Treacherous, rugged trails have long been a thorn to countless souls who have passed through the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. The mountains are home to many tales of gold and treasure in which men have lost their lives looking for the hidden gem of the area — the Lost Dutchman gold mine.
Now, a new documentary looks to revisit the Lost Dutchman’s purported $200 million treasure — and the myths and tales of the Superstitions.
A portion of the documentary, by New York City-based SenArt Films, will be similar to the History Channel show Legend of the Superstition Mountains and will explore the story of the lost treasure. The film, which has the working title of The Last Expedition, will be written and directed by Robert May; it's expected to be released in 2018. The film will focus on treasure hunters and include cast members of the History Channel show.
May was executive producer for the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. He was also the writer and director of Kids for Cash, a film that covered a Pennsylvania judicial scandal. “We are a character-driven production company,” May said. “We look for character-driven stories that place regular people in extraordinary circumstances. They can be funny, they can be sad. If it’s a documentary, then they are real-life situations, and basically, we journal what happens in people’s lives — just like a journalist would. It’s not reality television.”
May said he found out about the Lost Dutchman story through a collegue and that he's “fascinated” by treasure hunters. As of mid-2017, he and his crew had spent about 30 production days in and around Apache Junction. So far, they've filmed at locations that include the Treasure Hunter of the Year Awards, held at Apache Junction’s Mammoth Saloon in March, and at Goldfield Ghost Town, an attraction that features a zip line and live staged gunfights.
“I think we really wanted to find the real people and the journey they have in finding this treasure and how it gets into their blood,” May said. “They go through an evolution of excitement and euphoria.”
He said the subjects — who include Wayne Tuttle, a cast member on the History Channel show — are hardworking people who know a lot about the subject matter. And he called the documentary “a journey of people” — some of whom, especially in the Lost Dutchman case, have spent upwards of 40 to 50 years of their lives seeking treasure.
“They happen to be treasure hunters, for the most part,” May said. “But you could debate whether this is really about treasure hunting or this is really about reconnection of people who connected once before. Or a camaraderie or a community of people who admire each other and some who have had a difficult life. I think it’s much more about an Americana that we rarely see.”
Jacob Waltz personifies the danger of the mountains as much as his likeness gives treasure hunters promise and hope of finding his desert jewel. Legend says he left a $200 million gold mine in the Superstition Mountains before his death in October 1891.
Waltz, a German-born prospector, arrived in La Paz in Arizona Territory in the early 1860s, according to James Swanson's book Superstition Mountain: A Ride Through Time. According to the book, Waltz filed a mining claim in the Walnut Grove District south of Prescott.
Waltz also worked digging irrigation ditches on the north bank of the Salt River near Phoenix for a company operated by Jack Swilling, a key figure in Arizona’s history. The Waltz homestead was near Buckeye Road and 16th Street in Phoenix.
The prospector became a well-known miner who supposedly became rich off of gold he carried out of the Superstitions. There are stories of him selling small quantities of gold in the 1870s in the Florence area, and he's said to have given out mysterious clues as to the location of the mine.
There are rumors that Waltz prospected gold from mining claims owned by the famed Peralta and Gonzales families. Or that the Lost Dutchman mine is really an existing mine with a different name. Still another story claims the buried treasure was from ancient Jesuits, who are said to once have occupied the mountains.
The German, according to legend, prospected every winter from 1868 to 1886. He died in 1891, and if he left a treasure in the Superstitions, his friends and acquaintances were unable to pinpoint it.
No one has ever come up with ore that matches that of the Dutchman, Tuttle said. He and a team of “Dutch hunters” searched for the treasure for about six consecutive weeks on the show, which ran for six episodes in 2015. He's spent 40 years looking for the gold mine, which he believes exists in the western half of the Superstitions.
But Ron Feldman, a local historian, said the mine is on the opposite end of the mountains, to the east, and is an existing mine called the Silver Chief.
Feldman owns Mammoth Mine Gift and Rock Shop, and his sons operate O.K. Corral Inc., a horse rental business on the same property. He's written two books about the legend and owns several mines in the area — including the Black Queen, which his family still operates.
“I followed everybody’s footsteps that led you nowhere,” Feldman said. “The first 25 years, I became an expert on where the Lost Dutchman was not. It was the next 25 years of my life that I got into information that took me to the east side, and I explored the east side.”
Feldman moved to the area in 1968 and said there was a time when he took “a steady stream” of people into the mountains to search for the gold. But those numbers have dwindled since a 1984 moratorium that prohibited mining in the Superstitions.
He said that unlike the west side of the range, the east side has “perfect geology” for gold.
“Most of the information on the Lost Dutchman mine is bogus — except for what I have written,” Feldman joked.
Over the years, the folklore of the mine has grown via events such as Lost Dutchman Days and the construction of Goldfield Ghost Town.
Tuttle said he and the “close-knit” group help host the Treasure Hunter of the Year Awards and the Dutch Hunter Rendezvous, an annual camping event held to pay homage to Waltz. He said the group does its best to protect the legacy of the mountains.
“We value what’s in the mountains,” Tuttle said. “We don’t always want to just share everything, because we worry there are people out there that are just going to go out and ruin it.” He said there are artifacts in undisclosed locations, such as a copper cross wedged in rock in a cave.
Tuttle said there isn’t yet a way to protect similar items left in the mountains, other than mines that have been intentionally dynamited shut. “There’s nothing we can do, and the biggest shame in the world is to go up there and find it’s gone,” he said. “Because that’s what’s going to happen. There’s no way to protect it.”
Feldman said area historians and Dutch hunters alike have done their best to not reveal every tidbit they know — such as the whereabouts of a famed matchbox said to contain a small portion of gold ore from the Dutchman’s treasure.
About 48 pounds of gold ore was found underneath the Dutchman’s deathbed, according to legend. After Waltz’s death, the legend goes, gold ore from that location was sent to an out-of state jeweler who made items such as cuff links, earrings, the matchbox and other jewelry out of the treasure. Those items were given to different individuals as gifts; the matchbox is now owned by a local historian and is one of the last surviving objects said to contain Dutchman gold.
“(Not everything is revealed because of) the history behind it,” Feldman said. “It’s because it’s the most publicized, famous mine in the world. ... I can probably dig more gold out of the Black Queen than I could’ve today out of the Dutchman. Why is [the Dutchman] more important? It’s more story. The Black Queen has a story. But it’s not as famous. It’s not as well-known.”
— Brent Ruffner