While a student at Sangre de Cristo seminary I often ventured into the mountains of the Sangre de Cristo range. With my trusty Bernese trail dog, Henry, I explored trails with names including Rainbow, Horn Peak, Venable, Comanche, and the Phantom Terrace. While I never made it up Marble Mountain to Spanish Cave, I heard the legends about it from locals and from my own readings.
The legend, as legends do, seems to have gotten more fanciful over time. But the basic story usually tells of Elisha P. Horn (a true figure – a former Confederate captain who first settled in the area and who Horn Peak is named after, and who provides an easy choice for the lazy legend-maker to attribute a story to) finding Spanish Cave with its painted red cross near the opening and there discovering a skeleton clad in Spanish armor with an arrow through it. And, so the story goes, various other skeletons and artifacts and probably gold too were discovered in the cave.
The problem is . . . the story is complete rubbish. Horn was only in the area for a short time before moving to Denver with his son who needed to be put in a sanitarium. Arrows don’t go through Spanish armor. Spanish armor doesn’t get left sitting there when natives passed by for centuries. There is no gold, nor even marble, at Spanish cave.
I yet had hoped that there might be something true of the legend. Almost all internet searches on the topic result in re-told stories of the legend of the cave. Almost nothing is written by a skeptical inquirer. That is, almost nothing except that by Donald G. Davis.
I found Davis’s writing “No Old Gold or Bones?, A Skeptical Review of ‘Caverna del Oro’ Legendry” in the 1992 Journal of Spelean History, reprinted from Rocky Mountain Caving. http://caves.org/section/asha/issues/092.pdf (scroll to page 77 to find the article) Yes, “spelean” like “spelunking.” Davis looks in to the actual history. I cannot recommend his article enough. It is fascinating.
I recently came back to thinking about this article, re-read it, and realized that it left off with a note of “future opportunities” to improve knowledge of the history. This opportunity was in scanning the microfilm of historical papers of the area for any additional stories.
I was fortunate recently to get in touch with Davis, who still writes for Rocky Mountain Caving. He informs me that he did do a follow up article to the story in the Autumn 2013 issue of Rocky Mountain Caving. It is titled “The Discovery of Spanish Cave, New Historical Revelations.” There, with the help of the internet he didn’t have in 1992, Davis found articles and letters to the editor from the 1889 Silver Cliff Rustler which tell of the actual discovery of the cave and make clear that certain artifacts (a ladder, a winch) that were “discovered” in later years were not centuries-old Spanish mining equipment, but exactly what was brought on the 1889 exploration. I’ve got a pdf copy of the follow-up article, but if someone has an online link to it, I’d be glad to add it here.