Johnny Lang and the Lost Horse Gold Mine
Joshua Tree National Park
by Allison Johnson
On a winter morning in 1925, Johnny Lang rolled up his canvas sleeping bag and packed what remained of his supplies, a half-slice of bacon and a small sack of flour. He would have to hoof it from his mining site in hopes of catching a freight wagon into Banning, some fifty miles away. Gone were his burros. He had eaten those one by one. The seventy-five-year-old prospector slung his gear over his shoulder, and tacked a note, dated January 25th, to the ramshackle desert hut that served as his home: "Gone for grub. Be back soon."
Three months later, while pioneer rancher Bill Keys and two companions were constructing the road to what is now Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park, they came upon Lang's mummified body. The burnt remnants of a nearby bush and the thin sleeping bag that Lang was wrapped in left the men to conjecture that the old miner had died when he stopped to make camp.
During the California Gold Rush of 1849, miners bypassed the Southern California deserts in their hurry to get to "gold country." It was not until a decade later that prospectors began to explore Joshua Tree National Park. As gold mines were staked, or founded, ore-crushing mills followed.
Over the years, thousands of miners came and went. Many abandoned their excavations due to the lack of transportation and scarcity of water. By contrast, the nearby city of Twentynine Palms grew up and thrived due to its central location near a natural oasis. As one of his many exploits, Johnny Lang founded the city's first saloon.
"Johnny Lang is a part of the colorful history of the area, and of the park," says Laureen Lentz, a longtime resident, and ranger at Joshua Tree National Park since 1992. Lang, she says, is one of the area's more romantic figures.
Born in Texas in 1850, he began as a cattle rancher. In the 1890s, he and his father moved west with their grazing herds. Soon after, the pair caught gold fever. They gave up their cows to search for the elusive yellow rocks. Eventually, Lang's efforts paid off.
The Lost Horse was the area's most successful mine. Most of the gold the Lost Horse Mine would ever produce nine thousand troy ounces was extracted during the first ten years of operation, at the turn of the 20th century. Johnny Lang figures in every version of the mine's discovery, the common factor being that the legendary prospector found the mine while in pursuit of his wandering horse.
In one version, Lang, while looking for his horse, sat on a rock to dislodge a stone from his shoe when he looked down and saw the dull yellow of gold. A group of cattle-rustlers the infamous McHaney Brothers among them discovered Lang in their vicinity. They threatened him off.
Another version holds that Lang found his straying animal, which was later taken at gun point. After Lang footed it back to camp, he was encouraged to look for gold "in them thar hills." He found the Lost Horse strike, naming the mine after his long-gone companion.
The likeliest version, which Lang himself recounted to Bill Keys, holds that the miner stopped by the McHaney's encampment near Keys' Desert Queen Ranch and discovered that the gang had "confiscated" his missing horse. The cowboy gang directed Lang to "Dutch Frank" Diebold's camp where Diebold revealed that he had discovered a large gold strike but had been unable to claim it because of interference from the McHaneys. Lang purchased the claim rights from Diebold for one thousand dollars, and he took on partners with enough clout to move on it. Eventually, Lang's partners sold off their shares to the Ryan brothers.
Amalgam a mixture of quicksilver and gold from which the pure gold is later separated was commonly used to mine the raw ore. Suspicions were aroused when the Lost Horse processing plant's night shift operations, which Lang supervised, produced significantly less amalgam than that of the day shift. After setting up a "sting," the Ryans confronted Lang with a choice of selling his stake or going to jail. Lang sold his portion for twelve thousand dollars. Soon after, the gold vein was diverted due to an earthquake fault. The mine went dry.
The aging prospector moved on to a deserted cabin in an area near Hidden Valley, later named Johnny Lang Canyon, where he worked a smaller claim. He moved into Keys' Desert Queen Ranch for a time, but the arrangement was never comfortable because of Johnny's reputation as a thief. When the Lost Horse Mine was finally abandoned, Lang returned to his former haunt, taking up residence in an old shack that had served as a kitchen.
Lang began selling large amounts of gold to Keys, too great a quantity to have come from his small mine in Johnny Lang Canyon. Keys and others believed that the miner was secretly refining the amalgams he had skimmed and buried in earlier years.
To sustain himself during this time, Lang shot and ate livestock belonging to a local cattleman named C.O. Barker. When his health declined and his eyesight weakened, Lang turned to his burros.
After Keys and the others found Lang's body, they waited to bury it until a cause of death could be determined. According to eyewitnesses, Lang's remains were left intact by coyotes and rodents, probably because he was so lean. A month later, the coroner deemed that Lang had died of natural causes. The authorities instructed Keys to bury Johnny's body where it lay.
Unfortunately, Johnny Lang was not to rest in peace. In 1983, the old miner's grave was dug up under cover of night when raiders took pieces of his remains, including his skull.
"Several mysteries still surround Johnny Lang," says Lentz, "such as what did he have on him when he died, who dug him up, and why?" Most likely, she says, the perpetrators were looking for gold. Digging for anything is forbidden in the national park, which prohibits gold-seekers from further excavations. In the early 1990's, however, heavy rains caused several of the park's mine shafts to cave in. Many hoped that Lang's treasure would be unearthed. It was never found.
Speculation still runs high that the gold Johnny Lang skimmed from the Lost Horse Mine is buried somewhere in the Park, possibly in the Lost Horse area. The biggest question iswhere?
Johnny Lang's grave site, the Desert Queen Ranch, and the remnants of the Lost Horse Mine can be seen at Joshua Tree National Park. For more information, stop in at the Twentynine Palms Visitors Center.
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