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Still Searching for the Mojave’s Lost River of Gold

Kokoweef sign Mojave Desert (banner image)
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Photo: Kim Stringfellow
Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.

This dispatch concerns the fabrication and distortion of legends over time. Specifically, it delves into a fascinating saga revolving around a conjectured Mojave Desert gold strike of epic proportions still actively sought by an eclectic and persistent group of quixotic speculators: Earl P. Dorr’s Lost River of Gold.

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“Either Uncle Earl Dorr discovered the richest gold deposit in the United States... or he was the most imaginative liar in the state of California.”1 
-- Ray Dorr, nephew of Earl Dorr, "Argosy" magazine, September 1967

In 1933, a number of scattered newspaper articles appeared across Southern California extolling the grandeur and beauty of some recently discovered massive limestone caves within the Mojave’s Providence Mountains near the old Bonanza King Mine. Known today as Mitchell Caverns, these geological wonders were named after Jesse E. “Jack” Mitchell who had initially explored the caves in 1929 and would later market them into a popular recreational destination accessible from the National Trails Highway, better known as Route 66.

Writer Philip Johnston’s detailed observations of these particular subterranean treasures were published in the August 1933 issue of "Touring Topics," a precursor to "Westways," underwritten by the Automobile Club of Southern California that is still in print today. Johnston’s article “Crystal Caverns of the Mojave” along with its accompanying photographs celebrated the beauty and geological mystery of the caves and speculated what future speleological discoveries awaited in the Mojave Desert.

Lost Treasures 1989 "Underground River of Gold" is one of many treasure hunting articles peddling the infamous Dorr legend. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow
"Lost Treasure's" 1989 article, "Underground River of Gold," is one of many treasure hunting pieces peddling the infamous Earl P. Dorr gold legend. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Several regional newspapers ruminated further, including the "San Bernardino Sun;" in a piece dated August 5, 1933: “Miners and prospectors have suspected for years that these caverns may be connected by a great underground river that rises somewhere in the center of Nevada, fed by the winter snows of Nevada’s numerous mountain ranges, and passing southward through the Mojave desert and then on to the Colorado River.” The column goes on to state how “this great river has not been discovered. In fact, it may exist only in the imagination of desert dwellers whom [sic] thoughts of water are recurring constantly. But the legend prevails.”

Mythic accounts of buried treasure and lost mines had been circulating amongst desert prospectors for years. Author John D. Mitchell (no relation to the Caverns recreational promoter) published several collections of these yarns starting with “Lost Mines of the Great Southwest” in 1933. Beginning 1940, "Desert Magazine" began reprinting Mitchell’s “lost mine” stories every few months well in into the 1950s.

"Cave of the Golden Sands" (left) and "Death Valley Gold" (right) are two of John D. Mitchell's lost mine stories published in Desert Magazine during 1940 and 1951. Each incorporate varying storylines woven into Dorr's legend.
"Cave of the Golden Sands" (left) and "Death Valley Gold" (right) are two of John D. Mitchell's lost mine stories published in "Desert Magazine" during 1940 and 1951. Each incorporate varying storylines woven into Earl P. Dorr's legend.

“Death Valley Gold,” published in March 1940, told the tale of two “Pahute” brothers that had discovered a limestone cave at the edge of a dry lake somewhere in Death Valley leading into a “dome-shaped cavern with a dark pool of water at the bottom.”2 Here, water bubbled up from some unknown depth along with “great amounts of heavy black sand piled on the terraces around the lake” that upon close inspection “sparkled with small nuggets and flakes of gold.” Strangely, the body of water seemed to be affected by tidal movements.3 After gathering the gold laden sand to pack out, one of the brothers decided to take a quick swim in the pool when suddenly the water along with the man were sucked into the chasm. The man’s body was never to be recovered. Notably, the illustration’s caption accompanying the story reads: “Neither Mr. Mitchell nor the 'Desert Magazine' would attempt to defend the authenticity of this tale.”

In August 1951, Mitchell’s “Cave of the Golden Sands” appeared in "Desert Magazine’s" August issue. This first person account, told to the author by an older gent at a Nevada mining camp at the turn of the century, shared a similar storyline but with a mysterious lone prospector as the main protagonist who claimed that he collected four pounds of gold nuggets from a “black sand deposit near Clark Mountain northeast of Nippeno [Nipton].”4 This cave was said to be located just above the western edge of a dry lake -- most likely Ivanpah from the description. While exploring the cave the prospector discovered a long tunnel leading to an amphitheater-like grotto “full of churning water” that appeared to ebb and flow as if controlled by tidal surges. The water would erupt miraculously “twice every 24 hours” and then drain furiously via a whirlpool only to reveal a black sand beach gleaming with gold.

By fall of 1934, an equally fantastic account of long-forgotten Hollywood photographer and desert explorer A.W. Plummer was published front-page in the September 28 edition of the "Los Angeles Evening Herald Express," proclaiming “330-Mile California Cave System Rediscovered.” The unsubstantiated story posits his theory that a “system of giant underground caves, through which flows a mighty subterranean river” extends for some 300 miles from southern Nevada to the Mexican border.

A.W. Plummer's photograph of the Mitchell Caverns appears in an October 17, 1934 article in the San Bernardino Sun proposing that the cavern is part of a vast subterranean system interconnecting the American Southwest. | Image courtesy Anna Garcia.
A.W. Plummer's photograph of the Mitchell Caverns appears in an October 17, 1934  article in the "San Bernardino Sun" proposing that the cavern is part of a vast subterranean system interconnecting the American Southwest. | Image: newspapers.com.

The problem with Plummer’s assumption is that geologists had already discounted the possibility that an underground river of this magnitude could exist within the eastern Mojave. The article goes on to state that Plummer was exhibiting his photographs of 14 cavern openings “strung out over 300 miles in a jagged and twisting line” that he had been documenting over the last three years. Plummer noted that he was not the original discoverer of the caves -- Native Americans and Spanish explorers had long known about their existence -- but that he was the first to postulate that these were part of an immensely linked cavern system spreading across the American Southwest. Plummer had concluded this through personal observation including the presence of “fresh winds” emanating from within the depths of the various cave openings he had explored.

In December 1935, "Westways" had published a follow-up to Johnston’s 1933 "Touring Topics" article, retracing much of his previous report, with the exception of his mentions of the surprising discovery of a certain prospector named E.P. Dorr along with his affidavit outlining in detail his "three days odyssey through passages of a great cavern.”5 Dorr’s treasure was not within the Providence Mountains but in Kokoweef Peak, located about 35 miles north as the crow flies in the Ivanpah Mountains. This was the first public acknowledgement of Dorr’s 1934 sworn affidavit and it appears that he had contacted Johnston is his effort to make his story public.

From its inception, Dorr’s story was riddled with discrepancies. Variations of the account made attempts to unravel an accurate story and factual chain of events extremely complicated. But legend has it that Dorr first learned of Kokoweef’s vast hidden treasure from three Indian brothers -- Oliver, Buck and George Peysert -- said to have been previous hired hands at his father’s Colorado Springs ranch during the 1890s.6 At least this is the story outlined at kokoweef.com.

Portrait of E.P. Dorr found in Willard Dorr, Jr's estate. | Image courtesy Ralph Lewis.
Portrait of E.P. Dorr found in Willard Dorr Jr.'s estate. | Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Lewis.

Allegedly inspired by tribal lore, the Peysert brothers had set off from the Dorr Ranch sometime between 1903-05 in search of Kokoweef’s untold riches, said to be centered around this 6,037-foot peak, situated three miles south of Mountain Pass in California and about 19 miles west of the Nevada state line on Interstate 15.

Within six short weeks of their arrival the Peysert brothers had gained access into a subterranean cave system via Kokoweef’s Crystal Cave -- one of three solution cavities inside the peak that developed along fault contacts. Kokoweef Peak is composed of Mississippian and Pennsylvanian limestone, which can slowly be dissolved in acidic rainwater, snow melt and percolating groundwater. The waters that dissolved the limestone followed fissures along faults of late Mesozoic age. Although the limestone formations are between 340-300 million years old, the actual dissolution to form caverns started much later, probably in the Ice Age, only a million years ago.7

After purportedly exploring several miles of serpentine labyrinth interspersed with deep vertical karst and vast limestone ledges, to the brothers' amazement, an enormous underground river materialized. More astonishing was how the black sand beach was rich in placer gold. After liberating as much of the gold-laden sand as they could carry on their backs, the three began their ascent out of the cavern -- but not before tragedy struck when brother George plunged into the river to his death.8

Distraught but determined, the two brothers made their way back to civilization, traded in their extremely profitable discovery to the U.S. Mint, then allegedly deposited more than $57,000 between banks in Needles and Las Vegas. The legend further suggests that the brothers never revisited Kokoweef again, as tribal custom forbade them from entering the cave after their sibling’s unfortunate demise.9 This tragic incident would not deter Dorr, a “cowboy turned prospector” now in his late 30s, who supposedly set off during the late 1920s to undergo his own odyssey to locate Kokoweef’s golden bonanza.

The Kokoweef beacon at Mountain Pass on I-15 that continues to lure tourists and treasure seekers to the famed mine. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
The Kokoweef beacon at Mountain Pass on I-15 continues to lure tourists and treasure seekers to the famed mine. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Kokoweef Peak lies in a verdant Joshua tree woodland accessible by car from the Bailey Road exit off Interstate 15. Heading east on Bailey, drivers will pass the blue and white beacon signaling the way to Kokoweef, Inc. about three miles down a series of dirt roads. It is here where this larger-than-life legend continues to play out, captivating treasure hunters, hungry investors and curious thrill seekers for well over 80 years now.

As mentioned earlier, extensive cave systems do exist throughout the Mojave Desert. Mitchell Caverns (currently closed due to vandalism) features a trio of immense limestone caves with spectacular travertine “draperies,” stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and other wondrous subterranean mineral formations. Kokoweef Peak in its own right has three considerable, nearly vertical caverns named Kokoweef, Crystal and Kin Sabe -- a misspelling of Quien sabe? Spanish for “Who knows?”

And, true, a rich diversity of mineral wealth is centered in the region. Standard Mines Company shipped thousands of tons of copper ore rich in gold and silver from here at the turn of the century, and telltale signs of early Spanish mines can be discerned on ledges and rock outcrops throughout the area. The mining facility operated by Molycorp, Inc., which filed for bankruptcy in 2015, looms north of the I-25, and when in production extracted rare earth elements used in cell phones, TVs, fuel cells and photovoltaics.

Fantastic as it seems, Dorr also claimed success in locating the Peysert brothers’ subterranean mother lode -- at least this is the story that the majority of treasure magazines proffering the legend seem to suggest. The holy grail of the Dorr legend is an affidavit notarized in Pasadena on November 16, 1934, published in the "California Mining Journal’s" November 1940 issue six years after it was notarized. In this document Dorr, and an unnamed accompanying civil engineer, began their explorations of “certain caverns” during May of 1927, spending four days within the cave system and traveling “a distance between eight and nine miles.” Curiously, nowhere in this particular affidavit does it mention Kokoweef Peak or Crystal Cave as the actual location, nor is there any mention of the Peysert brothers.

To confuse matters more, there are at least two affidavit versions floating around -- kokoweef.com claims that their copy of the hand-typed document notarized on December 10, 1934, is the original -- even though the notarized date on the first affidavit is a month earlier. Still the two documents share much of the same information with the exception that the second “original” version differs in that it names a “Mr. Morton” as the civil engineer, and states how Dorr had first been made aware of the caverns through the Peysert brothers. Suspiciously, these crucial details were added after the November 16 version. Future published references of Dorr’s story in treasure magazines would print either affidavit interchangeably.

The imaginative details of Dorr’s find are out of this world, as can be gathered from excerpts from the November 1934 affidavit version:

"This is to certify that there is located in San Bernardino County, California, about two hundred and fifty miles from Los Angeles, a certain caverns... From the mouth of the cave we descended about 2000 feet. There, we found a canyon, which, on our altimeter, measured about 3000 to 3500 feet deep. We found the caverns to be divided into many chambers, filled and embellished with the usual stalactites and stalagmites, besides many grotesque and fantastic wonders that make the caverns one of the marvels of the world.

On the floor of the canyon there is a flowing river which by careful examination and measurement (by triangulation) we estimated to be about 300 feet wide and with considerable depth. The river rises and falls the tides of the sea -- at high tide, being approximately 300 feet wide, and at low tide, approximately 10 feet wide and four feet deep.

When the tide is out there is exposed on both sides of the river from 100 to 150 feet of black beach sand which is very rich in gold value. The sands are from 4 to 11 feet deep... We explored the ledge sands for a distance of more than eight miles, finding little variation in the depth and width of the sands."

The second affidavit dated December 10, 1934, embellishes the story further:

"One [stalactite], the largest seen, is 27 feet in diameter and hangs 1510 feet down into a 3000 foot canyon. This great stalactite is perpetually washed by water flowing over it and falling into the dark canyon depths. The huge glistening white crystal is 500 feet longer than the Eifel Tower, and challenged us with amazement and wonder."

Renderings of "The Cavern of Gold" appearing in William R. Halliday's 1959 "Adventure is Underground" that were drawn from original maps supervised by E.P. Dorr. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow..
Renderings of "The Cavern of Gold" appearing in William R. Halliday's 1959 "Adventure is Underground" were drawn from original maps supervised by E.P. Dorr. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Dorr goes on to state within the December affidavit that his last conversation with Oliver and Buck Peysert was at his home in Pasadena on November 10, 1934 -- six days after the first affidavit was notarized. Finally, both affidavits declare that the 2.5 pounds of sand collected along the ledges were assayed at $2,145.47 per yard or $20.67 per ounce by John Herman in Los Angeles -- although no record of this document seems to exist.10 So with gold hovering at $1,355.00 per ounce as of August 2016 the stated assay would translate into billions of dollars today.

The fabrications of Dorr’s story that arose soon after the publication of his affidavit in the 1940 "California Mining Journal" are legendary and, not surprisingly, fraught with inconsistencies. For instance, one version of the yarn suggests that Morton became dreadfully ill while inside Crystal Cave and had to be lugged back to the surface single-handedly by Dorr where he was met by two prospector acquaintances that just happened to be camping outside the cave’s entrance. The men supposedly helped Dorr bring Morton out and down the mountainside and while doing so, ended up eyeing the gold-laden sand thereby exposing Dorr’s windfall.11

The story shatters into a multitude of versions at this point. Some accounts propose that Dorr set a blast charge sealing the passage before or even just after coming up to the surface and encountering the two men. Others have Dorr returning at some later point to do so in his effort to conceal from claim jumpers. Another version suggests that Dorr blew the entrance while the two prospectors were inside entombing them and thus sealing their fate. Of course, their remains were not discovered during subsequent explorations of Crystal Cave and if they hadn’t been victims of Dorr’s wrath then these two characters (who, if available, would be able to back his story) were never heard of again. Rather conveniently, too, “Mr. Morton” failed to physically materialize to corroborate Dorr’s sworn affidavit.

Kokoweef, Inc. headquarters with its namesake peak in the background. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Kokoweef, Inc. headquarters with its namesake peak in the background. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

It is true that a Southern California Grotto (the Pasadena-based chapter of the National Speleological Society) exploratory team of 34 cavers led by renowned spelunker Dr. William Halliday, found "DORR" ominously smoked with a carbide lamp onto the ceiling in two locations during their November 1948 caving exploration. The group additionally noted "DORR" at a deeper location above a pile of flowstone rubble with the ghosted black line suggesting that a blast charge could have been set here previously.12

Although not stated in either affidavit, later published accounts would state that while exploring the cavern for some length Dorr and Morton observed a fissure allowing daylight to stream in, signaling the possibility of another portal entrance. This partially suggests why Dorr purportedly blasted the Crystal Cave entrance shut, gambling that he would later, and perhaps effortlessly, locate a secondary access point after the dust settled down. The problem was he could not find this elusive entrance. To make matters worse another miner, Pete Ressler (rumored to have run with the Butch Cassidy gang), held most of the claims in and around Kokoweef peak so Dorr was not able to stake a claim at this original Crystal Cave entry point.

The publication of Dorr’s story in Johnston’s "Westways" article in 1935, along with his sworn affidavit, convinced Herman Wallace and some other willing Los Angeles investors to bankroll his project -- a feat during the lean Depression years. That same year the syndicate formed Crystal Cave Mining Corporation. By 1939, they had bought out Ressler’s 14 Kokoweef area claims for $5,000 and began tunneling an adit from Kin Sabe in an effort to connect with Crystal Cave -- but this endeavor was unsuccessful.

Undeterred, the outfit attempted another linkup from Kokoweef Cave, but in the process discovered something else -- high-grade zinc ore. When refined, zinc can be used for brass manufacturing, galvanization processes, tire production and other industrial uses deemed crucial during the burgeoning war effort. This discovery -- along with the Federal Government’s 1933 Executive Order 6102, which banned private ownership of gold coin, bullion and other monetary forms, and the 1942 ban on the extraction of non-strategic metals such as gold during wartime -- brought the entire operation to a standstill. If the zinc strike had not been discovered as certain world events aligned, the Crystal Cave Mining Corporation may have continued in their search for Earl’s River of Gold.

Ray Dorr's 1967 Argosy map showing Dorr's cave and cabin in the Mescal Range, about 5 miles north of Kokoweef Peak.
Ray Dorr's 1967 Argosy map showing Earl P. Dorr's cave and cabin in the Mescal Range, about five miles north of Kokoweef Peak.

Sometime in the mid-to-late 1930s, Dorr began independently tunneling a possible connection to the illusive portal at one of his area claims in the Mescal Range near the old U.S. Highway 91 (now Interstate 15) -- oddly located about five miles north of Kokoweef and Dorr peaks. Here, not far from the shack that Dorr built, is a canyon leading to a steep hillside cave where it seems he dug a 100-foot shaft seemingly to nowhere, which was later abandoned after Dorr moved on to find paying work.13 When Dorr died in 1957 during a mining accident, it was said that he only had a few hundred dollars to his name.

There is no doubt Dorr explored Kokoweef’s Crystal Cave and several others nearby in the years before 1934. To what extent, we will never know. What he discovered during his explorations remains a conjecture. The subterfuge he chose to promote was likely embellished with local lore, fueled by his contemporaries’ front-page accounts of fantastic discoveries, driving him to dream up a more imaginative speleological wonder in his effort to lure investors to grubstake him in his search for the Mojave’s fictionalized Lost River of Gold.

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Dorr’s fabrication continues to tempt others to follow in his footsteps in a never-ending saga to unlock the mysteries of Kokoweef. But these endeavors often end in folly. For instance, in 1959 two treasure hunters illegally set a blast deep within Crystal Cavern, only to asphyxiate to death from toxic dynamite fumes.

In 1963, a near shootout erupted at Kokoweef between drill workers hired by Emmett J. Culligan, of water softening fame, and Charles O. Thompson, a former Corona high school track star residing in Llano, California, who had at the time leased a mining option with a group of investors from Crystal Cave Mining Corporation. Culligan’s men were conducting exploratory drilling in the area spurned, not surprisingly, by his own interest in underground rivers. Thompson later filed a court injunction against the retired water-softening mogul and his partners, charging that Culligan’s activities were infringing upon his legitimate mining operation, thus igniting a lengthy court battle.

Meanwhile, Culligan was busy drilling 12 miles south of Kokoweef at Cima with a traditional water-drilling rig, but upsized to an oil drill rig that he had purchased and brought over from Long Beach. The team did manage to punch a “blow hole” where fresh air miraculously flowed, suggesting that it was connected to other cavern network openings. Culligan, who was less interested in locating gold and more so in finding water, looked into obtaining industrial strength dye he called “red smoke” that he planned to drop inside the opening, and then fly around the area to map where the smoke escaped from other geological orifices -- except that the U.S. Army did not to provide him with the chemical for private use. In the end Culligan spent upwards of $75,000 of his own money to fund the project, and Thompson got into hot water himself for failing to pay back taxes on mining claims.

This well-publicized court case, along with intrigue driven by the plethora of treasure hunting magazines peddling the ever-popular Dorr legend, continued to stoke renewed interest in locating the Mojave’s Lost River of Gold.

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“Be ensured the enthusiasm remains.”

-- Kokoweef, Inc.

By 1972, a new group of “gold-blind” Kokoweef enthusiasts, organized under the auspices of Concave Mining Company, had leased the now patented Kokoweef claim and were soon hard at work in their effort to locate a cavern passage into Dorr’s alleged River of Gold. To offset exploratory expenses, they began conducting public tours for $2.50 per person and hawked ornamental mineral specimens brought out of the cave by the truckload.

In 1974, after investors revolted over embezzlement allegations, a new company formed, Legendary Kokoweef Caverns, Inc., which proceeded to issue new unregistered stock and interest bearing notes. Under their direction, a horizontal 750-foot tunnel under Crystal Cave, along with a 150-foot inclined raise sited upward, were completed allowing them to vigorously clean out debris from the bottom of the cave network. However, embroiled with concerns over financial and legal liabilities for nearly 10 years, they too abandoned their lease.

By the mid-1980s, a North Las Vegas military surplus store owner named Larry Hahn had taken the helm as head of Explorations Inc. of Nevada, which reorganized in 2006 as Kokoweef, Inc., with Hahn appointing himself as president/treasurer along with a 51-percent stockowner share in the corporation.

Ralph Lewis, who worked on and off at Kokoweef Peak from 1979 until 2001, now affectionately refers to the camp as "Squalorville." | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Ralph Lewis, who worked on and off at Kokoweef Peak from 1979 until 2001, now affectionately refers to the camp as "Squalorville." | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

The current operation, still headed by Hahn, is funded through stockholder monies from 300 to 500, to as many as 1,000 investors, who on average have each purchased a minimum of $600 dollars in Kokoweef, Inc. stock. At least 11 individual investors have sunken $100,000 a piece into the enterprise.14 Presently, day-to-day operations are run by a small group of amateur investor volunteers residing either full or part-time on site, including several retired gaming employees, a former sheriff and a near doppelganger for Hunter S. Thompson who just happens to have graduated from the same high school as I did in Kent, Washington, five years before me.

Ralph Lewis, working today as a union electrician, caught the Kokoweef bug in 1979 just after his honorable discharge from the Army. He had been tipped about the Dorr legend by his brother who had read about Kokoweef in the 1967 "Argosy" magazine article authored by Ray Dorr, one of Earl’s nephews. Lewis had planned to spend only two weeks visiting the site, but ended up staying on for two years as a volunteer worker. He lived on and off at the camp -- which he somewhat affectionately nicknamed “Squalorville” -- until 2001, including an eight-year full-time stint at the Kokoweef mill site. Over time Lewis gained extensive knowledge of the peak’s cavern system through “drilling, blasting, mucking and mapping,” and has conducted tours into the Crystal Cave for dozens of interested parties, including several documentary film crews.

"The Formula" from a 1997 Explorers Inc. of Nevada shareholders meeting. | Image courtesy of Ralph Lewis.
"The Formula" from a 1997 Explorers Inc. of Nevada shareholders meeting. | Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Lewis.
"The Big Room" where Kokoweef, Inc’s shareholders meet to learn about the mine’s progress. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
"The Big Room" where Kokoweef, Inc.’s shareholders meet to learn about the mine’s progress. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Lewis stated that over the past 45 years at least 20 tunnels, shafts and raises of varying lengths totaling well over a mile have been completed inside the private holdings at Kokoweef Peak. The tunnels feature colorful names such as Hillary’s Hole and t