Johnson Canyon, Utah

With the help from a friend that lives in Kanab, Utah; I had the opportunity to explore one of the greatest treasure-story locations in the Western United States. Kanab is located on the western Colorado Plateau. U.S. Routes 89 and 89A meet in the center of town. US 89 leads north 34 km to Orderville, Utah and southeast 119 km to Page, Arizona, while US 89A leads south 11 km to Fredonia, Arizona.

Map of the Kanab, Utah area

The treasure story begins with the Spaniard-Conquistador Hernan Cortes landing in Mexico during 1509. Upon the Spaniards arrival, the Aztec Emperor Montezuma offered Cortes gifts to ease potential disputes. This generosity, sparked Cortes’ thirst for riches. He put the emperor on house arrest and pillaged the town of Tenochtitlán for gold and silver, torturing and killing many of the native Aztecs. The Aztecs rebelled, but their leader was held hostage for ransom. With many witnesses, the Aztecs filled three rooms full of gold for the Spaniards. Cortes was called away from the captured Montezuma to fight with other Spanish-Conquistadors. But when the Aztecs saw their opportunity to release their leader, Montezuma was killed in the escape attempt. Legend has it that thousands of Aztec men, (warriors and slaves) headed north to seek a resting place for the three rooms of riches. After they buried the cache in the desert, the warriors sacrificed their slaves to watch over it for eternity.

A Hollywood Set from the 1950s Westerns in Johnson Canyon North-East of Kanab, Utah.

Then in 1914, a prospector named Freddy Crystal arrived in Kanab, Utah with high hopes of finding the lost treasure of Montezuma. He brought with him a map of illustrations containing Aztec petroglyphs. Freddy had found old manuscripts in Mexico, from the time of Cortes, that had a hand-drawn map that bore a striking resemblance to the terrain around Kanab. He set off on a hunt to find a cave with the Aztec petroglyphs at the entrance.

Turnoff-road to the Montezuma Mine in Johnson Canyon, North-East of Kanab, Utah

In 1922, Freddy Crystal discovered a cave in Johnson Canyon, (North East of Kanab), that fit the bill. Stairs carved into the Navajo Sandstone led to the base of the cave, which was sealed up with ancient stone mortar. Freddy and his group scraped away at the wall with pocket knives. When that didn’t do the job, he brought the news back to the townspeople of Kanab. Nearly three-quarters of Kanab’s residents flocked to the hills to unearth the treasure site in the cave.

Montezuma’s mine in the Navajo Sandstone at the left-center of the picture.

Eventually the farmers-now-prospectors from Kanab succeeded in breaking through the manmade limestone “plug” that blocked the entrance to the tunnel.

A closer look at Montezuma’s Mine and the carved stairs to the tunnel entrance.

The tunnel led into a big room, where they found a collection of mule bones and a few artifacts. No gold! But then they found another tunnel and it had a plug in it too. So they dug it out.

Looking back down from the Montezuma’s Mine trail to the valley bottom.

At the end of the second tunnel, the gold seekers came upon still another cavernous room in which they discovered a large human skeleton propped in a sitting position. They called him “Smiley”, because he looked like he was smiling.

Looking back down the canyon from the Montezuma’s Mine entrance towards the Johnson Canyon’s paved road.

Again, there was no gold whatsoever! They did find a handful of pre-Columbian artifacts plus a sacrificial altar and the ashes of ancient campfires. Additionally, they found human fingers wrapped in bark, and human legs.

A manmade tunnel entrance to Montezuma’s Mine in Johnson Canyon.

The men from Kanab worked tirelessly, digging out the labyrinth of sand-filled tunnels that were full of bobby-traps and dangerous bottomless pits.

Inside one of the man-made tunnels found at Montezuma’s Mine in Johnson Canyon.
Inside one of the man-made tunnels found at Montezuma’s Mine in Johnson Canyon.

After months without a sign of Montezuma’s treasure, the workers from Kanab finally gave up and headed back home with their heads hung. Eventually, Freddy Crystal left, never to be seen in town again.

Another look at the carved stairs into the Navajo Sandstone at Montezuma’s Mine in Johnson Canyon

Only sporadically, after this adventure in 1922, did anyone ever go looking for Aztec treasure in Johnson Canyon. As far as most folks around Kanab were concerned, the case was officially closed.

An additional tunnel dug into the sandstone at Montezuma’s Mine in Johnson Canyon near Kanab, Utah

Although Freddy Crystal and his men never found the treasure, they discovered an extensive tunnel system. Many artifacts and bones were unearthed amidst a maze of booby traps and holes that dropped deep into the ground.

Inside one of the man-made tunnels found at Montezuma’s Mine in Johnson Canyon.

When seekers failed to find treasure in the Johnson Canyon tunnels, locals speculated about other hiding places. The hunt continues to this day, as treasure seekers believe it could be hidden in a pit below the Three Lakes pond north of town. Brandt Child, (a Kanab resident that witnessed the event in 1922 as a boy), thinks the treasure lies in a water trap almost 35 feet (11.6m) below the water’s surface. He bought the property in 1989 to investigate. He believed the event in 1922 was an elaborate Aztec diversion.

“Three Lakes” north of Kanab, (off of US 89, looking south-west)

Child’s theory took root one day as he was exploring Three Lakes Canyon and came upon a symbol scratched into the face of a sandstone cliff. (a mark he recognized as “an Aztec treasure sign similar to the one found at the Montezuma’s Mine”.

“Three Lakes” north of Kanab, (off of US 89, looking west)

It wasn’t long before Child fired up his backhoe and set about digging a drainage ditch to drain the lake. However, the “Three Lakes” was also the only known habitat of a thumbnail-sized snail called Oxyloma haydeni kanabensis-or the Kanab amber-snail. Under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, the mollusk could not be molested, nor can its habitat be altered in any way or be fined $50,000. (Strangely, the only other place in the world you find the “Oxloma heydeni kanabensis” is Central Mexico).

“Three Lakes” north of Kanab, (off of US 89, looking north-west)

Next, Child hired a team of scuba divers to go to the bottom of his lake and see what they could see. The team ended up making three separate dives, but each time ran into a host of technical problems. “Their air tanks lost their air,” Child recalls, “their air compressors wouldn’t work to refill their bottles, and annoying things like that”. The third time they came with metal detectors, sonar, intercoms, a dry suit, extra compressors, extra connectors, extras of everything. First diver went down. When he got back into the underwater cave for 20 meters, he started screamin’ his head off over the intercom. “Get me out! Get me out! There’s eerie figures all around me. I’m bein’ choked. I can’t breathe, get me out!” One at a time each diver went down into the cave in the lake, and each one had a similar experience. In the end, they all said, “We’ll never dive in that lake again!” They were convinced the lake was haunted.

Nearby, “Moqui Caverns” near the “Three-Lakes location”.

Since then, many who have attempted to find the treasure have met untimely deaths. Brandt Child perished after hitting a horse with his car. Another prospector drilled toward the tunnel and brought up gold on the drill bit. When he drilled again, the drill bit broke off, postponing the search. Later that night, the prospector died from a heart attack before he could make any additional progress. In an atmosphere of gold treasure-seekers, many attribute these deaths to a treasure’s curse.

Nearby, “Inside the Moqui Caverns” near the “Three-Lakes location”

Today, the “Best Friends Animal Sanctuary”, (a no-kill sanctuary for homeless pets), owns the Three Lakes property. Child’s family sold out! No plans exist to continue the hunt for the treasure, and the lake sits, along US 89, untouched. Of course I showed up to explore the treasure myself and donated to the “Best Friend Animal Sanctuary”.

Nearby, “Inside the Moqui Caverns” near the “Three-Lakes location”

Later, I drove out to the southwest from the mouth of Johnson Canyon on US 89, towards Page, Arizona, to explore a massive sinkhole, called the “Eagle Sink”. It was only a few kilometers away.

Kane County Road #730, Utah to the “Eagle Sink”.

Sinkholes are found in limestone karst formations. They usually occur when water has formed a cavern below and then the cavern and then the cavern collapses. A good indicator of the age of a sinkhole is the shape of the “bowl”. The more, dish-shape, the older the sinkhole. By all indicators, “Eagle Sink” is a very young sinkhole.

The “Eagle Sink” south-east of Kanab and Johnson Canyon, Utah in 2012.

The “Eagle Sink” sinkhole is attributed to the dissolution of underlying limestone bedrock, a process in which acidic ground water dissolves part of the limestone and carries it away in solution.

Looking south across “Eagle Sink”

The Triassic Timpoweap-Formation and the Kaibab-Formation underlies the sinkholes and is known for such gypsum “karst” features elsewhere in the area. Alternatively, or in conjunction with gypsum dissolution, part of an underlying limestone bed might have been dissolved and carried away in ground water. Both of these formations are of a yellow-grey color.

Looking South-west across “Eagle Sink”

At the “Eagle Sink” location, overlain mudstone and siltstone solidified by calcareous cement may form a somewhat stable roof over the limestone, allowing the sinkhole to grow unusually large before finally causing collapse at the surface. The “Eagle Sink” is a huge 53-30 m deep and 30 m in diameter.

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