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Is there treasure buried at Walnut Creek Park?

An illustration of a person drawing an X on a map
Lauren Ibanez for KUT

Along Walnut Creek between North Lamar and I-35, there’s a human-made cave with metal grates covering its opening. It’s called Stark’s mine, dug over 100 years ago in an effort to find buried treasure.

A while back, KUT got a question about the treasure after a listener saw a post on Reddit about the tale. The listener wanted to know: Was there really treasure buried out there? And if so — was it ever found?

There are a lot of stories about the treasure’s origins, but that’s what happens when you’re chasing folklore.

The Reddit post was largely based on an article titled “The Sword in the Tree” written by Mike Cox and an archaeological survey of the area from the 1980s. According to Cox's story, a "Spanish mule train laden with gold coins” was attacked by Native Americans sometime in the 1800s.

“Desperate to lighten their load and escape attack, the teamsters bury all their gold in the bank of the stream that would come to be called Walnut Creek,” Cox told me.

The story goes that rather than an X, a sword was placed in a tree to show where the treasure was buried.

Cox says he doesn’t believe any of it, but adds: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

'The perfect crime'

theperfectcrime.jpg
The Austin American-Statesman
A 1956 article in the Austin American-Statesman about the Texas Treasury robbery and the search for the missing loot.

According to lore, a man named Walter Stark dug the mine in 1914 in an attempt to find buried treasure. I searched for Stark online through historical records and newspaper archives — nothing. I then visited the Austin History Center, and after hours of trying different leads, I still walked away with nothing.

I reached out to Travis County to find out when and if Stark even owned this land. As she was searching for a deed, the county’s archivist pointed me to an Austin American-Statesman article from 1956 titled “The Perfect Crime.”

The article was what I had been looking for — kind of. It wasn’t about Stark, but instead his grandson, Ralph Stark, who was continuing to hunt for the treasure.

Now I had a story about the mine, and I had new names. I also learned more about the origin of the treasure, which had two different backstories.

According to one tale, the treasure "belonged" to the notorious outlaw Sam Bass, a train-robbing cowboy who came to Texas in the late 1870s.

Some treasure hunters believe his loot was hidden in Longhorn Cave in Burnet County — but it has never been found. Other accounts suggest he hid it in a cave near Round Rock, where he would eventually be killed in a shootout.

'Most brazen and successful thefts'

Another story revolves around the 1865 robbery of the Texas Treasury, which held almost all the state's money.

“This robbery was one of the most brazen and successful thefts in Texas history,” said Texas historian Patrick Cox (no relation to Mike Cox).

Austin was in chaos at the end of the Civil War. State leaders of the Confederacy fled to Mexico, and the city was being ransacked by looters.

Cox said a resident wrote in her diary: “Everything is confusion, and there is no law.”

About 20 to 30 robbers could be heard breaking into the safe at the treasury on a “wonderful moonlit night.” Church bells rang to signal an alarm and a group of men assembled to stop the theft. The robbers fled and a gunfight ensued; one of the robbers was shot and killed.

Cox said the others got away with nearly $17,000 — worth about $3 million today. But what happened to the money?

“They were leaving west and north and in two different groups,” Cox said. “No one was ever arrested and none of the money, the stolen money, was recovered.”

The story was getting more interesting. But there was still a missing piece: Who was Stark? And did he ever find any treasure?

'A scam'

I found some new leads in the Statesman article. First, the land was bought by Frank Stark, not Walter. County records showed he bought it in February 1913.

Then there was Ralph Stark, who told the Statesman he was taking up his late grandfather's quest to find the treasure. The article described a very Hollywood moment where Ralph's grandfather told him on his deathbed that the gold was out there, he just needed to find the location.

A black and white photo of two people crouched down in a cave
Charles Taylor
/
The Austin American-Statesman
Eddie Powers and Ralph Stark pose for a photo in the mouth of the mine in 1956.

I searched through newspaper and county records and found a Ralph J Stark who lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

There were four phone numbers connected to his name, but only one worked, so I left an awkward message. A few days later, I got a call. It’s Ralph. Before I could even get a word in he told me this:

“I made that story up,” he said. “The whole thing was a scam.”

He admitted he lied to the reporter when he said he and his friend were going to dig the mine further to look for the gold. And he made up the Hollywood deathbed moment.

“[We] just trumped up a lot of charges,” Ralph said. “A lot of stories. But none of that's true.”

But what was true, he said, was that his grandfather bought the land so he could search for the treasure. And he dug more than one mine searching for it.

So was the treasure ever found?

“A lot of my uncles … agreed it never was,” Ralph Stark said, “because they had dug so much around there and never could find it.”

Frank even hired people to help him dig, and a family rumor started that one of the workers found the treasure and stole the loot. But Ralph said he doubts that story is true.

An old black and white photo of a large family posing for the camera
Courtesy of Ralph Stark
Frank Stark sits in the bottom row surrounded by his family during a reunion in 1948.

No trespassing

You can’t get in the cave today. It’s gated off and home to an endangered species of daddy longlegs. The county can’t share its exact location, and officials made it clear they would prosecute anyone caught trespassing.

I tried searching for it myself — no luck.

I’m not sure what story is true or if there’s gold out there, but what I do know is that a man named Stark dug frantically to find treasure nearly 100 years ago in an area around Walnut Creek.

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