The Lost Lemon Mine – Riley #1

The Lost Lemon Mine

As published in “Alberta Folklore Quarterly” Vol. 2, No. 1, 1946

Source “The Lemmon Project” “The Dempsey Files”

By Senator D. E. Riley

1860 – 1948


There is a fascination in stories of lost mines and lost men.  There is the famed McLeod Mine somewhere in the heart of the Sawtooth Nahannies, for which men have searched for forty years only to have it elude then and leave a trail of bleached wolf-gnawed skeletons behind.  And then there is the famed Lost Lemon Mine of southern Alberta for which prospectors have sought through the years in vain.

In the spring of 1870, a party of prospectors left Tobacco Plains in Montana to prospect the North Saskatchewan River for gold.  Among them were two men, known and Blackjack and Lemon.  Blackjack had the reputation of being the best prospector in the west since he was the real discoverer of the Caribou diggings in British Columbia.  These two men were staked by Lafayette French, an old-time Indian trader and buffalo hunter.

Leaving the Saskatchewan party, they decided to travel south with a large half-breed band headed by La Nouse, which would afford them protection against hostile Blackfoot.  Finally, the party split, the two prospectors following an old Indian lodge-pole trail up High River towards Tobacco Plains, while La Nouse headed for Stand Off.  As they proceeded, Blackjack and Lemon found likely showings of gold in the river.  Following the mountain stream towards the headwaters, they discovered rich diggings from grassroots to bedrock.  They sank two pits and in bringing their Cayuses in from the picket line, they accidentally discovered the ledge from which the gold came.

Traders who saw samples of this rock at Fort Benton described it as resembling a body of solid gold with a little rock shot into it.  It was indescribably rich!

In camp that night the two prospectors got into an angry argument as to whether they should stake the find and return in the spring or camp right there, which almost lead to blows.  After they had rolled themselves in their blankets, Lemon stealthily crawled out, seized an axe and split the head of his sleeping partner.  Overwhelmed with panic, when the realization of the enormity of his crime penetrated his befuddled brain, Lemon would have fled the spot, but was afraid to leave until daylight.  Instead, he built a huge fire and with his gun beneath his arm, strode to and fro like a caged beast until dawn.

Little did he think that two pairs of snaky, black eyes had witnessed the entire tragedy from the cover of the surrounding bush.  Two young Stony braves, William and Daniel Bendow, had, however, trailed the pair, watched them sink the holes and seen the discovery of the gold.

As night wore on, Lemon appeared half crazed with the thought of his terrible deed, while, with a grim sense of humour, the young braves added to his distress by whistling, moaning, and making other weird and uncouth sounds.  With the first streak of dawn, Lemon mounted his Cayuse and hit the trail across the mountains.  Meanwhile the two Stony’s ransacked the camp, took the two remaining Cayuses and set out for the Stony Village at Morley where they reported all they had seen to old Chief Bearpaw.  Fearful lest the whites hear of the gold-strike, and over-run their game-filled hunting grounds, the old chief swore the young men to everlasting secrecy.

Since that day many attempts have been made to bribe them by prospectors in search of the Lost Lemon Mine.  Bands of horses, herds of cattle, small fortunes to these children of the plains, have been offered to them in vain, yet their tongues remained sealed.

When Lemon arrived at Tobacco Plains, he confessed his crime to the priest, an old friend of his. He had with him the gold they had found on the day of the killing, as well as a sample of the rock they had discovered; but he seemed half-crazed from the recollection of his crime.

Promptly the priest dispatched a half-breed mountain-man named John McDougall, to the scene of the tragedy.  McDougall found the spot, buried Blackjack, reared a mound of stones over the grave to keep off prowling wolves, and returned to Tobacco Plains.  No sooner had he left than Bearpaw’s braves tore down the mound of stones, scattered them piecemeal and obliterated the last trace of the murder.  How well they did their work is indicated by the fact that, through succeeding years, the secret has remained so well hidden that the spot has yet to be rediscovered.

All that winter Lemon remained with the priest, on the borderline of insanity.  Meanwhile word of the rich find had spread far afield, and as soon as it was possible to travel in the spring a large party of miners, guided by Lemon, set out to relocate the mine.

But fate was against them!  Though Lemon scoured the gulches and hillsides, he declared he was unable to locate the spot, only to be accused by the angry miners of deliberately misleading them.  In the heated quarrel that ensued, Lemon, threatened with death at the hands of the angry men, suddenly became violently insane.  All night his own party stood guard over the raving man, and next morning set out with him for Tobacco Plains.  From there he went to his brother’s ranch inTexaswhere he lived many years, having lucid intervals, but never fully recovering his reason.

Next year the priest outfitted another party from Tobacco Plains.  The leader was to be the John McDougall who had buried Blackjack.  McDougall, who was over at Fort Benton, was to meet the rest of the party at Crow’s Nest Lake, and they were to proceed north from there.  McDougall left Fort Benton to keep his appointment, but at Fort Kipp, a notorious whiskey post, he drank himself to death.

The following year, still another party was equipped and reached the lake where mountain fired burned all the grass and timber forcing them to again abandon the enterprise.

Next spring the priest sent out a smaller party under the guidance of Lemon, who was still living at Tobacco Plains.  But proximity to the place of tragic memories again unsettled the man’s addled mind, and the party was forced to take him back.

Disgusted, the priest gave up the search for the lost mine, but it was immediately taken up by others.  One of these was a man named Nelson, a member of the first Lemon party.  A tireless summer’s search, however, failed to deliver up the secret of the location of the gold, so the party disbanded, each man conducting an independent but unsuccessful search.  Finally, Lafayette French arrived at Tobacco Plains determined to unlock the secret of the hoard of hidden gold.  In the vastness of the hills he was overtaken by a strange sickness and dragged himself back to Tobacco Plains more dead than alive.  Some strange hoodoo seemed to haunt all those who sought the lost mine.  To a friend, French showed a rough pen-and-ink sketch of rivers-and-mountain ranges.  At the head of stream with three forks was a cross and against it the magic legend  “Gold”.  The map, he said, was made by Lemon, and the mark represented the location of the Lemon Mine — the richest thing ever found in the vicinity of the Rockies.  That, he said, was the reason he had come to Alberta, and he insisted he would continue the search for the lost mine as long as he had breath in his body.  For the next fifteen years Lafayette French continued to devote himself unswervingly to his self-imposed task.

French went about his work methodically.  He spent some months in the 1890’s with the two survivors of the several expeditions that had searched for the mine.  He even had one of them come by pack train to Crow’s Nest Lake and then north in an endeavor to have him identify some of the landmarks in the district traveled by the first expedition headed by Lemon.  He kept La Nouse and his band of half-breeds through the winter of 1883, in order to check, in the spring, and discover where Lemon and Blackjack parted company with him.

French fed William Bendow, the Stony Indian and his followers one winter at Lee’s ranch on Pincher Creek and, in the spring, put twenty five horses and twenty five cattle in a pasture, which would become the Stony Indian’s property the moment he showed them the spot where the killing had taken place. William agreed, but on the second day out some superstitious terror took possession of him — possibly he was afraid Chief Bearpaw would work bad medicine on him — and he refused to go a step further.  Again the expedition was abandoned!

Just a few days before French’s death he made another bargain with the Stony to show him the place he had sought so long.  William and his band were on their way to Morley and agreed to camp at the old George Sage place — an abandoned ranch on the middle fork of High River — until French could get George Emerson to join them.  Again William agreed to conduct them to the murder spot.  That night William died suddenly.  Convinced that it was the effect of bad medicine worked upon him through his intention to betray the secret of the tribe, his people placed his body in a Red Rivercart and carried it fearfully back to the reserve at Morley.  The night of their arrival William’s son-in-law died in the same mysterious manner, another manifestation, according to the Indians, of the wrath of Wahcondah. To this day the Stoney’s become grim, tight-lipped and fearful, the moment the Lemon Mine is mentioned.

The hoodoo that had haunted French continued to dog his footsteps to the very last. In a fire of mysterious origin that destroyed the Emerson House on the night of his return from the last un-happy expedition, he was terribly burned. On the same evening, he had written a letter to a friend, at Fort Benton and posted it at the Bar U Ranch. Evidently it was written in a state of exaltation and excitement. He had at last, he said, located it and was coming toHighRiverin a couple of days to tell him everything and enlist his help. On his arrival he was unable to talk before he died, so if he had actually solved the problem, which had occupied so many years of his life, the secret died with him.

Numerous attempts have been made since that time to relocate the mine, the most notable one as recently as 1929. Many there are who say nothing will be found this side of the mountains, but geologists designate a tract of land between Crow’s Nest Lake and Mist Mountain, on the headwaters of the Highwood River, as a disturbed area in which precious metals might be discovered. In the opinion of old prospectors, if the Lemon Mine is ever found it will be in this territory, which is really a trough of the Cretaceous Sea, bounded on the west by the Paleozoic limestone of the main range of theRockies and on the east by the Livingstone range. This trough is now a north and south valley, transversely cut by the three watersheds of Sheep Creek, Highwood and Old Man rivers. The area is rich in coal, low-grade phosphate rock and low-grade deposits of iron. Yet nowhere on these streams have colours of gold been found, though it is safe to say that every one has been prospected time and time again by searchers after the elusive Lemon Mine.

If one were to believe the stories that have drifted down from the early days, the search for this hidden Eldorado has claimed more than Blackjack’s life. There is a story of a white man’s skeleton found in the gap of the Old Man River, the bony fingers still clutching a bag of gold. There is the story of two men, badly wounded, stopping overnight in the 1890’s at a ranch in the foothills. They carried gold dust and were fleeing from the West. They rode away the next morning for Fort McLeod, but never arrived. Had they re-discovered the lost Lemon Mine only to be followed and killed by the Indians?

From time to time old mounds and pits were found, the remains of cabins deep in hidden gulches, old rusted muzzle loading guns, pack-saddles, cooking outfits, rat-gnawed bed-rolls, and I.G.Baker tin containers date these. Again there is talk of the Lost Lemon Mine and foul play—for a man in the mountains doesn’t abandon his outfit unless tragedy has intervened.


The exact same story is published in “The Greatest Mystery of the Canadian Rockies – The Lost Lemon Mine” Frontier Book No. 4, Frontier Publishing Ltd. 1968.

The only difference between the two versions is: the word “indescribable“ (Riley) and “incredible” (Dempsey) to describe the find.


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