BETWEEN BERTHA PEAK and Gold Mountain, in the rough south wall of the 8,000-foot divide separating Bear and Holcomb Valleys in San Bernardino County, California, lies Ban Duzen Canyon, steep-sided, long and twisting. And somewhere in this area lies a lost mine.

Today it is a pleasant place, where squirrels chatter and birds sing. Yet murder has been done here for the sake of gold, and somewhere in this canyon’s winding length is the lost mine that has been an object of search for more than eighty years.

Van Duzen, a man prominently identified with the Holcomb gold rush of 1860-70, was no fly-by-nighter. He was a man of substance. Educated better than the average person of his day, he possessed also a working knowledge of geology and engineering. Following a critical appraisal of the region, he located in the canyon that has since borne his name, and he and his partner erected a cabin. After a few weeks spent gophering-in here and there, the pair suddenly appeared with gold in plenty to pay for all their supplies, and that they had struck it rich seemed more than idle rumor.

When the men’s stake had grown to considerable proportions, according to the story that has survived, Van Duzen confided to a friend that he and his partner expected soon to pack the god to San Bernardino for banking. Consequently, no one attached any importance to the matter when a few days later, the partner was seen leaving the canyon with pack animals. Nearly a week passed before a chance visitor discovered Van Duzen shot to death in his cabin. The gold cache, needles to say, was missing.

With location of the diggings known only to the fleeing murderer, the Van Duzen bonanza joined the ranks of other lost mines, and during the several years immediately following was sought in vain by many men. Then, in the summer of 1868, there appeared in Holcomb Valley a middle-aged Frenchman and a young fellow named Stebbins. The Frenchman, who showed good knowledge of lode mining, centered his efforts on the higher levels of Van Duzen Canyon, and before many moons had passed it became evident that he was "in the chips"! Furthermore, according to observers, the gold he exhibited showed characteristics identical with that taken from the same locality by the ill-fated miner of seven years earlier.

The Frenchman guarded his secret as closely as had his predecessors, never permitting even his young partner to accompany him to the scene of his activities. And then, one morning, the man left camp as usual for his mountain treasure chest.

He never returned.

Young Stebbins denied all knowledge of his partner’s fate. Some believed that the older man had cleaned up and skipped; others, that he had been murdered and his body thrown into some abandoned mine shaft, or that he had been trapped by a cave-in which had effectually hidden the entrance to his tunnel.

After a few weeks, the boy, too, disappeared.

AS THE SEASONS came and went, each summer saw a few die-hards seeking hopefully for the lost mine, but no one found it. Finally, when fifty years had passed since the strange disappearance of the Frenchman and his youthful partner there appeared in the valley an old, white-haired man. He said his name was Stebbins, and that as a youth he had mined in Van Duzen Canyon. After leacing the valley, he declared, he had prospected successfully in the Klondike, at Tonopah, Goldfield and elsewhere, and he believed, with the knowledge thus gained he could locate the Lost Van Duzen Mine.

Although Van Duzen Canyon was still inhabited only by the gray squirrels and the birds, the years had not passed without leaving marks. The canyon bed had been eroded by Caribou Creek, which had come to be flanked on either side with tailing piles. Underbrush had grown more dense. There was evidence that landslides had torn the canyon walls, and everywhere were pot-holes and tunnels left by exploring prospectors.

Morning after morning Stebbins hopefully set forth. Day after day he slashed his way through near-impenetrable thickets of cascara and manzanita. Night after night he returned to camp, beaten and baffled by nature, the elements, and the tumbled rock piles. Failing strength and advancing age eventually forced him to abandon his fruitless quest.

IT MIGHT SEEM that Old Man Stebbins’ abortive effort would have ended the search forever, but it didn’t.

One summer, since the close of World War II, I was exploring on horse back through Van Duzen Canyon and into its numerous side ravines. Occasionally I would spot tobacco cans tacked upside down on tree trunks, and investigation of their contents invariably revealed valid mine location notices, mostly for placer claims, some for lode.

Near a crude one-room cabin I came upon an old man shoveling gravel into a small sluice box. He admitted, reluctantly, that he wasn’t getting rich.

"So far," he said, "it’s a sow-belly and beans proposition."

I told him I was interested in gold; that back in the ‘30s I had operated several small placers on the Yuba and Feather Rivers. Thirty minutes later, our friendship had burgeoned to a point where my host halted his work long enough to remove a small bottle from a ragged pants pocket. It was half filled with concentrates. Turning the vial clumsily in knotted fingers, he pointed out the larger flakes from his previous week’s clean-up. While not particularly numerous or of any great magnitude, the "color" gleamed as thrillingly yellow as any nugget of the storied days of ’49.

"But this’s only small ‘taters," remarked the old miner depreciatingly. "Wanta know what I’m really lookin’ for? Ain’t many knows it, but there’s a lost mine in this canyon—and I’m gonna find it! I ain’t sayin’ how," he added cagily, "but I gotta system!"

As I rode on up the ravine, my ears caught the unmistakable sound of steel ringing against rock. Following the lead, I came upon a younger man. In his hands was a prospector’s pick which he was industriously sinking into the face of the mountain. His dust-caked shirt was to his back with sweat, glistening beads of moisture stood on his forehead, and small rivulets coursed down his neck. It was a very warm morning.

When I inquired if he were doing any good for himself, he took a swig from a canteen hung on a nearby manzanita and admitted that the rock was "sorta hungry." Fifteen minutes later, according to formula, his c had dropped to the hushed tones men use in speaking of bonanzas and buried.

"This is strictly confidential and I wouldn’t want you to repeat it," he was saying, "but somewhere in this canyon, there’s a lost mine!"

As my horse picked his way over the tailing piles toward Holcomb Valley, I couldn’t help thinking how much toiling and moiling and sweat late-comers would have been spared if only Van Duzen and his partner-had not been so secretive.

SOURCE: Frontier Times, Fall 1960, Vol.34, No. 4, New Series No. 12. By: Nell Murbarger

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