By Allison Mills
Rocks and dirt crash down the wash plant’s spinning metal tube, blasted by streams of water. A muddy wave tumbles down the sluice boxes. Screens catch dark mud and sand. A pile of it sits in a dingy plastic tub filled with orange water.
“If you don’t think I’m looking for treasure right now, I am,” Rob Towner
An old-school miner, Towner scoops up some muck and swirls it in a seafoam green pan.
“And I’ve found it.”
Gold flecks wink against the black sediment.
Towner’s smile is brighter than the ginger-blond streaks defying the rest of his gray hair. The Montana native collects ounces of the flecks and dust, making a living as a miner and explorer. Crowned with a well-worn baseball cap, Towner wears a heavy khaki jacket and boots caked in mud. He has sifted and sorted across the world, from Venezuela to Ghana to India.
“I’ve always been a treasure hunter,” Towner says. “I just got a knack for finding stuff.”
Towner’s current mine site is about 35 miles away from Bannack where Henry Plummer hanged in 1864. The crooked sheriff may have been involved in the murders of more than 100 miners in the mid-1800s, and legend has it he cached more than his weight in gold.
Historian Zoe Ann Stoltz is not won over by the allure of gold and bandits.
“It’s not romantic,” she says. “It was a horrific time.”
She followed up with a recommendation to read Frederick Allen’s “A Decent Orderly Lynching.” Allen’s vision of the Wild West doesn’t match the legends most Montana schoolchildren grew up with. Most of the stories told around schoolyard playgrounds and campfires err on the side of indecency and chaos.
The true beauty of history is that it’s lost. Plummer’s secrets — money and thoughts alike — haven’t weathered the winters as well as Bannack’s faded, falling buildings.
But Towner thinks he put some of the puzzle pieces together and found Plummer’s gold.
“Well, how do you know,” Towner says. “You don’t. It’s an impossible task to try and get your head wrapped around what it would have been like back in those times.”
He tried anyway. Towner started panning for gold around Bannack with a family friend when he was 16 years old and the locals told him all about Plummer’s secret stash. In 1986, Towner bought 360 acres near Bannack — the land just happened to include Plummer’s patch claim.
During that time, Towner befriended then-Bannack State Park curator Dale Tash. Based on the gold Towner was extracting from the site, which was “just hotter than a bastard” during Plummer’s time, the two calculated that historical gold records were pretty accurate. They were convinced some of it was still around.
“If we were Plummer, where the hell would we hide this gold?” Towner asked, saying he and Tash tried “to get into the mind of this guy” by stuffing 100 ounces of gold under some rocks atop a nearby hill. The experiment lasted just four days.
“Judas Priest, we went here and we’d try to dig a hole and we try to bury it and pretty soon, you’re worrying it to death,” Towner says. “If someone walks within 100 feet of it, you’ve got to go dig the gold back up and hide it again.”
After “bunking around with all this gold,” Towner and Tash figured the hiding spot needed to be somewhere no one would dig and would be easy for Plummer to keep tabs on.
The answer: A graveyard.
“Plummer hanged a couple people,” Towner says, pointing out that the Bannack miners wouldn’t touch a cemetery. “And this graveyard on my property was a place where you could see from his cabin and you could see where his patch claim was.”
Towner, Tash, and the crew decided to dig it up. They would call it “rehab,” put the bones back afterward and “set the stones up nice,” all while looking for gold-stuffed pouches and whiskey bottles.
But they weren’t the first people there. While scouting the site, Towner came across a series of tunnels, which he thinks were built in the 1860s or ’70s. Some poked straight upward into the graves.
Even more convinced, Towner made plans to take his excavators, washers, and equipment up to the graveyard under the cover of darkness. They left one late summer night, got halfway up the hill, and the final drive went out on the excavator. A $9,000 fix, but “just part of the mining game.”
Fixed and ready, they went back up a week or so later. They made it another few feet — and the final drive on the other excavator went out. Towner started worrying, thinking, “I’m running out of money, we gotta get some gold.”
Another week, about $30,000 in debt, the crew went back for one last try. They got most of the way up the hill — and a central bearing busted.
“We’re like 10 feet from the graveyard to dig,” Towner says. “That was the end of hunting for gold in that graveyard.”
The setbacks didn’t stop Towner from treasure hunting; they only encouraged him to continue and write a book about his adventures. Besides, since then he has accumulated his own secret stash.
“I’ve got a lot of gold hidden right now,” he whispered. “If I died tomorrow, there’s a pretty good pile of it, enough to create a national stir.”
With a chuckle, he begins telling the story of discovering a B-52 bomber crash, leaving his golden secrets buried.
Allison Mills is a journalism graduate student working on a radio documentary about mine remediation in Montana. Austin Smith is a senior studying photojournalism at the University of Montana.