When Sgt. Jim Connors tipped back a few too many, he'd talk about the legend of lost Civil War gold, and boast about its whereabouts deep in the hills of Western Pennsylvania.
Connors, according to a 1978 United Press International article in the Pittsburgh Press, was part of a special Union detachment tasked with transporting 26 gold bars, each weighing 50 pounds, from West Virginia to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia in the summer of 1863.
According to one version of the story, Connors staggered into Lock Haven, in north-central Pennsylvania, as the lone survivor of an ambush.
The gold was gone, waiting to become a plot line worthy of an Indiana Jones flick, but the tall tale may have inched closer to reality Tuesday when the FBI, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DNCR), and some frustrated treasure hunters converged in an Elk County forest and started to dig.
According to WJAC-TV in Johnstown, the crews were set up off Route 555 in the Dents Run section of Benezette Township. That's nine miles from Driftwood, where Connors said the shipment was attacked.
Based on today's value of an ounce of gold, the lost load would be worth $27,381,120.
FBI spokeswoman Carrie Adamowski told the station that agents were conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity. Finders Keepers, a treasure-hunting firm that claimed it had located the gold, was on the scene as well, the station reported, but members said they weren't allowed to comment.
Neither the agencies nor the treasure hunters returned requests for comment Thursday, but Finders Keepers has detailed the controversy over the claim on the firm's website.
It all began when someone gave someone else a map, back in 1975.
"We believe that we found the gold at the Dents Run site and that the state is doing everything that they can to stop us from telling our story," the firm wrote.
Finder Keepers said it searched for years and found artifacts on state land, but officials were never interested. The group contended that Pennsylvania's Historical and Museum Commission said the legend of the lost gold was a myth. Finders Keepers' owner, Dennis Parada, said high-powered metal detectors proved the story was true.
Finders Keepers' site also includes a letter from DCNR addressed to the district forester at Elk State Forest in 2005, where Parada, of Clearfield County, had apparently been digging. The letter stated that Parada could not dig on state land.
In 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profiled Parada's "obsession."
"I told DCNR I'm not going to quit until it's dug up and if I die, my kid's going to be around and make sure it's going to be dug up," Parada told the newspaper. "There's something in there and I'm not giving up."
Parada wouldn't disclose all the details, particularly about the map, saying he was saving the "good parts" for the movies.
The Post-Gazette interviewed a Civil War historian at the time, who dismissed the legend and also, perhaps, Parada.
"Legends tend to be formulated around wishful thinking," the college professor said. "You don't want to be a citizen of an area where nothing ever happened."
According to the Post-Gazette, the Army doubted Connors' story and interrogated him, and sent "Pinkerton detectives to find the gold," but they came up empty. Connors died in a "western outpost."