On April 8, 1885, a story appeared in the St. Louis (Missouri) Evening Chronicle detailing events which had taken place in Randolph County, northwest of that city.

A LOST CITY.
Special Correspondence of The Chronicle.

MOBERLY, MO., April 8. – A singular development has been made in this community within a few days that baffles the theories of scientists and experience of delvers in the earth. Several years ago, Mr. Tim Collins opened a shaft in the northeastern part of this city for the purpose of securing coal, and with the expectation of reaching a six-foot vein of bituminous matter believed to underlie all this section of country. In fact, it has been penetrated in some portions of the county, but its dip is so irregular that it is mere guess work as to the depth at which it may be reached. Mr. Collins is an experienced and skillful miner and so strong was his faith that he exhausted all his means in the prosecution of the work. The hole in the ground stood for a long time, when Briton A. Hill, of your city, was induced to take in interest in the shaft and supplied the means to still farther prospect for the black diamonds. But the hole got deeper and deeper without exposing the anticipated wealth, and finally Mr. Hill refused to further pursue the seemly hopeless search. Mr. Collins, however, is not a man to be intimidated by adverse circumstances. Parties living in Sedalia were interested in the matter and supplied the funds necessary to go deeper into the earth to lay bare the golden stratum. In the meantime the shaft had filled to the depth of 150 feet with water, and new and expensive machinery had to be employed to exhaust the water and allow the borers to go down after the coveted wealth. All this took time and money, both of which were very precious to Tim Collins. He struck several veins of bituminous coal, but the particular vein had not been reached.

A short time ago, he again began operations and finally reached a stratum of semi-liquid bitumen, which became more and more inspissated as the miners went into the bowls of the earth. This bitumen, or naphtha, or asphaltum – for your correspondent is not sufficiently versed in geology to give it a technical title – did not continue through any considerable depth, but encouraged the proprietor of the enterprise to go ahead, and he did it with the most remarkable success.

After reaching the depth of 360 feet the workmen struck igneous matter of basaltic formation, so hard and firm that the picks and other instruments employed to be useless until still further hardened. This difficulty was finally overcome and the work was prosecuted with more than ordinary vigor.

Saturday morning Mr. Collins came into the city under a high state of excitement and announced to some of his personal friends that he had found a buried city at a depth of 360 feet below the surface of the earth. Of course, his friends laughed at his apparent delusion, and thought the long strain upon his mental and physical energies had distorted his reason. But, keeping the subject as quiet as possible, he invited his friends to visit his mine and verify his statements. Accordingly a small company, consisting of Charles F. Campbell, a prominent real estate dealer; R. A. Wilson, also a real estate dealer and experienced operator of coal mines; Gid. Morehouse, a practical miner of long and successful experience; David Coates, city recorder; George Keating, city marshal; George M. Barrett, a merchant of Topeka, Kas.; Grafton Gorcy, an old printer, and your correspondent, set 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon to visit the mine and descend into the shaft. At the appointed time the company was on hand and the descent began. It is useless to describe to anyone who has ever descended into a mine, the nausea, the foul, damp, disagreeable odor and the sense of “goneness” experienced by those who dwell on the surface when for the first time they go down to those Cyclopean deeps. It is sufficient to say that the party arrived in safety at the bottom of the shaft.

But here a scene awaited them that they had certainly not anticipated. The apparent lava crust at the bottom of the mine had been broken in only one place, and this was barely sufficient to admit the body of one man at a time. The most adventurous hesitated before going to a new world or rather what seemed to be the womb of our upper world. But with characteristic courage, and stimulated by the remarkable stories Mr. Collins had told, Mr. Gid. Morehouse, the experienced miner, began the further descent. The others waited for orders from below. Soon it was announced, from a depth which seems to be greater than which we had traveled, that the adventurer was not only safe, but that, like the queen of Sheba who inspecting the wonders of Solomon’s magnificence, the half had not been revealed.

In less than an hour our party of nine, including Mr. Collins, had safely descended into a literal world of wonders. Here were evidences of a remote but advanced civilization, such as may well cause the scientific to wonder. Of course our explorations were brief, as we could not have anticipated the discovery we were so fortunate as to make, and our feelings of awe almost paralyzed our curiosity.

The place in which we found ourselves, as well as we could judge by the dim and flickering light of the miners’ lamps, seemed to be a chamber of indeterminable extent, possibly fifty feet below the bottom of the mine, we had entered, with an irregularly arched roof and putting obstructions here and there. When these obstructions view closely examined they proved to be walls that had evidently been constructed by the labor of human hands, and were not a product of any violent volcanic action. Symmetry was observed, and skill could everywhere be seen. The party became enthusiastic, and though it seemed as if we had descended to the very charnel house of long buried ages, the more curious could not be restrained from following the bent of their inclinations and exploring this vast cavern of indescribable and awe inspiring wonders. Though a little timid and by no means included to break the monotony of that entombed silence, your correspondent was forced to penetrate the gloomy void and behold things that to him were absolutely beyond his belief had he not witnessed them with his own eyes that were neither sleeping not deceived. Near the floor to which all of us had descended was a wall of massive stone and somewhat rude but intelligent masonry. These walls were of bala limestone, dark colored hard and firm texture and capable of withstanding immense pressure. Fragments of them were chipped off and brought to the surface. The stone was not unlike the blue limestone found on the surface in this immediate neighborhood. Evidently tools of fine quality had been used in preparing the blocks for the walls, as their surface showed that they had been roughly dressed before being placed in position. These blocks are of irregular, triangular, and even oval, but they were put there by the skill of those who understood the art of masonry.

Moving along by this wall the party in a short time came to an open space which on close inspection proved to be the entrance to a wide aula or hall of the building we had just been inspecting. Before we had been picking our way over irregular places in the floor, over fragments of stone and what appeared to be a street covered with asphaltum or other similar substance. But when we entered the hall the floor was smooth and within a few feet from the entrance there was not even an obstruction of dust. We marched slowly and cautiously along this hall till another opening presented itself on out left and we filed in. Here was the very discovery of discoveries.

A large room, probably 65 by 100 feet in extent, showed itself dimly by the light of our tapers. It was about 20 or 25 feet from floor to ceiling, and had evidently been lighted from the top, though there were openings in the walls where, from appearances, great oaken blinds or doors had once been. These doors had rotted, and only small portions of them remained, small bits of which we chipped off with our knives as souvenirs of our visit. Further examination showed that this room had been used as a workshop but mechanics who had been at work long before Huram’s artificers hewed the architecture for Solomon’s temple. On each side near the walls, and also in the center, were found tables or benches where they had fashioned the work of their hands. These benches were of stone, and there were but few evidences of the character of work done. The wood that had been employed was damp, rotten and so covered with mold as to be almost indistinguishable in shape, and when touched, crumbled to dust. Tools were found on the benches, the handles of which had long since rotted away. But the tools themselves were in a good state of preservation and show that they were fashioned by master mechanics. A number of them were brought to the surface and are now exposed to the gaze of the curious.

While the main body of our party were examining this room, Mr. Charles Campbell, carried away his enthusiasm, had been exploring still farther and found another room of similar dimensions and made a discovery that in his excited state of mind, came near causing his death. It was a room partially fitted with specimens of antique art, small statuettes and larger statues met his gaze on every hand, and it was touching one of these, which fell with a loud crash, that he imperiled his safety. But he had had made a discovery which was worth a life to have made, though the accident extinguished his lamp. The noise of the falling statue and the frantic cries of Mr. Campbell caught the sensitive ears of the party, all of whom went to his assistance. On approaching the door he warned the man to be cautious as there was danger of accidents from the same cause he experienced. But the party entered the room and here were found numerous figures in stone and a species of bronze. The latter is not like that used in the present day, but is a combination of metals, of which perhaps tin was the smallest ingredient, as it is devoid of luster. Several of the smaller images, some of them exceedingly grotesque in form, were secured by the party. All of the figures were fashioned by workmen who understood the use of the implements they used, and on consultation that the room had been used as a store house for the gods of the strange people who made and worshipped them.

But the most peculiar and exciting discovery of the day had yet to be made. The members of the party had paid little or no attention to the passage of time, their curiosity and interest increasing as some wonder was developed. An enthusiastic archaeologist would scarcely have thought that we had already been in the subterranean city for several hours, and that, like the foolish virgins, we had neglected to provide sufficient oil to keep our lamps trimmed and burning for a very extensive survey of this newly found world. A discussion in the party showed that we were approaching midnight, but still none of us were anxious to go above till we had more than satisfied ourselves that our senses were not deceiving us, and that we were in our own persons actually and undoubtedly processed of tools, implements and images made ages ago by an unknown and prehistoric race. But the flickering of some of the lamps warned us that our visit could not be prolonged with safety, and it was decided to ascend to the open air.

On leaving the room, or hall, we had been visiting for some time, each man with tools, implements, images and other specimens of our great discovery, led by Mr. Morehouse, who has for many years been accustomed to thread the narrow passages of deep mines, one of the party, Mr. George Barrett, who had wandered somewhat from the balance of the company, used an exclamation of surprise that immediately brought the others to his side. And surely we could not have made a more important discovery, or one that could have been more satisfactory. It was a skeleton of a human being lying beside a stone fountain. The fountain was located in what was evidently a large court or very wide street, and from it a stream of water flowed into a large stone basin and thence into an aqueduct the length and termination of which we had not the time or opportunity to explore. Some of the party, who had the curiosity and the thirst to test the purity of this water, drank a small quantity and pronounced it very sweet and nice but strongly impregnated with limestone.

But the curiosity was the skeleton and over this a long consultation was held, some of the lamps having been extinguished to provide against the possible contingency of being left in the dark. Mr. Morehouse, who had a tape line with him measured the bones of the leg. The femur measured four and a half feet, and the tibia four feet and three inches, showing that the creature, when alive, must have been endowed with both muscular power and quick action. The head bones had in two places separated, the sagittal and the coronal sutures having been destroyed. The party judged, from the best information to be obtained on so a short time, that the skeleton is about three times as large as that of an average man, but they were afraid to attempt its removal this morning with the poor appliances at hand. Consequently it was left where found, to be removed at the earliest hour that the work can be done.

The implements found embrace bronze and flint knives, stone and granite hammers, metallic saws of rude workmanship but proved metal, and others of a similar character. They are not so highly polished nor so accurately made as those now finished by our best mechanics, but they show skill and an evidence of advanced civilization that are positively wonderful.

While delighted at the wonders encountered we were notified by certain unmistakable indications that we must go above or that we were likely to be left in this city of the dead, as its inhabitants were ages ago. Accordingly, we began the ascent, carrying with us the unquestionable evidences of the wonders we had found, one of them bring the ulna of the left arm of the skeleton found. We reached the surface of the earth at 6 o’clock this morning, having been entombed thirteen hours, but with a knowledge of facts that reach back in history cycles or eons.

The “correspondent” who was a part of the expedition into the city in the mine was presumably J.W. Estes, the city editor of the Moberly Monitor (the name “Estes” was signed to the original news story).

The next day, the same paper carried another article giving further details.

NOT HALF TOLD.

MOBERLY, MO., April 9. – Further developments concerning the relics of antiquitous times discovered in the great Tom Collins coal shaft have been made. As yet the explorers of this ancient subterranean abode are at a loss to discover what race of people occupied this buried city, which probably dates back to time immemorial. The names of the parties comprising the second exploring expedition of this wonderful underground former habitation were representative citizens of Moberly, among them being Messrs. Chas. McGowen, George Conway, L. B. Forney, C. A. Bridges, and others. In a day or two it is stated, a commission of geologists will be here, who will give the place a thorough investigation and endeavor to enlighten the minds of the doubting and disbelieving.

The latest and most important discovery is the life-size petrifaction of pure stone, consisting of a mother mounted upon a rudely constructed chair nursing an infant at her breast.

Next to this comes an object in the shape of a man, kneeling in prayer, worshipping a three-headed idol similar to that of the ancient God Isis, which is so prominently mentioned in Peter Parley’s Universal History.

As we proceeded farther we found a small stream coursing through the cave similar to that of Lost river, so prominently noted in the great Mammoth Cave of Kentucky.

Besides these formidable wonders, there are to be found all manner of relics, such as battle-axes, pikes, tomahawks, scimitars, etc. There are also to be found objects which indicate that civilizations existed at some remote period. They comprise chairs of stones, medicine mortars, relics of an ancient grist-mill, and other articles too numerous to note.

The whole affair has set the community ablaze with excitement and various speculations exist regarding the wonderful discoveries made. Of course it all reads and sounds like a story pertaining to mythology, but “truth is might and will prevail,” and the doubtful individual had only to call, when he can be shown the wonderful underground objects described above.

The coal mine where the city was found is described in the History of Randolph and Macon Counties, Missouri (1884) which tells us that “just beside the railroad, Timothy Collins has sunk a shaft to the depth of 256 feet, and found a bed of coal ranging in thickness from two feet to four feet two inches. This mine has not been fully developed, but arrangements are being made to work it thoroughly.”  Fourteen years after the city was found, the mine’s upper works were destroyed in a fire.  The Moberly Monitor reported on October 19, 1899 that

All that now remains of Tim Collins’ coal mine is a hole in the ground, and not a very good one at that. The last superficial evidence of Tim’s hobby disappeared last night at 9:30, when what remained of the engine house and upper works were destroyed by fire, incendiary no doubt. The fire company made a quick run in response to the alarm, and prevented the fire from spreading to other and more valuable property in the neighborhood. The old shed at this mine had afforded a shelter for tramps and crap-shooters for years, and those who live in that neighborhood will not worry over the fact that there will be no more “sevens or elevens” there. The shaft is caving in rapidly, and unless something is done to prevent it will soon reach the railroad right-of-way. If some shrewd man could devise a way to extract the money which has been sunk in that hole he could dress in purple and fine linen for the balance of his days.

 

collins
The two circular ponds indicated by the red arrows are all that remains of the Collins coal mine (Google Earth).

 

But like so many stories of the era, Missouri’s lost city wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  Within two days, a piece appeared in the Logansport (Indiana) Daily Pharos indicating that Buck Kelly, editor-in-chief of the Moberly paper and Estes’ boss, said that the story was an “April hoax” with “not a word of truth in it.”  After a flurry of retractions in papers nationwide, Tim Collins, owner of the mine, likewise denounced the hoax.

SEDALIA, MO., April 13. — Mr. Tim Collins, of Moberly, Mo., who was in the city, states that the sensational story of a buried city being discovered under his coal shaft is a sheer fabrication designed to do him great injury.  No such discovery, or anything like it, he says, has been made. The names of parties as given are fictitious.

He has not himself been in Moberly this week. His shaft is not 360 feet, but only 265 feet deep, and terminates in a six-foot coal vein, which is being successfully worked. He has not, and never has had, any business connection with Britton A. Hill, or any other St. Louis party, and no Sedalia parties are assisting him financially.  He expects to return home, and says he is going east in a few days to secure funds for enlarging his mining facilities, and claims his mine is the best ever opened in the state.

Years later, after the death of Col. John Provines, the editor of the Moberly Monitor, the whole story came out.  The only person connected with the paper who had completed his education, Provines was often called on to write the stories relayed to him by others.  In April, J.W. Estes had come to him with a fabulous story of the city underneath Collins’ mine – “[s]tone houses, theatres, mosques and all that.  Found some stone coffins, burial vaults and a car load of mummies” – and Provines eagerly wrote up the tale, being fascinated with Pompeii and other Greek and Roman ruins.  Estes said that the story was confirmed by Tim Collins himself, which was a lie as according to the previous news story he wasn’t even in town.

It wasn’t until newspapers further East picked up the story and began writing to Moberly for photographs and other corroborating evidence that suspicion was raised.  Investigators from St. Louis were dispatched to Moberly, but Estes was (conveniently?) absent from town that day.  Even people from overseas wrote the mayor of Moberly for information.  Railroads began running special trips to the Collins mine.

In the end, Kelly, Provines, and Estes were congratulated on the hoax and the publicity it brought to the town.  Collins, on the other hand, seemed to be rather perturbed.  A sign that appeared at the mine, written in an almost stereotypically uneducated manner, read “No burryied sity lunaticks aloud on these premises.”

The story of the Moberly city is still believed by some, although it is an extremely obvious, admitted hoax.  But significantly for Forteans, the story indicates that in this era at least, April Fools’ was not only relegated to April 1 in particular, but seemed to last the whole month.  This would seem to indicate that we should look askance at any particularly sensational tale from the era that appeared in April.

 

K'n-yan
The sunken city of K’n-yan, which appeared in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Mound.”

 

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