How many of you know that there was/is a place called Lost River out by Bitter Lake?
Quoting from Georgia Redfield in 1947, “Lost River and Bitter Creek into which it once flowed, had its visible beginning about 9 miles northeast of Roswell, 5 miles north over Clovis US Highway 70, and between three and 4 miles east off the highway, over a gravel road which leads to a closed entrance into the wild fowl refuge.”
Bitter Lake lies at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, a refuge known mostly for its birdlife, which include winter flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes. The landscape is flat lying west of a long low ridge called Comanche Hill. The Pecos River runs along this ridge, and the refuge itself contains many Lake left over when the river took a new course.
The alkaline lake for which the refuge is named are indeed bitter, there are also freshwater sloughs, ponds, marshes, springs, ditches and a half-mile-long stream known as the Lost River (which this story is about). In addition, the refuge contains more than 60 sinkholes.
Sinkholes are just as they sound — places where soluble bedrock dissolves, creating cavities or holes in the surface. Groundwater then often fills the hole.
The process is typically slow, but local legend has it that one of the refuge’s sinkholes formed overnight beneath a parked bulldozer. Some sinkholes here are but a few feet across, though one is large enough — about an acre — to be called (with a bit of exaggeration) Lake St. Francis, 70 feet deep with beautiful blue and green water. These sinkholes have become aquatic “islands” in this arid desert habitat.
Sinkhole conditions differ a great deal. Some have steep, naked gypsum sides; others have reeds and grasses that grow right up to the water’s edge. In some sinkholes, the water is so saline that it supports red and green algae blooms. Other sinkholes are saltier than seawater. The different blends of conditions in each sinkhole creates entirely different ecosystems, even though one sinkhole may be only ten feet from another.
Lost River is a stream within New Mexico and is nearby to Dunnahoo Hills, Melina and Comanche Hill. Lost River is also close to Bitter Lake and Lake Saint Francis.
(1947) Desolate Lost River … for downright, flesh creeping, eerie, spookiness, especially on a dismal rainy late evening, as when we last saw the dangerous looking, caving, dead river banks two weeks ago, cuts a zigzag course East through the most weird, deserted section of country in southeastern New Mexico.
Grim tragedy and death in a cave, opening from the river, is mainly responsible for the depressing atmosphere of this gloomy river area. For safety measures the cave and crumbling banks were dynamited in 1924, when two victims (a man and a woman) were crushed under tons of rock and earth shaken loose by an automobile they had parked on the riverbank above.
The stream was given its name, for reasons of it’s been mostly an underground river, disappearing and linking a series of caves and grottoes. The area was once used as a picnic site, with the natural bridge formation use by parties of pedestrians.
Dynamiting the area for safety closed an old well down, in an area which one could see an underground lake, of which a story is remembered by a score of old-timers of this section: an old Mexican sheepherder was alone on a job working for a cattleman digging a well.
After his morning’s work, at noon he climbed out of the 10 foot opening, he had made, ate his lunch, then jumped back into the well to resume his digging, but he dropped 20 feet into a lake below. He was almost paralyzed from fright but seeing the light in the distance he began swimming and wading through shallow water until he reached safety on the banks of the Lost River, half a mile below the pool, or lake, into which he had dropped.
In the early days about 1893, a Roswell resident discovered a horse feeding trough in the cave (in which the couple were long afterwards crushed) and hanging on the trough was a coat, in the pocket of which was a recorded bill of sale of several thousand head of cattle of a former, long departed cattleman.
There is also a story, entirely of legendary source, however, that the mysterious hidden cave was once used as a secret hideout for counterfeiters who disappeared for months on distributing expeditions after making their spurious money in the dark, underground workroom.
Bitter creek waterfowl sanctuary, refuge and surrounding marshlands are fed by the underground Lost River.
Lorious Lake, in the northern section of the wild fowl refuge, and about 4 miles north of Salt Creek, was not named until 1936, when search was begun underneath the lake’s waters for the bodies of four Illinois tourists, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Herberer, and Mr. and Mrs. George Lorious, who disappeared while traveling through New Mexico, in May of 1935.
A tip from an unknown source caused the dragging of the lake and the unsuccessful search for the bodies. Finally a deep diver, from Houston, Texas, was engaged to explore the entire lake bed, and every crevice in the steep, solid rock banks. The bodies of the tourists, and others thought to have been hidden there were not found. A missing touring car however (on which insurance had been collected) was found with tires still inflated and was raised to the surface.
Warning not to venture too near, 10 or 15 feet below the well-worn path on the bluff above, Lost River, is a clear, deep-looking pool, shaded by green trees and bushes. It is safest, however, not to venture too close to the harmless looking, peaceful scene, for there is danger in the deeply creviced, constantly eroding riverbanks.
After researching and reading about this area, I recalled a story that Charlie Chewning had once told me.
The Chewnings are descendants (like my husband) of Rufus Henry Dunnahoo, who was the first blacksmith here, back in the cattle drive days. Charlie told me that his granddad (Dunnahoo) used to tell the story of Spanish conquistadors, traveling through this area on their way to Santa Fe, being chased by Indians.
They were carrying a load of gold and treasures. Not wanting to be robbed, they hid the treasure in a cave, somewhere along the Pecos River. They never returned. Charlie said he and his brother (Bob Chewning, both deceased) as young boys, searched all up and down that river looking for the cave with the lost gold, but never found it.
It made me wonder, since the Dunnahoo hills are close by the Lost River, could the gold have been hidden, somewhere in the cave of the Lost River instead of the Pecos River? Is it buried there, to this day?
Disclaimer: Not responsible for any accidents, injuries, or otherwise, of persons searching for gold as a result of this article.
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.