The Iron Door on the Samaria Mountains

By: The late Colen H. Sweeten, Jr. for Incredible Idaho Magazine, Summer 1976

Many counties in the West have legends of lost mines or buried treasure, or both. Oneida County is no exception. Malad City has been the county seat since 1866 and around that county seat the favorite legend is “The Mine With The Iron Door”. Every summer, just about as regular as sunburn and wood ticks we hear some new or old version of this fascinating tale.

The story begins, “In the early days”, or “When this country was first settled”, or “When the stagecoach ran through Malad to Montana”. Although this is a big vague, it seems to be as close as we can come to a date for the beginning of our story. There are many versions, but the most persistent one goes something like this:

When the stagecoach ran through Malad to Montana there were numerous holdups because of the many miles of wild unprotected country through which the road passed. Mining activity in Montana and the trade, which resulted had put much gold on the move and a lot of it was carried on the stage between Butte and Salt Lake City. Ben Holiday’s stage lines, Wells Fargo and other freight outfits were active in the 1860’s and 1870’s.

During this period, three tough-looking strangers showed up in a Utah town, possible Corrine. A fire destroyed several buildings and among the rubble was a bank vault type door made of iron. The door was still usable, so the men purchased it, loaded it on a wagon and disappeared north. There they had a hidden campsite near what is now the Utah-Idaho border in south central Idaho. Somehow they managed to install the iron door over the mouth of a cave in a solid granite ledge where they hid the loot from their robberies. If we date this happening in the 1860’s and locate it “somewhere” on the Samaria Mountain above the village of Samaria, then we have the setting for a campfire story or a barbershop yarn, which is more interesting now than it was a century ago.

Regardless of who is telling the story, the next chapter begins with a bang. One of the three robbers shows up at a ranch weakened from fever and loss of blood asking for help. When it is evident that his life cannot be saved, he recites the story of the holdup men, the hidden camp, and of the iron door protecting the loot. As most criminals do, these robbers had a falling out, and in the fight that followed, they were all wounded and one escaped the mine leaving his companions locked inside to die. Then the bad guy passed away without leaving any detailed instructions to lead the way to the mine. 

Some years later, the rancher’s young son was gathering horses out of the mountains when he chanced upon the mine with the iron door and recognized it as the one he had heard about. Returning later with his father, he was unable to relocate it. The young man was the late Glispy Waldron, a Samaria rancher. The Waldron family had no record of anyone resembling a bandit seeking help or dying at the ranch in the early days, nor do they claim to have information as to who placed the door there in the first place, by Glispy said he saw the iron door and Glispy didn’t lie.

I recall as a young man I saw Glispy in the barbershop with spurs on his boots and while the barber clipped away at his hair, the men in the shop clipped away at Glispy about his experience. Again, just a short time before he passed away, I had occasion to hear Waldron tell of seeing the Iron Door. The story was the same. He said, “I suppose the place is all covered up by a slide or I would have found it years ago. I was confused as to the exact location because it was storming at the time but I did see the Iron Door and nothing can change that.”

And that is the way it has turned out for everyone who has a story to tell about the Iron Door.

A man named Nelson was sure he could find it again and planned to return with his brother and tools to open the door, but he suddenly became ill and died before they could return.

A sheepherder even tied a sheep, so the story goes, near the door in hopes that its bleating would lead him back to the spot the following day, but that didn’t work either.

The same results were had by the man who left his coat to mark the place.

To the skeptic, these stories are just something to chuckle about. To the believer, they are a great challenge.

The mountain itself adds to the mystery. It is “as steep as a bull’s face”, “changeable as a woman’s mind”, or “as rough as a cob”, depending on who is describing it. There are numerous shale slides, brushy thickets, and other natural obstructions. There are few trails, many washes and a few old prospectors’ claims thrown in to add to the excitement.

The ranchers on the east side of the mountain tell of strange booming sounds or angry rumblings which occur in the spring of the year, suggesting that the earth is settling or dropping as the frost leaves the ground. On the west foot of the mountain lies the spot, which was the center of the destructive earthquake of March 28, 1975. The earth shifted enough to cause large cracks to appear in the surface. A similar quake was experienced in March 1934. So there have been plenty of chances for the earth to shift.

These facts give strength to the theory that rock slides or the shifting of the earth’s surface has long since covered the Iron Door. Another school of thought is that brush has overgrown the place and now completely hides the treasure as it does some old prospect holes.

No one seems to be sure if the cave is really a mine. The common reference has always been “The Mine with the Iron Door”.

One thing is certain though, and that is that a lot of people have searched in vain for it and the mine is still lost. Treasure hunters from near and far have heard the story and many of them have looked for it.

In the 1960’s, a man who worked in Utah was seen on the mountain every summer dressed in a miner’s outfit with a burro – the gleam of treasure in his eye.

Years ago, fortune tellers and the crystal ball were brought into use and although they claimed to reveal many details (such as how many skeletons were in the cave and how much gold was there), they failed to give good enough instructions for the exact location to be found.

Modern devices haven’t fared much better. In 1970, a man with some special electronic equipment in his airplane flew back and forth over the area in an attempt to locate the Iron Door from the air. It is not known what success he had.

One of the most serious attempts for the treasure was made in recent years when Leo D. Williams, a former resident of Samaria, filed a claim and began digging out an ancient mine shaft which had been completely filled in with washed silt and dirt. There was no rock ledge on the surface, but as soon as a little digging was done, there appeared a rock formation and the opening of a slanting mine shaft. Williams had a partner, a doctor from Ogden, Utah, and the two of them spent many weekends digging dirt out of the shaft. They didn’t claim to have found the Iron Door, but they reasoned that there could have been one and that when they reached the bottom of the steep shaft they might find the remains of the door.

The first season’s efforts were quite rewarding. They had opened up a long tunnel and were coming to a large “room” when the operation was stopped by winter. Next summer they found the hold full of water and much of it filled up again with mud. With renewed determination they set up pumps and soon were down in the earth far enough to again feel the excitement of the unknown. Then one day they uncovered some bones. These bones looked so much like human bones that they were at once reminded of the two skeletons that were supposed to be behind the Iron Door. Even the doctor couldn’t be positive what kind of bones they were, so it was decided that he should take them home with him and have positive identification made at Weber College. He put the bones in his pickup and returned to Ogden with plans to return next weekend to continue digging. During the week, however, he phoned Williams and told him that he had become ill and must postpone the appointment. In a few days the doctor was dead and when his truck was cleaned out, the bones were lost. This of course only added to the mystery.

In July 1966, the rumor shoed up in Malad City that Henry Roderick of Portage, Utah, had found the mine with the Iron Door. Yes he had! He was working with a geologist from Utah State University; and as soon as they had the money all counted and ownership established, a public announcement would be made. Well, that news spread like something that shouldn’t be told! Before the day was over, every man, woman and child in town had the story and half of them had improved on it. A reporter for the local weekly newspaper hopped in her car and hunted down Roderick, intent on getting a first hand account of this great event.

Well, Roderick wasn’t too hard to find. He was out in his field harvesting his crop. No, he hadn’t heard the story that was in town. Yes, he had thought of looking for the gold because his father had thought at one time that he knew where it was – so far, he had made no attempt. Even that didn’t stop the rumor. Some people were saying, “Of course that is what he would say! If he would admit he had the gold, the Internal Revenue and all the fortune hunters in the country would move in on him.”

Sophisticated metal locators have been tried all over Samaria Mountain and I’m sure that most deer hunters who have hunted in that area looked for gold while they looked for game. By now, I think the hunters have sprayed so much lead and scattered so much used brass on that mountain that a metal locator wouldn’t be very dependable.

The latest report is of a group that has a new locating device that is so accurate that it almost draws a picture of underground metal objects. When trained upon a certain slide rock location, it “draws” the form of a metal rectangle. Is it the Iron Door? Is it a buried chest? Is it imagination? And what is the granite ledge doing under a sandstone rockslide? Questions such as these are what make interest.

The only thing I am sure of is that Glispy Waldron was an honest, well-respected man. He was the youth who saw the door while driving range horses in a storm. He never changed his story and never failed to take every opportunity in his long life in the saddle to take another look for it when in the vicinity. It was no joke as far as he was concerned.

So the legend lives, and men will continue to believe – and some to scoff and meanwhile, over in Malad City, there is a drugstore cowboy who does a darn good job of strummin’ his guitar while he sings his ballad of “The Mine With the Iron Door”.