Under the asphalt a rumor thrives

by Michelle Nijhuis

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
HCN.

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