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River of Gold or Touch of Fever?

A 1930s prospector said a Mojave peak hid waterborne ore. Some are chasing his dream.

September 11, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

KOKOWEEF PEAK, Calif. — The earthen ridge rises 6,038 feet from scrub brush and sand, an unspectacular summit were it not for the legend: a river underneath, overflowing with gold.

At least since the 1930s, leather-skinned prospectors have chased the tale to a mining shantytown at the base of the peak, on the edge of Mojave National Preserve, where the cheeriest structure is a pink shed that bears the warning "Keep Out."

Today a hard-bitten crew of treasure hunters huddles in plywood homes, enduring icy winters and roasting summers. Their big-city neighbor is an apt one: Las Vegas, about 75 miles away, which also welcomes dreamers happy to risk savings and sanity.

Kokoweef -- a name believed to stem from Southern Paiute words meaning "gopher snake canyon" -- lures its own kind of gamblers, though these days barely enough for a hand of seven-card stud: a military surplus merchant, a cocktail waitress, a retired construction manager and a few others.

Their quest, however, comes with this caveat: It consumed Earl Dorr, the brusque miner who fathered the legend -- and who may have concocted it for his own nefarious ends.

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The bleak sands of the Mojave conceal a bounty of treasure. Native tribes pocketed agate and turquoise long before Nevada's silver rush in the 1860s, which sent fortune-hungry miners scrambling into the Providence, Mescal and Clark ranges.

Tent cities sprouted in the sand. Some matured to communities of shelters cobbled from rocks and juniper poles -- with most towns building the requisite general store and saloon and sometimes a brothel.

Ivanpah, among the largest on the California-Nevada border, boomed to several hundred residents, but it and most smaller outposts went bust when the silver, copper or tin markets crashed.

The mining rush slowed to a trickle by the 1930s. Into this desolate landscape wandered Dorr, a prospector with blue eyes, a shoulder-holstered gun and "immaculate table manners," said his nephew Ray Dorr, 78, a retired contractor in Canon City, Colo., who is writing a book about Kokoweef.

Earl Dorr, born in the 1880s to wealthy Colorado cattle ranchers, traveled the Southwest in search of a mine that would make him rich. He would visit Ray's father in Pasadena, striding to the door in a Stetson hat with a sack of penny candy for the kids, whom he entranced with tall tales.

Along the way, Dorr either "discovered the richest gold deposit in the United States ... or he was the most imaginative liar in the state of California," his nephew wrote in a 1967 article for Argosy magazine.

Dorr told The Times in 1936 that he came across Kokoweef when he checked into a Death Valley tale that three men who stumbled upon the golden river had deposited $57,000 in a Needles, Calif., bank.

Dorr told his nephew a different version: that he had befriended three Indian brothers who had discovered a river thick with ore in a Kokoweef cavern. After one brother plummeted to his death in the cavern, the other two refused to return to the mountain and told Dorr the tale.

The mountain, near the Ivanpah range, has three sizable, nearly vertical caves with limestone chambers: Kokoweef, Crystal and Quien Sabe -- Spanish for "who knows." In 1934, Dorr produced a sworn statement that said he and an engineer, whom he identified only as Mr. Morton, descended several thousand feet into chambers he called "one of the marvels of the world."

On the floor of a half-mile-deep canyon, Dorr said, he came across a river, about 300 feet wide, that rose and fell as if it were breathing. The water receded to reveal black sand. Dorr said he panned it and found gold. Lots of it.

Dorr told The Times that upon returning to the surface, he dynamited the cavern's entrance to keep others from plundering his bounty while he filed a mining claim.

Within the next decade or so, cave explorers from Pasadena, curious about the tale, shimmied into a cavern and found "D-O-R-R" seared onto a wall.

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Dorr's statement was published in the California Mining Journal in 1940, and it has been the source of endless speculation ever since. Why would he write up such a strike when he went to such lengths to hide it? Yet, if he were telling the truth, weren't untold riches just waiting to be rediscovered?

Larry Hahn opts for the latter.

In the 1980s, Hahn, who owns a military surplus store in Las Vegas, became the latest in a series of folks to entrance investors with Kokoweef. He is a partner in Explorations Inc., which has leased land from a company that owns 85 acres near the mountain and has mineral rights to 300 more and would share profits from any cache discovered.

Hahn, 68, said he had coaxed 300 to 500 investors to chip in for drilling, blasting and zapping the mountainside with electric current to pinpoint where to drill.

His newsletters promise gold like a televangelist promises salvation: "It only takes that one lucky hole that is connected to the big void to show us the way," one newsletter reads.

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