Precious Metals

When one man buried 900 pounds of gold in SF Bay

A smelter near San Francisco was the target of one of the largest gold heists in U.S. history.

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Selby Smelting Works in Contra Costa County, Calif., near San Francisco, was one of America’s busiest smelters a bit more than a century ago. The refinery was the largest on the West Coast, refining gold, silver and lead.

It was also the target of one of the most notorious thefts in U.S. history, which was recently revisited in a Feb. 21 feature by The San Francisco Chronicle.

The story goes something like this:

Jack Winters, better known as Buck Taylor (don’t ask us why), once worked at the Selby refinery.

One day in early August 1901, the plant received an order containing over a half ton of gold bullion bars. This was so much gold, it wouldn’t fit in the smelter’s brand new vault.

The staff was resourceful (or so they thought) and figured that some of the bars would be safe in an old walk-in vault located in the lead-smelting wing of the refinery.

Winters (aka Taylor), learned of this vulnerable gold stash, and saw an opportunity.

“I committed the greatest robbery of the century and I did it alone,” The Chronicle quotes him as saying.

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Mike Moffitt, of The Chronicle, details how Winters reached the vault.

“After more than six weeks of tunneling through dirt and the building’s brick foundation, Winters, a former employee of Selby, finally reached the vault — an iron box 10 feet long by 5 feet wide by 6 feet tall,” Moffitt writes. “It took him all night to drill through the metal floor and open a hole, ‘the hardest work of my life,’ he said.”

This was a factory full of noise, so nobody heard Winters drilling away.

He made 14 trips in and out of the gold-stocked vault. He was able to take nearly 900 pounds of gold, going back and forth from the vault to the wharf, where he would lower the haul into the bay.

At the time, the crime was shocking. The refinery offered at $25,000 reward for justice, and it was widely assumed that this was a group effort.

The takedown of Jack Winters

Winters’ calculated heist was the stuff of movies. He had every move in place before he executed the crime.

“I planned how I would get rid of the bullion without bringing suspicion on myself long before I committed the robbery,” he said, according to The Chronicle. “I planned to remove the gold from the bay a bar at a time. I had intended to melt the gold, to mix it with alloy, and to dispose of it in quantities that would bring me about $10,000. It would have been a very easy matter, at intervals of several months, to sell the gold at different places. I intended to take several years in disposing of the bullion.”

You’re probably wondering how and why there is so much documented testimony from the man who committed the biggest gold heist in American history.

Well, he didn’t get away with it.

How he was caught remains somewhat unclear, but a tip of Winter’s suspicious ways while on the job led police and investigators to a small cabin where a gun, a shovel, muddy clothes, and personal letters were found. 

The letters led authorties to the house of woman in San Rafael where Winters had been hiding. He was found there and arrested. 

He pleaded guilty and served seven years of a 15-year sentence.

What happened to all the gold?

The hundreds of pounds of gold Winters smuggled out of the Selby vault and hid in the bay was worth $283,000 in 1901. It would be worth about $17 million today. 

Some reports say that divers recovered all of the treasure, while others say some of Winters’ gold remained down there after the recovery efforts, “buried under the bay muck,” The Chronicle reports.

Read the full San Francisco Chronicle story here, and watch an informative video below from the Contra Costa Historical Society about the Winters heist.

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