Rio History: The Lost Gold Mine

Special to the PRESS

Had the trail riders found the remains of a Spanish explorer?

Jim Jennings, whose father was the civil engineer in charge of building the Brownsville Ship Channel, grew up in Port Isabel during the early 1930s.  Over the years, Jim has sent me many stories and pictures of various artifacts that he and his dad gathered while working on a variety of Rio Grande Valley construction projects. In the late summer of 1933, an unnamed hurricane came ashore at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The floodwaters of the resulting tidal surge uncovered an abandoned Civil War era military post that had once been situated on the south side of the Brazos Santiago Pass — also known as the Brownsville Ship Channel. The senior Jennings recovered four steamer trunks full of U.S. Army issue boots, bullets, small arms and personal effects of many of the enlisted men. Later in life, Jim built a series of glass cases to display these artifacts at his gas station on Balboa Island, California.

The following is from a letter I received in the summer of 1999. It had been raining for several weeks and this particular delivery of mail had gotten soaked.

Inside the envelope, I found a sodden handwritten letter. Many of the words of the three-page missive were distorted from the soaking. Wrapped in a separate sheet of paper, were several photos of a skeleton. Now this could be interesting, I thought to myself.

I used a magnifying glass to study the photos. It took about 15 minutes to decipher Jim’s words.

After the usual salutations, Jim wrote:

“I know from what you have told me, that you and your friends like to sit around your bookstore and coffee shop, telling treasure-hunting stories. Like you, I have always been a bit of a treasure hunter, seeking out the rare and unusual, wherever I travel. For many years, I have owned a house in the desert area, below Mexicali, Mexico (Baja California Norte). Our place is located on the banks of the Colorado River and it is about a forty-mile trip to the nearest small town. A while back, a friend and I explored a mountain range several miles to the east of our camp. We were riding my friend’s trail bike along an old stream bed at the base of a canyon, when we found a pile of bones. Both of us had heard legends of lost gold mines, and savage Indians that inhabited this area.”

Here the ink blurred so badly, I could only make out a couple of letters.

I sat back in my chair, thinking.

Had Jim found the skeletal remains of an early gold miner? Perhaps, he had stumbled upon an old battle site. Or could it be the final resting spot for a party of Spanish conquistadors who met their destiny while searching for the seven cities of gold reputed to be hidden under the stone ramparts of this twisting canyon?

My eyes returned to the photos of the skeleton. Were its bony fingers pointing towards the lost mine? I read on.

“We knew it was not a real old skeleton, as the skull contained teeth with fillings. Maybe the remains were of another adventurer, who, much like us, had been exploring here and met some undetermined fate.”

“We gathered the bones as best as we could and said a prayer over them. Then we searched the area for any possible signs of identity. But nothing, except the bones remained. We hope he rests in peace now.”

There was more to Jim’s letter, but the mystery was solved. No, Jim and his friend had not found the lost gold mine. And no, they had not found the remains of some ancient Spanish explorer. Though their find was of a more modern nature, somewhere, deep in the desert, the bones of some forgotten father, lost son, or perhaps the remains of a brother, rested easier now that someone had found, gathered and prayed over their mortal remains.

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