BENEZETTE — A historian who has spent decades researching the Civil War era gold rumored to have been lost near Benezette, Elk County, says he is wary of what will be found in the Federal Bureau of Investigation search currently under way in Dents Run.
“I was a little bit shocked when I heard (of the search),” said Jim Burke, a resident and member of the Mt. Zion Historical Society. That is partially because of the hurdles it takes to have such a search granted, and partially because he has his own theories about the gold.
Agents from the FBI and representatives of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) set up a search area off of Route 555, on Dents Run Road in Benezette Township Tuesday.
FBI spokeswoman Nora Scheland, who was on site, said agents were conducting court authorized law enforcement activity. As of Wednesday, spokespeople for the FBI say there is still no update on the activity there, but have confirmed there is no threat to the public.
Finders Keepers, a local lost treasure location and recovery service, which was found on scene, responded to repeated messages from the Courier Express saying, “We are under orders not to talk about this site YET.”
For some time, many have believed that a lost Civil War gold shipment that went through northern Pennsylvania during the battle of Gettysburg has been lost or hidden in Elk County.
In 1863, a Union wagon train left Wheeling, W.V. with 52 bars of gold, each weighing 50 lb., which were meant to pay Union soldiers. The wagon train was to travel northeast through Pennsylvania to Ridgway and then head southeast to Harrisburg. It made it to St. Marys and that was the last time it was seen. The wagons and dead solders were found later — but not the gold.
In 2012, Finders Keepers said it found the gold, but federal law kept them from digging for it.
According to current market value, the gold bars would be worth more than $55 million. But Burke isn’t sure that if the search is successful that all of them will be found there.
You see, Finders Keepers aren’t the only ones who have been looking for the legendary Civil War era gold haul. Burke has too.
“I’ve looked for the gold and have had a private investigator from Washington, D.C. go through our archives (at the historical society),” Burke said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
He said the story of the gold is multi-layered — some of it rooted in legend and other elements in documented fact.
According to the story Burke has pieced together over many years, three men came out of the gold train alive.
The person who was leading it, Lt. Castleton is said to have come down with typhoid fever and in his delusion, divulged the secret of what the wagon train was carrying somewhere around its last stop in St. Marys.
Other characters on the trip were a man known as O’Rourke, who was a ruthless character, as well as a man known as Conners. There are 10 said to have been in the train in total and not all of them have been accounted for.
Legend has it that Conners and two other unnamed men walked out before the wagon train met its storied end. Legend has it that Conners said that end was “over Thunder Mountain near Hicks Run.” All three went into the Civil War, but only Conners survived. He is said to have gotten drunk on numerous occasions on his return from war and would tell others in the bar — “I know where there’s gold back in the hills of Pennsylvania.” Ultimately, he died while building roads in California.
Another part of the story Burke found in searching for the gold is that when a company was surveying the Elk and Cameron county lines when Cameron branched out on its own, seven skeletons were found in the hollow of Bell Draft, near the tributary of Hicks Run.
At that time (circa the late 1800s-early 1900s), the Pinkerton Detective Agency came to the area and lore has it that 3.5 gold bars were found. After some of the detectives left the agency, they were said to have spent the rest of their lives in the area looking for the rest of the gold.
Moving forward, to the 1990s, Burke said a man named Jack Schall, who currently lives in North Carolina, came to the region to do studies on elevation marker accuracy for the government. During his stint in the region, he is said to have met a man in a St. Marys drinking establishment, who said he kept a bar of gold under his bed. According to Burke, Shaw claims the man showed him the gold bar, which he took out of a canvas basket. After this, Shaw started to travel around the county lecturing about the lost gold.
Burke said at one point his partner in the search went to a “soothesayer” in New York state.
“He didn’t tell her what he was looking for. She went into a trance and said you’re looking for gold buried in Pennsylvania,” Burke recounted, adding that she also said she heard the voice of a man, whose description fit that of Lt. Castleton, saying, “I’m stuffed down in the hole. I can’t get out. There’s a bobcat licking my face.”
While Burke, in his retelling, often paused in uncertainty about the factuality of what he knows, he said that if it is true, he doubts the FBI will find what it’s looking for.
“Let’s suppose the Pinkertons found 3.5 gold bars. That tells me there was a division of gold,” Burke said. “If they do find a box of gold on the hill (in Dents Run) it was hidden by somebody, but it’s not the whole batch.”
When asked if he thought the search would be successful, Burke said frankly, “I hope it’s not. But, it might not be the end of the story if they do. And the first thing I’d ask then is how many bars did you find. I think somebody left with some of that gold.”
And if this site doesn’t pan out, Burke has one in mind, saying only that he has found a weathered rock with an important marking scribbled on it which has yielded some noteable artifacts nearby.
In a moment of reflection, Burke said, “I often wondered what we would do if we did find it,” adding that it will bring up an interesting fight as the land is owned by DCNR, and possibly linked to the PA Game Commission, and the gold being technically owned by the federal government.
“Greed’s a terrible thing. It makes a lot of controversy sometimes,” Burke said. “If they find it, I don’t know how they’re going to handle it.”