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The Footsteps of Fish

Originally published on October 31, 2012 in Sierra Lodestar 

           

            In the end, it was the unknown itself that swallowed him.

            Frank L. Fish spent his life moving through shrouded doorways of the past, quietly chasing whispers, carefully probing graves, consciously taking artifacts straight from the hands of the dead. Persistence and showmanship made him the defining treasure hunter of his day; but when Fish’s body was found in a chrome trailer in Amador County on April 7, 1963, the same forces of western mystery that had driven his obsessions claimed his own ending.

            In October 2010, Sierra Lodestar published “The Fury of Frank Fish,” an investigation into nearly forgotten claims that a 1950s-era author and museum curator had been murdered in the Gold Country over his alleged possession of a map to the Lost Duchman’s Mine in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. Established within this work of journalism was the fact that Fish’s Gold Rush Museum, housed in the old Wells Fargo building on Highway 49, was looted of its artifacts in the days and weeks following the owner’s demise. In October 2011, Sierra Lodestar published a follow-up piece, entitled “The Fish Papers,” which studied the official Amador County findings around Fish’s death in 1963. In the eyes of many readers, the resurfacing of Fish’s coroner’s report raised more questions than it provided answers. An unexpected consequence of these two articles was that Frank Fish’s treasure-hunting apprentice from 1950s, John Gates, was spurred to grant the magazine an exclusive interview about the man he knew — as well as the questions he still has over Fish’s death.


John Gates sets out on trek through the
Sierra Nevada mountains in 1956

            Gates was 21 when he first went to work for Whittaker Gyro in Van Nuys, Ca. The year was 1952. Whittaker Gyro occupied the former Van Nuys airport and the old radio tower had been turned into a studio for the company’s graphic artist, Frank Fish. Neat, impeccably dressed, Fish made a sharp impression on Gates. As the two men got to know each other, Gates learned of Fish’s second life outside his well-paid career in the visual arts.

           

            Fish had by then already amassed a large assortment of rare artifacts and gold pieces, as had his fellow treasure hunter and part-time journalist, Lt. Harry Rieseberg. The two men offered to bring Gates on some of their rogue archeological excurssions.

            “Here I was this 21-year-old kid hanging out with these older guys who could tell stories like you wouldn’t believe,” Gates remembered. “But sure enough, Frank started taking me out to lost ghost towns on the eastern side of the Sierras. In the 1950s, a lot of these places were almost perfectly preserved in time from the point where they were abandoned by the miners. Frank would find incredible pieces of history in them.”

            Gates met Fish long after the traveler’s reported journeys to Aztec sites in Mexico and Costa Rica; but he did see first-hand that Fish could hit on dark discoveries: A number of photographs that survive of Fish depict a human skull among his gold pieces and antique weapons. Gates knows exactly where it came from.

            “The skull came from human remains Frank dug up in one of the ghost towns,” he said. “There was a hole in the back of its cranium that looked like it had been hit with a miner’s pick. Frank was afraid to bring it back, so he buried it under a Joshua Tree near the Mojave desert. I kept bugging him to see it, so we finally went out and Frank found it again. After that, he called the skull Joshua.”

            Fish taught Gates everything from weaving rope to handling pack mules — skills Gates later used to go on a soul-searching trip through the wilderness of the Southern Gold Country. After Gates got married, he saw less and less of Fish. He was in an airport waiting for a flight when he learned his mentor was dead. He later drove out to Amador City to investigate the strange and conflicting reports about how Fish had passed away.

            “I couldn’t get answers out of people,” Gates recalled. “No one wanted to talk about it “

            Similar to treasure hunter Ben Traywick and Fish’s adult son, John Fish, Gates is thoroughly convinced the man he knew would never have committed suicide. Within four years of Fish’s death, his close friend Erie Schaefer proposed that he had been murdered over a map he’d procured to the famed Lost Dutchman’s Mine in Arizona. From Gates’ perspective, the motivation to harm Fish may have been much more simple.

            “Frank owned an unbelievable amount of gold nuggets and gold dust,” Gates said. “He was probably the most talented prospector in the state between the 1920s and 1950s. And he knew the location of a big glory hole in El Dorado County too. I’ve heard the stories of his paranoia; but the only thing I ever knew him to be paranoid of was the FBI finding out how much gold he owned, because in the 1940s and 1950s there were strict laws about how much a citizen could have.”   

            It was fear of being robbed, according to Gates, that occasionally led Fish to rig a 12-gauge shotgun inside his trailer that would fire when someone opened the door.


John Gates revisits the site of his
| mentor's museum in 2012

            Looking back, Gates knows he may never learn what really happened to the enigmatic treasure hunter who inspired him to live life to the fullest. And yet what Gates cares most about is shedding a light on Fish’s real personality — gentlemanly, polite and supportive. Above all, Gates says, Fish was a man brave enough to enjoy an existence on his own terms.