Ken Leighton 5 p.m., Jan. 24
Jamul: the legends, lies, and mines of Mt. McGinty
Spelunking in what probably isn't the fabled Lost Pegleg Mine.
Back in 2004, The Reader’s late al fresco aficionado Jerry Schad wrote about the summit hike at Mount McGinty in Jamul.
“Several rare and endangered plant species make their home here on soils derived from a relatively uncommon form of bedrock called gabbro,” Schad wrote.
“Over half of California's remaining specimens of Dehesa beargrass cling to the mountain's rocky spine. The endemic San Diego thornmint, its habitat reduced by 90 percent during the past century by urbanization, survives here, as does San Miguel savory, Parry's Tetracoccus, and Gander's butterweed. Some of these plants are believed to be relict species, once common but now almost squeezed out of existence by gradual climate changes occurring over the past 10,000 years or more.”
Nearly a decade later, the area is undergoing extensive rehabilitation to preserve the endangered chaparral brush, but the trail remains a popular hike and mountain bike destination.
What Schad, didn’t mention, however, were the small mine/caves scattered around the mountain.
The newsletter incorrectly (I believe) correlates the caves to tales of Lost Peg Leg Mine, named after fur trapper Thomas “Peg Leg” Smith.
According to legend, in 1829, Smith and his friend Maurice Le Duke lost their Colorado Desert trail in a sandstorm and, desperate for water, Smith climbed one of three clustered buttes in search of water (presumably to look for nearby rivers or lakes).
“Tired from his unsuccessful searching, he sat down to get some rest. At that point, he noticed that the butte was covered with black rocks that were the size of walnuts. He picked one of the rocks up and was impressed at how heavy they were and decided to put a few in his pocket. His idea was to get somebody to check them and see what they were once they got back into civilization. The two friends ended up spending the night in the butte and then the following day they found a spring.
"Once they were all rested up and had refreshed themselves, they started to head back to Los Angeles again. As they were on their way, Peg Leg found out that the heavy black rocks he had put in his pocket were gold.”
Myth and legend blog Treasure Trove Dreams recounts that, instead of heading back to claim his fortune, Pegleg went on a drunken bender “including a saloon brawl or two, [stealing] a few hundred horses, and [heading] for Taos, New Mexico to sell the stolen horses off.”
Legend has it that Peg Leg returned 20 years later, after the California Gold Rush began, but never could find the same butte.
He is said to have become a bandit and a gambler (and, according to Treasure Trove Dreams, “a drunkard and a great liar”), ever lamenting the fortune that slipped through his fingers.
It is understandable that the mines of Mount McGinty came to be known, by some anyways, as Peg Leg mine.
Just over hill is Peg Leg Mine Road, and there are three buttes visible in the area.
However, it is highly unlikely that this is the same butte that Smith climbed in 1829.
For one thing, I’ve spent over a decade in Jamul and have not once seen or heard of sandstorms in the area.
Furthermore, the same legend posted in Jamul Haven’s newsletter states: “Peg Leg used Warner’s Hot Springs as a base while he was on his search, and he centered in Borrego Valley,” while Treasure Trove Dreams notes:
“Serious searchers for Pegleg's gold have concentrated their efforts in either the Anza-Borrego Desert (note: no treasure hunting is allowed in Anza-Borrego State Park) or the Colorado Desert closer to the Chocolate Mountains a bit farther east. Some even claim that Pegleg's gold was found in the opposite direction around the old gold mining region near Julian or even Jacumba, near the Mexican border. No one knows.”
Beyond the geographical uncertainties, there are so many fabrications surrounding the legend of Peg Leg Mine (not to mention Peg Leg's own reputation as an artful spinner of tales) that an annual Pegleg Smith Liar's Contest is held outside of Borrego Springs, where fellow fabulists gather to compete for the title "Greatest Prevaricator of All."
Whatever the case, there are at least three mines/caves to be discovered around the mountain, and a few days ago, some Jamul friends took me to one of them.
The cave splits off a short ways in. The passage on the left goes back maybe 5 yards while the main tunnel extends another 20 or so.
At the end on the tunnel, my guides found this rat corpse, obviously eviscerated by some sort of crypto-zoological hill country hole golum.
We situated him by the entrance as a warning.
Who dug these holes?
What were they looking for?
And why did they leave so abruptly?
More like this:
- Springtime in the Desert: Borrego Springs — Feb. 26, 2010
- Gold Panning in Jamestown, CA — Aug. 16, 2009
- Stalk the wild beargrass at Jamul's McGinty Mountain Preserve. — Feb. 26, 2004
- Hell Holes — Jan. 24, 2002
- Take a spin on a bicycle over the flat roads of Borrego Valley. — Nov. 1, 2001