James McHaney and four of his siblings arrived in Mill Creek Canyon from Missouri in February 1878. Their mother, Martha McHaney, had just married Peter Forsee, one of the canyon’s first homesteaders. Jim was eighteen at the time. Although he did try some legitimate work as a mountain guide and a laborer on the Bear Valley Dam, Jim and his older brother, Bill, 21, became better known as the leaders of the McHaney Gang, a rough and tumble group of murdering, thieving, cattle rustling, claim jumping outlaws who had their headquarters for a time out at the Heart Bar Ranch. A complete story about the McHaney Gang is in Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon (www.shannonwray.com). However, one of the lesser-known aspects of Jim McHaney’s life is that strange things seemed to follow him around, and he was at the center of some very bizarre stories.
In January of 1895, an old prospector walked into Tingman’s grocery store in Indio. He asked Mr. Tingman, “What’ll ye give me fur that ere outfit?” The prospector was stooped by the obvious weight of haversacks filled with something heavy, his pockets all bulging, too. Mr. Tingman scratched his chin, considering. The old miner had two burros. Tingman’s corral was full up with burros. His storeroom was packed full of prospectors’ outfits that needed only grub to complete them. He was hesitant to buy this man’s gear.
Albert G. Tingman
“What do you want to sell for?” Tingman asked. “You going to quit prospecting?” e He
“Yes, sir,” the old prospector answered. I’m done prospecting now or hereafter. Want to buy that outfit? I’ll sell the whole business for $20.”
Tingman was a little shocked. From what he could see of it, the old man’s goods were easily worth $100, if not more. But the miner was very persistent, and they made the deal; then the prospector ordered something to eat and sat talking while he waited for the train to Arizona to arrive.
“I told you I had quit prospectin’ and mining, and I have. I’ll show you why and then tell you about it.” The old man dumped out his haversacks onto the counter, and there lay twenty bars of pure gold, obviously shaped into that form many years before. Tingman estimated that each bar had to be worth at least $1,000. When he looked more closely at them, he noticed that the bars had some sort of strange hieroglyphic stamped into them. Now, Tingman was a Spanish scholar and also well acquainted with the dialects of the Southern California Native tribes. But he could make nothing out that made any sense to him in the markings. The old man continued his story. “I got these bars less than sixty miles from where we stand in a canyon where there are ledges containing millions of dollars’ worth of gold, millions of dollars’ worth, I tell you, and it’s sticking up out of the ground. My burros took me to the place hunting for water. They went down on an old trail to a spring where water was plenty, and I camped there. It is a shut-in canyon, and I think I am the first white man who has set foot in the place for years, God knows how many. The Indians are afraid of the place and never go there. After I had grubbed, I started to look around, and I found the place full of caves, evidently made by hand, and I began exploring them. My first find was ghastly enough to suit anybody.” The old man shuddered. “I stumbled into a pile of bones, men dead long ago. Around there were arms, baskets, and other things apparently all right, but when you touched them, they crumbled into dust. I didn’t care to stay in the caves, but as I was going out, I saw the shine of something, and I went to it. It was one of these gold bricks. Before night I had gathered from the cave the gold bricks I’ve got in my haversack, and as it was growing dark, I thought I would wait until morning before making another search of the caves. It was plain to me that an old race of people had been mining in the canyon, and in the failing light, I began to look around for the ledges and old drifts. I found them and mister, as I hope someday to get to a better country than this by the memory of my good old mother, I swear to you the rocks were seamed with gold, seamed with gold! I went back and camped, intending to the next morning to stake out my claims, put up my monuments and sneak out of the canyon and go and record them providing I could make evidences of work, but I changed my mind before morning. If you was to fill that box with gold bricks like these,” the old man said, point to a packing crate, “I wouldn’t stay another night in that canyon. Why, sir, to think of the sights I saw there makes me shiver now. I’ve been prospecting many years. I’ve fought white men and red men and floods and forest fires. I’ve been rich and poor, but never, never since I’ve been born have I had a night like that!” The old man began to quake, and his voice shake as he told the next part of his story. “The dead men were all around me. I wasn’t asleep, and I hadn’t tasted a drop of liquor for weeks. I was wide awake, and the dead men came out of the caves wailing and a shrieking and drove me out of the canyon. That they did. I wouldn’t go back there for $20,000,000. The burros I got out in daylight. Where is the canyon? Well, pardner, you find it if you can. Mebbe I might change my mind about it and come back someday,” and with that, the old man walked over to the depot and ten minutes later took the train to Arizona.
Now, like most men in the 1890s hereabouts, Tingman wasn’t just a grocer. He and a partner named Holland had a claim called the Lost Horse mine in the Morongo Mountains, where they operated a three-stamp mill. Tingman went up to his mine the next day and told Holland the story the old prospector told him. But Holland wasn’t the only one there. Jim and Bill McHaney and their nephew Willie Ball were there, too, and listening intently. Scores of men went hunting for the mysterious canyon filled with dead men and gold bars but to no avail. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. “One day, Jim McHaney was riding through the hills about sundown hunting a spring where he could camp when his horse struck an old Indian trail and followed it. McHaney knew there was water near from the way his horse acted and gave the animal free rein. Bye, and bye, the horse turned through a mass of brush and down a deep declivity, at the bottom of which there was a spring. McHaney camped there and, in ten minutes, realized he had found the canyon that fifty men had been hunting for five long weeks. There were the caves, the skeletons and the ledges rich beyond comprehension with virgin gold.”
The Desert Queen Mine
Bill and Jim McHaney made haste and recorded the claim in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. They called their El Dorado the Desert Queen Mine. She paid out handsomely for a time but then proved to be Jim’s undoing. But that’s a story for another day.
Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.