When I was a child my parents would often take our family on picnics at Houston Wyeth Park in St. Joseph, Missouri – we just called the place Wyeth Hill. Wyeth Hill runs along the top of the Missouri River Bluffs in northwest St. Joseph. The hill overlooks downtown St. Joe to the south, the Missouri River, and the entire Missouri River valley extending about ten miles into Kansas. The steep hills rise a couple of hundred feet above MacArthur Drive and the railroad tracks which follow the river bottom. The views are spectacular – and the stories of Jesse James come to life on Wyeth Hill – and particularly the stories of hidden treasure.
Jesse James was killed in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is buried in Kearney, Missouri, where his family farmed before the Civil War. Jesse was killed as an outlaw – a man who fought with the Confederacy and never returned to honest labor. Jesse James and his gang robbed banks and trains. In spite of the folklore equating Jesse with a Robin Hood figure, the reality is that Jesse James was a ruthless criminal. But the story told on warm summer afternoons on Wyeth Hill are of the Jesse James gang robbing the trains below in the river bottom. Gold was being transported back east from the gold rush out west. Jesse would rob the train and make his escape up Blacksnake creek – to the east side of Wyeth Hill. Jesse’s gang had dug caves in the thick clay soil – and hid their gold in the caves. The story is that Jesse died before he was able to retrieve the final gold shipment.
As a child I hunted for the caves and the gold with my older brothers. We hiked every possible trail on those river bluffs. We forged through native forests hunting for the cave entrance. Now I am an old man. As any responsible grandfather might do, I took some of my grandchildren to Wyeth Hill and told them the stories of Jesse James Gold. Two boys, each eleven, and a nine year old girl – all determined to find the cave that had eluded me in my youth. We made plans. We scouted trails. We prepared water and food. We talked of Rattle Snakes and Brown Recluse spiders. We studied the poison ivy and oak. Thorny vines were examined. The plan was to search for the gold on June 21, 2010 – the first day of summer – the longest day of the year.
The children, for purposes of this story, will be called Jubila, Jubilo, and Jubilum. As none of us had ever actually captured any gold we decided to be prepared with out best gold guns. Jubila had a 22 rifle, Jubilo had a 410 shotgun, and the anchor of the team – Jubilum managed a 12 gauge. With little experience to guide us we left the guns unloaded. All of us realized the seriousness of our adventure. We did not have a gold dog, although I hear there are Golden Retrievers.
We scouted the area. We drove through downtown St. Joe and studied Wyeth Hill from a distance. To understand the terrain we studied the origins of the thick clay in the last little ice age – about eleven thousand years ago. In the past eleven thousand years about five feet of black dirt has accumulated from the constantly recycling forest. Jesse buried the gold about one hundred and forty years ago – so we had to account for changes in the topography.
This has been a particularly wet and hot spring. The Missouri river is busting its seams. Local creeks and lakes threaten levies and dams. We decided to drive along MacArthur Drive, studying the cliffs of clay as well as the railroad tracks. The present geography is probably not much different than when Jesse rode this trail. MacArthur has been blacktopped – it was probably a dirt road back in the 1800’s. MacArthur Drive used to lead to the St. Joseph airport – but the flood of 1952 changed the course of the river. MacArthur now ends at the river. A shelter house has been constructed to accommodate boaters launching at the river dock. The dock is presently out of the water – protected from the flood waters – but we were able to investigate the shelter and examine the threatening Missouri River.
But time was passing, we drove around Wyeth Hill and then climbed in my old truck to the top. After a brief appreciation of the scenery – and a short lecture on the river valley created over thousands of years – we began the hunt for the gold. The top of Wyeth Hill is cleared and mowed by the St. Joe Parks Department. So we walked along the tree line searching for accessible paths. There are a few. We selected the second path as most promising and ventured into the forest. The path was short – but it allowed access to the forest. Jubila and Jubilo plunged forward – which means down the steep hills toward MacArthur Drive. Jubilum and I decided to move laterally – hoping two teams would increase our chances of finding the cave. Even a lateral movement was difficult in the tangled brush, uneven terrain, and a team of an old man with a little girl. We called out every few minutes to make sure Jubila and Jubilo were safe. After about an hour they came trudging back up the steep hills.
As we neared the north end of Wyeth Hill the heat was becoming unbearable. We had seen no snakes or spiders, but each of us was wearing down from the intense humidity. As we prepared to end the hunt one of the boys shouted out, “There is a hole in the ground! Right here!” I have to admit that I was a little shocked.
We examined the hole from a short distance. It was partially covered with brush, and we were weary of snakes or other unknown varmints. Jubilo took a stick and pushed some of the brush aside so we could get a better look. And there it was – gold. There were five gold bars. They were small and not well formed. It looked like someone had forged these bars over a remote campfire, probably using clay as a mold. Confident that there were no spiders or snakes we investigated further. The gold bars did not have any identifying marks, no dates or initials, nothing. We searched the small cave for coins – hoping to find something that would date the find to the Jesse James era. Alas, there was nothing.
Our intention was to find the gold of Jesse James. We found gold, but there was no sure manner of connecting the gold to the outlaw. I suggested we take the gold to a jeweler and have it assessed – the total weight was about thirty five pounds. But the children had worked hard for their find and they did not want to consider giving it up – not even for money.
What could I say – it was their adventure after all. The whole purpose from my perspective was for the children to have a good time. I never really believed we would find any gold.
And you know what? I really don’t care about the gold. The joy of the children proved all the treasure I need.