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An Article by Ward Cameron

Full text articles are included for reference purposes only. All rights are retained by Ward Cameron. Articles must not be published, or reproduced in any way without the express permission of Ward Cameron.


The Legend of the Lost Lemon Mine

Skyline Magazine--Winter 1995

The legend of the Lost Lemon Mine is a tale of discovery, murder and madness. It seems to tap into the adventurer in us all. While many scoff at its promise of untold riches, others have spent their lives trying to unlock the mystery, and the location, of this potential bonanza of gold.

Like most stories, this tale has grown and changed over the years. The basic tale tells of a group of prospectors who, in 1870, left Tobacco Plains, Montana in search of gold. The plan was to prospect along the North Saskatchewan River, a river which still bears some gold today. Along the way, two prospectors, Blackjack and Lemon, decided to head out on their own.

Senator Dan Riley was Mayor of the town of High River in 1906. He opened his home to many travelers and frontiersman, and so was privy to endless tales of the wilderness. He was also a close associate of Lafayette French, the man who had originally funded Lemon and Blackjack in their explorations. In 1946, he wrote this account of the legend for the Alberta Folklore Quarterly in 1946:

"Blackjack and Lemon found likely showings of gold in the river. Following the mountain stream upwards toward the headwaters they discovered rich diggings from grass roots to bedrock. They sank two pits and, while bringing their cayuses in from the picket line, they accidentally discovered the ledge from which the gold came...

In camp that night the two prospectors got into an argument as to whether they should return in the spring or camp right there. After they had bedded down for the night, Lemon stealthily crawled out of his blankets, seized an axe and split the head of his sleeping partner. Overwhelmed with panic when he realized the enormity of his crime, Lemon built a huge fire and, with his gun beneath his arm, strode to and fro like a caged beast till dawn."

Since that time, numerous expeditions have searched for the gold. According to the legend, most of these groups, at least all that came close to finding the gold, met with tragedy. On several occasions, Lemon tried to lead expeditions to the mine, but whenever he approached the area, he got progressively more agitated. In the end, he was never able to rediscover the location of the mine.

Shortly after Blackjack’s death, which was blamed on renegade Blackfoot Indians, a mountain man named John McDougall was dispatched to bury the unfortunate prospector. This he did, and was later hired to lead a party back to the mine. Unfortunately for the party of miners waiting for McDougall at Crowsnest Lake, he never arrived. On his way to meet them he had stopped at Fort Kipp, Montana and drank himself to death.

Lafayette French was also determined to find the mine. For many years French searched for the gold and finally it appears that he may have succeeded. He wrote to a friend stating that he had found the mine, but was fatally burned when the cabin in which he was staying burned to the ground. He did not live long enough to share the secret of the mine’s location. The gold had thwarted it’s seekers once again.

Since then, the story has not died. Throughout the past 125 years, people have been looking for the mine. Traveling through the Crowsnest Pass today, it’s difficult to get locals to talk about the legend. They either scoff at the idea, or refuse to talk about it.

Many reports have been published trying to re–examine the historical evidence in order to locate the gold. Some reports place it in the Rocky Mountain House area, others along the southern border with Montana. Still others believe that Blackjack and Lemon were little more than hijackers returning from robbing miners in B.C. We don’t even know if the gold actually came from the Alberta side of the divide.

In the 1930’s, reports of gold in the Livingstone Range, south of Kananaskis Country, caused a small gold rush. An expedition led by George Pocaterra, an experienced trapper and prospector, found the reports to be without foundation. Once again, Lemon’s mine had eluded discovery.

In general, Alberta is not known for having gold bearing rocks. Gold is more commonly found in "hot rocks", rocks that were formed by the solidification of molten material. Alberta has very little in the way of volcanic material. British Columbia, on the other hand, has an abundance of these potentially gold bearing rocks.

Near to Coleman lies a small deposit called the Crowsnest Volcanics. This small outcropping, the only example of lava flows in the area, caused a stir in 1988 when Ron Stewart, a geological technician with the University of Alberta, and later author of the book "Goldrush, The Search for the Lost Lemon Mine", announced that he had found traces of gold in this formation. Suddenly the newspapers were full of reports that at long last the mystery had been solved.

The rush was on! Unfortunately, even with some reports as high as .074 ounces of gold per ton of rock, the values were too low to warrant commercial exploitation.

During the announcements of the ‘discovery’ of the Lost Lemon Mine in 1988, most locals remained skeptical. Mike Czech has prospected in this area since 1949 or 1950. As he put it: "I’ve looked for it, but I’ve never found it, so as far as I’m concerned it’s no story!" Mike plays his cards close to his chest. He doesn’t speak openly about his looking for the mine for so many years, and he doesn’t give interviews. Most prospectors are torn between feeling foolish for following a legend and feeling suspicious about giving away their secrets.

This year, with the floods, expectations among prospectors were high. I even found a lump of pyrite bearing quartz while I was exploring the area. My hopes were high until Mike Czech deflated me with a quick glance through his ever present magnifying glass—it was only pyrite or Fools Gold.

Fred Kuhn of Winnipeg, is the most out–going of the prospectors currently exploring the area. He and his wife spend 5 weeks every year looking for the mine. Fred feels that the country north of Coleman is some of the most beautiful country you could ever explore, and anyone prospecting that area is going to "find more gold then two guys can carry...just depends on what you call gold".

In the end, Fred concludes: "If I find it, it’s gonna stay lost! I might go up and get the odd nugget or two...but as far as I’m concerned, there’s more appeal in looking for it then probably finding it".

I’d have to agree.