Deep in the Bighorn Mountains at a location long forgotten, a cabin marks the site of a gold mine abandoned before its bounty was harvested. Prospectors and explorers have searched for the cabin and its legendary treasure for more than 100 years. The few who’ve found it haven’t lived to tell the tale or reap the riches. Or so the legend goes.
Like all good lore, there are many versions of the story. Most agree it began with a group of seven prospectors who struck it rich in the Bighorns in the 1860s. Some stories identify the men as Swedes, but all agree they had built a cabin and begun to mine when Native Americans attacked. Only two escaped. Traveling by night and carrying $7,000 worth of gold, they made their way to Fort Reno in Johnson County.
The survivors couldn’t describe exactly where they’d found the gold — they didn’t know the names of any pertinent landmarks — but they were confident they could find it again. So they rallied a group of prospectors to return to the cabin.
Some say the entire party was killed in another Native American attack. Others say the party was simply never heard from again. And some stories say they were unable to retrace their steps and find the claim. All versions agree the cabin remained lost, igniting the imagination of treasure hunters for decades to come.
In some versions of the telling, one such treasure hunter finally did find the mine. But he died as soon as he returned to his wagon to travel with the news. His sudden heart attack kept the location a secret.
Later, a Buffalo resident known for wearing a live rattlesnake around his neck located the legendary lode. As at least one story goes, he sat at the bar in the Occidental Hotel, ordered a drink and was about to make the big reveal when the rattlesnake he’d carried for years suddenly bit him. He, too, died before divulging the cabin’s whereabouts.
The treasure remains lost today — if it ever existed at all.
The story is one of the enduring legends of the Bighorns, said John Woodward, the former director of the Sheridan County Historical Museum, in an email. It’s a classic “lost mine” story, he said. Like all legends centered around treasure, the key is that they found the gold but couldn’t return, he said.
The geological composition of the Bighorns isn’t associated with gold deposits, Woodward said. But there is a geological outlier on the western side of the range where gold was discovered near Bald Mountain. A small mining town called Bald Mountain City even grew around it, but the strikes weren’t commercially viable and it quickly went bust, he said.
“I think whenever you involve gold and alcohol, you always end up with some really interesting stories,” said Sylvia Bruner, director of the Johnson County Jim Gatchell Museum in Buffalo.
But like most good myths, it’s likely rooted in some long-forgotten truth that has since grown and morphed into what can only now be called a legend, she said.
Many states in the West have a “lost cabin,” she said. Wyoming, in fact, has several. This makes it harder to tease fact from fiction as people sometimes confuse the cabins and unwittingly blend old-stories into new myths.
But the lost cabin of the Bighorns and its goldmine, or some version of the story, has always been an accepted part of local lore, she said.
“I’m a little bit of a skeptic to start with, especially when it concerns treasure,” she said.
The fact that the small quantities of gold that were found in the Bighorns rarely covered the cost of production, for example, gives her pause.
And though there were skirmishes between Native Americans and non-native prospectors, there’s no record of any attack similar to the one described in the stories. Usually when there were survivors, there was some sort of documentation, she said. As far as Bruner knows, there is no such paper trail for the Lost Cabin attack.
There are some recognizable pieces in the stories surrounding the cabin. Buffalo was a town of characters in the late 1800s. One man had a pet antelope or deer. Another was known for his pet mountain lion, Bruner said. Then there was “Rattlesnake Jack,” who worked as a wrangler in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He did, notoriously, wear a live snake around his neck, she said.
Historical records of the cabin mostly refer to the myth directly or to secondhand stories attributed to the legends.
Then, on Aug. 13, 1902, the Buffalo Bulletin breathed new life into the tale with a story about gold found on Otter Creek. Two weeks earlier, the paper reported, two men had come to town claiming they’d struck it rich on a branch of Otter Creek 60 miles from Buffalo. This, people thought, could be the same area of the famous Lost Cabin gold strike. The paper said a suitable townsite had already been found and 2,000 people were expected to work the area for gold within two months.
A recent column in the Bulletin revisited the Otter Creek gold rush of 1902. It said people reported the Lost Cabin mine had been discovered covered by brush but marked by a rock with the original prospectors’ names carved in stone. The townsfolk of 1902 also said there were nuggets of pure gold that could be picked out of the rock with a knife. Men staked claims, but the big discovery led to no more than gold traces like those found in other streams in the Bighorns.
A 1947 article in the same paper said countless expeditions tried to find the cabin and people continued the hunt, but the “Lost Cabin Gold Mine [was] fast becoming a legend …”
And that is where it remains today.