On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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Tale of The Lost Black Rock Silver Lode

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Imagine being nearly destitute and finding silver nuggets in chunk sizes, up to a weight of fifty pounds, and not be able to carry them out or cash them in! Yes, slabs and chunks of silver scattered up and down a volcanic ravine, clear up on the sides of the banks—all that wealth and you're nearly starving to death! Yes! Like a bee drownin' golden in honey! So begins this tale of "The Lost Black Rock Silver Lode".

A most unbelievable—believable—legend has it that in 1849, twelve covered wagons of emigrants from the Midwest were slowly moving up the Lassen Trail to northern California. The trail is so named after the famed trailblazer, Peter Lassen. The majestic and lofty Mount Lassen is so named after him.

Peter Lassen opened the Lassen Emigrant Trail in 1848 when he led a 12-wagon train from Missouri to California. Most of the emigrants were gold seekers drawn to the '49 gold rush. Seeking a shorter route they began using the Lassen Trail beginning at its head in western Nevada. The trail crossed the desert from the Humbolt River in Nevada, past Black Rock, and went over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the town of Shasta, California.

It was on this trail that this train of twelve wagons had arrived at Black Rock, Nevada. Black Rock is a prominent dark peak rising above a desolate desert wasteland. At a later time it would become incorporated in Humbolt County, California. In the area were some hot springs, now known as Boiling Springs, the moisture of which provided lush grassy feed for their livestock.

According to members of the party, a strange adventure befell them here at Black Rock. It gives rise to one of the oddest tales of the numerous legends and sagas about silver discoveries in the old west. The region was a desolate and barren waste of burned igneous, volcanic rock. Being thus scattered with such boulders of black igneous rock and volcanic ash, it was extremely difficult to traverse.

The wagon train outfit was tired and thirsty and so stopped in the morning at a fresh-water spring to rest and water their livestock. Food provisions were running very low. So, while the outfit rested at the springs, two men, one of them, being James Hardin, left camp with their rifles to hunt for game in the surrounding mountains. They were hoping to bag a deer or rabbits. They ascended a plateau from where they could observe the camp. After becoming discouraged in their hunt for game and being concerned about hostile Indians, the men felt anxious about leaving the wagon party too long. So, about noon they began their descent back down to the campsite. In their hunt for food, they came up empty-handed. The desolate region was short on game, so they had not even a quail or a rabbit.

Traveling back they lost their way coming down the slopes to camp. Traversing down a deeply eroded gulch, they thought it was leading back to the camp. At one point they encountered a great deposit of volcanic ash. Struggling to get through the loose ash they stumbled on large chunks and slabs of pure silver, some too heavy to carry! It appeared that the ore had been smelted and deposited by ancient volcanic heat. The natural smelting process had seemingly left solid masses of silver scattered over an extensive area in this rugged ravine.

As they were descending they were surprised to observe this bright metallic substance lying all over the bottom of the ravine and up its embankments. Here lying in the wash were nuggets and chunks of silver from thumb size to fifty pounds, and it was no mirage!

Unbelievably, here before their eyes was native silver lying all around by the wagonload—millions of dollars worth! The destitute hunters picked up more heavy chunks and nuggets than they could carry, so they were forced to drop some when they failed to find the camp where they thought it was. Eventually finding the camp, they displayed their pieces of glittering silver samples. One chunk of the bright metal weighed approximately twenty-five pounds!

But, even with all this spectacular evidence, the traveling forty-niners of the wagon train told Hardin that they were not interested in his silver strike. They were determined to reach the gold country, even if Black Rock were given to them as a gift, they were not interested! Their teams were giving out, members of the party were disheartened and all them were tired and wanted to make it to the gold fields of California. So, no amount of persuasion could get them to join Hardin to develop this spectacular bonanza. Besides, this was hostile Indian country!

News of the find hit the "grapevine" and the word spread up and down the wagon trails headed west. As the story got around, it became familiar to many and Hardin's name became well known in connection the Black Rock Silver Lode. Later other emigrants came upon silver chunks left by the wayside, but the chunks revealed little of their source or exact location. All these nuggets, chunks and slabs of silver became familiar to the jewelers and craftsmen who worked the precious metal in the settlements at the end of the trail. Their oft-told testimony has added to the truthfulness of Hardin's story and that of his emigrant band.

Some years later, around 1858, Hardin returned with a search party to find his "mother lode." An extensive search was made but he failed to find any free silver lying on the ground. Neither did he find any silver ore deposits, or the gulch of volcanic ashes. Other futile expeditions from members of the original wagon train, and others that followed, failed to find the silver ore or the ravine of ashes.

Indians made life too uncertain for less than an army of soldiers to survive in the area, and they seemed to always interrupt the search for the silver. They were well acquainted with the gleaming silver and also rich gold deposits in the area. Only a hand full of prospectors ever befriended them enough to tell their tale.

It is thought that rain storms, landslides and avalanches had so changed the terrain as to make it unrecognizable. Generations of prospectors have come and gone and still no trace. It appears that Black Rock Mountain has heard the Indian prayer dances, and she has closed her vault and locked the sliver away from white man and intruders.

What makes this tale so intriguing is the preponderance of evidence testifying to its truthfulness. Reviewing the considerable basis for the tale of the Black Rock Silver Lode; with her huge silver slabs and nuggets, one wonders why many more of the hardy men of the past, who crisscrossed the desert wilds, did not venture back for this enormous treasure. Maybe they had grown tired of looking death in the face in this God-forsaken and formidable place.

History indicates, at the time the local Indians were very hostile and aggressive and roaming in large numbers. Survivors on the long trails and night watches knew all too well the odds were not in their favor. In 1850, while attempting to cross the Black Rock Desert, forty members of a wagon train were killed. Army personnel were regularly being ambushed and killed. Interestingly, even Peter Lassen of trail-blazing fame, along with his companion, were killed at Black Rock in 1859. Apparently they were searching for the lost silver lode.

Most of the emigrants had found that hunting treasure and fortune in the Black Rock wilderness was too dangerous, no matter what the assay price for silver. The women folk who remembered burying their brave men in lonely graves along the trail, and being constantly frightened by war whoops at dawn, destitute or not—no matter how large and valuable the silver slabs and nuggets were—they wanted no part of it!

So even now, the mysterious Black Rock Silver Lode still waits for the day when a desert "gully washer" sluices the ravine and unveils the silver slabs and huge nuggets to some destitute old prospector or modern fortune seeker, who just happens to stumble on to a thirty-pound nugget. They'll probably think it's a mirage!

Until that happens the Black Rock Silver Lode, found by the likes of James Hardin and his 49ers will remain an unbelievable—believable—desert tale, much like the famous varnished gold nuggets of the lost Peg Leg Smith. These, and many other lost mines are what feed the imagination and the wonderful legends of the old West, even when we are nearly destitute.

© Ed Keenan

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