In April of 1866, miners Jacob Bridger, Zane Wilkinson and brothers, Doyle and Steven Cavet, were attempting to blast a four-foot wall at the end of the Greenway spur in Lincoln Mines in Walter’s Canyon, New Mexico. Working on behalf of the Greenway Mining Company out of San Francisco, California, the men were after what they believed to be a large vertical vein of gold running just below the rock wall, some 43 feet below the earth’s surface. Five days prior, the crew had discovered an 8 ounce gold piece that was 5 inches wide with a head that formed a point, believing it to be the tip of something much, much bigger. They worked tirelessly, drilling seven holes, each 40 inches deep and setting charges with 5 sticks of dynamite in each hole. When detonated, the blast would implode the rock wall and expose the ore. Unfortunately, when the explosives were ignited the distance between the bottom holes was not measured correctly and the rock burst out. Dust and rubble filled the shaft, two wooden support beams near the blast collapsed and the unsupported ceiling caved in. Only Doyle Cavet, who was standing at the opening of the shaft grinding drill bits, was able to escape.
For six days crews removed fallen rock and earth in an attempt to reach the shaft to locate the bodies of the three workers and recover the gold still thought to be in the mine. The corpse of Steven Cavet was found within hours of reaching the shaft. However, as more debris was cleared, there was no sign of the bodies of Jacob Bridger or Zane Wilkinson. In any other situation or occupation, the disappearance of two bodies would have raised immense panic and speculation. However, mining is a dangerous job, filled with unlimited risks. When thousands of tons of earth are displaced, what is distinguishably human before may not be afterwards. The ground shifts, bedrock falls in on itself and the tidy opening of a mineshaft can instantly become a tomb of dirt. So when workers of the Greenway Mining Company could only locate one of the corpses in the mineshaft – there was no explanation needed as to what happened to the others. Word was sent to the families of Jacob Bridger and Zane Wilkinson, and a brief memorial was held for the three fallen miners.
Eight days after the cave-in, working conditions were restored and mining continued in the spur. Another four-man crew began the arduous task of chipping away at the piled rock wall at the end of the 50-yard shaft in search of the still unfound gold deposit. Around midnight, between hammer strikes, a faint noise began to resonate in the darkened tunnel. Workers soon realized the knocking was coming from a wooden beam, planted in the ground below them. Crews worked feverishly around the clock, clearing more debris away and discovering a rock chute that must have opened during the collapse. Twelve hours after rescue efforts begin, visual contact of Jacob Bridger was made. He was miraculously breathing and very coherent. A day later, he was pulled from the small tunnel below the Greenway spur, lucky to be alive. His physical appearance was shocking, as he had lost nearly 35 lbs., surviving almost ten days without food or water. Remarkably Bridger made a full recovery, regaining most of the weight he lost within weeks of his rescue. His amazing story of survival became the stuff of legend. As recounted by him, he was entombed in a three-foot by six-foot pitch-black tunnel, subsisting on a candle made of animal fat, that he found in his pocket. Conserving his energy, and digging upward along a displaced wooden post for five minutes, every few hours. He began to knock when he heard and felt work resume in the mine. His rescue was, in his own words “The happiest moment of my life”. Needless to say, he never entered a mine again and left New Mexico to become a farmer – he died in 1898 at the age of 61 in Dyersville, IA.
The legend of Jacob Bridger is forever etched in history as a tale of unwavering survival, but the story of what happened in the darkness runs much deeper than the cavernous tunnels leading under Walter’s Canyon, New Mexico. The cave-in of 1866 would not be the last accident in the Greenway spur, as thirty-nine others lost their lives before the mines closed in fall of 1870. The bodies of twenty-three of the casualties would never be found, as if the ground just swallowed them up, just like Jacob Bridger. The Greenway spur began to develop a macabre reputation, as many believed the mines were haunted and as superstition goes, so did the workforce. The Greenway Mining Company was forced to move on and the once thriving camp at Walter’s Canyon soon became a ghost town. There were several attempts to re-open the mines, up through the 1920’s but none were successful. Haunted or not, something strange was happening below the earth’s crust in Northwest New Mexico and the key to the mystery would lie with the only man to ever experience an accident and come out alive.
Back in 1866, after Jacob Bridger was pulled from the ground, he was rushed to the doctor’s tent where he was slowly given water and food to begin his recovery. Witnesses said he was thankful to be above the surface and clinging to his faith to see him through. Several days later, he seemed calm and jovial, as he made an official statement on behalf of the Greenway Mining Company, regarding the accident and how he survived. He made no mention of Zane Wilkinson or anything else that took place during his nine-day confinement and confidently stated that he felt sure of his survival. The rest of the story is, as they say, history. Until 1899, a year after Jacob Bridger’s death, an interesting story surfaced in the Santa Fe Chronicle, revisiting the incident in ’66. George Blair, who had been superintendent of the Lincoln Mines, gave a very candid interview about Jacob Bridger and his demeanor immediately following his rescue:
“…He was quiet as we pulled him from the tunnel, but when we brought him to the doctor, he was stark raving mad. Going on and on about the bugs. I mentioned Zane Wilkinson and he began to cry. It took several minutes before he calmed down. Then, Jacob, as plain as day, told us what happened. As the dynamite ignited and the rock blew out from the wall, the support beams buckled and the dirt floor below him gave way. He told me when the dust settled, he was trapped under a slide of rubble. Zane was alive, just feet from him, injured and calling out in pain for help. He said, several hours later, Zane stopped talking as he had expired. A day or two later, the smell started to become unbearable and he could feel the air thinning. Then he heard scratching and thought a rescue party was making their way in. Something broke through the dirt and rocks near Zane and the room filled with oxygen. Jacob said he was expecting to see light but there was none. He had two candles in his pocket and lit one, what he saw next he said, sacred him to his very core. As he was tellin’ the story he almost began to cry again and then said, he saw two massive bugs devouring Zane’s body. But, the bugs were large, each as big as a person. They had pale bodies with faces like a man but without eyes. They paid no mind to him, but made a mess of Zane. He said they were buzzing like crickets the whole time they fed. The sound he said was more than he could handle. They had consumed every bit of Zane and when they were done they retreated back from where they came. He could hear others moving around in the dark, but he remained still, praying. He knew that if he died, the bugs would come back to eat him. That is what kept him alive…When Mr. Greenway heard Jacob’s story he was furious. He paid Jacob Bridger a lot of money for his silence, gave me and the doc a hundred dollars each to keep our mouths shut…Do you think if rumors of man-eating bugs circulated, miners would want to go back underground? I know I didn’t. And there were events that took place afterwards that made me believe every bit of Jacob’s story. More men went missing after the incident in ’66, than before. Those caverns underneath the mountains went pretty deep. Who knows what else lived down there. Maybe the blast roused something that lived deeper than men were supposed to venture. The night is not the only place that danger lives. It resides deep underground under Walter’s Canyon”
The story was printed, but later retracted by the newspaper and simply called a hoax. George Blair, however, never withdrew his statement, claiming that the information he gave was exactly how it happened. As Blair’s account is placed together with the rest of the mysterious facts from Walter’s Canyon from 1866 to the present day, it’s clear to see that there is more to this story than meets the eye. It’s no secret that Jacob Bridger gave up mining to farm in Iowa, but an interesting twist would be if his new career was financed by the Greenway Mining Company in exchange for his silence. In the four years after the cave-in, twenty-three miners went completely missing, that is an unusually high number, even given the danger of the profession. Dozens of other mining companies tried to work the Greenway spur, all of them unsuccessful in keeping a workforce. Going back even further, local Native American lore alludes to spirits that lived deep in the caves and caverns of the Northwest Mountains that would transport the dead to the spirit world. It could be seen as an indirect interpretation of some sort of subterranean creature that consumed the dead. Whatever the truth is, the mines at Walter’s Canyon have been abandoned for nearly 100 years and the area is still steeped in mystery. What did Jacob Bridger see? Was it an unknown creature or the “spirits” the Native Americans spoke of? Or the bewildered imagination of a man on the brink of death? What would George Blair have to gain by telling that story and what happened to all of the missing miners? The real truth lives in the darkened earth of the Lincoln mines.