Stories of lost and buried treasure abound in the West. In New Mexico alone there are dozens of legends and stories dealing with gold and silver hidden away in the recesses of one mountain chain or another.
One of the newer and most popular stories (it comes close to rivaling the Lost Dutchman in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona) deals with Victorio Peak, right here on White Sands Missile Range. It is typical of all lost treasure stories in that there is little or no hard evidence, there are a few facts mixed in with an avalanche of rumor and for some reason the location is lost or it is somehow now inaccessible.
The Victorio Peak story begins in November 1937 when Milton E. Noss went hunting in the Hembrillo Basin of the San Andres Mountains. By the way, Noss is also called "Doc" because he often passed himself off as a doctor. He was not and was reportedly arrested in Texas for practicing medicine without a license.
While hunting Noss supposedly climbed Victorio Peak to take a look around. On his way up it began to rain and he took shelter in a natural opening on top. In a small room there he moved a large boulder and discovered a shaft leading down into the mountain.
He came back later with his wife Ova and climbed down into the shaft. He supposedly followed the faults in the peak down several hundred feet until he found a large room. After exploring the large room and several other small ones he returned to the surface.
By most of the accounts, he reported to Ova he had found a room large enough to drive a train into. Through it, a stream of cold water ran. There were chests filled with Spanish coins, jewelry and religious artifacts. Also, there were Spanish documents, Wells Fargo chests and thousands of gold bars stacked like wood. Finally, there were 27 skeletons tethered to the floor.
Understandably, the value of this treasure has grown over the years with inflation and the increased value of gold. Years ago some estimated its value at 26 million dollars. Now the Noss family says it may be worth three billion dollars. Funny thing about inflation though. All those original reports say there were 27 skeletons. Now, in one report, the family is saying there are 79 bony guardians down there.
From 1937 to 1939 Noss and his wife supposedly worked to bring the treasure to the surface. During this time Noss worked diligently hauling up bars and hiding them all around the region. He never let Ova go down into the treasure chamber and he always hid the bars himself. Some say he didn´t trust anyone. She claimed he was worried about her getting hurt or kidnapped.
Apparently there was some sort of choke point in the fissure which made it difficult getting out with the loot. So Noss hired a mining engineer to dynamite that point and enlarge it. Too much explosive was used and the "squeeze" was blasted shut. Efforts to open the shaft or bypass it proved futile.
Before we continue this story we have to consider where this alleged treasure may have come from. The most written about and talked about source has to be the legendary Padre La Rue mine.
This legend is usually associated with the Organ Mountains, but what the heck, Victorio Peak is only 40 miles to the north. Around 1800 there was a young priest named La Rue working with a small Indian tribe in Mexico. He befriended an old Spanish soldier who, on his deathbed, told La Rue about a fabulous vein of gold just two days north of Paso del Norte (El Paso).
Because the crops were failing and the Indians starving, the padre led the group to this area and found the rich vein. What they found to eat I don´t know, but the story says they did mine the gold for several years.
The Spanish sent soldiers to find out what had happened to the padre. When La Rue heard they were coming he had the Indians hide the gold and all evidence of the mine. They were then captured by the Spanish who killed the padre and all his followers in a vain attempt to find the location to the mine.
Many people will have you believe that Noss found the original mine, while others say it is just the secret hiding place. Ova did produce a photograph of some gold bars which Doc brought up and one is clearly stamped with the name "La Rue." Could Victorio be the site of the original mine or the hiding place with the mine located somewhere in the vicinity? I like numbers---let me throw some at you.
Expeditions Unlimited had an assay done of the sandstone in Victorio Peak and it came back showing one tenth of an ounce of gold in each ton of rock. To get 100 tons of gold (a number usually cited by supporters based on the number of bars reported) from a site with this concentration of gold would require crushing and processing 32 million tons of rock. In South Dakota, the Homestake Mine is the most profitable and longest lived gold mine in the Western Hemisphere. There the gold assay is two and a half times richer than the sample from Victorio Peak and it has taken them a century to extract 1,000 tons of gold---using modern explosives and equipment, I might add.
According to my Time-Life book on rare metals, a ton of ore in the South Dakota mine is equal to about 19 cubic feet. If rocks are similar in the Victorio Peak area we are talking about removing and processing over six hundred million cubic feet of rock or a pile of rock the size of a football field and over two miles high. Where do you suppose the padre hid it?
OK, OK, maybe ore that poor isn´t a fair test. Let´s say the ore the padre mined was 100 times richer. No, let´s say it was 1,000 times richer or had an assay of 100 ounces of gold per ton of rock. Doing the same calculations we end up with a pile of mine tailings the size of a football field and 12.5 feet high. If it was in the San Andres Mountains, I bet we could find it.
Another story which avoids these unpleasant numbers deals with Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. According to this story, he was trying to flee Mexico with all of his riches. The mules made it and the stash was hidden with the porters being left to die in the cave. Unfortunately for Maximilian, he didn´t make it out of Mexico.
A third story has the German government sending a shipment of gold over to Pancho Villa and the gold being waylaid in New Mexico. The gold was supposed to be used by Villa to pay for his attacks against the United States and draw the U.S. into war with Mexico so the Americans would not go to Europe and fight in World War I.
The fourth explanation for gold in Victorio Peak is the one about it being a repository for Apache raiders. This would explain the Wells Fargo chests found down there by Noss.
Then there are the combo explanations which marry a couple of these into one story. One of the most persistent is that La Rue´s gold is down there and the Apaches also used it to store their loot. This explains the Mescalero Apache interest in the gold hunts at Victorio Peak. They claim any gold found in the peak rightly belongs to them since they stole it and then hid it in the peak during the 19th Century for safekeeping.
Once Noss blew up the entrance to the treasure room the story of the peak gets more complicated with a variety of helpers, witnesses and financial backers. Noss is reported to have already removed hundreds of gold bars from the mountain as well as a great deal of jewelry and other artifacts. Sure, it was illegal to own gold in those days but no one has really explained why Noss needed financial backers to dig out the debris in the tunnel. The jewelry, including those uncut rubies Letha mentioned, surely could have been turned into lots of instant cash.
Anyway, Noss had a number allies working at the peak. In 1941 a group of about 20 people, who had furnished money and labor, formed a company to raise money to straighten up and timber the shaft.
During the war Noss disappeared and divorced Ova while he was living in Arkansas. He came back in 1945 and the small group wanted to incorporate but Noss refused.
Noss turned up again in 1949 working for Charley Ryan in Alice, Texas. Noss supposedly talked Ryan into traveling with him to New Mexico to check on "the mine." When they got to Victorio Peak they found Ova controlling the site with a state permit which allowed her to prospect there. Noss allegedly told Ryan not to worry and they filed claims on sites north of Victorio Peak which contain some lead bearing ore.
According to court testimony, Ryan finally realized he was being duped by Noss into providing money for nothing. Ryan testified he stopped his lead mining operations on March 4 and 5, 1949 and told Noss he was leaving New Mexico after he called the sheriff to come and arrest Noss for fraud.
Noss struck Ryan and ran out of the Ryan house in Hatch and shouted he would kill them all. Ryan stepped out on the porch and fired two shots from his own pistol. The second shot hit Noss in the head and killed him instantly.
Ryan´s murder trial was held on May 25 and 26 in Las Cruces. The jury brought in a verdict of not guilty based on self defense.
There wasn´t much testimony about buried treasure during the trial. Ova supposedly claimed there was a conspiracy of silence and Doc was killed over gold bars he didn´t deliver. One source says Ryan later went to Ova and proposed a partnership in Victorio Peak. She refused.
The press reports all say Ryan killed Noss because he wouldn´t turn over gold he promised to sell to Ryan. The trial testimony doesn´t raise this issue. I suppose there could have been a cover up but it seems just as plausible that Ryan told the truth during the trial. There is probably a little bit of truth in both sides.
We do know Ryan later received lease payments from White Sands for the lead mining claims. He had 13 claims when the missile range took over the land around Victorio Peak and he was paid $300 per year.
Next---more Victorio Peak stories with Capt. Fiege and the Air Force connection and hard rock mining with the Gaddis Mining Company.
---Interlaced with the historical information in these articles are statements of personal opinion by the author, Jim Eckles, which are not necessarily the official position of White Sands Missile Range or the U.S. Army---