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Oregon coast treasure

By David Welch
The Savvy Traveler

Editor's note: The Savvy Traveler is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and features firsthand experiences and observations of travelers around the globe.

A view of the Oregon coast from atop Neahkahnie Mountain.
A view of the Oregon coast from atop Neahkahnie Mountain.

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(The Savvy Traveler) -- When most people think about the Oregon coast, they focus on things that make them want to curl up with a warm blanket: jagged cliffs battered by rain, stately Douglas Firs blowing in the wind, misty, crashing waves, buried treasure -- wait, what was that last one?!

There's a legend in these parts that in the late 1600s, the Spanish empire's fleet offloaded precious cargo -- jewels and gold -- somewhere north of Manzanita. Some locals believe the story -- and some with "treasure fever" have been digging for it for centuries. David Welch went in search of the infamous booty.

David Welch: When most people think about the Oregon coast, they think about trees, cliffs and rain, which is fine because people mostly come to the Oregon Coast for vacation -- vacations that involve B&Bs and wood stoves, books and blankets, and the ritual of curling up with various people or things. But there's a dark side to this stretch of coast -- and like most dark things, this one starts with an ancient legend.

Wayne Jensen: The Indians seen a couple of canoes

David: About 300 years ago, the Spanish Empire ran fleets of galleons up and down the Pacific Coast. It wasn't uncommon for these galleons to run off course, sometimes by hundreds of miles.

Wayne: Some people come ashore, sailors, and they were carrying a chest up on the mountain there.

David: One time -- nobody knows why -- some Spaniards offloaded their cargo. Maybe it was to protect it from bandits or maybe their galleon was taking on water -- whatever. What's important is that somewhere north of Manzanita is an honest-to-God treasure chest packed full of jewels and gold.

Wayne: They dug a hole and buried it, and then they killed a black man and put him on top of it to keep the superstitious Indians from digging it up.

David: That's Wayne Jensen. He's a member of the Oregon Coast Treasure Committee. Wayne says all this supposedly occurred in the late 1600s, but it wasn't until the late 1800s that clues started showing up.

Wayne: They discovered rocks up there in the late 1860s, early '70s. And they started looking for a treasure because of the marks on there.

David: That was the first time that this stretch of coast developed "treasure fever."

Wayne: It's a lot like playing the lottery or going to a casino -- it's the lure of treasure.

David: Treasure fever comes and goes; it's not like it has been neighbor against neighbor for the last 150 years up here. But men have gone broke looking for the treasure, wives have been lost, entire stretches of beach uncovered trying to find the loot. Locals, like Wayne, would love to keep this legend quiet. If the treasure legend never occurred, Wayne said, that would be just fine with him.

But one would think it would be easier to keep the secret safe if all the roads around here didn't have names like "Pirate's Way" or "Treasure Rock Road." In fact, one of the main roads leading up from the beach, the road most often talked about in the legend, is called Treasure Hunter's Lane.

Wayne's friend Don: Lots of pits dug around here.

David: That's Wayne's friend, Don. He lives on Treasure Hunter's Lane and although he claims to have never hunted for the treasure, he sure seems to know a lot about it.

Don: One up the road; one at the end of this road down here.

David: Don told me about a house at the end of the road where the bulk of the pits were dug. I decided to walk down there and meet the owner.

Unidentified man: Well, I think there's been diggings all over around here, clear up the side of the mountain, all over this area. There's all kinds of pits dug. In fact, I think if you're not careful hiking around, you might fall into one.

David: He wouldn't give me his name and every time I asked him a question, regardless of what the question was, he managed to mention the deed to his house. Finally, I asked him about it.

Unidentified man: Well, what's in the deed, is the person who developed the area, Mr. Lucas, he said in the covenants and restrictions that his heirs are entitled to a third of the treasure -- if it's found.

David: Two things became clear to me the more I asked about the treasure. The first is that everyone up here is very, very informed about the legend. The other is this: Even though everyone seems so informed, no one I met actually believes it exists.

Wayne: I don't think there's a treasure, no.

Don: I can't imagine anybody coming this far, though, to bury the treasure.

Marylyn: And why would they carry a heavy chest halfway up the mountain before they buried it.

Wayne: I'm not saying there might not be a box buried up there or something -- you know, somewhere -- but if there was a way to find treasure, we

would have found it.

David: Or maybe we just haven't found it yet. My suspicions grew when I thought about what Wayne had just said.

Wayne: I'm not saying there might not be a box.

David: That's when I got the shovel. I dug as much as one man could dig in the rain. I dug in as many spots as I could and as deep as I could with only one shovel. At one point, this couple walked by and looked at me with this sad mixture of disbelief and sympathy. Did I look that crazy to them or did they actually know where the treasure might be, and their pity was directed at my misguided efforts? That's when it dawned on me, there was no way I was going to find this treasure -- but not because it doesn't exist ...

Later that night, as I sat drinking beer and eating ribs at Gayle's Bar and Grill, I couldn't stop thinking about the treasure. Now, I know I'm supposed

to say something about the real gold out here, something about nice people and beautiful views, but I still believe the treasure is cold, hard loot. It might sound crazy, but there was a point as I dug when I thought, "You know what? I'm going to find it."

Wayne's right, the lure of treasure is like playing the lottery or shooting craps. Somewhere out there is the treasure, and one day, somebody's going to find it.

The Savvy Traveler ® is produced by Minnesota Public Radio
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