preserve portions of the Sonoran Desert.

The Superstition Wilderness Area and the desert that surrounds it is a vast region of a delicately balanced ecosystem. There is no ecosystem in the world more fragile than a desert environment except for the high latitude tundra. Humankind has for centuries played a major role impacting the Upper Sonoran Desert.

The various Native American groups have used the region for several thousand years in subsistence hunting and gathering modes, and their use of these fragile ecosystems mildly impacted them. Many of the ancient archaeological sites found in the area today are a mute testimony to the existence of these cultures. The ancient sites are rapidly disappearing as the desert continues to be developed.

Most modern development allows no desert greenbelts at all for minimal survival of fauna and flora in the Sonoran Desert, unless you want to call a golf course a greenbelt. It is a tragic sacrifice for what we get in return— more air pollution, more traffic, more water quality problems and more crime.

Early prospectors searched for mineral wealth in these mountains long before the tales and myths of lost gold and treasure emerged. There is some evidence that suggests early Mexican prospectors from Sonora and along the Gila River may have entered the region of Superstition Mountains as early as 1799.

The first American miners penetrated the area about 1863. These were small parties of prospectors coming down from the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott during the winter months. Once silver was discovered in the Pinal Mountains in late 1860’s the Anglo-American population began to grow in the area. 

The miners and prospectors were soon followed by the cattlemen. The early years of the cattle barons were totally unregulated. Thousands of cattle roamed the canyons and mountains of the Superstition Wilderness Area.  One of the earliest of the cattlemen was Robert A. Irion.   He arrived in the area with a herd about 1878 from Wyoming. His ranch was located halfway between Miami and Superior at what we call Sutton’s Summit today. Irion brought beef on the hoof to feed the miners at Globe and the Silver King. He was followed by other cattlemen like Jack Fraser, Ed Horrell and W.J. Clemans.

Fraser started his herd with three hundred-head of cattle won in a poker game at the Silver King Hotel. When Fraser sold out to W.J. Clemans in 1909, more than 5,000 head of cattle roamed the Superstition range. All of this activity severely impacted the fragile Sonoran Desert ecosystem. 

Regulated grazing was introduced to the Superstition Wilderness with the formation of the Tonto Preserve in 1909. The purpose of the preserve was to protect the watershed of the Salt River drainage system and not the fragile ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert.  The creators of the Salt River Drainage Basin feared overgrazing would cause severe soil erosion therefore destroy the drainage basin planned for natural runoff. When Roosevelt Dam was completed in March of 1911 the Salt River had finally been controlled. Flooding was prevented along the river and water storage for the Salt River Valley was then reality.

After the turn of the century and the death of Jacob Waltz, the alleged Lost Dutchman, hundred of treasure hunters, gold prospectors, and promoters searched the area for gold. Their efforts produced several books and a few permanent scars on the land.  Their unique history still survives to this day, but in reality did little damage to the Sonoran Desert. Those permanent scars are now monuments to the determination and tenacity of those who searched for gold and treasure, right or wrong.

The cattlemen, prospectors, miners, and treasure trove hunters for more than a hundred and twenty years have impacted the Superstition Wilderness Area. The hundreds of holes produced by these people not only scared the landscape but also created dangerous pitfalls for the innocent or novice adventurer. Their many trails lead from one place to another.

During the mid-1960’s the wilderness received yet another kind of human impact.  The impact caused by the recreationist. This group fell into two large categories, the hikers and horsemen.

The overuse and the improvement of the trail system for these recreational users created a critical management problem for forest service. These new trail systems impacted the terrain to such a degree the trails were visible from space, the air and high vantage points.   

The sheer numbers of recreationists who use the Superstition Wilderness have heavily impacted the trailheads, trails, water sources, and campsites. This impact dramatically affected the fauna and flora.

Stone rings used for campfires are found throughout the wilderness even though the forest rangers have a campaign to reduce them.  There are areas where the vegetation is totally denuded, even in isolated and remote locations.

There are three modern forms of litter found throughout the wilderness since the 1960’s. They are filters from cigarettes, pop-tops from cans and gum wrappers. These are monuments to contemporary human occupancy and use of the region in the 20th Century.  Maybe by the 21st Century we will realize how important open space and desert greenbelts will be to future generations. If we don’t recognize the importance of desert greenbelts most of the upper Sonoran Desert life zone will be lost to our society and future generations.

If we are to maintain the beauty and solitude of this urban wilderness and the desert around it we need to examine our priorities and express concern about what is happening to our lifestyle here in the desert. 

Apache Junction has become one of the most unique areas in the Salt River Valley in addition to Scottsdale to make an attempt to preserve portions of the Sonoran Desert. How important is this desert lifestyle? Ask any real estate agent about property values adjacent to forest service lands in the Apache Junction area.

The desert has always been a part of our lifestyle here. If we are to enjoy this beautiful desert we must educate people on how to care for it and how delicate it really is. We must also learn how to preserve it for the future. This we must do now. 

The City of Apache Junction has taken an initiative to protect natural areas in greenbelts. Hopefully the citizen’s of our community will support these attempts to preserve the desert for future residents. 

Recently a business magazine of national significance rated Apache Junction as the fourth best city in the United States to live in. The Apache Junction City Council has always supported greenbelts and recreational areas. Your city’s desire to preserve open spaces for the future is unique among city politicians around our great nation.

Pinal County has also recently become involved with desert preservation. Believe me, we will need these desert preserves for future generations of Americans.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Word of Caution About Gold

July 14, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

A gold-laden chunk of quartz
The price of gold has skyrocketed recently to more than thirteen hundred dollars an ounce.

Buying gold can be a very risky business because of fraud and a variety of investment schemes. As the value of gold continues to escalate the fascination for finding lost gold and buried treasures also escalates. The gold market goes up and continues to drive the interest of prospectors and mine promoters to search for new deposits. 

The search for lost gold deposits and new deposits has intrigued and fascinated the average person for decades. Large mining companies continue searching and drilling for gold deposits with the increased value of gold making it more profitable for large mining corporations.

We often think of lost gold mines in terms of maps and clues. A serious lost mine hunter will begin his or her research with a thorough investigation of available records associated with a given area or story. These documents will include records from vital statistics, census, probates, taxes and real estate ownership.

If all of these records are exhausted and there is still no mention of the person involved with the lost mine or treasure it is often presumed at this point the story is nothing but an unsubstantiated tale or to be more exact a myth. When no proof exists of the main character’s involvement; it is then apparent the story is nothing but a legend based on hearsay. These stories often amaze objective historians.

Why do treasure hunters and lost gold mine searchers place so much value on what they believe to be the truth based on weak, subjective stories accredited to faith or belief in another individual’s story to be factual or true?  Often intelligent, wealthy, professional men or women fall prey to such rhetoric and dogmatic storytelling.

Robert Simpson Jacob was a man who could sell any idea if given the proper opportunity and setting. Jacob was known as the man with the golden tongue, not silver. Long before Robert “Crazy Jake” Jacob arrived on the famous Dutchman’s Lost Mine stage there were men like Dr. Robert A. Aiton, Dr. Rolf Alexander, and many more who had acted before him. Jacob was unique because of his success at accumulating a fortune in just eight years. He was a master of deception. He told investors what they wanted to hear.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office estimated Jacob accumulated more than thirty million dollars during a five-year period, however they could only account for nine million dollars with documents. To this day there is no sound explanation or accounting for that money or what happen to it. Robert Simpson Jacob passed away in the summer of 1993 leaving no information or a confession as to what happened to the nine million dollars he had accumulated. This is one example of the ability of some to raise money honestly or dishonestly.

There are men who came to these mountains to hunt for gold, lost mines and treasure who were reputable and honest individuals. Richard Peck, Alva Reser, Robert Corbin, Walter Gassler, Ron Feldman, and many more searches were based on integrity and honesty.

Treasure hunters who really believed in their search for riches usually don’t want any partners. Their avocation is a solo practice. They are often very secretive about their information. Local historian and prospectors will always tell you a true “Dutch hunter” is a solo and secretive individual. I am purposely being redundant in order to make a point.

Since Jacob Waltz died in 1891, there have been many attempts to defraud people with stories of lost gold mines in the Superstition Mountain area. You can prevent yourself from being a victim. Here are some hints. Don’t give anyone cash for an investment that sounds far too good to be true unless you have a witness and a signed contract. Don’t make any deals without a witness who can back you up in court.

Many years ago a handicapped man approached me in class asking me to help him get an investment back. He explained to me the federal, state, county and city authorities would not assist him. I soon found out why.  He had given a local prospector (con artist) five thousand dollars in a paper sack. He had no witnesses or proof of the transaction. What he thought he was purchasing was gold bullion at half of the current spot price. Of course the local prospector didn’t deliver and the man demanded his money back. The prospector said he never gave him any money.

In the final analysis, what this boiled down to was one man’s word against another. There was no contract, no check and no witnesses. The authorities had nothing to build a case on. Sadly to say the gentlemen lost his five thousand dollars. A lesson hopefully well learned.

Most people laugh and say this can’t happen to them. I agree it can’t, however when somebody produces a considerable amount of gold and claims they have a rich mine in the Superstitions, then they further claim the government won’t let them mine it legally, but they will secretly sell their gold at half of spot with cash up front. A proposal like this can be quite tempting. Most intelligent people will immediately see red flags on such a deal. This happens in the Apache Junction area a couple times a year.

My advice is to be very cautious about giving any cash to anyone for any kind of a gold deal. I would contact the state fraud division or the local police and report such activity. Any time you can buy gold bullion for half the spot price it is too good to be true. Anything that is too good to be true is generally a fraud of some kind. If you suspect some kind of fraudulent deal you should report it to the authorities before somebody loses their life savings or money they can’t afford to lose.

Some say we walk in the footsteps of Coronado’s Children if we are interested in lost mines or treasure. Frank Dobie made quite an impact on some Americans when he wrote his book, Coronado’s Children in 1931. His tales of lost mines and treasure in the Southwest continue to tantalize the minds of men and women.

Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah and Colorado suffer from more gold mine and treasure fraud than any other states. The reading public is fascinated with the American Southwest and all the tales of lost gold and treasure. Hundreds of books have been written on the topic and people continue to believe hidden gold lies out there waiting for them if they can just put certain clues together. Golden riches is the bait these con artist use to separate their victims from their life savings. Again, the best rule is don’t invest money without good advice from knowledgeable individuals.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Deadly Vision

June 30, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

From left: Missing Utah hikers Adrean Charles, Malcolm Meeks and Curtis Merworth.
Gold and treasure have attracted men and women to the Superstition Mountain region for more than a century, and their quest for lost treasure or gold has often turned tragic. Searching for gold or lost treasure in the summer months with little or no experience in the region can result in deadly consequences. The vision of riches has led many to their final resting place among the rocks and cacti of this unforgiving land known as the Superstition Wilderness Area. This column is a reminder of how dangerous and deadly these mountains can be in the summer months. An early morning hike into the desert or mountains can be tragic if a person is injured or underestimates the desert heat.

In July, 2011, three men from Utah embarked upon a treasure-hunting quest that ended their lives. Curtis Glenn Merworth, Malcolm Jerome Meeks and Adrean Charles headed for an unknown destination deep in the Superstition Wilderness Area. At that particular time of year the ground surface temperatures could heat up to 180°F. The darker the ground the hotter the temperatures can be. The air temperature was above 110°F and water was scare within the vastness of this mountain wilderness in July. A blind vision of golden riches drew these men into this internal hell like a magnet. The men were aware of the dangers apparently because they carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the burning rays of the sun. However, they failed to carry enough water to survive the stifling heat. The victims’ car was parked at First Water Trailhead around Tuesday, July 6, 2010.

The last person to visit with these three men prior to their fatal journey was Louis Ruiz at the Blue Bird Mine Curio Shop and Snack Bar on the Apache Trail. Curtis Merworth purchased a map and bid Louis farewell.

Soon after the men arrived they were reported missing. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office set up a search and rescue command post at First Water Trail Head on Sunday, July 11, 2010. This was three days after they had gone into the mountains from First Water Trail Head. The sheriff’s office had a helicopter transporting search crews to different points within the wilderness to conduct searches. The helicopter crew searched the area by air looking for any visible clues. Approximately a hundred people were searching the area on foot, horseback and by air. All of this searching did not produce a single clue as to  what had happen to these men. The MCSO Search & Rescue Command Post was taken down on Sunday July 18, 2010. Members of the MCSO, PCSO, Superstition Search & Rescue, and other volunteers continued searching for the three missing men through December 2010. As of January 1, 2011, not one clue had been found associated with these three missing men. It was as if they had vanished from the face of the Earth.

Ironically, searching for hikers is one thing, but searching for treasure hunters is something entirely different. Hikers and horseman generally remain on wilderness system trails. However, treasure hunters (Dutch hunters) wander in all directions over the mountain’s vastness looking for clues to lost gold caches.  A clue might be a pictoglyph, a certain shaped rock, a cactus or maybe an old claim marker. These treasure hunters are usually far removed from system trails and often in extremely rugged country. I am sure the MCSO and other search groups did everything possible to locate these missing men. These officers are dedicated men and women who are here to protect and serve us. Once the officials scaled back their operations the volunteer groups began their search for the three missing men. I followed the activities of the Superstition Search & Rescue Teams during their searches. They are a very dedicated and highly trained group of young men and women who devote hours of volunteer time to help others. This team is a member of CERTS, a Community Emergency Response Team working with the Apache Junction Police Department and trained by the State of Arizona. We cannot fault anyone for not finding these men sooner because in the end they were far off any beaten path. They were in an area it was highly unlikely anyone would search.

Richard “Rick” Gwynn, author and prospector was hiking in the Superstition Wilderness Area on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 trying to piece together clues about the lost gold of these mountains about two miles east of First Water Trailhead. He made a gruesome discovery on the NNE slope of Yellow Peak. He found two skeletons fully dressed lying on loose steeply sloping black-basaltic rock talus about 150 feet wide and 1000 feet long. Nearby he found two umbrellas they had been using for shade. Near the bodies was a battery-powered lamp. Rick said it appeared the men had died of natural causes. They had no water. Summer temperature on the black basaltic rock probably reached an easy 180°F.  No human or animal would have lasted very long lying or crawling across that black rock.

Again the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office helicopter and search teams searched for the third victim. You must bear in mind this is extremely rough terrain. Again they didn’t have any success. After the MCSO was done searching the Superstition Search and Rescue Team returned to the field. They began a search on Thursday, January 13, 2011, searching northward toward Black Mesa near the southeastern part of the mesa. It was in this area about ¾ mile north of the first site that SSAR team found what appeared to be debris field that included a bone. They had no idea it was human, but thought it was fresh. The team returned to area on Saturday, January 15, 2011 and found skeletal remains.

Search Commander Cooper immediately notified MCSO. The MCSO called out their helicopter rescue team under the direction of Deputies David Bremeton and Jesse Robinson. They supervised the removal of the third victim’s remains from the wilderness area. This discovery and removal of the last body closed another sad chapter in the history of these mountains and the search for missing Utah prospectors. The failure of these men to understand the dangers of the mountains in the summer months cost them their lives. Finally, the three Utah gold hunters had been found; ending one of the most difficult searches in Superstition Wilderness Area history.

Their vision of lost gold had been a fatal attraction for them.