image: Victorio Peak, where subterranean treasure and torment outdo the dramatic landscape
There are many places in the world you can go to see what the end of the world will look like. The blowdown area north of Mount St. Helens on a moonlight night in October is a picture of pure desolation. Another area that looks like the end of the world is southern New Mexico, just northeast of Las Cruces and west of Alamogordo where you’ll find 3,200 square miles of endless nothingness. Not that you have to worry about getting lost there, the government doesn’t allow people to wander around in the White Sands Missile Range. If you’ve ever driven through the countryside around Roswell or Artesia, then you know that if you get lost out there, you’re in the hurt locker. That is some lonely, barren countryside where the roads can be all but closed down by blowing sand and dust.
The other reason the government doesn’t like people wandering around the missile range is that parts of it are still screaming-hot radioactive from nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s. Really, after you’ve seen the place, you’d understand why the government picked it for nuke testing. The Spanish name for the area was Jornada del Muerto, which roughly translates as “single day’s journey of a dead man,” so you get the picture.
It is in this strange, remote and rugged place comes a tale of lost treasure that is far better supported by historical record than one might believe hearing the story. Our treasure tale takes place before the government took over White Sands, when the area was still open to the public. A couple named Doc and Babe Noss were deer hunting with friends there in 1937. One morning Doc and his friend set out for a hunt, leaving the wives back at camp. When it started to rain, Doc took shelter under a rocky overhang near the summit of the mountain, which, by mountain standards, is more like a rocky outcrop.
Digging around an odd shaped stone, Doc found a narrow shaft that led straight down into the mountain. He later told his wife about the find, which they kept secret from their companions. A short time later they were back with ropes and flashlights and set about exploring the narrow shaft. About sixty feet down Doc had to make his way around a large boulder jammed in the shaft which opened up to a room which led to yet another downward tunnel and eventually an open area where Doc found twenty-seven skeletons, all bound and staked in the room. A bit further on he found the first load of a treasure that included gold coins, jewels and a gold statue of the Virgin Mary.
Further in still, Doc found what he at first thought were iron bars stacked in another room, but bringing a smaller one up to the surface to inspect revealed the bar to be solid gold. In those days the government actually tried to confiscate gold via the Gold Reserve Act, which forbade private ownership of the metal. Having no way to sell the gold treasure, Doc began hiding the recovered treasures in the surrounding desert, which allegedly included a gold crown studded with hundreds of jewels, keeping the location of his stashes a secret, even from his wife.
After living in a tent for weeks and hiding treasure in the desert, the pair finally decided to get legal and filed for a lease from the government and mining rights. Somewhere along that process, someone suggested to Doc to try dynamite to open up the shaft for easier exploration. If you’re a mining engineer or a geologist, you might immediately recognize this as what’s commonly called a “bad idea” in the mining industry. So, Doc hired himself a mining engineer who used too much dynamite and collapsed the tunnel completely, sealing off the treasure forever.
Doc Noss was never able to gain access to the treasure again and, in 1949, he was killed by a business partner after an argument over money. He died lonely and bitter, having divorced Babe a few years before. In the end he died by a single gunshot wound to the head with only $2.16 in his pockets.
Since then the Noss family has fought the military in court for access to the area from the 1950s to the 1970s. Babe Noss caught military personnel exploring the area once and there were reports from individuals in the military claiming to have found a cavern full of gold bars. Babe Noss died believing that the military had acquired the gold and either sold it off or had it shipped to Fort Knox. There has never been any official record of a discovery issued by the military.
The legal wrangling goes on to this day by descendents of the Noss family corporation. Like many of our mysteries, we’ll likely never know what treasures hide beneath the featureless desert in southern New Mexico or learn the stories or the names of the people buried with it.