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Along with the thousands of ghost towns scattered throughout the United States,

there are legends, stories, and hints of lost treasure.

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The Lost Silver on a Ghost Lake

Owens Lake, Inyo County, CA


Gary B. Speck



Nestled near the summit of California's bone-dry Inyo Mountains, high above the powdery surface of Owens Lake, the old silver mining town of Cerro Gordo is the source of a diehard lost treasure legend.  Personally I feel most of the legendary lost treasures are one part truth and nine parts "bovine muffins", and with each telling have been elevated above and beyond the truth to a fanciful fiction.  Since I have a major love for Inyo County, I thought I'd do a little research on this, one of Inyo's best known lost treasure legends.


Today Owens Lake is a bitter, glaring alkali flat, a big change from the 1870s when it was a 30 foot deep, 100 square mile lake.  It supported two steamships, and on its shores were small mining, milling and freighting towns.  It is here that our legend started.


A strong northeast wind shoved the steamship Bessie Brady to the southeast, where high waves battered the small silver laden steamship.  The pitching caused a wagonload of silver bullion to break loose and roll off the deck into the stormy waters.


Hmmm.  Sounds pretty good doesn't it?


Here's another version...


The Molly Stevens (the other steamer) was cruising towards Cartago when she capsized in the middle of the lake for no apparent reason.


(I like the first version better.)


Wait, there's more!


The Molly Stevens was enroute to Cartago with a load of silver bullion when strong winds kicked up waves, and the cold lake water poured into the engine compartment causing the boilers to explode.  This ripped the small steamer apart, and sent her and the cargo to the bottom.


(I'm not so sure I believe that one.)


Then there is this version, which sounds like a combination of the first two...The unnamed ship was driven by strong winds to the southeast part of the lake where rough waters caused a wagon to break loose and roll into the lake.  The resulting shift of weight caused the steamer to overturn and sink.


(OK.  Now I'm totally confused.)    


After some extensive research, I have come up with my own version of the lost silver bullion.  It goes something like this...


Beginning in 1865, the small Mexican silver mining camp of Cerro Gordo became known when the rich silver-lead ores were hauled down the mountain and processed at a mill near the military post of Camp Independence.  It isn't clear how the shipments attracted the attention of the fort's storekeeper Victor Beaudry, but as a veteran of the gold rush just a few years before, he was impressed by the silver, and realized here was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of another Comstock.  He moved to Cerro Gordo in 1866 and opened a store in the small camp.  When miners couldn't pay cash, he took stock in their mines.  Shortly after 1868 began, he and a partner built two ore roasting furnaces, and within two months he bought out his partner.  In April he called in an overdue account, which made him part owner of the Union Mine, along with Mortimer Belshaw.


Belshaw had arrived in Cerro Gordo from San Francisco, and he quickly realized that the silver-lead ore could be smelted using the native galena as a flux.  He built his own furnace, reduced some ore, and shipped a load of it to Los Angeles, where it attracted lots of attention.  From LA it was shipped to San Francisco, where he obtained capital to build a road from the mines to the bottom of the hill.   In July, the Yellow Grade was completed, and Belshaw set up a toll house to collect from all traffic.


Down along the shore of Owens Lake a third smelter was built, along with a small town called Swansea.  It was owned and operated by the Owens Lake Silver-Lead Company, which also owned the Santa Maria Mine.  Their disadvantage was that the raw ore had to be hauled down Belshaw's toll road.  This was less profitable than finished bullion, which greatly increased their costs.


With three companies processing ore, and millions of dollars in bullion needing transporting, Remi Nadeau was hired in 1869 to haul the silver to Los Angeles.  As it flowed south, farm products and other staples headed north on Nadeau's massive freight wagons.


As 1869 closed, Belshaw, Beaudry, and Egbert Judson joined forces and controlled the fabulous Union Lode, the town's number one producer.  Their only other major rival, the Owens Lake Company, continued purchasing claims, which narrowed down the controlling factions to just the two companies.


Belshaw and his partners were determined to control the entire Cerro Gordo complex, so they let the toll road (the only road) fall into disrepair, and increased the tolls.  This angered the Owens Lake Company, so they surveyed and built a new road to Cerro Gordo, BUT the only passage that allowed access to Cerro Gordo had to cut through a spot called The Narrows, and that was where Belshaw's toll house sat.


In December, 1871, Nadeau's freighting contract expired, and Belshaw  declined to renew.  Instead he signed up James Brady, the Owens Lake Co. superintendent!  Brady teamed with D. H. Ferguson to build a steamship to haul the bullion from Cerro Gordo landing across Owens Lake to Cartago.  This would cut several travel days, and eliminate some horrible stretches of road. 


In March, 1872, a massive earthquake ripped through the Owens Valley area, creating havoc around Owens Lake.  The lake bed tilted, so the landing at Swansea had to be extended to reach the water.  Also, the Swansea smelter was in full blast, and the building collapsed and burned.  This caused a major setback to the Owens Lake Co., which didn't get back on line until October.


Brady continued to work on the steamer while the smelter was being rebuilt.  On June 27, 1872, the Bessie Brady, made her maiden voyage with 30 tons of silver bullion on board.


By September, silver ingots piled up faster than Brady's wagons could haul them to Los Angeles.  This angered Belshaw, who terminated Brady's wagon contract.  He then signed with Julius Chester of Bakersfield.  Brady was subsequently fired by the Owens Lake Co., and he also sold his interest in the Bessie Brady to John Daneri (of Cartago), and D. H. Ferguson. 


In February, 1873, heavy winter rains destroyed the Bakersfield Road, and with the increasing pile of silver on the Cartago docks, Belshaw eased off operations. At this time the Bessie Brady was moored to allow the wagons to catch up, but the new steamship company folded.


Meanwhile Colonel Sherman Stevens was hired by the Owens Lake Company to supply wood for its smelters.  He began to build a sawmill up Cottonwood Canyon.   Frustrated by the slow movement of their silver, Belshaw and Beaudry re-contracted with Remi Nadeau.  They built a string of freight stations across the desert towards Los Angeles, and began to ship the Cartago stockpiles back to LA.


By September Belshaw and Beaudry purchased the abandoned Bessie Brady, and they built a new landing six miles east of Swansea.  All shipping trade shifted to Cerro Gordo Landing, which stranded Swansea. 


At Cottonwood Landing the wood from the sawmill was sent via barge, which was now towed by the Bessie Brady, to Cerro Gordo Landing. 


In 1874 a general slowdown in mining caused the Owens Lake Company to finally fail.  With a general increase in mining activity in the area, increased demand for Stevens' lumber from the Darwin and Coso mines prompted him to erect two charcoal kilns near Cottonwood Landing.  At this time he decided to build his own steamer to avoid the high rates imposed by Belshaw for use of the Bessie Brady.


The undecked hull of the Molly Stevens was launched with much fanfare, but a strong wind came up, and she took on so much water the uncovered hull sunk.  She was refloated with help from the Bessie Brady, which created a few snickers of pleasure in Belshaw's group.  Her maiden voyage was in June 1877, but as fate usually works, Cerro Gordo's boom was over.  Soon the Molly Stevens was tied permanently to the dock at Cottonwood Landing.


In October 1879, the last wagonload of silver rolled down the Yellow Grade and was placed on board the Bessie Brady, and deposited on the docks at Cartago.  The little steamer then steamed up to Ferguson Landing (near the mouth of the Owens River), where she was beached.


A few months later, a small revival took place in Cerro Gordo.  The sawmill, charcoal kilns, and the Molly Stevens were all reactivated.  Lower grade ore deposits were hauled to a new mill located in the new community of Hawley (later renamed Keeler).  The ore was then shipped across the lake by the Molly Stevens, but for some reason the owners didn't feel she was efficient enough, so in the spring of 1882 they towed the Bessie Brady to the docks at Hawley.  They stripped the powerful engine from the Molly Stevens and installed it in the Bessie Brady.  Before they could get her running, an explosion and fire ripped through the renovated steamer, and she burned to the waterline, ending steamship navigation on Owens Lake.


Was the pre-maiden voyage sinking of the Molly Stevens or the fiery ending of the Bessie Brady the fuel that created this treasure legend?  That I haven't determined.  But it appears clear that the lost bullion ship legend is just that, a legend. 


There is no lost bullion ship.




Where did the 300 pound propeller reportedly found in the middle of the dry lake bed come from? 


How about the 400 pound handwrought iron anchor allegedly found in the middle of the lake by a Keeler boy?


Where DID these come from?  Is there truly lost silver on a ghost lake?


NOW, how about this E-mail I rec’d Oct 25, 2005…


“Around 1973, I met a prospector using a metal detector I believed called a “White”. But I am not sure of the manufacture. (It was probably a White’s Metal Detector - GBS).  I, as an Inyo Deputy, was called to the Cartago artesian well to meet with the gent. When we met he had a 50 +/- pound silver ingot. He explained he had followed the story that the there was so much silver on the dock, the longshoreman built housing for themselves to hide from the cold in winter. It seems, at least one, if not more fell off the steamer dock. The owner went home happy and I don’’t blame him!  At least that’s what he said!  The Olancha Deputy 1971 to 1974. ?????”


Rather intriguing!     




Ghost Town USA and Gary B. Speck Publications endorse the mission, purpose and goals of the FMDAC and support the rights of metal detectorists, treasure hunters and relic hunters to responsibly enjoy their hobbies as long as they abide by the “Treasure Hunters Code of Ethics,” AND our own Ghost Towner's Code of Ethics. This support DOES NOT either imply, endorse or condone violations of that code of ethics, nor does it give permission for anyone to damage or destroy historical sites; violate any local, state or federal laws; trespass or infringe on the legal rights of landowners.




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FIRST POSTED: February 07, 2004

LAST UPDATED: January 11, 2015



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