The Lost Gold of the Palo Duro

For those who have traveled through the Texas Panhandle, no

doubt you thought there’s nothing but prairie with yucca and mesquite splattered along the way plus windmills, wind generators, oil wells, and millions of cattle. If you’re lucky you might see a longhorn or a buffalo or two.  Of course, if you’re near Amarillo, where I live, you might well have received a welcoming whiff of a feed yard, which in the summer time isn’t all that pleasant.

If you have spent any time in the area you most likely have visited the most astonishing natural phenomena in the Panhandle known as the Grand Canyon of  Texas—the Palo Duro Canyon. It was formed by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. The water deepens the canyon by moving sediment downstream. Wind and water erosion gradually widen the canyon.

The Canyon itself is 120 miles long and in some places is twenty miles wide with a depth of more than eight hundred feet. Its elevation at the rim is 3,500 feet above sea level. The Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the United States behind the Grand Canyon, which is 277 miles long, eighteen miles wide, and six thousand feet deep.

Early Spanish Explorers are believed to have discovered the area and gave it its name, which is Spanish for “hard wood” in reference to the abundant mesquite and juniper trees. Humans have lived in the canyon for over twelve thousand years. Over the centuries it has been home to the Comanche Indians, trailblazers, outlaws, and the famous Father of the Panhandle, Col. Charles Goodnight.

On July 4, 1934, Palo Duro State Park was opened and contains over twenty-nine thousand acres of the scenic, northern most portion of the canyon. The Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930″s constructed most of the buildings and roads still in use by park staff and visitors. The individual cabins, known as the Cow Camp facilities, are still in existence and can be rented for a wonderful, rustic retreat. 

But there’s nothing that fires up the imagination about what all went on in Palo Duro Canyon like the tales of the lost treasurers that is supposed to have been buried there. Historians have documented stories of gold being hidden by the Commancheros. And, then there’s an Army payroll that is supposed to have been absconded by outlaws and buried in their hideout. There’s more than one story about gold prospectors vanishing and their loot disappearing in the canyon.  Another story has Indians killing Fergus Dooley, taking his horses, and finding some $40,000 in gold coins lying on the ground. Four of the coins are thought to have been found. The rest have not. So, did they steal all but a few coins or have these just resurfaced from being buried deep in the walls of the canyon? Another tale alleges that pioneers traveling through here long ago lost a cache of $20 gold coins that have never been found.

But, the most famous documented story didn’t take place when the Panhandle was wild and unsettled except by buffalo hunters and Indians, but took place when shiny gold coins fell from the sky over the canyon.

In the spring of 1949, a decade and a half after the scenic and history-rich park opened, gold coins literally fell from the skies deep into the canyon to a large crowd, estimated to be about a hundred thousand, who had gathered to take their chances at winning an all-expense-paid vacation to Havana, Cuba. Now, I must note here that at the time Havana was a wide-open party town and purportedly controlled by the American mafia.

Oh yes, and the ten thousand coins that rained down were “goldine” which is brass with gold-looking plating. One side of the prize coins bore the legend “Texas Palo Duro Canyon Treasure Hunt 1949”, while the other side featured the raised image of the park’s most famous landmark, the towering rock formation called the Lighthouse.  A number had been stamped across the lower part of the Lighthouse and if it ended in a seven the finder could claim their prize by Labor Day 1949. Of the ten thousand dropped, only a thousand could be redeemed for prizes collectively valued at $10,000.00.

Of interest, the driver of each car that entered the park that day had to pay $.42 plus $.24 for each additional occupant except for children who only paid $.12 each.  Today the rate is $5.00 per person, but educational groups are granted waivers.

Once the coins were dropped, then Governor Buford H. Jester cut a ribbon that triggered the twentieth-century “gold rush” and the earliest large scale effort to bring attention to one of the Panhandle’s major tourist destinations.

As soon as the visitors could drive down the steep road into the floor of the canyon, the treasure hunt began.  Other than the grand prizes, finders had a shot at season passes to Amarillo Gold Sox Baseball team home games, a $250 diamond ring donated by a jeweler, and two registered quarter horses from Panhandle rancher, Glenn L. Casey.

An organization called the Palo Duro Canyon Booster Club sponsored the event and there was a publicity campaign in advance of and after the affair. I don’t believe it was ever revealed whose brainchild it was, but they hit a public relations home run. It has been reported, but I couldn’t find confirmation, that the organization’s Chairman, F.W. “Fist” Ansley thought up the idea.

Another explanation might be that since Braniff Airlines put up the top prizes, the pioneer aviation company no doubt played a role in the publicity campaign. In fact, it was later thought that the promotion came about because 1949 marked the centennial of the great California gold rush.

Over six decades later, park visitors occasionally find one of the coins; but unfortunately, though nice collectibles, they are no longer redeemable for prizes.

Have you ever visited Palo Duro Canyon or the Grand Canyon?

Written by Phyliss

A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West. Visit her at phylissmiranda.com

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27 Comments on “The Lost Gold of the Palo Duro”

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  1. Mary Connealy says:

    PHYLISS!!! My new book is set in the Palo Duro Canyon. It’s still Indian Territory but a few hardy souls live there. A few ranches exist (at least in my book) :)
    I’ve never been there but the pictures are so beautiful and the research fascinating.

    And btw, did you get blasted with a blizzard? I heard Amarillo on the news yesterday

  2. Kathleen O says:

    I just love learning history of Texas. I have never heard of this Canyon, but I am fascinated. I want to visit for sure if I have get to this part of Texas…

  3. Karen Witemeyer says:

    My husband and I stopped at Palo Duro Canyon as part of our honeymoon trip. We were supposed to see the outdoor musical Texas! there, but it got rained out. We did a little horseback riding in the canyon the next day, but because of the heavy rains the night before, the mosquitos were horrible. The poor horses looked like they were wearing a grey blanket of the critters. We had pity on the horses and ourselves and left early. We’ve never been back, but we keep talking about needing to go back and do it up right.

    That gold rush sounds like so much fun. It would make a great setting for a story, wouldn’t it? My mind is just spinning with ideas. Great stuff, Phyliss. Hope you aren’t burried under all the snow up there.

  4. Linda Broday says:

    What an interesting blog, Phyliss! I’d love to find some gold. Who doesn’t love buried treasure stories and desire to finItd some. I’ve never been lucky in that department. It would be something to find one of the gold tokens down there. Palo Duro Canyon is such a neat place and I never get tired of seeing it. The beauty of it is haunting. A very special place for sure. Thanks for such an interesting blog.

    Hope you get the snow shoveled away from your door so you can open it. But whatever you do, please stay warm. Bet you have a roaring fire built in the fireplace.

  5. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi everyone,

    Yes, we’re buried in snow. Received 1 1/2 feet with drifts from four to eight feet. Officially within about 18 hours we got 19″. The National Guard was called out to help stranded motorists. Snow plows couldn’t do their job because of stranded cars. However, it didn’t matter because anything they cleared was covered again immediately because of the horrid winds. Although we’re used to a lot of wind in the Panhandle, this is truly howling winds and had some gusts that hit hurricane strength at 75 MPH. Last night the TV station reported that this was the worst blizzard in 110 years. I found that so interesting since our anthology “A Texas Christmas” was set in Amarillo (although we had already name it Kasota Springs in the second anthology for historical reasons) in that storm. Early in the morning I had a couple of people on Facebook tell me what they were hearing on TV sounded like our stories of the blizzard in the late 1800′s. By sundown the sun was shining so brightly that I had to close my front door because of the glare. All roads from state border to state border and south to Lubbock were closed (and might well still be.) Since I was born and raised here, I’ve seen my share of blizzards, but this one scared me. Truly did. They called off school on Sunday afternoon when it was nearly 70 degrees, if you can imagine! And, they don’t cancel school here for much of anything. The kids are out today, but most businesses are still closed. Only in the Texas Panhandle. Now my biggest worry is for our friends, and several P&P Fillies, who live up in Oklahoma City and Kansas City areas because they got hit twice with just a couple of days in between. Thanks for asking everybody. Now, if we can get the storm doors open! Hugs, Phyliss

  6. Margaret Brownley says:

    Hi Phyliss, what a fascinating blog. And the modern day gold rush really got this writer’s imagination going. (I get first dibs, Karen). Stay warm and stay safe!

  7. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Mary, how much fun! Is the book out yet? I sure hope I didn’t miss it. The years before the Panhandle was settled is so interesting for Palo Duro Canyon, as I’m sure you found out from your research. As a matter of fact, my story in “Give Me a Texas Outlaw” was set in Palo Duro Canyon at Col. Goodnight’s dugout. Hey, a writer can take a lot of creative liberties as long as you aren’t from here! LOL They’d hogtie me and drag me all the way from PDC to the Rio Grande and back if I made a mistake! LOL One of the interesting things about our area is that it was settled so late in history (1875 for Fort Elliott) that we still have many of the families still here, so they know their family history. But there was a lot of action in the Canyon and bet you did a fantastic job writing about it. Can hardly wait to read your book. It’ll definitely go to the top of the TBR pile! Big Hugs, Phyliss

  8. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Kathleen, Glad you stopped by. I hope you’ll make it to the Palo Duro one of these days. When you do, let me know. There is so much to do that people don’t even know about. It’s beautiful out there. As a matter of fact, when our first anthology came out sister filly, Linda Broday, along with some other writers and our editor from Kensington spent a weekend at the Cow Camp. It was fun. No indoor cooking, but they do have electricity. There are four cabins and I think we rented two or three of them. It was so much fun! There’s also a huge cabin up on the rim that can be rented for a whole group of people. We loved the rustic part of the Cow Camp and the sunset was absolutely one of my best memories. Please come see it one of these days. Have a great one. Hugs, Phyliss

  9. Tanya Hanson says:

    Fantastic pictures and information, Phyliss. Great job. The only thing I really knew about Palo Duro is the Cavalry’s murder of the Kiowa horses there, 2000 of them, I think.

    Stay warm! Saw pix on the news, sheesh. Wish we’d get more winter around here. It’s supposed to be 80 on Thursday

  10. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Karen,

    Sounds like your trip to Palo Duro Canyon wasn’t much fun and especially on your honeymoon. When it rains the water crossings fill with water very quickly, so you’re probably lucky that you got rained out. Of course the amphitheater is topside of the water crossings. Do come try it again, and I’ll buy the tickets. I’m not a horsewoman for sure, as anybody who reads my historicals can tell. I basically have people get on and get off of a horse. LOL Now in my new book “The Tycoon and the Texan” I do have a wild bronc bucking scene, but man I had to have a lot of help on it. Anyway, I’ve only had one experience with the horses in Palo Duro Canyon and it wasn’t good. I didn’t know enough to be able to handle him the way I should first and then he definitely had a mind of his own … went straight down the side of the canyon (not all that far, but too far for my liking) and scared me to death. Lots of folks take their own horses down there to ride. Hope you have a great day and thanks for taking time to comment, Sister Filly. Hugs, P

  11. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Okay, Karen and Margaret … I’ll flip the coin for who gets to use the idea of gold in the Palo Duro! LOL I actually learned about it recently, since I was about 36 months old when it happened. Hugs, P

  12. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Sister Filly, Linda,

    I loved the story about the gold coins and thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m like you, I could never get enough of the beauty of the canyon and particularly when the wildflowers are blooming. With this snow, which was very heavy with moisture, I think we’ll have a much prettier spring than last year with the drought.

    Yes, Ty wanted to come over so Emma could go snowboarding with her friends. I told them to bring shovels; otherwise, they couldn’t get in the house. It’s funny what an eleven year old will do to get to an XBox and a 17 year old just to be free of the eleven year old! I can get out of all doors now! Uncovered the newspaper from Monday morning, obviously delivered before I got up, and the headlines say we’re expecting 8 inches of snow. They missed it by over ten! Sun shining and snow that will nearly blind you. Have a wonderful day. Love, P

  13. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Tanya, thanks for commenting. The story about the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon is so interesting, yet such a travesty at the same time. Ranald Mackenzie (and no I didn’t misspell either of his names LOL)and his soldiers were just doing their job, but I still can’t imagine them taking all the horses to the rim of the canyon and slaughtering them when I’m sure the Army could have used them. Really a fascinating story, however.

    Thanks for the staying warm wishes. The sun is shining and people all up and down the street are out shoving in shirt sleeves because the sun is so warm. The drifts will stick around for a long time and they’re telling us we’ve got two or three more milder snows coming around the weekend, but it’s okay because I’m going to Texas Stadium to the PBR Ironman bull riding event this weekend! Can hardly wait. Hugs, P

  14. Tracy Garrett says:

    Great post, Phyliss. And I love the “gold rush” story. One of these days I’m going to visit the canyon.

  15. Tracy Garrett says:

    Have fun at the PBR!

  16. Victoria Bylin says:

    Hi Phyliss! What a fascinating place . . . can you imagine being part of the treasure hunt? I bet people went crazy. I’d move to Texas in a heartbeat!

  17. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Tracy, you’d love the canyon. If you come, we’ll treat you to a visit and the show “Texas”. There’s a ton of history there. Way too much to cover in this blog. I plan on having fun at the PBR. I’ve been to tons of challenger and touring bucking events (which are still professional events)but I’ve never been to a big one. This is the Dickie’s Ironman event and only the top contenders will be there and they are bracketed. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to stay for the finals, but I’ve got it recorded! Wish all of you could go with me. Hugs, P

  18. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Vicki, I sure wish I’d known about the coin drop before all of my family passed. I bet they would have had their own stories. I can imagine my mother and aunt would be first in line. LOL You’d love Texas. It’s so big that most people don’t realize that each part of the state is so different. I once had someone ask on a writer’s loop what type of houses a person would live in Texas during the 1800′s. I wanted to write, but didn’t, it depends. If they lived in Galveston, it could be a mansion while they’d be living with the American Indians in the Panhandle. It’s a wonderful state with exceptionally good schools! Hugs, P

  19. charlene sands says:

    HI Phyliss,
    I’ve been both places. Often in my westerns, I’d write about Palo Duro Canyon and I love The Grand Canyon. Wonderful bit of trivia and history on your blog today!!

  20. Cheryl St.John says:

    Would love to see some of this beautiful scenery!

  21. Quilt Lady says:

    I have never been to the Texas Panhandle or Texas for that matter. I have read a lot of stories about it though. I travel in my books.

  22. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Charlene, I love the Grand Canyon, too. We took our three youngest grands there a few years ago. Took the train out of Williams down into the canyon and rented cabins. It was beautiful, but it’s a much shorter drive to the Palo Duro. Both canyons are wonderful to write about.
    And, hello to Miss Cheryl. The scenery is breathtaking. I think one of the pictures I used was doctored because it’s really hard to capture the beauty through a Kodak camera like mine. It deserves a professional taking pictures.
    Quilt Lady, what a wonderful quote “I travel in my books.” That’s the best I’ve heard in a while.

    Thanks ladies for leaving a comment. Hugs, P

  23. Mary J says:

    Beautiful pictures. About 32 years ago, my husband and I drove through Amarillo and the Panhandle. We were returning from Oklahoma to California. Since we were going home, we weren’t too excited about the landscape! Pretty flat. In fact we commented on it, quite a lot, on that trip. Now that I see these pictures, I can’t imagine where this place could have been. Don’t think I’ll ever be back on that highway. I have been on the Northern part of the Grand Canyon. We would take that route through southern Utah to go to 4-corners and Towaoc, Colorado. That is pretty lonely highway.
    Great post. Did all the coins finally get found? And the ring? That would be fun to find, even now.

  24. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Mary J,

    You are so right about the blankness of this area, but we love it here. We’re on the caprock, so it makes a huge difference in everything from wildflowers to the weather. Probably the only thing that has changed since you were here 32 years ago would be the feed yards and the huge wind farms. They are pretty a night. I love the Grand Canyon, too. I wish I’d heard the story about the coins years ago, so I could have asked my family members who have passed. I’ve heard it said that every now and again they’ll still find a coin, but it’s been years. Never heard about the ring but since I was born and raised here, I might find some ol’ timer who knows more about the story. I’ll keep it at the top of my “to ask about” list. It was just too interesting of a story not to blog about. Thanks for stopping by. Hugs, P

  25. Patricia B. says:

    Have been to the Grand Canyon twice. We have only been in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and San Antonio/Austin area of Texas. We have so much more to see. One day soon I hope.

  26. Maxie Anderson says:

    Hello girls,sounds like you are having a gab session. Hope you don’t mind me joining you. We moved to that area) about 119 miles away from Amarillo in Texhoma, OK. It was half in TX. and Half in OK. We lived in TX, even then. The main town was on the OK. side and so, the address. In the summer that part of Tx. has bunches of Tumbling weeds that blow down the highways and across the pastures and maybe right across in front of your car. Some are huge! And, they’ve had plenty of those snowstorms. After I married at 16, my Asthma got bad enough was having to take my meds more and more, so doc suggested we move to a small town in to this part of TX. So, we moved to Baytown where I had a sister, then later to Pasadena, next door to Houston. After I had to move away, is when they had most of the really big snowstorms, tho I saw plenty. Mom said the wind blowed so bad that one time it was up to the roof on one side of the house. My mom and dad had lived there when they were young newlyweds, and their folks. They said there were many more businesses then and more on the TX. side. During the years after I moved, the folks would talk about Palo Duro Canyon on camping trips, but after living that close, I was never there until 2005 when we were going for a family reunion, and was with my Oldest daughter’s family, We stopped at the canyon, but only had a few hours, so didn’t get to see much. We did get to go to the outdoor Theater and see the musical, TEXAS. It was great and was 4th of July, so they had the greatest Fireworks show I’ve seen. When I lived in WY. we were on a trip through Colo. and stopped at the Grand Canyon. It was really pretty, but, I sure didn’t cross over that swinging bridge that crossed the canyon. No way. LOL As to the lost coins, if I were down in the canyon, I’d be looking for Arrow heads. Hunted them in WY. and did find some. The people from Texhoma would go to Amarillo to shop alot, especially at Christmas time. Guess I better get off of here. Sorry to talk your ears off. See ya’ later. Maxie

  27. Phyliss Miranda says:

    Hi Maxie, I’m sorry that I didn’t get back last night to read your comment. Yep, we had a fun gab-session yesterday. I enjoyed it a lot. I’m gonna bet that the snow storm you’re talking about was in the mid 1950′s. I’d forgotten about it, but remember Daddy had bought a new Chevy. I think 1955 and we woke up and couldn’t find it in the drive way because there was so much snow. Drifts up over the windows. I’d totally forgotten about that blizzard. As modern time goes, that one would be close to the one we had day before yesterday. They thought we were going to have more light snow and rain last night, but thank the Good Lord we didn’t get it. It’s slick enough out there now without a bunch of black ice. Maxie, I really enjoyed your comment and hope to hear from you again when I post next month, which is going to be on the history of bull riding, particularly the anniversary of the PBR. I’m going to Dallas on Saturday for the Ironman Challenge, so really lookin’ forward to it.

    Also, Hi Pat B. Also sorry I missed your comment. I love the Grand Canyon, but as I said before, Palo Duro Canyon is closer. Dallas is a great town and my kids lived in San Antonio for about five years, so I frequented the town. Certainly San Antonio rates at the top of my list of favorite towns. Big hugs to both of you, P

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