July 5, 2008

In southern Utah, new case of gold fever

Seeking legendary Montezuma treasure

By Mark Havnes
The Salt Lake Tribune

BLM spokesman Larry Crutchfield stands at entrance to a White Mountain cave where some believe Montezuma's treasure is located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Mark Havnes/The Salt Lake Tribune)

KANAB - In the latest "National Treasure" flick, Ben Gates goes to Mount Rushmore in search of Aztec gold.

In real life, Corey Shuman goes to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in search of the same thing.

And he will be able to continue hunting there for Montezuma's rumored riches - now that the state has abandoned plans to seal off White Mountain east of Kanab to such expeditions.

The closure was part of a wider effort to shut down nearly two dozen old mines in the southern Utah monument.

But the legendary Montezuma site has been spared - at least for now.

"Technically, we wonder if it's a mine at all," said Jim Springer, a spokesman for the state's Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. "If the BLM wants to move forward, they can."

That won't happen until a Bureau of Land Management engineer weighs in, according to Larry Crutchfield, the federal agency's spokesman for the monument.

"He'll evaluate the site with safety concerns in mind," Crutchfield said, "and then make some recommendations on what we can do."

Shuman and his prospecting pals at Draper-based Gold Rush Expeditions hope the caves and shafts on White Mountain in Johnson Canyon never close to treasure seekers.

"The site should be left alone because it is a historical resource and the only one of its kind," Shuman said. "The work that happened out there literally emptied the town [Kanab] for a year. It is a huge chapter in the history of Kanab and Utah."

That history began in the 1920s when a drifter named Freddy Crystal showed up and claimed he had a map from a Mexican monastery that identified Johnson Canyon as the burial spot for Montezuma's lost treasures. (Some believe the Aztec ruler's riches were spirited out of Mexico City to keep them out of the hands of Spanish conquistadors.)

So, with shovels in their hands and gold in their eyes, Kanab residents flocked to White Mountain to hunt for the stash.

But they never found it. The gold fever cooled. Crystal vanished, and Kanab's residents drifted back into town.

Nearly a century later, Shuman still believes there may be something to the legend of the lost treasure - mainly because of the petroglyphs chiseled into rock panels in the region.

"There is a huge panel just outside the monument - [which] has some interesting markings on it - that has been translated and may point to White Mountain and the mine."

Shuman also noted Crystal's credibility got a boost when several caves were discovered sealed off with an ancient form of concrete. He said the concrete plugs also featured petroglyphs, possibly made by Aztecs.

Treasure or not, efforts are under way to list the site on the National Register of Historic Places - a move Shuman believes could help preserve the caves that honeycomb the sandstone mountain.

Count BLM archaeologist Matt Zweifel among the Montezuma mine's nonbelievers.

"It seems far-fetched," Zweifel said. "For the logistics alone, you'd need an army of hundreds of slaves, surrounded by soldiers, and [have to] march through the Southwest desert crossing the Grand Canyon and a bigger canyon in Mexico."

Zweifel doubts the inscriptions are in Aztec. But he understands the legend's lure.

"They were all digging like mad," he said. "Everybody wanted to be a millionaire."

And they still do.

"One guy contacted us," Zweifel said, "saying he knew where the treasure was and would split it 50-50 with the BLM if we'd help him dig it up."

The agency declined.