According to legend, the long lost Bill Kelley Mine is located within the Big Bend National Park in western Texas. This part of Texas is comprised by the Chihuahuan Desert.
If legend is to be believed, the Bill Kelley Mine wasn’t just one of the richest mines in all of North America – it was also a mine burdened with a horrible curse that would ensure a violent death to anyone who found the gold.
Billy Kelley & the Reagan brothers
Billy Kelley finds a gold mine
Billy Kelley was a Seminole-African American man who, in the 1880s, trekked from the old Seminole settlement in northern Coahuila in Mexico to West Texas in order to find work at any of the ranches. During his journey, he met with the Reagan brothers who decided to hire the 19-year-old Kelley. Kelley couldn’t read or write, but the brothers were impressed with his knowledge about horses.
The Reagan brothers – John, Jim, Frank and Lee – had established a cattle ranch in southern Brewster County in 1884. Their ranch was close to the canyon that we today know as Reagan Canyon. After establishing their ranch, the brothers frequently drove cattle to the Southern Pacific Railroad at Dryden, a journey of approximately 75 miles. It was during one of these trips that they met Billy Kelley and diced to hire him to care for their horses.
Billy Kelley soon turned out to be a really good ranch hand and the Reagans often allowed him to care for the stock on his own. One day, when he was rounding up strays on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River, Kelley found a gold mine. When he returned to the Reagan ranch he told the brothers about his discovery, but they just laughed it off.
The following day, Billy Kelley and Lee Reagan went back to the same area to round up stray horses, and Kelley told Reagan that the mine was close by and offered to take him there. Once again, Reagan just laughed at Kelley and didn’t believe in his tales about a gold mine. To prove that he was right, Kelley fetched a fist-sized piece of quartz from his saddlebag and showed Reagan the gold vein that ran through it. Reagan didn’t know much about gold, so he just threw the quartz to the ground and told Kelley to focus on his ranch duties instead of running around looking for mines.
Having the gold assyed
A few weeks after finding the gold mine, Kelley took the train bound for San Antonio and befriended a train conductor named Locke Campbell. Kelley told Campbell about the mine and showed him a piece of quartz. Unlike the Reagans, Campbell didn’t laugh at him. Instead, he offered to take the piece of quartz to someone who could analyze it. Kelley agreed, but he also independently took a piece of quartz to an assayer who was instructed to send the results to Reagan Ranch.
A letter arrives
Kelley returned to the Reagan Ranch, waiting to hear something from Campbell and the assyer. After several weeks, a letter from the assayer arrived while Kelley was out on the range. The brothers opened it and red it – and this is how they found out that the gold found by Kelley was valued at $80,000 to the ton.
Kelley didn’t return to the Reagan Ranch until three days later, and when he arrived, the cook warned him that the brothers had read his letter. Kelley immediately realized that the brothers might force him to show them where the mine was and then kill him, so he stole on of their horses and left in a hurry.
When the Reagan brothers found out that Kelley had left, they went after him, tracking him for two days before finally giving up as the tracks went into the Rio Grande.
The Stillwell brothers
After his narrow escape from the Reagan brothers, Kelley found work on George Chessman’s Piedra Blanca Ranch in Coahuila, Mexico. As he got to know and trust his new foreman Stillwell, he told him about the gold mine and showed him a saddlebag containing gold nuggets. He also explained to Stillwell (some sources call him John, others Will) that he feared for his own life and that he might be forced to return to his relatives at the Seminole settlement in Coahuila to be safe.
A short time after this talk, Kelley disappeared after having driven a herd of cattle to Mexico City together with several other ranch hands. It was later revealed that he had done exactly what he had told Stillwell about – Kelley was hiding out in the Seminole settlement in Coahuila. After laying low in Coahuila for a while, Kelley eventually moved north to Oklahoma. We know this, because there are records of him being imprisoned in Oklahoma for illegal bootlegging. Once he got out of prison, he travelled to San Antonio, Texas where he settled down.
Kelley never returned to the Piedra Blanca Ranch, but Stillwell started looking for the god mine on his own and kept at it for many years. In 1915, he told his younger brother Roy that he had finally found it. What happened next is unclear. Stillwell might have been working the mine secretly, but at the same time we know that he joined the Texas Rangers and carried out missions for them. In 1918, he died after being shot in the back by a Mexican outlaw while assigned to a post in the Big Bend area.
After Will Stillwell’s death, his brother Roy Stillwell came into possession of the directions to the mine. Several men implored him to lead an expedition into the mountains looking for the mine, but Roy refused – saying that Billy Kelleys gold mine was cursed and pointing out that a long string of violent deaths was associated with it. Anyone who claimed to have found the gold or who were close to discovering it seemed to meet with a sudden and violent death, and Roy didn’t want to join that group of unfortunate gold seekers.
Several months later, another group of men offered Roy Stillwell a large amount of money in exchange for directions to the mine. This time, Stillwell didn’t flat our refuse; he just told them that he needed a few days to think it over. Two days later a truck overturned on Roy and ended his life.
Locke Campbell & the Reagan Brothers
In a strange twist of fate, the train conductor Locke Campbell met Jim Reagan at a cattlemen’s convention in San Antonio and the two stroke up a conversation. Eventually, it became clear that they both knew about Kelley’s alleged goldmine and they began to compare stories. Soon, Campbell and the Reagan brothers was looking for the mine together.
The search party investigated several miles of land in each direction from the place where Lee Reagan had been rounding up strays with Kelley, but were unable to locate the mine. But the men had been bitten by the gold bug and continued their search for years, investing thousands of dollars in the process.
Kelley shows up at Eagle Pass
One day, while the Reagan brothers were still busy looking for gold, a dark skinned man visited a store in Eagle Pass, Texas, trying to convince the shop keeper to give him $1,000 in exchange for a bag of gold nuggets and information about the mine from whence it came. The shop keeper declined the offer and the man left. Several months went by before the shop keeper became aware of with whom he had been talking – Bill Kelley.
D.C. Bourland, O.L Mueller & John Finky
In June of 1899, Jim Reagan partnered with the ranchers D.C. Bourland and O.L Mueller, and a prospector named John Finky, to continue the search for the gold mine. Bourland and Mueller provided financing, while Finky was the one who would go out in the field and do the actual looking.
After several weeks of searching, Finky arrived to the Bourland ranch with some good news. He had located the mine and he brought several large chunks of gold with him to prove it. Finky also explained that he had found the corpse of a black man in a canyon approximately 300 yards below the mine. Based on the condition of the corpse, the man must have been dead quite a long time.
That same night, Finky was stung by a scorpion and became gravely ill. He was taken to Sanderson where he was hospitalized. Both Bourland and Jim Reagan visited him in Sanderson and asked for directions to the mine, but Finky didn’t trust them enough to divulge it. He also told his partners that the group must obtain permission from the Mexican government to work the mine, otherwise it wouldn’t be legal to commence the gold extraction.
Finky eventually recovered enough to set out on a journey to Mexico City, where he aimed to solicit the proper paperwork from the Mexican authorities. On his way to the capital he stopped in El Paso, where he spent two days getting drunk at a local saloon. While drunk, he befriended the bartender, told him about the mine and asked him to come with him to Mexico City. Two days later, Finky’s body was found.
Shortly after Finky’s untimely death, Jim Reagan died as well. The remaining Reagan brothers moved their ranching operations from Texas to Arizona, and only Campbell continued to search for the mine – a pursuit he would keep at until his own demise in 1926.
In 1909, a man arrived to the Big Bend area carrying a map that he claimed showed the location of a gold mine in the Ladrones Mountains. The man’s name was Wattenburg and he said that he had gotten the map from his nephew who had been sentenced to death and was currently imprisoned in Oklahoma.
According to Wattenburg, his nephew was stealing horses in Mexico together with a bunch of other outlaws when they came across an old man burdened with two leather sacks. Upon inspection, the bags turned out to be filled with gold-laden quartz rock. The horse rustlers threatened the man and he reluctantly took them to the mine. The thieves were in a hurry since they were followed by a posse, so after murdering the old man they just dumped his body in a canyon, before fleeing across the border.
In 1910, Wattenburg was no longer searching for the mine alone, since he had partnered with John Young and Felixe Lowe. Soon, however, the little group was forced to abandon their quest since the border area filled up with armed men due to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Several months after the start of the revolution, Young was interviewed by a newspaper journalist in San Antonio and spilled the beans about the lost gold mine.
A while after the interview with John Young in San Antonio had been published, Young received a letter from a man named Jack Haggard. Haggard explained that he was a rancher in Coahuila and that Kelley had worked for him on his ranch for several years. According to Haggard, one of his foremen had managed to find the mine, using directions provided by Kelley. The foreman had returned to Haggard’s ranch carrying several ore samples that were assayed as rich in gold. Shortly after his return, however, the foreman was killed in a gas explosion. Haggard was now searching for the mine himself, but had so far failed to find it.
Haggard continued to search for the mine until his death. Years after sending the letter to Young, he drowned in a fishing accident while preparing yet another expedition into the Ladrones Mountains.
The two mining engineers
Towards the end of the 1940s, two mining engineers from the east travelled to the area of the old Reagan Ranch were they hired a local guide to take them around. They never told the guide exactly what they were looking for, so he assumed that their intentions were to find Billy Kelley’s mine.
According to the guide, the two engineers returned one day very excited over something and told him that his services were no longer needed. He received his pay and left, believing that the engineers must have finally found the long lost mine.
The two mining engineers were never seen again. No one saw them leave the mountains and they never returned back to their homes in the eastern U.S.