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Digging Up a Mythtery : Under the Floor of Owens Lake, a Fabled Silver Cache Awaits Discovery, So They Say

March 24, 1988|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

If the ghosts of Cerro Gordo could talk--if they could rise up from the dance hall floors where men were gunned down or float up from the silver mines where others died--they could tell Al Enderle if he is wasting his time looking for buried treasure under the floor of Owens Lake.

They could tell the Orange County businessman-turned-treasure hunter what--if anything--really happened to the Molly Stevens, a steamboat used a century ago to transport silver ingots across Owens Lake from the Cerro Gordo mines en route to Los Angeles. They could tell him whether the boat really did capsize on the lake in 1878, killing 14 and leaving a booty of never-recovered silver bullion at the bottom.

But the ghosts aren't talking. And while many of the locals in the picturesque Owens Valley, 240 miles north of Orange County, think Enderle has holes in his head for drilling for treasure in the lake, he perseveres. Now, in the second year of a lease with the state, Enderle is trying to make a legend come true.

Enderle knows he is bucking some historical accounts. In "From This Mountain--Cerro Gordo," authors Robert C. Likes and Glenn R. Day say the demise of the Molly Stevens wasn't nearly as spectacular as Enderle thinks. Rather, they wrote, the Molly Stevens was dismantled a century ago and its parts used for another boat, the Bessie Brady.

"There's no documentation that there's anything there, any lost treasure," said Bill Michael, 31, the administrator of the Eastern California Museum in Independence.

Michael is skeptical because, although the local newspapers and the mining and scientific press gave extensive coverage in the 1870s to the booming Cerro Gordo mines, there are no accounts of a sunken ship with numerous fatalities. "You would think something like that would make the local newspapers," he said.

Locals seem more bemused than bewitched about the Molly Stevens legend. "No. 1, out here, rumors run rampant," said Jim Macey, 39. "People are bored, they watch TV and everything they see just gets exploded into an incredible scenario. I don't know if that caters to their imaginations or what, but rumors are a dime a dozen. This one . . . is old hat."

Peggy Streeter, who lives in nearby Lone Pine, said Enderle and his crew are decades too late. "I have actually seen one of the ingots," the 69-year-old woman claimed. She said an old-timer named Jack Carruthers showed her one in 1971 or 1972.

Carruthers "said a boat went down in the lake and everybody knew where it was and it didn't go down very far, so everyone went and grabbed a piece." The ingot Carruthers, then about 85, showed her was about 2 feet long, a foot wide and 6 inches thick, Mrs. Streeter said. "It was good-looking and obviously silver, but it had lots of lead in it."

Of the Enderle effort, Mrs. Streeter said: "I think they've got rocks in their head. I think people got it years ago. That's just a guess, but when I heard what they were going to do, I thought, 'Boy, are they crazy.' "

The midday sun beats down on the floor of Owens Lake, once a shimmering jewel of the Owens Valley, but now a largely salt-encrusted basin. Inch-deep water provides a breathtaking reflection of the Sierra Nevadas to the west, still graced on this early March day with snowcapped peaks. To the east, the Inyo Mountains--the home of the Cerro Gordo mine--form another natural cordon. Thus rimmed by the dueling ranges, Owens Lake, even in its dry state, is a stunning testimonial to nature's artistry.

Maurice (Al) Enderle slogs through the water, lugging an ice drill that he is using to bore through the layers of salt crust. Then, with hand-held poles that can probe deeper, he hopes to hit what he believes should be the hard bank of a channel. Once he finds that, he'll simply follow it, for somewhere along that bank, Enderle believes, the Molly Stevens was swamped.

The drilling and subsequent probing is a tedious process--about as exciting as posthole digging and the treasure-hunting equivalent of archeologists turning over and over teaspoons of dirt in the hopes of finding an artifact. "Most people I've known who've gotten involved in legitimate treasure-hunting know it's like a job," Enderle said. "They recognize that you've got to have the right equipment and that it's a lot of hard work. I don't know anybody looking for treasure who just tripped over something."

On this day, Enderle has drilled about 30 holes in the lake, making the surface look like a prairie dog town, lunar landscape-style. Although he believes he is in the general area of the Molly Stevens, there is a certain needle-in-a-haystack element. "We're not sure if (the Molly Stevens) would have left from the dock at Keeler or Swansea," he says, "but charting its course on the way to Cartago, we've got this general location."

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