Friday, January 2, 2009

Smelter Robbery in California

Here’s something for those of you in California (you know who you are) that don’t mind getting a little dirty and probably wet. That shouldn’t be a big deal since it’s always sunny in California!

In August of 1901 the Selby Smelter Company near San Francisco, California was burglarized and 1200 pounds of gold bars were stolen out of the vault. The smelting company estimated the value of the gold at just over $280,000 at the price of $20.60 per ounce. I think their math may have been off a little but this is what was reported at the time. It seems the thief had been working on his plan for months and was very meticulous about the execution of that plan.

John Winters, an employee of the smelter was arrested just three days after the burglary but he was never charged and he even talked the smelter company into giving him a $25,000 reward for telling them where the gold was hidden. Mr. Winters had spent three months digging a tunnel along side the building that contained the vault for the smelter. He dug his tunnel at night and covered the entrance with a board and loose dirt that nobody ever found until after the theft. Once he had his tunnel dug underneath the location of the vault he bored upwards to the steel floor. Once at the steel floor he drilled a series of holes close together in a circle where all he had to do is push up on the weakened floor and he had made himself a hatch into the vault.

He worked through the night removing gold bars of various sizes from the vault and to his hiding place. The heaviest of the bars weighed in at about 75 pounds. There were four of these behemoths and the rest of the gold was in smaller, more manageable bars.

It only took the detectives working the case three days to figure out John Winters was involved and once they did he made a deal not to be prosecuted and to receive a reward if he showed where the gold was hidden.

Now comes the good part, Mr. Winters had taken the gold bars to the waters edge where at low tide there was only about one foot of water and tossed the majority of the bars into the shallow water for a later recovery. This is where his meticulous plan went a little off course. Besides the one foot of water at low tide there was also at least four feet of mud, which swallowed up the gold bars fairly quickly. Mr. Winters had put the smaller bars in cloth sacks before tossing them into the water however this didn’t help a lot when it came time to recover the gold.

Out of the $280,000 dollars of gold that was stolen, they recovered $141,500. The rest still lies hidden in the bottom of the bay amongst the mud and gook under the water.

Where did he throw the bars? According to John Winters, and this is the spot where they recovered some of the gold, he took it to Crockett where “at the end of the railroad wharf and behind the coal bunkers at the head of the Vallejo Ferry slip” he threw the gold into the water. I should also mention that they found two large bars of gold on the day of the theft at the end of the tunnel. It appears Mr. Winters got spooked by something and had left them behind.

By my estimate there is still about 425 POUNDS of gold bars still in the water where John Winters tossed them. I couldn’t find any reports that the rest of this gold was ever recovered. Since it has been in the water for more than 100 years it has probably sank quite a bit more into the mud and muck.

But hey, at today’s gold prices you are talking about over six million dollars worth of refined gold just sitting there waiting for someone to recover it. Anybody want to go for a swim?


Anonymous said...

It seems the remainder of the gold was recovered three days later. See:

Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

The treasure was not uncovered three days later, there were no other reports about it. If it was, it would be all over the newspapers, which it is not. You may have an unreliable source.