Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Montezuma's Treasure

May 7, 2019

Commentator Scott Thybony isn't normally interested in legengs about buried treausre in the Southwestern desert. But eve he is susceptible to a good story. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott shares the wild tale of a search for Aztec gold along the Arizona Strip in the 1920's. It was such a frezy, the entire town of Kanab, Utah shut down for two years during the quest to find Montezuma's treasure.

Inside the main tunnel where the town of Kanab, Utah searched for Montezuma's treasure between 1922-1924
Credit Scott Thybony

It wasn’t my plan when I woke up this morning to be bouncing along a dirt road with a treasure map on my knee.  Normally I stay clear of treasure tales, but earlier I interviewed a man who had cowboyed all his life on the Arizona Strip.  As our conversation drew to a close he mentioned having witnessed an unusual event as a young boy.  In 1922 the entire town of Kanab, Utah, became swept up in a search for Montezuma’s treasure.  For two years the town lay almost deserted while the residents dug into a cliff face searching for Aztec gold.   

“Yes,” he said, “they had all gone looking for it.”  Then he sketched a map for me in case I wanted to see the maze of tunnels left behind. 

It began when a man named Freddie Crystal rode into town on a bicycle, hunting the treasure.  A rancher hired him as a handyman, and on his days off Freddie scoured the canyons looking for certain petroglyphs he believed marked the site.  Not having any success he moved on, only to return several years later with a bullet scar on his cheek and a treasure map in hand.  He claimed it had been traced from the original kept in a monastery south of the border. 

On a day off from work he rode to the rim of a canyon with a few locals out for an adventure.  Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place when he realized the terrain spreading out before them fit the map precisely.  Freddie gave a loud whoop, and they descended to the bottom where they found steps cut into the cliff face and petroglyphs carved nearby.  Using hands and pocketknives, they dug into an unnatural-looking slope of white sand and found nothing.  Undeterred, they returned the following Sunday with more volunteers and shoveled away sixty cubic feet of sand.  Excitement took hold when they uncovered a tunnel sealed by a masonry wall with fingerprints visible in the mud mortar.  It appeared to confirm all of Freddie’s wild claims, and news of the discovery quickly spread. 

The residents of Kanab mobilized their forces.  Some people were detailed to haul water to the site, some served as lookouts, while others donated their labor.  A few people stayed in town as cover in case strangers passed through needing gas or groceries.  Everyone was sworn to secrecy, and the town council imposed a fine on anyone who uttered the word “treasure.”  Practical-minded merchants closed up shop and ranchers left their chores undone to head to the site.  After removing the wall they encountered a rubble-filled tunnel.  Freddie took the lead and crawled in.  He had to keep passing back shovelfuls of dirt to clear the way.  Crews found old chisel marks on the walls and charcoal, but after months of effort no treasure turned up.  Discouraged, the locals headed home and Freddie Crystal departed, never to return. 

An unbroken band of cliffs now curves before me, and according to the map it contains the tunnels.  The sand deepens, and leaving the truck I take off on foot.  After climbing a set of hand and footholds to investigate a short passageway, I work back to the bottom of the cliff and enter the main tunnel.  I soon find myself skirting a deep, vertical pit.  The passageway beyond continues for eighty feet to a chamber where more tunnels branch off. 

Returning to the entrance, I look across the sage flats where a tent city once sheltered the work force.  I’m not sure I would have resisted the impulse to join the diggers if I had lived back then.  Those were hard times, and a chance at changing your life for the better would have been tempting.  Heading back across the flats, I’m as skeptical of Montezuma’s treasure as when I came.  But I do keep the map.

Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio