February 11, 2007
It started with the persistent concussion of metal on rock.
A cluster of local lads ran off to investigate. What they found was an oddly dressed man, a solitary stranger, digging on South Mountain. He was like nothing anyone had ever seen before in the hardscrabble Bristol, Vermont, of 1800.
The boys approached timidly only to be promptly repelled with menacing gestures and a assault of foul, foreign-sounding epithets.
Bewildered, terrified, they raced home to tell their fathers.
Soon Bristol citizens rallied to discuss what might be happening on South Mountain. The local storekeeper recalled a "rough and uncanny" stranger who had entered his establishment, purchased some supplies, mostly victuals, and vanished into the hills. "He weren't a Frenchman," the storekeeper assured them. Turns out he wasn't an Irishman, German, or Dutchman, either.
The boys' fathers and older brothers charged off to confront the mysterious intruder. Armed, they made their way up the mountainside. The impact of his ax against stone led them directly to the lone laborer.
Hardly fearful of the arriving horde, the old man faced them, commanding them to leave at once.
They refused, reminding him that he was the trespasser. He’d better explain himself, they said, or they'd run him out of town.
The foreigner had no choice but to acquiesce. And the tale he told changed the history of the region.
He said his name was DeGrau, that he was Spanish, and had visited the area many years ago as a child. His father and a group of associates were miners who had randomly prospected throughout New England. There on South Mountain in Bristol (then called Pocock) they discovered a rich vein of silver and had begun a mining operation.
Eventually they accumulated a massive amount of high grade ore which they smelted into silver bars. In the fall, while preparing to leave, they discovered they had far too much wealth to carry away. They walled the surplus treasure up in an oven-shaped cave and disguised the entrance with earth and vegetation, planning to return for it later.
Before departing for their faraway homes the miners agreed that in order to reclaim the loot they must all travel together, as a group. For various reasons they never coordinated the return trip. Presumably, they had already carted off enough wealth and never had to refill their coffers. Over the years the original miners died off until Señor DeGrau – now quite elderly -- was the only one left.
After some deliberation, the villagers decided that the Spaniard's story had the ring of truth. Ultimately, they believed him.
But, the old man explained, the land wasn't exactly as he remembered it (a fact possibly attributable to the 1755 earthquake that dramatically altered local topography).
Still, the solitary prospector dug and poked and prodded and eventually wandered off into oblivion, apparently without finding his prize.
In the years to come an array of Bristol locals picked up ax and continued where the Spaniard had left off. They discovered some ancient signs of a mining operation, a mysterious marked container, and a few nondescript odds and ends. These worthless finds inspired more treasure hunters, but years of intermittent excavations revealed no mine and no silver.
For decades Bristol treasure hunters were joined by opportunists from far and wide, all determined to secure the Spaniard's silver.
In the mid-1800s a group of Canadians arrived and organized a stock company. An affable sixty-year-old, florid-faced giant known as "Uncle Sim" directed the operation. He spurred the diggers on with humor and charisma, taking his directions from trusted fortune-tellers. One was a woman from Pawlet whom Uncle Sim regularly consulted. Another was an "old Frenchman" who conjured from his cabin on the eastern side of the mountain. Without callusing their hands or wielding an axe, their paranormal vision allowed them to identify the spot where the treasure lay. The amount that would eventually be unearthed, they promised, was $3,100,000 [over $50,000,000 in today’s coin].
Uncle Sim raised funds by promising a hundred dollar return on every dollar invested.
From 1840 to 1852 they dug shaft after shaft, some through solid rock, some 40 and 50 feet deep. One sank to well over 100! Still the silver remained just out of reach.
Shafts caved in, filled with stifling gas, or flooded with water. As much effort went into reclaiming holes as digging them. But no treasure came to light. After more than twelve years and thousands of dollars, Uncle Sim gave up.
But unlike the rock face of South Mountain, Uncle Sim’s faith was never shattered. About a decade later he returned alone. He had met a new conjurer who assured him that by moving just a few stones he could open a passage leading directly to the treasure.
By then he must have been in his eighties, a frail and broken man. His effort was short lived. Defeated, he tottered off into oblivion.
In spite of repeated failures, organized efforts to find the Spaniard's silver continued intermittently.
As recently as 1934 a man from New Haven took up the cause. His treasure finding techniques were more modern than Uncle Sim’s. Instead of consulting conjurers, he used his "divining rod," then began digging and dynamiting until little was left of the earlier excavations. It wasn’t long before he too left, tired, and discouraged.
The forlorn remnants of Addison’s Big Dig remain on South Mountain to this day. “The Money Diggings”, as they are locally called, are on private land. With permission, you can traverse the inhospitable terrain (as nasty as any in the state). You can still discover the rough rock caves where Uncle Sim’s crew lived during their twelve years on what has become known as “Hell’s Half Acre.”
You can locate the filled shafts and — if you’re brave enough -- descend into the only pit that remains open. It drops at a precarious 45-degree angle into – so they say -- a hand-dug cavern large enough to hold a dancehall. From there, three additional shafts burrow into the bowels of the mountain.
It is a dangerous spot, perhaps more so because of the hellhound and demon boy Uncle Sim swore will eternally guard the true path to the treasure.
The bottom line is that in two hundred years Addison’s Big Dig has produced nothing but questions: Was there ever any silver or treasure of any kind? Did one of the diggers secretly find the stash and covertly carry it away? Or is it still there, securely hidden, ready to inspire another century of treasure hunting?
Quite possibly someone is digging there now.
Strange, almost fleshy rock faces: slippery, alien, and almost always hazardous.
Franklin S. Harvey was there while Uncle Sim was bossing the spirit-guided dig. Later Mr. Harvey told the story in a series of articles for the Bristol Herald (1888-89). Later still, his accounts were collected for this little book (now quite rare).
© 2007 by Joseph A. Citro