The Lost San Saba Silver Mine of Menard County, Texas, a mine that has been tucked in natures bosom as a challenge to enthusiastic seekers of precious minerals, and which has been the object of numerous searches for several generations, may no longer be a lost mine!
This was learned recently when the writer went to Menard to dig into the matter. A story told by a Menard housewifethe first time the story has ever been toldthrew a bright light on what has been a dark mystery for many years.
The Menard housewife is Mrs. F. D. Kothmann, granddaughter of the late Judge J. R. Norton, a famous San Antonio attorney who spent 18 years and $65,000 in a search for the fabulous old Spanish silver diggings and tons of bullion which the Spaniards mined and hid away in sealed tunnels before Indians killed them.
I made no attempt to conceal the nature of my trip to Menard, the Texas Hill Country ranch town. The word spread around and soon I was seated in Mrs. Kothmanns living room. Here the startling facts were unfolded concerning the most recent developments in the lost silver mines on Silver Draw, . . . three leagues west of the San Saba Mission, and one league north, as the old Spanish archives of more than 200 years ago directed.
Ruins of the old San Saba Mission, moved to the present site from the San Gabriel River in 1757, are located about one mile west of Menard.
Judge Norton seems to have done more toward locating the Lost San Saba Silver Mine than anyone else in the long history of the elusive lode. He became active in the search after closing his busy San Antonio law office, soon after the end of World War I. The search continued for the remainder of his life. He never released an inkling of information as to his findings to anyone except members of his family. Even the family knew very little until Judge Nortons tragic death ended his activities, and his son began to dig into the matter and to piece things together. And what the family then learned was not then revealed.
Judge Norton spent most of his time at the site during his 18-year search. He built a bunkhouse, tool sheds and other conveniences. Just before his death he told a group of inquisitive people, "It cost me $65,000 and eighteen years of hard work to learn what I know . . . Visitors may go over the place and see what there is here, but I am not giving out any information yet.
It remained for Mrs. Kothmann to tell Judge Nortons story. She said, The whole truth about the thing has never been told,
Judge Norton went to Silver Draw J to look for the Lost San Saba Silver Mine after a man by the name of Longworth came to his law office with an exciting story about the old diggings. The attorney had previously been spending odd times in researching the lost mine for several years.
Longworth wanted money for high-pressure pumps with which to evacuate large accumulations of water he had found in the old Spanish silver mines near Menard. Longworths statements stirred the lawyers interest. This was the starting point that he had been looking for.
Longworth had been one of a party of Texans who years before had stumbled onto the information that a waybill to the lost mine was tucked away in the old Spanish archives stored in a Catholic Church in Monclova, old capital city of the Mexican state of Coahuila and the Territory of Texas, about the time the silver mines were worked.
Contact was made with a young woman in Monclova who had access to the ancient documents. In time she brought out the valuable parchment and delivered it to the Texans at San Antonio.
A translation disclosed the location of the San Saba Silver Mine, which had been worked by the Spanish before 1750. In the old diggings, the record noted, was located a fabulous silver vein, plus thousands of 50-pound silver bars, all in sealed underground caves.
The Texans, with the long sought information, soon found the old mine site on Silver Draw. They worked their way into it and attempted to recover the ingots by cracking open the wall that sealed the room in which the bullion was stored. Ironically, the residue from previous flash floods kept the men from their goal. That they were on the right track was obvious, for they could see the ancient workings of the Spaniards.
Finally, after digging and hauling out endless wheelbarrow loads of stone and rubble, the men tanked up on whiskey one night. They were disgusted with the whole thing, the hard labor and all. One of them grabbed up the map that had come from the archives and angrily threw it into a blazing campfire. They swore that the whole thing was a farce.
The next morning, all of the men except Longworth left Silver Draw and were never heard of again.
Norton studied Longworths story and fell in with the scheme. He agreed to provide the capital for the necessary pumps and for the labor to haul out the residue from the underground areas.
From the portion of the old Monclova church records that Longworth had kept, Norton learned that some of the first Spaniards who came to the Southwest had found gold along the San Saba River. This was long before 1650. These people worked the gold mine and shipped large cargoes to the mother country, using Indian slave labor in the mines and smelters.
This type of servitude did not find favor among the natives, who also disliked the Spaniards practice of taking precious metals from their land. In time, a band of hostile Indians swept down upon the mine and killed all of the Spaniards, with no map or clue to the location of the mine surviving the massacre.
Later, another group of Spaniards came into the San Saba country and searched for the mine that bad been discovered and worked by their predecessors. The latest searchers used only vague reports that had accompanied the gold bullion shipments to Spain prior to the massacre. The newcomers boldly defied the hostile Indians and began to prospect the hill country in search of the lost gold mine.
The effort to find the gold mine failed. Instead, a fantastic silver lode was discovered. And this is the mineat least one, and old reports indicate that there were several along the San Saba and Liano riversthat has driven so many people to the hills in search of the lost silver diggings, the Southwests greatest silver vein and stockpile of ingots.
The gold mine remained lost, as far as the archives were concerned. And so, according to these old records, a gold mine remains lost somewhere today in the San Saba River areaunless one listens to the current stories that gold has been found along the San Saba. Could it be that the Lost San Saba Gold Mine has been found?
The Spaniards didnt think much of the silver they had found. It was far less valuable then than it is today. They wanted gold. But the silver lode on Silver Draw was so rich that they could not resist the temptation to set up mining operations, and all according to the Spanish custom of using Indian slave labor.
A presidio was established near the present city of Menard and used as a point from which to work the mines. Legend states that a long time ago a trail was visible, leading from the presidio to the mine site, and that a mine was also in production a short distance from the presidio.
Since Spain was not eager for the silver bullion, the miners stockpiled the molded metal in the subterranean chambers of their diggings, which was a spider web-like network of channels that ranged in depth from 30 to 50 feet.
Not many years later, the Indians once again went on a rampage. All of the Spaniards were killed and the presidio was completely destroyed. The old fort and mission were never re-established and the silver mine remained lost to the worlduntil the Monclova archives led Judge Norton to the location.
The diggings were very ancient in every respect, as Mrs. Kothmann described them. She made several trips into the shafts during the time that her father, H. R. Norton, worked at the project after the death of her grandfather, Judge Norton.
Using dues described in the Mondova waybill, Judge J. R. Norton had worked his way into the underground caves on the San Saba Mine site, entering the depths through a mineshaft called the "chicken ladder. There was another shaft entrance, the egg-shaped basin, through which he often descended into the caves. These entrances were described as forming a huge space in the shape of a cross, with the bullion-stockpiled underground at each end of the cross, and in the center.
Judge Norton planned to break open the sealed area at the intersection of the cross lines. At this point, he had reason to believe that he would intersect the biggest store of silver bullion in the many baffling subterranean passages where the miners had worked.
Once he had managed to make a passage down and into the chambers, Norton worked his way in a westward direction from the egg-shaped basin entrance to a point where he discovered a sealed room, just as the old Spanish document had described. At this point in her story, Mrs. Kothmann was careful to be certain of the directions she gave.
By this time Judge Norton was beset by problems. He had worked hard for a long time, clearing away tons of stones and debris, plus washed in sand. Obstacles seemed to hinder him at every turn. But he kept working. Then one day the former San Antonio attorney struck a real snagtorrents of water from a flash flood swept over Silver Draw.
This natural deluge played havoc with Nortons operations. Underground water levels rose and never receded. The pumps proved inadequate to remove the new flood of water, as had those used by Longworth and his Texas partners. An underground river apparently had changed its course and covered the whole of Nortons work.
Defeat seemed imminent, but Judge Norton did not abandon his project. He continued to attack the problems in every way that he could devise. He had found the sealed off room beyond any question. Marks made by men clearly proved that the sealing had actually taken place in the underground chambers.
At this point, Longworth left Judge Norton as his own former partners had done. But Norton worked on.
The disappointed man was never able to lower the, water levels. Pumps were not as efficient in those days as the machines of today. And underground water levels do not necessarily remain constant.
Judge Norton never decided whether he had reached the rich silver vein during his excavations, because of the water. However, during his 18 years of work at Silver Draw, he caused geophysical explorations to be made, and these revealed strong showings of silver in profitable quantities.
Judge J. R. Nortons tragic death occurred in November of 1942, when kerosene stove exploded and burned him fatally in his Silver Draw bunkhouse.
Visible today are the many mine shacks which Judge Norton built along the cliffs of Silver Draw to accommodate his expansive explorations. These remain intact and in use by a man whose venture indicates that he has overcome the obstacles that kept Norton blocked from the treasure of the Lost San Saba Silver Mine.
Work at the mine did not cease YV with the death of Judge Norton. His son, H. R. Norton, inherited the fathers mineral rights and began work on the project with the same zeal that the elder Norton had demonstrated. He tried doggedly for several years to pump out the water, crack open the sealed compartments, and get at the mine and stored bullion.
While working in the tunnels one day, H. R. Norton was overcome by black damp, a lethal gas that is sometimes present in damp underground chambers and in water wells. Norton was near death when rescued.
This was enough for the son of Judge Norton. The memory of his fathers tragic death had always been present, anyway. In deference to Mrs. Nortons wishes, he laid aside his mining tools and left Silver Draw for good, moving with his family to Illinois.
W. M. Merrick and a man named Wallace, who had worked with Judge Norton and his son in previous years, bought the mineral rights to the Norton claims. Mrs. Kothmann says that her family retained no interests in the claims, but watched current activities attentively. All members of the family feel, she says, that Judge Norton knew what he was doing, and that he had almost reached the silver vein and bullion when he died.
Since acquiring control of Silver Draw, Merrick has continued to develop the mineshafts and has established protective covers for the numerous shafts. He has developed the entire site, indicating an expenditure which goes only with full scale enterprises. At the junction of a ranch road adjacent to the mine site, a brand new sign has been nailed to a fence post. The sign reads, Silver Mines.
Citizens of Menard say that Merrick employs a number of persons at the mine, and that there is a hum of activity almost every day of the week at the site. Merrick himself told the writer that he had been successful in overcoming the water problem that had blocked a passage to the mine tunnels and the storerooms.
This should answer curious queries as to just what Merricks success has been at Silver Draw, even out further statements.
According to history, there are other lost mines on the San Saba and Liano river watersheds. The Lost Gold Mine on the San Saba, for one.
Then, there are the "Silver Mines noted on General Austins Map of Texas, compiled by Stephen F. Austin in 1840. The site is indicated as being south of the San Saba River, near an old Spanish trail. And Spanish history asserts that by February 1756, rumors had already spread over New Spain that rich silver mines existed along the San Saba and Llano rivers.
On this date, Don Bernardo de Miranda, lieutenant general of Texas, with 16 soldiers, five citizens, an interpreter and an entourage of peons, rode out of San Fernando (later San Antonio) to explore and analyze these rumors.
From the lieutenant generals trek through the little known and hostile Indian country came the famous Miranda Report, which has caused a lot of controversy among those who search for lost mines in the Texas Hill Country today.
In part, the Miranda Report reads:
The mines which are in the Cerro del Almagest are so numerous that I guarantee to give every settler of the Province of Texas a full claim
The principal claim is more than two varas in width (a vara is 33 1/3-inches) and in its western lead appears to be of immeasurable thickness. Pasturage of stock, wood, and water for mining operations, irrigable soil all natural requirements for a settlement of workerswere at hand.
The report indicated that the Miranda exploration had been made on Arroyo San Miguel, believed by some today to be Henry Creek, a tributary of the Rio de las Chamas Llano River.
Much haggling resulted from this report. Miranda was dispatched to another part of Texas within a few months and the silver mines became lost to history, as far as Miranda was concerned.
One factor that caused the Miranda Report to become a matter of controversy was a statement by Dr. Herbert Bolton who, in 1907, made an attempt to decipher some of the baffling pointi in the report.
Dr. Bolton asserted that the mysterious Boyd Shaft on Honey Creek was the mines referred to in the Miranda Report. Honey Creek is also a tributary of the Liano River, according to the account.
As a result of Dr. Boltons suggestion, the Los Almagres Mining Company was formed and more than 1,700 acres of land was purchased around the old Boyd Shaft. There have been no reports of mining, or even explorations, on the site. The whole matter disappeared from the records and a regional study is about the only way to get at the bottom of this mystery.
To add still more mystery to the entire Texas Hill Country puzzle is the report that an old smelter was dug up from the ruins of the San Saba Mission, one mile from Menard, several years ago, thus establishing the supposition that mining was carried on at an early date near the mission. People have for years dug like gophers around the ruins, vainly trying to unearth valuables believed to have been buried nearby.
There is just one conclusion concerning the lost mine situation on the San Saba and Liano riversthe Lost San Saba Silver Mine under control, and other points in the country referred to by history, fable and legend are matters of speculation.
Speculation pays off now and then, howeverespecially if the speculator possesses something of the nature of the late Judge J. R. Norton.
Ruins of the old San Saba Mission, about one mile west of Menard, Texas. The mission was moved to this site from the San Gabriel river in 1757.
On a stone portal of the old San Saba Mission can be deciphered the words Bowie Mine and the date 1829. This is believed to have been inscribed by Jim Bowie himself while in the area in search of the lost silver mine.
This marker, 25 miles east of Menard commemorates a battle in which James Bowie and ten others defeated a large party of hostile Indians in 1831.