Johnny Lang was a rascal of a man. He’d probably rather lie to make two bits than tell the truth for four. He was born in Missouri in 1853, and as an adult he wandered West with his family. He and his dad were cattlemen, and by the 1890s they were driving ungulates from Mexico to Los Angeles, beating the cost of freight train shipping, and pocketing the difference to make a fair living.
But who gives a damn about a fair living when you’re Johnny Lang?
There are various tales about how Lang discovered gold, all of them a little sketchy and suspicious. Here’s one version:
By 1893, the Langs had set up headquarters in Indio, California. One day, one of their horses wandered off into the Little San Bernardino Mountains, in the area now known as Joshua Tree National Park. Johnny volunteered to track it down.
While he was on a hillside trailing the fugacious equine, he looked down and noticed a chunk of ore that was so jam-packed with gold that even an untrained eye like his cowboy eye couldn’t help but tell that this was something special.
It so happened though, that there were some real prospectors on this hillside, and their eyes were trained, and they were finding all kinds of somethings special also. But they weren’t as quick and clever as the cattleman. Johnny knew that time was wasting, and he high-tailed it out of there and headed lickety-split for the county seat of Riverside, where he staked a claim on the hillside, before the prospectors had the slightest notion of what he was up to.
Johnny filed the claim on January 3, 1893, in his name, the name of his father George Lang, and of two other fellows in his cattle outfit. And this is how the Lost Horse Mining Company, named after the Lang’s missing horse, was established.
The Lost Horse was a prosperous mine, producing up to 25 ounces of gold per ton during the first year. Johnny took on the job of transporting the gold-mercury amalgam to Los Angeles, for sale. And that’s how trouble began.
Johnny’s three partners noticed that some of the gold was going missing during the transport, and accused Johnny of skimming. He denied it of course, but they’d had enough. In 1895, they sold off their shares in the mine to two brothers named Jep and Thomas Ryan.
Johnny held onto his quarter-interest, but now he had new partners to deal with. And they were the suspicious type. A year later, in 1896, they began to notice that something was amiss, and began voicing their concerns to each other. I imagine this is how the conversation may have gone:
“Got the same-sized crew, same amount of ore, night the same as day. How come the amalgam from the night shift is always less than the day crew’s?” Jep mused loud enough for his brother Thomas to overhear.
“Maybe it’s that Johnny Lang,” Thomas volunteered. “You know, I’ve wondered why he was so eager to run the night crew. I thought he was trying to be a good partner, but now I’m having doubts.”
“Same here, Thomas. Whaddya think? Maybe we ought to hire someone to keep watch.”
So Jep Ryan hired a private detective to surreptitiously observe the workings of the night crew at the Lost Horse mine. And It didn’t take long for the private eye to report back to Jep some disturbing news. It seems Johnny Lang had been slipping away from the mine, with burros packed, while the night crew was busy operating the ten-stamp mill. No one was noticing due to the noise, and diligence they were paying to their duties.
“Don’t deny it Johnny, this private eye has caught you red-handed,” Jep leveled a serious, even contemptuous gaze at the skinny, middle-aged man. “Now I’m gonna give you a choice. Thomas and I will buy you out for $12,000, and you will leave the Lost Horse mine and stay away from here. Otherwise I’m going to the sheriff, and you’ll be charged with grand theft and embezzlement.”
Johnny Lang was an amiable man. It was hard not to like him. But he knew his charm could only go so far. He accepted the offer and walked away with $12,000.
A few months later, Lang staked his own claim in what is now known as Johnny Lang Canyon. It was located about 8 miles northwest of the Lost Horse mine. He began hauling ore out, with his burros, to Bill Keys’ ranch several miles to the north of his claim. Bill Keys bought the rich ore from Johnny. But he had strong suspicions about where that ore actually came from. He figured Lang had secret caches scattered all over the desert from his peculation at the Lost Horse.
Lang squandered all of his gold profits. In the 1920’s he returned to the Lost Horse Mine, which had played out and been abandoned. He took up residence in the old office structure, and began to slowly starve to death. One by one he killed off his four burros, and ate them.
One cold, January morning in 1926, Johnny Lang tacked a note on the door of the mining office stating he was hiking into Indio to get some supplies. The note promised that he’d be back “soon.” Two months later his mummified body was found by Bill Keys a few miles west of the Lost Horse mine. The 72-year-old Lang had fallen ill during his hike and perished.
Bill Keys buried him on the spot, with the help of a few friends, and erected a headstone. The headstone and burial spot remain in situ to this day, just a few yards away from Keys View road in Joshua Tree National Park.