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There might be gold in them thar Alberta foothills. But to this day, no one knows exactly where.


The Lost Lemon Mine

by Gord Tolton
Education Coordinator, Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village

While trade proved to be the true spun gold of the plains, the traders of the Whoop-Up frontier remained interested in gold in the classic sense. Most of the men in whiskey invasion had found Montana because of the search for gold, and many had unsuccessfully prospected the Rocky mountain tributaries of the Saskatchewan. William Samuel Lee was one of those, and a mishap over a forgotten tool led to the naming of Pincher Creek, and Lee’s true fortune remained in the foothills as a cattleman. With gold camps to the west, south and north, it should not be surprising that many had not forgotten their original passion.

Bob Lemon, a member of J.J. Healy's homregrown militia, the Sun River Rangers, was one of those who did not give up. With a partner known only as “Blackjack”, Lemon left the Tobacco Plains of western Montana sometime in the spring of 1870 to explore the North Saskatchewan to find little satisfaction. On the return trip through the Rocky Mountain foothills, on some nameless creek anywhere between the respective headwaters of the Bow and the Oldman, Blackjack and Lemon found a rich deposit they could access by placer exploration, and plucked out virtual nuggets of solid gold. But their good luck soured, as the pair’s campfire conversations turned ugly.

No one can possibly know the subject of the row. Perhaps they wondered about the values of their respective shares, since robe trader Lafayette French had bankrolled their prospecting junket. Whatever the matter, both apparently tabled their debate, and hit the hay. But while Blackjack snoozed, Lemon could not “sleep on it.” In the night, Lemon was still so enraged he picked up an axe, and buried it into his partner’s skull. Unknowingly, a pair of Stoney boys had did in the trees and witnessed the whole episode, and reported back to their leader, the chief Bearspaw– who never divulged the location.

Lemon left Blackjack as is and returned to Tobacco Plains with the samples. But by then, gold fever and guilt had combined to turn Bob Lemon into a babbling fool. He showed the gold and confessed his crime to a mission priest, who sent a mixed-blood mountaineer named John McDougall (no relation to the missionary family) to bury the body. McDougall found the camp and did as he was told, and built a cairn of stones atop–which the Stoney soon dismantled.

The next spring, a group of prospectors assembled at Tobacco Plains to place the addled Lemon into a saddle to return to the site. But Lemon was so out of his mind, he could not recall or find any landmark to remind him of the site of his strike and his misdeed.

Time passed, and from Fort Benton, the gravedigger John McDougall was called into the search. But the guide never showed up for his rendezvous with the gold seekers. With a weakness for trade whiskey, McDougall had stopped for a drink at Fort Kipp, (near modern Monarch) and never stopped drinking until he was dead–his knowledge buried with him. Party after party scoured the hills and mountainsides. Lemon was cajoled, bribed, even threatened, all to no avail¬–his memory left with his sanity.

The original grubstake backer of Lemon’s journey, trader Lafayette French, spent the rest of his 42 years gathering finances to hunt for what became known as the Lost Lemon Mine, and died in a suspicious cabin fire in 1912. Sketchy records, mismatched dates, the secrecy, violence, the many varying and unreconcilable versions, and even whispers of curses–have all combined to make the Lost Lemon a tantalizing puzzle that will probably never be solved. Every few decades, somewhere in the hills and mountains of the eastern slopes, some glint or sparkle appears to send latter day argonauts again into the latest rumor of the Lost Lemon prize.

The tale of the Lost Lemon had to be a topic of conversation at Fort Whoop-Up and environs, as fickle Bentonites so used to such tales and susceptible to their power, loaded pans, shovels and picks into wagons to head into the Canadian hills. Joseph Healy was among the throngs. In 1874, with Nicholas Sheran, Joe Corrand, and someone named “Red Dan, Joseph sought out Bob Lemon’s motherlode somewhere near the upper Bow, Joseph noticed a small trickle of hot water flowing into the Spray River, and followed to its source on Sulphur Mountain, a pool that would be called the Upper Hot Springs. The lower springs, the renowned Cave & Basin, he claimed to have found a year later.

Like all “discoveries,” local natives had known about the springs for countless millennia. The Stoney developed great faith and lore in the curative properties of the mineral waters on Sulphur Mountain, where a stew of natural chemicals created subterranean pools of that they treated as sacred, and a gift from their spirit.

That luminaries like brother Joseph, and his close associate Nick Sheran were on this mountain trek, is some indication that their particular search for the Lost Lemon and subsequently, the hot springs, was a venture of Joe’s brother, John H. Healy, the proprietor of Fort Whoop-Up. But the Healys probably never realized at the time, that was the hot water itself would be a paying venture. Soon, much closer to the Fort, Nick Sheran would find that a much more useful pay dirt was black and flammable.

In the summer of 1874, Sheran signed on to work at Fort Whoop-Up. It didn’t take Nick long to establish a ferry not far from the Fort. Sheran turned to the Belly River for his economic salvation, knowing that the presence of a crossing would become important to the advancing Police and the settlement that would soon follow. About a mile and half upriver from the Fort's location at the forks of the St. Mary's and Belly Rivers. In June of 1874, Sheran constructed two flat bottomed scows and established a toll ferry. The ferry became popular with the Police and the many teamsters that brought supplies from Fort Benton to Fort Macleod.

On lazy days when Nicholas Sheran's business was slow, he'd take his wagon upriver a few miles and pick out coal from an outcropping found a few years earlier. He sold a few tons of coal to the trading post at Whoop-up, to the NWMP at Macleod, and even shipped a few tons to Benton. The Bloods knew of the coal, though they rarely burned it in their lodges for fear of asphyxiation by carbon monoxide. They even had a name for the seams in the Black foot language, sik-ooh-kotoks , translated as "the black rocks", a location renamed by the Americans as Coalbanks– the eventual site of Lethbridge, Alberta.

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