The Lost Lemon Mine

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CraigBaird

In the Rocky Mountains near present-day Pincher Creek, Alberta, there is the legend of a gold mine with such treasures that whoever finds it will be set for life, as will several generations of their descendants.

There is a catch though.

Those seeking its fortune will encounter a great deal of bad luck, or even death.

One prospector shared while drinking at a saloon how he hoped to strike it rich one day but that he would never go looking for it.

When asked why, he simply said.

“It is cursed.”

But does the mine exist?

Some say it does, while others say it is a simple campfire tale.

What is true is that no one has been able to find it in over 125 years.

The Legend of the Lost Lemon Mine is one of the great mysteries of the Canadian Rockies.

I’m Craig Baird and this…is a special episode of Canadian History Ehx!

There are many variations of the tale of the Lost Lemon Mine, and the details always seem to.

 In fact, nearly every article I read, and every site I visited, had a different version.

To keep things consistent and less complicated, I will relate the most common version of the tale, with some other variations mixed in.

The story of the Lost Lemon Mine begins in the Autumn of 1870, although some sources say 1879, with a white prospector named Frank Lemon, and his Indigenous friend Blackjack.

The two men had been searching for gold in the Rocky Mountains when they found a gold deposit between the Crowsnest Pass and the Highwood River in southwestern Alberta. This area of Canada is quite beautiful. I lived in the area at one point, and it can be stunning to see. You have the high rising Rockies next to the foothills of Alberta. Great rivers flow down these mountains, which are often capped in snow and ice almost all-year-round. To the south you have the area where the Frank Slide happened, and to the north the Kicking Horse Pass, which is a white-knuckling drive if you don’t like heights.

Now, before you start thinking of going and finding this legendary mine yourself, keep in mind that the distance between those two points on the map is 60 kilometres through mountainous terrain. It won’t be an easy find. Dense forest, cliffs that drop 1,000 feet to one side, and a tall slab of mountain with occasional rock falls on the other side. Bears, cougars, and the occasional mountain goat are your only neighbours. Along with the beautiful waterfalls and the majestic views, is a real sense of danger. One wrong step could be your last.

One miner interviewed in 1930 said that the mine was near Courcelette Peak, located in the Rockies about 75 kilometres southwest of High River.

Yet no one has found it there in a century of looking.

And people have looked because the mine is thought to have$7 billion worth of gold in it.

How do you estimate how much gold is in a mine that may only be a legend?

I don’t have an answer for that.

Anyways, the story says that Frank Lemon, and Blackjack found the gold mine, and they got into an argument over whether to camp and start mining immediately or take some gold nuggets with them and get someone to pay for an operation and return in the spring.

They couldn’t agree and went to bed without a resolution.

You know what they say, never go to bed angry.

Well, Lemon was still mad and in the middle of the night, he crawled out of his blankets, picked up an axe and killed his friend Blackjack with a single blow to the head.

Immediately, realizing what he did, Lemon built a large huge fire to burn the body.

He then picked up a gun and left the area.

If killing your friend wasn’t bad enough things were about to get worse

Lemon began to lose his mind convinced he was being pursued by the ghost of Blackjack as he fled the mountains.

Another version of the story states the two men mined gold and quartz for three weeks, valued at about $27,000, a massive fortune for the time but they could not agree on who would have the gold claim and who would have the quartz claim.

In this version an argument ensued, and Lemon killed Blackjack with either an axe or a gun.

To be clear, whichever version you prefer, Blackjack ends up dead.

But in the second, unbeknownst to Lemon, two Blackfoot men had been watching from the trees.

They saw the pair strike gold, then witnessed the argument, and the subsequent murder.

They went to their chief who swore them to secrecy and made them promise to never tell a soul about the gold. For the Indigenous, gold was not seen in the same way as it was with Europeans. It was something that could be turned into a trinket, but it was when Europeans arrived that the Indigenous saw what they would do for gold. From the Fraser River Gold Rush to the Klondike, gold meant the uprooting of Indigenous communities, followed by violence and death.

In this version it is the chief who apparently, put a curse on the area where the murder happened.

As for Lemon, he returned to town filled with guilt.

The legend doesn’t state which town, as Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Calgary, the largest communities in southern Alberta today, did not exist yet.

The North West Mounted Police didn’t patrol the area, and the interior of British Columbia, stretching from modern day Vancouver to Golden, B.C., right near the Alberta border about an hour from Banff, had no real settlements until you reached the Fraser River, closer to the Lower Mainland.

There were some whiskey forts, but it’s likely he went to Montana.

Finding a priest, he confessed about what he had done.

The priest promised to keep his secret, and he asked a local trapper named John McDougall to go to the area, find Blackjack’s body and give it a proper burial.

McDougall took with him a group of miners, you know, just in case there actually was gold there.

Can’t blame a guy for wanting to get rich.

On their way to the mine, they stopped in Fort Kipp, a whisky fort near present-day Lethbridge.

McDougall then promptly drank himself to death.

The miners returned home, and Blackjack was never buried.

Two years later, the same Indigenous men who witnessed Lemon kill Blackjack saw another man heading towards the mine.

He is not identified in the stories, but they found his body the following year outside the mine.

Over the years, other hopeful miners asked Lemon to take them to the mine, but every time he approached the area, he was overcome with anxiety and fear and refused to journey any further.

For the rest of his life, his mental and physical health declined, and by all accounts, Lemon was never the same again.

I know I’ve only mentioned two real protagonists in this tale… Lemon and Blackjack but some accounts have a third character in the story.

Lafayette French initially funded Lemon and Blackjack’s expedition for gold.

He then went on a 30-year long quest to find the mine, and its riches.

According to one account of the legend, he found it.

Overcome with excitement, he wrote a letter from a cabin he was staying in nearby and detailed his success and where the mine was located.

That night, the cabin burned to the ground and the letter was destroyed.

French escaped but contracted pneumonia from exposure that night and by the time he found help, he was close to death.

He sent for Dan Riley, a long-time friend, and started telling him that he had found the Lost Lemon Mine.

Riley told him to rest, and they would speak in the morning.

But by the time the sun rose, French was dead.

Dan Riley later became a Canadian Senator, and launched his own searches for the mine but was never successful.

His son, George Riley took up the cause, but he also never found it.

There was yet another man who knew the location of the mine, or at least the general area, and that was the unnamed priest whom Lemon had confessed to.

In 1883, he organized an expedition to find the mine based on the information Lemon gave him.

Before he could venture out though, a forest fire destroyed any trace of the route or markers that could have guided him on his way to the mine.

Some versions of the story state that a rock slide fell over the area, burying the strike forever.

Nonetheless, the Lost Lemon Mine legend was kept alive well into the 20th century.

In the Autumn of 1948, two Yellowknife prospectors named Albert Peterson and J. Hunt went in search of the mine.

They believed they had the location because they had a sample of gold ore, they found in the Rockies west of High River in 1934.

The sample was found along the headwaters of the Highwood River, which is near to where the Lost Lemon Mine is reported to have been located.

If you think I’m going to shock, you with a fun tidbit… sadly I don’t have much.

They didn’t find the mine, and at this point, they faded into history.

But then, In September 1949, while building a highway through the foothills of the Rockies between Morley and Coleman. Morley is a small community on the Stoney Nakoda Reserve, about 30 minutes east of Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway. Coleman is 160 kilometres to the south, in the Crowsnest Pass near Frank, Alberta. It was reported that construction crews came upon the mine.

This proved to be a false alarm, and the Lemon Mine continued to be just out of reach and seemed to exist only in the mists of time.

If there is one thing these stories all have in common, it is that they all claim to have found the Lost Lemon Mine only for it to be a false alarm.

This continued throughout the 20th century.

In 1983, Thomas Mooney from Ontario said that he had located the Lost Lemon Mine, based on information he got from his wife. She claimed to have found gold in the area in the 1950s.

And you can guess what happened next… no gold was found…

Then six years later In 1989, Ron Stewart, a geologist at the University of Alberta staked a 388-square-kilometre claim at the Crowsnest Pass, believing he had found the mine.

He believed his claim would produce 17 million ounces of gold. I was unable to find out how much he made off the claim, but if it was anything, it was far from the legendary strike the Lost Lemon Mine was reported to have been.

That same year, Vince Janostak, hearing of Stewart’s claim, decided that he was going to take to the hills to find the mine himself.

He was 73 years old and had been prospecting for much of his life, but nothing substantial would come from his hopes of finding the mine.

The Lost Lemon Mine has never been found but it doesn’t look like people looking for endless riches will stop looking.

130 years later and we’re still talking about the fabled mine and storied lives of Lemon and Blackjack.

Information from Didsbury Pioneer, Edmonton Journal, Wikipedia, Windsor Star, Lost Lemon Campground,

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