Central Oregon's legendary crystal cave: Is it real?
Somewhere in the high desert of central Oregon, there's a large cave lined with quartz crystals, which you can walk into. Where is it? There are people who know ... but they're not talking. (See the "afterword," below.)
This 1910s postcard image shows a different kind of crystal cave — one
lined with ice crystals rather than quartz. This particular cave is in
Idaho, but there are several in central and southeastern Oregon as
By Finn J.D. John — March 28, 2010
Somewhere in the high desert of south-central Oregon, there may or may not be a massive cave lined with big quartz crystals, worth millions of dollars. People have been hunting for it for more than 100 years now, but they may have been looking in the wrong place – or chasing a will o’ the wisp.
The story of the crystal cave is one of those tales that can safely be called a legend. The fact is, after passing through the hands of a half-dozen authors – several of whom seem to have added little touches such as made-up dialogue to increase its appeal – it’s hard to know exactly what part of it is real.
Here’s the basic story: Sometime between 1896 and 1904, a group of cowboys stopped to camp for the night somewhere between Burns and LaPine and stumbled onto the entrance to the cave. After collecting a few samples, they continued to Bend, where they started telling people about what they’d found.
Another 1910s postcard, this one in black-and-white, shows Crook
County men getting large blocks of ice out of a Central Oregon cave.
This is where the stories diverge. One version, given a boost in a 1946 article by Phil Brogan in The Portland Oregonian, says the cowboys’ story came to the attention of a shopkeeper named Nick Smith, who went out to follow the trail of the cattle drive – in this version of the story, the cowboys were on a cattle drive. Smith found the cave, Brogan reported, but was forced to head for home when the weather turned ugly. He went back the following spring, but over the winter the landscape had changed enough to foil his effort, and he spent the following 20 years trying to get back to the cave.
This account does raise some questions. First, why would a man on a horse a day’s ride from the nearest town leave the shelter of a cave when a snowstorm threatened? And secondly, how likely is it that he and all those cowboys would, every one of them, be unable to even identify an approximate location (accurate to a square mile or two)? The weather might change the landscape over a harsh winter, but trees, mountains and rocky outcroppings don’t generally move about.
The other account is also problematic. It’s from the son-in-law of Newt Cobb, one of the cowboys who found the cave. Cobb said he and his colleagues were shearing sheep, not driving cattle, and were traveling between Millican and what’s now Sunriver. This story doesn’t mention Smith, who presumably became interested in the story later.
The problem with this account is geological. The terrain between Millican and Sunriver is simply not old enough to have grown crystals like the sample bits the cowboys brought back from the cave. So, either the samples are fakes or the story is inaccurate – in its geology, if nothing else.
The mystery may eventually solve itself, though. As Tupper points out, when the weather changes, cave entrances often give off visible plumes of condensation, so it’s not unlikely that someone will see such a plume and follow it back to the entrance. Of course, it’s also not impossible that the entrance has somehow been closed off by an earthquake or an eroding rock, and will never be found.
In the end, what we’re left with is another delicious Oregon mystery like the Lost Blue Bucket Mine or the location of Sir Frances Drake’s “Nova Albion.” Someday maybe we’ll swap that mystery for a chance to see the real crystal cave, after somebody finally finds it. But you have to wonder – would that really be a good trade?
By the way, there’s an excellent analysis of the conflicting Crystal Cave stories in Tupper’s book – which, in any case, should be required reading for anyone interested in south-central Oregon history.
After this article was published in the Redmond Spokesman, I got a phone call from a gentleman from Pendleton, who sounded about 40 years older than me. He quizzed me pretty closely about what I knew about the crystal cave, and where I thought it was. Then, with a little chuckle, he told me the cave was nowhere NEAR where the places this article talks about. In fact, it was not south of Bend, but northeast, about 150 miles out of town.
I could tell by this time that if I asked him where it was, my answer would be a good-natured chuckle and nothing more, but I tried it anyway, in a sort of oblique way. He told me quite clearly that he was NOT going to spill the beans. This gentleman said he has actually been there. And he did not sound like the kind of fellow who's got nothing better to do than make long-distance phone calls to lie to guys like me -- so I believe him. So, well, if you're thinking it might be a myth ... I'm pretty sure you're wrong about that.
(Sources: Tupper, Melany. High Desert Roses: Significant Stories from Central Oregon. Christmas Valley: 1stBooks, 2003; Wood, Patti D. “The Mystery of the Lost Crystal Cave,” Little Known Tales from Oregon History, 52. Bend: Sun Publishing, 1988)