Quest for “Lost Cabin Gold Mine” led to 12,000-acre jewel
Searching for a fabulous source of gold formerly belonging to a friend who'd mysteriously disappeared, miners stumbled across Crater Lake. They never found the gold, though; could it be that it's still out there somewhere?
A hand-tinted postcard image of Crater Lake from the 1940s. (Image:
A.M. Prentiss/ Wesley Andrews Co.)
By Finn J.D. John — July 8, 2012
Hang around a group of gold miners long enough, and sooner or later — but most likely sooner — you will hear a story involving a lost gold mine of unfathomable richness, located close by a lost cabin that folks have been looking for for the last 150 years. Depend on it.
Among gold-mining stories, the “lost cabin mine” has become a cliché, like the bug-eyed monster in science fiction or the Jessica Fletcher-type character in murder mysteries. Every state that has a gold-mining history has at least one Lost Cabin Gold Mine story.
A hand-tinted image of sunset over Wizard Island on Crater Lake, from
a 1930s postcard. (Image: Wesley Andrews Co.)
Oregon has at least four, probably a few more.
The earliest of the lot dates all the way back to the heyday of the California Gold Rush, in either 1849 or 1850, and ends with the discovery not of a gold mine, but of a jewel — a deep blue 12,000-acre jewel that we know today as Crater Lake.
“Set ’em up for the house!”
The story starts off in Yreka, California. It seems one of the well-known miners in the Yreka area came back to town from his summer’s adventures with an enormous poke of gold, which he immediately got busy “squandering happily and rapidly,” as author Ruby El Hult memorably phrased it.
His chief method for doing so involved strolling into one of the saloons and hollering, “Set ’em up for the house!” With that, he’d toss his poke to the bartender, then bask in the appreciation coming his way from all his thirsty friends — whose number multiplied exponentially as the winter wore on.
He did this so many times that the good people of Yreka took to calling him Set-em-up, and the nickname stuck so hard that his real name is, so far as I’ve been able to learn, lost to history.
The next spring, Set-em-up headed out again, and once again came back in the fall with a creakingly heavy load of gold, which he used to once again keep the entire town’s hard-drinking population warm all winter long.
Where was Set-em-up’s mine?
The regulars in Yreka, who by this time were finding the local diggin’s increasingly stingy, were very interested indeed. But for a fellow so loose of purse, Set-em-up was remarkably tight of lip. Rarely did he allow himself to get far enough into a bottle to forget what he was doing, and on those few occasions when he did, he didn’t say much.
But he did, in one of those rare unguarded moments, say that his mine was up in Oregon, not in the playing-out hills of Nor-Cal. He had a cabin up there, he said, and every summer he’d go stay in it and work the phenomenally productive diggin’s around it.
That spring, Set-em-up packed up and headed north — and was never seen again. And throughout the hard, cold, thirsty winter of 1853, the townfolk talked a lot about their missing benefactor.
The thing was, he’d clearly got his hooks onto a very attractive piece of real estate. If he’d come to some tragic end falling off a mountain or soaking up a couple bullets or arrows on his way to or from the mine, why, then, that was unfortunate, but it meant that somewhere there was an ownerless mine of phenomenal value just waiting for somebody to come take over.
So several Yreka miners put their heads together and tried to figure out where exactly this cabin in Oregon was, so they could go forth and “adopt” it.
The expedition departs
One old miner said he’d been drinking with Set-em-up one night and had been told where the place was. And yes, he said, he might be able to lead the group to it. And so, in the spring of 1853, the group packed up and set out.
The group got a little bigger at Table Rock City (now called Jacksonville), after one of the Yreka boys got a little drunk and talked too much in a saloon. Some of the witnesses decided they were going to join the party whether they were invited or not, and started following the Yreka party as it headed northward. Unable to shake the Oregon miners, the Californians finally agreed to team up with them, and they continued to search.
Almost falling into “Deep Blue Lake”
Prospector John W. Hillman of Table Rock City (Jacksonville)
was the first American of European descent to see Crater Lake,
and he nearly fell into it. This image was made later in Hillman’s
life. (Image: Crater Lake Institute)
Well, they never did find the lost cabin, nor the mine. But they did find something else. On a hunting expedition, combing through the mountains of southern Oregon in hopes of finding an animal to eat, one of the Table Rock City prospectors, John Hillman, was riding a mule along a high ridge when the animal suddenly lurched to a stop and would not budge. Hillman looked down and saw that the beast had come right to the rim of a huge crater with a brilliant blue lake at its bottom.
“Not until my mule stopped within a few feet of the rim of Crater Lake did I look down,” Hillman later wrote, “and if I had been riding a blind mule I firmly believe I would have ridden over the edge to death and destruction.”
In that moment, John Hillman became the first person of European descent to lay eyes on what we now know as Crater Lake.
Mission ends in failure, sort of
By this time, though, the party’s provisions were exhausted and the men were getting weak with hunger, and there was nothing for it but to go on back to Table Rock City. On the way back, they talked about the lake, debating whether to call it Mysterious Lake or Deep Blue Lake.
Well, back in Table Rock City the other miners considered this a total bust. They didn’t care about some stupid lake; they wanted the gold, and that had not been found. Also, the local Native Americans were restless and — perhaps having heard some rumors of how their counterparts in northern California were being treated — increasingly hostile. Table Rock City had other fish to fry, and so Deep Blue Lake was forgotten about until nine years later, when it was rediscovered by another party.
As for the Lost Cabin Gold Mine, well … there are people still out there looking for it today. So far as anyone knows, it has never been found.
But then, if you found it … would you tell anyone?
Editor’s Note: As originally told, this story blends well-documented facts — the discovery of Crater Lake by a party of miners looking for the “Lost Cabin Gold Mine” — with a folkloric version of the Legend of the Lost Cabin Gold Mine. After talking about it with Southern Oregon gold-country expert Kerby Jackson, I decided to add this note just to make sure it’s clear where the legend ends and the documented facts begin.
The main source for this account — Ruby El Hult’s book — tells the story similarly, and it may very well be correct; however, there are several different versions of this particular Lost Cabin Gold Mine story, and there’s no way of knowing which, if any, of those stories inspired the Yreka miners (if, indeed, they were from Yreka) to start northward in search of it. In fact, the Yreka miners themselves are part of the folkloric part of this story; all we know for sure is that Hillman and his party of miners left Jacksonville looking for a "lost cabin gold mine," and were doing that when they stumbled upon Crater Lake.
According to Kerby, a more popular version of the Lost Cabin Gold Mine story goes like this (and I’m quoting from Kerby’s note to me here):
One day a strange miner dragged himself into Jacksonville. The miner looked like he had seen hell, for in addition to his clothes and boots having been reduced to rags, the man was also dirty, wounded and starving. This man related a rather fantastic story to the miners who took him in.
The story he told was that he and a partner had discovered rich diggings about a day's hard ride over the mountains from Jacksonville. As the gold appeared endless, the two men had built a cabin for the purpose of staying for the long haul.
However, it was not long until the miners began to receive regular irritating visits from some local Indians and as such, they were forced to take turns taking watch and adopted a nightly ceremony of burying their day's gold in the dirt floor of their cabin. Despite their vigilance, one day the miners were ambushed and the storyteller's partner was mortally wounded. After a few days, the wounded man succumbed to his injuries and as the remaining man buried his partner in the floor of the cabin next to the gold.
Realizing that his situation was now dire, the remaining miner slipped out of the cabin and made a run for it. During his escape, the miner engaged the Indians in a running fight and though he survived, he was subsequently wounded and lost his belongings.
By time he reached Jacksonville, he was so delirious from fatigue that he seemed to have little clue about the direction which he came from or where his diggings had been located. Best guesses at the time pointed to three likely vicinities for the location of the cabin and its cache, which included the headwaters of the Applegate River, the vicinity of Yreka and finally, somewhere just beyond the Cascades.
As you will have gathered, gold miners and prospectors make some of the finest storytellers in the West. If you’re interested in more stories of this wild and colorful aspect of Oregon history, I highly recommend Kerby’s book, Gold Dust: Stories of Oregon’s Mining Years.
(Sources: Hult, Ruby El. Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest. Portland: Binford, 1957; Harmon, Rick. Crater Lake National Park: A History. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2002; craterlakeinstitute.com)