PENNSYLVANIA: LOST WAGON LOAD OF GOLD
by Caveat Lector
By Howard M. Duffy
(reprinted from Treasure Quest Magazine)
It was a hot day in June 1863, when a dusty band of mounted Union cavalry troopers rode into the small town of Butler, Pennsylvania, a thriving lumber community north of Pittsburgh. In command of the party of eight troopers and a civilian guide was a young lieutenant, whose name has been lost in the pages of history. Townspeople wondered why a group of Union soldiers were so far from the scenes of on-going battles–but then the army does strange things, as any vet knows. This group had previously departed from Wheeling, West Virginia, with orders to proceed into Pennsylvania, at which time the lieutenant had been instructed to open his sealed orders. What a surprise met his eyes when he tore open the envelope! He was informed that the hay-filled wagon in the party had a false bottom containing 26 gold bars, each weighing 50 pounds…worth over 1.5 million on today’s gold market. Their destination was to be Washington, D.C. As Confederate patrols had already penetrated Pennsylvania, the lieutenant was ordered to take a northern, circular route through the state to the Susquehanna River, then proceed in a southerly route to Harrisburg and eventually to Washington. Under no condition was the leader to inform the troopers of the gold concealed in the wagon’s false bottom. Even before this group had departed from Wheeling, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces had gained one of their greatest victories in the Civil War at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May of 1863. The Union army, though superior in numbers, after three days of terrible fighting was defeated and retreated across the Rappahannock, after losing 18,000 men.
Elated by this victory, the Confederates pushed northward. Lee marched 80,000 men up the Shenandoah Valley and into southern Pennsylvania on his last and greatest invasion of the North. He concentrated his army at Gettysburg, where Union General George Meade blocked his progress in what became the biggest and bloodiest battle in the history of the United States…A Union victory.
Meanwhile, when Lee was driving northward, the little band with its load of gold bars pulled into the village of Butler, Pennsylvania. Instead of being welcomed by the residents, the troopers found they had entered a nest of Copperheads….the term given to northerners who opposed the war and sympathized with the South. They banded themselves into secret societies such as the “Knights of the Golden Circle” and sought to embarrass the Union by discouraging enlistments, opposing the draft and even helping Confederate prisoners escape. These rowdy villagers surrounded the treasure wagon, forcing the troopers to draw their guns to drive them away.
The following morning the soldiers hastily packed their gear and headed northward through the Clarion Valley. The party was now far enough north to evade probing Confederate patrols, it swung northeasterly bound for Ridgeway. By now the Union troopers began to speculate about what was so important concerning the hay-filled wagon. The officer told them it was none of their concern (and to) just keep guarding the wagon.
In late June, on a Saturday evening, the group finally arrived at the Elk County village of Ridgeway. To the soldiers’ amazement, the angry villagers rushed at the troopers like a horde of hungry locusts. Several times the lieutenant ordered the jeering crowd to disperse. The puzzled officer turned to the civilian guide, asking whether Ridgeway had not produced the Union’s Elk County Rifles, one of the best companies in the famed Bucktail Regiment. When informed it indeed had, the young officer was stunned by the hostility of the crowd. Deeming it too risky to camp there for the night, the officer commanded his tired troopers to saddle up. In the dark of night the party rode eastward. Its destination was the small Dutch community of St. Marys, 11 miles away. During the eastward march the lieutenant was seized by a high fever. In his delirium he mumbled the secret of the gold concealed in the false bottom of the wagon and the purpose of the mission. The troopers and guide were flabbergasted by this secret! As he was the only one who was familiar with this wild and wooded region, the guide Connors assumed command. After spending a day with the friendly residents of St. Marys, the party hit the trail for Driftwood and the headwaters of the Susquehanna River where they planned to build rafts to float the treasure downstream to Harrisburg and eventually to Washington.
Unfortunately, this plan never materialized, for the treasure wagon and its military guard mysteriously vanished after departing from St. Marys. It never reached Driftwood! Later, in August of 1863, the residents of Lock Haven, about 55 miles southeast of St. Marys, were astounded when Connors staggered into town. The guide was wild-eyed and hysterical, babbling a tragic story of how a band of robbers had ambushed his party, slaying all the soldiers before they had an opportunity to return fire. Connors was the lone survivor and was hazy about what happened to the treasure laden wagon. He believed the attackers might have been Copperheads or perhaps a band of highwaymen.
While local residents accepted his story, the army did not. Later, he was relentlessly questioned by army officers as well as by Pinkerton detectives. Although Connors adhered to his original account of the ambush, he was eyed with a great deal of suspicion. In fact, to keep surveillance of his movements, he was forcibly inducted into the army and sent to a lonely western outpost. Connors’ army buddies sometimes mentioned that when the former guide was drunk, he would occasionally mumble about the burial of the lieutenant, who had died from fever after departing from St. Marys. He claimed to know of the treasure’s concealment. When sober, however, Connors refused to talk about the treasure. Sometime after the disappearance of the troopers, dead mules were discovered in the forest. It was surmised (that) they had belonged to the treasure party. Later, scraps of harnesses bearing U.S. Army markings were also found. It wasn’t until about three years following the ambush that several skeletons were discovered in the Sent’s Run region, near Driftwood. It was believed these were the remains of the troopers. A number of years ago the U.S. Government re-opened the case by sending agents to (the) Elk-Cameron County area to conduct a search, but nothing was found.
An interesting event of about 35 years ago developed, when a man was discarding an old bed in Caledonia, about 13 miles southeast of St. Marys. Tacked to the back of the bed’s headboard was a scrap of paper, bearing the date 1863. It also mentioned a two-hour battle near a “big rock,” and the mysterious writer stated “they see me.” Could this scrap of paper have been a partial description of the massacre?
This lost treasure won’t be easy to find and will require some additional research on your part. Probably the best place to begin your field work is in the neighborhood of Dent’s Run in the Driftwood area. It is highly unlikely that there was ever an attempt to sell any of the gold bars. No doubt they had U.S. government markings, and a fifty pound gold bar would have drawn a great deal of attention to the seller. So it is very probable that this treasure still lies buried or perhaps hidden in a cave.