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

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."

He bores another hole. This time, the water from below doesn't fill up the hole as fast. "That's interesting," Enderle says. "I would say we're coming to a higher area because before, it was very fluid. Maybe a bank. That's interesting. I'm going to enjoy probing this hole and seeing what happens." When he does, the pole goes down 10 feet but hits nothing. Another zero on his treasure hunter's score card.

Enderle hadn't planned to look for the Molly Stevens like this.

Through a mutual friend, Enderle met a pilot who claimed that infrared photography could help him determine mineral content beneath the surface. To test the process, Enderle and his friend took the pilot-photographer to a mine, where, according to Enderle, the aerial photography "identified all the veins (the mine owner) knew about and found two veins he didn't know about, and was able to tell him within a percentage the value of the veins."

Satisfied that the process worked, Enderle said: "We got to talking about why don't we use this on some of these treasures we'd heard about."

It isn't that Enderle has concrete proof that the Molly Stevens sank. Rather, once he became convinced of the worthiness of the infrared process, he scouted around for treasure targets. The pilot's wife happened to be a researcher of buried treasure and told Enderle of the Molly Stevens legend. And while he concedes that the historical evidence is sketchy, Enderle decided the venture was worth a flyover by the pilot-photographer.

One of the pictures, Enderle said, clearly showed the hull of a ship and an intact silver cargo. Unfortunately, the photo didn't provide fixed coordinates to help in pinpointing the exact location.

"I'm not one to say something is there until I touch it," Enderle said. "I'm not that kind of person. I believe it to be there. We're 90% to 95% sure that it is there. The thing we don't know for sure, even if we accept that, is, is it the Molly Stevens? The thing is, there's no history to show anything else. Our infrared does tell us the cargo's there. It tells us the silver ingots are there, and that's what we're interested in."

Enderle hasn't enlisted investors' help. Only he and his brother, Wallace, a retired colonel in the Army Signal Corps, have sunk money into the project, with Al Enderle bankrolling the lion's share of the $70,000 spent so far, including $3,000 for authorization from the state. A few other relatives and friends, including Orange County businessmen Bob Leavitt and Bob Cunningham, who came on the early March trip, are partners.

"This is a poor-boy operation," Wallace Enderle, 61, said. "I haven't seen enough information to make me sure that it's there. I haven't seen the pictures that Al saw. I'm just along because it's something to do."

He is also along because, according to Al, he's an "electrical genius" and is using a magnetometer to try to detect the presence of metals buried with the boat under the lake bed. Cunningham and Leavitt, also mixing the fun of the hunt with a getaway from the press of business in Orange County, can claim special skills: Leavitt has an aptitude with cranky machinery and Cunningham has a Navy-acquired skill with satellite tracking for possible help in getting a better fix on a sunken boat.

But on their first day on the lake, the weather and faulty equipment stalled them. The wind whipped across the lake so mightily that nothing could get done. And a Hovercraft, which takes the crew out to the presumed vicinity of the sunken boat, wouldn't start because the starter was too heavily damaged by salt. It took all day to find someone with the parts to fix it.

Some of California's most colorful history was written in the Owens Valley. One of the last settled areas in California, it was once a promising agricultural garden where Indians worked the land. With the onslaught of white settlers in the 1860s and subsequent discovery of silver and gold deposits in the Inyo Mountains, the Indians were forced out.

The first significant silver deposits are traced to roughly 1865 and the main mining outpost became known as Cerro Gordo, or "Fat Hill" in Spanish, to reflect the fatness of the silver deposits. By 1868, regular shipments of silver bullion were reaching Los Angeles. The mines were prolific, with historians estimating that millions of dollars in silver reached Los Angeles during the last third of the 19th Century.

A rip-roaring mining town, Cerro Gordo was ruled by the six-gun. The editor of a local newspaper described Cerro Gordo as a shooting gallery where "pistols continue to crack and good men go down before them."

No one cared about that in Los Angeles, virtually drooling over the lucrative silver trade. The Los Angeles News editorialized: "What Los Angeles is, is mainly due to it. It is the silver cord that binds our present existence. Should it be uncomfortably severed, we would inevitably collapse."

Enderle, 59, is not a professional treasure hunter. A developer, Enderle is president of the Enderle Co. and one of the owners of the Enderle Center in Tustin. The Owens Lake treasure hunt, Enderle said, "was intended to be a business from the start."In the mid-1950s, after graduating from the Naval Academy and doing a two-year stint with the Air Force, Enderle farmed in Orange County. Later, he established a farm and industrial-equipment wholesale business, an electronics company, owned apartment and industrial buildings, and sold and designed swimming pools.

Financial success came early. By the mid-1960s, while still in his 30s, Enderle said: "I had a house in Huntington Harbour, a yacht, an airplane, a place in Palm Desert, one of the nicest places on Lake Arrowhead. . . . I could do anything I wanted, and I wasn't particularly happy."

By the late 1960s, his business empire had collapsed.

If not crushed by his business disasters, Enderle was at least jolted. "You can buy pleasure for a while, but as you buy pleasure, you find the more you buy, the more you need. Unless if you're lucky like I was, you wise up and realize you really can't buy happiness, that happiness is more of a relationship with life, not so much possession of things."

To refocus his life, Enderle embarked on a three-year odyssey as an adventurer in the South Pacific, working as the first mate on a trade ship. In 1972, he returned to Orange County.

In 1977, Enderle became a "born-again" Christian, finally finding the peace of mind that business success hadn't provided. And for someone who, by his own description, was "goal-less," his life took on a deeper spiritual meaning.

If the Molly Stevens produces the cache that Enderle thinks will be there, he says he plans to use some of the money to build a Christian youth center in Africa.

Every treasure hunter--from the person who walks the beach with a metal detector to Mel Fisher, who after a 16-year search uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars in Spanish treasure off the Florida Keys in 1985--must endure the skepticism of others. Good-natured and hospitable to a fault, Enderle has no pretensions about being a full-time treasure hunter.

Nor does he have a Captain Ahab obsession with finding the Molly Stevens. Based on the cargo size, Enderle predicts that the silver could be worth several million dollars. The state would get half. If the silver is found, the salvage operation will increase the project's cost dramatically. One of the main problems will be protecting the silver in the open air. "When it hits the air, there's a good chance it will turn to powder in about half an hour," Enderle said. We're gambling we can stabilize it."

While acknowledging he may never have that problem, Enderle defends the effort. "Either we'll find it's there or it isn't there, and it will make some difference. If only we proved some history to be true and some not, that's all right."

And if he hits the jackpot, he'll experience the high that, according to Fred Brust of the National Treasure Hunters League in Tempe, Ariz., fuels the treasure hunter: "There's nothing like digging up a 1-ounce nugget or a $20 gold piece out of the ground. It's that thrill of discovery. Something has been lost and you found it. It's the first-man-on-the-mountain thing. You've done something that nobody thought you could do."

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