Looking for gold (and discovering snails) in Southern Utah.
© 1998 By Richard Menzies
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A haunted lake, a lost treasure, endangered mollusks, eight thousand
ghosts and one smiling skeleton. Welcome to the wacky world of
Southern Utah landowner Brandt Child.
Almost from the day it was founded by Mormon settlers in the
past century, the Southern Utah hamlet of Kanab has loomed larger
than life. Zane Grey is said to have stayed there in 1912 while
he was writing "Riders of The Purple Sage," and over the years
Kanab's colorful sandstone hills have served as a backdrop for
dozens of Hollywood westerns. Such movie giants as John Wayne,
Gregory Peck and John Ford have strode her dusty streets and lodged
in her motel rooms. But no stranger in town ever caused such a
stir as did Freddie Crystal, who arrived on a bicycle one bright
summer's day back in the summer of 1914. Waving a tattered map,
Crystal announced that he was hot on the trail of a buried treasure.
And not just any buried treasure, but the fabled gold of Montezuma!
Crystal commenced digging holes and sinking exploratory shafts
in nearby Johnson Canyon-the place where, according to his map,
Montezuma had stashed the Aztec national treasury in order to
keep it from falling into the hands of avaricious Spanish conquistadors.
Eight uneventful years passed; then came word Crystal had uncovered
an old tunnel, the entrance of which had been sealed with crude
bricks and mortar. Within hours, every able-bodied man and boy
in Kanab lit out for the hills. As the excitement mounted town
fathers even printed "shares" in the archeological dig, issuing
them in proportion to how much work each shareholder did.
One who claims to remember those days well is longtime Kanabian
Brandt Child. Child recalls that it took a while, but eventually
the farmers-cum-prospectors succeeded in breaking through the
manmade "plug" that blocked the entrance to the tunnel.
"It led into a big room," he says, "but all they found was
just bones of mules and a few artifacts. No gold. But then they
found another tunnel and it had a plug in it too. So they dug
At the end of the second tunnel, the gold seekers came upon
still another cavernous room in which they discovered a large
human skeleton propped in a sitting position. "They called him
Smiley," recalls Child, "because he looked like he was smiling."
No one else in the room was smiling, however, because there
was no gold whatsoever-only a handful of pre-Columbian artifacts
plus a sacrificial altar, "where they'd tear the hearts out of
men and throw their bodies over the cliff." Also, the ashes of
ancient campfires, "with human fingers all wrapped in bark, ready
for roasting, and human legs, and things like that."
Disheartened, the citizens of Kanab struck their tents, shouldered
their shovels, and trudged back to their potato fields. Only sporadically
after that did anyone ever go looking for Aztec treasure in Johnson
Canyon. As far as most folks around Kane County were concerned,
the case was officially closed. One who didn't give up was Brandt
Child, who'd seen and heard enough to suspect there might be a
grain of truth in Freddie Crystal's crazy story. As for the skeleton
buried in Johnson Canyon, Child contends it was just a diversion,
a red herring designed to throw gold seekers off the track. The
actual spot where Montezuma buried his treasure, he believes,
is in another canyon 10 miles to the west-at the bottom of an
Child's theory took root one day as he was exploring Three
Lakes Canyon and came upon a symbol scratched into the face of
a sandstone cliff-a mark he recognized as "an Aztec treasure sign."
Not long afterward he made an offer to buy the property, disregarding
rumors that had circulated around Kanab for years that the largest
of the three lakes was haunted.
"They said a stagecoach went off the road into it and sank,
and everybody aboard drowned," Child explains. "They also used
to say it was a bottomless lake."
Not long after he acquired the deed to the lake 10 years ago,
Child put the lie to the second rumor. Equipped with 2,000 feet
of rope, he rowed to the middle of the pond and lowered a weight.
It turns out the lake isn't bottomless after all. It's 35 feet
deep. "And that interested me," he continues, "because I'd read
in National Geographic that the Aztecs always liked to bury their
treasure in water traps 35 feet deep!"
What the crafty Aztecs would do, Child explains, is dig a tunnel
leading to the treasure trove and then flood the entrance by damming
a stream and creating a lake. And to make sure no one gave away
the hiding place, everyone who'd had a hand in the project would
be killed. Ergo, the ghosts that haunt the area.
How many ghosts? Child estimates the number of Aztec ghosts
that inhabit his wetland at around 8,000. That's how many he figures
it would take to transport 45,000 pounds of gold from Mexico City
to Kanab, assuming it would take about a week for a runner to
cover the distance carrying a 50-pound sack of gold on his back.
The Aztecs could accomplish such amazing feats because they were
the finest ultra-marathoners the world has ever known.
"When Cortez came into the Aztec country down there," Child
explains, "he was amazed at their culture. They didn't allow their
children to walk anywhere, they had to run, carrying weights and
everything else, their water and their food and alltheir commerce.
They had to run-it was the law of the land-and 150 miles a day
was just normal for a man or a teenager to run, carrying a 50-pound
Montezuma could get away with such things because in his day
there was no such thing as the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration. Not to mention the Environmental Protection Agency
or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that stepped
in and slapped a stop work order on Child shortly after he fired
up his backhoe and set about digging a drainage ditch. Turns out
Three Lakes isn't just home to the restless spirits of 8,000 Aztec
warriors; it's also the only known habitat of a thumbnailsized
snail called Oxyloma haydeni kanabensis-or the Kanab ambersnail.
And under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, the mollusk
cannot be molested, nor can its habitat be altered in any way.
Down but not yet out, Child switched to Plan B. He recalls
he hired a team of scuba divers to go to the bottom of his lake
and see what they could see. "No problem," they said, "we'll have
it all explored in a couple of hours and be outta here."
The team ended up making three separate dives, but each time
ran into a host of technical problems. "Their air tanks lost their
air," Child recalls, "their air compressors wouldn't work to refill
their bottles, and annoying things like that. The second time
they came with metal detectors, sonar, intercoms, a dry suit-everything.
They were really prepared, and I was up there in my boat, helping
"Well, they found the tunnel and they got their man down there
in his dry suit, and he got back in 60 feet. But then we had to
make a new connection on the umbilical cord and the intercom line,
and we couldn't find the connector. Anywhere. We knew we'd brought
it, but we couldn't find it. And then a couple of other things
happened, so they had to give up the second time."
The third time the dive team came they arrived fully prepared
with everything, including extra compressors, extra connectors,
extras of everything.
"'But,' they said, 'we won't charge ya a dime for all our work,
but we want 50 percent.' And they wrote up a contract and said,
'Unless you sign this, we're not gonna dive.'
"And so I signed it. I got in my boat, and I had a hold of
the intercom line. First diver went down and he got back in there
60 feet and he started screamin' his head off over the intercom.
'Get me out! Get me out! There's eerie figures all around me.
I'm bein' choked. I can't breathe, get me out!'"
Child and the others hauled the hysterical diver up to the
surface. The more he raved, the more they suspected nitrogen narcosis.
"So one at a time each diver went down there, and each one
had the similar experience. When they came out they all said,
'We never wanna dive in that lake again!'"
So that's how it sits-45,000 pounds of gold guarded by an army
of 8,000 Aztec ghosts, protected by 100,000 endangered snails.
No question about it, Brandt Child's land development plans have
been thwarted-still, he hopes to realize a profit from his investment
eventually. Since President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante
National Monument two years ago, tourism is on the rise and Child
has decided to turn his 400-acre roadside plot into a campground
and RV park. And to finish building his dream home.
"That's what I bought it for," he concludes, "to...uh, enjoy.
I always wanted a piece of property with some water."
* * *
Richard Menzies admires eccentrics because he is one. He lives
in Salt Lake City, Utah.