The Treasure of Victorio Peak, Part 1
Today we have for you a mighty tale. During the better part of the last century, this tale has, at various times, gripped the attention of the entire nation. It's a tale of murder, of unimaginable riches, of deceit; its cast of characters runs from the lowliest of frontier laborers to the President in the White House. But mainly it is the tale of a treasure hunt involving more feet on the ground and more spades in the earth than any other you might have heard of. Today, in the first of three episodes, we're going to turn this story upside down and every which way, and see if any golden treasures drop out of it. Today we tell the true story of the treasure of Victorio Peak.
If you've heard of this story at all, it's most likely from the 2023 six-part miniseries on the Discovery Channel called Gold, Lies, & Videotape. It's a well-made and entertaining series, but as you can guess, it's also a stark example of Discovery's specialty, which is to present questionable events as absolute fact. The story is that of a fantastic treasure trove containing an estimated $28 billion in gold bars, hidden in a vast cavern inside a small hill in the San Andres Mountains in New Mexico, in the southwestern United States. Most of this unremarkable range is inside the US Army's White Sands Missile Range, including Victorio Peak, and is inaccessible to the public. The peak is basically just a small knob, only about 90 meters high (300 feet), and you wouldn't look at it twice except for its distinctive feature: it's completely scarred over with bulldozed roads from 75 years of frenzied treasure hunting. If you can, pull it up on Google Earth, Victorio Peak in the San Andres Mountains, it will give you some helpful context in which to enjoy this tall tale.
The original discoverers of the treasure — or alleged treasure, as it may be — were Milton Noss (1905-1949), who always went by his nickname Doc, and his wife Ova Noss (1895-1979), who always went by Babe. Doc was said to be three-quarters Cheyenne. He and Babe married in 1933 and settled in the town of Hot Springs, which was renamed Truth or Consequences in 1950. Doc earned a living as a foot doctor, from where he derived his nickname.
The story turned from one of young love to one of treasure in 1937 when Doc was on a deer hunt with some friends in the San Andres while their wives waited back at camp. Doc hiked alone to the top of Victorio Peak to get a vantage point to spot deer, and while he was up there, happened to notice a small shaft going straight down into the mountain. It appeared to be a mine that had evidently been worked before; there was a wooden ladder going down into it. But when he tried the ladder, he found that it broke under his weight. So he disguised the entrance as best he could, and went back to camp and quietly told Babe that he had something to show her.
There don't appear to be any records of exactly when or how often Doc and Babe went back to the shaft together, but Doc is said to have made many descents. Doc was a small, wiry man, and Babe was a larger woman so she never went down into the shaft. But what Doc reported was going down into the mountain, zig-zagging his way via a vertical fissure that cut all the way through the peak, as if you'd taken a giant knife and bisected it like a birthday cake. The fissure was haphazardly clogged with debris, requiring quite the circuitous route to pick your way down it. But once at the bottom of the fissure — Doc gave it as 186 feet down, or 57 meters — a passage perpendicular to the fissure went off to the north, leading to a vast network of natural caverns stretching more than three quarters of a kilometer. And the caverns were filled with vast riches. Doc found a total of 79 skeletons, the remains of armored Spanish soldiers, some of whom appeared to have died down there tied to stakes. He found countless trinkets: jewelry, plates, cups, swords, and more armor. And he also found 16,000 bars of what he took to be pig iron. They were various lengths but averaged somewhere around 25 kilograms. And when Doc brought some up and he and Babe looked closer, they discovered they weren't iron, but solid gold. Doc and Babe filed all the necessary claims. The family today values the gold at $28 billion.
The family's working hypothesis is that Apache natives had attacked Spanish wagon trains for a long time, and taken all of their belongings and hidden it in these caverns. By the dates of the many artifacts Doc brought to the surface, they figure most of it came from the days of Maximilian I, emperor of Mexico, installed by European powers during the American Civil War. Among the few items displayed today are some coins, the one recognizable one of which is a Spanish 8 reales coin, commonly called Pieces of Eight; and a generic European cavalry sword. Neither has any particular value, and it's fair to note that Doc could have easily picked them up at any boutique for next to nothing.
Many friends and family of the Nosses have affirmed that they were shown one or more bars of gold. Notably, the only ones who have admitted ever being allowed to touch one were quite young at the time. But let's take Doc's claim at face value for now, and run through a quick history of what transpired since.
The principal complication was that the United States had recently passed the Gold Reserve Act of 1934 which made it illegal for private citizens to own gold. According to Doc and Babe's account, Doc took some of his gold bars to the Denver Mint in 1939 to exchange them for currency, as required under the Act. But the gold was confiscated and he was paid nothing. Doc hired an attorney, Melvin Rueckhaus, who made inquiries at the Mint but was told there was no record of any such event. So Doc brought his case to the governor of New Mexico, Johnny Miles, with whom he was acquainted; and was told that for Doc to be able to legally remove such a treasure trove and convert it to currency, he would need to provide safe passage into the caverns for Treasury Department inspectors to verify its authenticity. Doc hired a mining engineer named Montgomery with the stated intent of clearing a way into the caverns for the inspectors; but the result was that Doc's original shaft was completely sealed off, preventing any such verification of the treasure cavern.
Things might have ended there, but Doc and Babe had sufficiently convinced their family of the potential of retrieving the unimaginable wealth that they formed the Cheyenne Mining Company in 1940. For several years, as many as 32 people worked the mountain, establishing other entrances into the fissure, trying to pick up Doc's trail to the cavern, but it was never found. They dug a new shaft at the bottom of the fissure and shored up the area. Doc grew increasingly paranoid, believing government agents were following him around, trying to catch him with some of the gold, so they could arrest him and seize the treasure cavern for themselves.
But then in the early 1940s, the United States Army formed White Sands Missile Range, which encompassed Victorio Peak. The Cheyenne Mining Company was prohibited from entering the property.
Distraught, Doc left town alone, and went to work in Texas — awfully uncharacteristic for someone with a pursuable legal claim to such an enormous fortune. Babe was left to renew the mining claim on her own, which she was able to do despite being unable to work it. Two years later Doc returned — with a new wife (!), and also a business partner, Charley Ryan. In 1949 the two men had an argument about the gold, and Ryan killed Doc in a gunfight. Doc Noss was 43 years old.
Throughout the 1950s, random soldiers stationed at White Sands — having heard the stories — would often go to Victorio Peak and climb around. A number of them appear in the Discovery documentary. Some claim to have gone all through the Cheyenne Mining Company's workings, some claim to have found vast hoards of gold but were on their best behavior and never touched any of it. None of these soldiers ever produced a photo or a speck of gold, or even made an official report or showed the gold to anyone. So all such stories should be taken with a large grain of salt.
By 1961, the Army was sufficiently annoyed by constant trespassers, permit applications, and conspiracy mongering that they went in themselves with heavy equipment. At a minimum, the Army blocked off all the entrances to the fissure plus any tunnels cut by various miners over the decades, either with bulldozers or with welded metal grates. Did they do any mining of their own? Well, of course that's the claim made by many, who assert that the Army did in fact remove all of Doc's vast hoard of gold from the treasure cavern, and then blocked it all off to hide their tracks. The Noss family members have leveled this charge against the Army repeatedly, but in an interesting example of cognitive dissonance, have spent large sums of money to go back at least twice since then to recover the gold for themselves, as we'll see. It's Schrödinger's Gold: it was both stolen by the Army, and is still there.
In 1963, the Museum of New Mexico in partnership with the Denver Mint got a permit from the Army to mine the peak. They brought in commercial miners, the Gaddis Mining Company of Denver, CO, and failed to find any gold or any treasure caverns during a 3-month search. And for nearly a decade, things were relatively quiet, and the legend faded from memory.
So all the way until the 1970s, the Army effectively blocked access for the family from Victorio Peak, and more or less put their boot down on the miscellaneous wildcatters and trespassers who wanted to find buried treasure. It was a quiet period for the diminutive mountain, but it was not going to remain so for very long. Next week, we're going to find out just what happened when the story got a massive boost from the last place you might expect: the Watergate hearings in Washington DC in 1973. What impact could that have possibly had on Victorio Peak? Tune into Skeptoid next week to find out.
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