Under the asphalt a rumor thrives

  • Shaun C. Gibson

This summer, with the crack of Indy's bullwhip still echoing through theatres, it's natural to indulge in a little romanticism about buried treasure. Even when -- or especially when -- said treasure lies below a worn-out asphalt parking lot in downtown Grand Junction, Colo., within easy reach of jackhammer and trackhoe.

The booty in question is a safe, its contents unknown. It's the former property of George Crawford -- once-elected governor of Kansas, friend to Ulysses S. Grant, and founder of the city of Grand Junction. When Crawford came to western Colorado's Grand Valley in the early 1880s, he saw opportunity in the valley's farm and ranchland, and promptly tacked some cottonwood siding into a cabin and real-estate office on his city's nascent main street.

Grand Junction soon boasted some 700 souls, well-watered at nine saloons, and Crawford prospered, moving out of his cabin to a ranch before his death in 1890. In the decades that followed, his cabin disappeared, replaced by a veterinary hospital and, later, a parking lot. Rumors of an abandoned Crawford safe began to circulate, and didn't go away.

"The family joke was always, 'So what's in it?' ‚" says Debbie Bailey. Her family, the Schiesswohls, has lived in the city almost since George Crawford's era, and her grandfather, Ray Schiesswohl, built the parking lot in the 1940s. During construction of the lot, he remembered, workers reported finding a safe too big to remove. They simply buried it, leaving a slight bump on the surface.

The tale might have faded away had Bailey not married an historian, David Bailey, who heard Schiesswohl tell his story more than two decades ago. Bailey, the director of the Western Investigations Team at the Museum of Western Colorado, has made such stories his specialty. Several years ago, he headed an investigation into the crimes of Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer, turning up forensic evidence that suggested Packer's alibi for murder was valid. (He did, however, eat the victims.) "Our mission is to prove or disprove these urban myths,‚" Bailey says.

On a hot, sunny midsummer morning, Bailey is ready to dig into another myth, and exhume another piece of history. Students from the University of Denver have used ground-penetrating radar to target a couple of promising-looking disturbances underneath the parking lot, and now, a trackhoe operator from a local construction company is picking away at the asphalt.

The scoop isn't far into the dirt before Bailey spots an ash layer, perhaps an indication of the fate of Crawford's cabin. Museum staffers John Foster and Zeb Miracle clamber into the growing pit, turning up bricks, a piece of wood that might have come from a pioneer-era building, a couple of large nails. Team intern Jennifer Swedhin finds a medicine bottle, later shown to contain traces of opiates, from the city's earliest days. Bailey and his colleagues are thrilled, but the two dozen or so spectators -- museum board members, reporters, a couple of Halliburton roughnecks, a barista from the bagel shop next door -- want more. Each time the scoop clangs against something solid, the crowd murmurs, and draws closer to the hole. Each time, we're disappointed.

By mid-morning, Bailey and his team have switched to the second disturbed area, where the radar studies indicate a metal box lurks underground. Onlookers are hopeful: Metal box! Sounds promising! Once again, the trackhoe peels off the asphalt and digs in, pausing as the museum staff inspect bricks, charcoal, and large flakes from an old slate floor. Below the floor is -- aha! -- a rust-colored edge. "This must be it!‚" says Bailey, acknowledging his audience's thirst for the main show.

Further hand-shoveling and brushing by Foster and Miracle reveal a brown ring about the size of a manhole cover. And it's not metal, as it first appeared, but clay. Perhaps it's a "containment safe,‚" says Bailey, a simple pot that Crawford hid under his floor. Debbie, his wife, stops by during a break from work and peers at the ring, its center filled with dirt and rocks. "I don't think our retirement's hidden in there,‚" she says with a laugh. The crowd is still hopeful, but subdued: This isn't quite the longed-for strongbox.

Foster and Miracle keep at it, and persistence finally yields an answer, a pipe entering one wall of the clay container. Word spreads: This is no safe! This is some old cistern! People in Crawford's day did occasionally use their cisterns to hide valuables, but it looks like the source of the romantic rumor is anything but romantic. Reporters call their editors, sounding hot and bored. Yet the museum staff keeps working, their cheer undimmed; laboratory testing of the clay container and pipe later show that they date back to the 1880s. "We've got enough for an exhibit,‚" enthuses Bailey.

By midday, with only a handful of spectators remaining, the excavators call a halt, and the trackhoe operator begins to backfill the two holes, closing them up until the entire parking lot is renovated this fall. The museum team won't linger here: Next, it plans to excavate the site of Crawford's ranch near Palisade, Colo.

Zeb Miracle, sweating from his morning in the pit, is philosophical. "Sure, gold bars would have been nice,‚" he says. "But what's important is the result, and we got that.‚" Score one for science, zippo for romance. That's the problem with myths: Sometimes, they turn out to be just that.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of

Parking Lot Excavations in Grand Junction .
John Slay
John Slay
Aug 20, 2008 11:00 AM
I certainly hope most of the articles in HCN are have more factual
information and are better researched than this article ! The main problem is that the author refers to the efforts as " archaeology " . I beg to differ : digging with a backhoe and a jackhammer is not scientific archaeology . None of the Museum of Western Colorado has any creditials as a supervisory archaeologist . One has a BA in Anthropology - which might ( given the required coures and field school ) quailify him as a " field assistant " , qualified to do
minor digging and artifact recovery - but not qualified to excavate
without the direct supervision of an archaeologist who has at least
a Master's Degree .
In another "project " the Museum of Western Colorado tried
 to document the location of Alfred Packer's camp . Their
"evidence" consisted of campfire remains , a part of a tin cup and a pistol bullet . This " find " was greatly ballyhooed in the local
Grand Junction Sentinal and the Museum claimed it somehow proved
Packer's innocence . There is no way a professional archaeologist
would come to these conclusions , based on this scanty evidence .

I went to the Museum and asked to see the final report of the Packer Project . I was told it was no yet completed - even though the field work had been completed four years previous to my visit .

There are at several qualified supervisory archaeologists who live
in Grand Junction -- as well some in Montrose . These include
archaeologists who work for the BLM and the Forest Service and private contractors. Even if Museum did not have the funds to pay for their services , I am sure any of these folks( and I know them all ) would have offered some advice - and maybe some field time - to help these two projects be conducted at a reasonable standard
so that the work could be judged as science ( ie. archaeology ) and not as speculation based on pre-conceived ideas.
speculation .

I have seen several good articles on archaeoloy in HCN - the article on the parking lot in Grand Junction was nolt one of them .
archaeology and other worthwhile pursuits
Michelle Nijhuis
Michelle Nijhuis
Aug 25, 2008 02:14 PM
Hi John, I'm the author of the article. I'd like to point out that nowhere in the piece do I describe the Museum of Western Colorado project as "archaeology" (the headline on the Web, which did not appear in the print edition, was an error that's since been corrected). The project obviously didn't meet the standards of a formal, peer-reviewed archaeological study -- I never heard anyone claim that it did -- but it was still a worthwhile undertaking. After all, it not only piqued the community's curiosity about its own past, but also helped separate rumor from reality -- and as a journalist who takes accuracy very seriously, I think the latter's a pretty good use for a trackhoe.
Thanks, Michelle