The hills above Burlington’s Flint Creek are a tangle of woods and brush that has long been an irresistible magnet to the children of the city looking for a place to hunt and explore.
On a spring day in 1877, several of these children were in hot pursuit of a rabbit in the rocky hills and gullies when suddenly their quarry disappeared beneath a pile of brush by a recently storm felled tree. But the young hunters were not to be denied and they fell to work clearing the fallen leaves and untangling the withered branches.
A last scattering of earth was pushed aside and the children set to work with pry poles to dislodge the rocks but they were surprised when their prodding produced a dull thud. They pushed on with increasing frenzy and then stood back in amazement because before them was a heavy oak door partially buried and hinged on the limestone rocks.
All thoughts of the rabbit were now gone and one boy was dispatched to a nearby farm to borrow a shovel. When he returned the young hunters set to work hurriedly digging and exposing their find. Once the outline of the door had been cleared, the heavy door was slowly forced aside until a small opening — just large enough to accommodate a young boy — was presented.
Two of the braver explorers slipped through this opening and disappeared into the blackness below them into what appeared to be a hidden cave.
Candles were handed down to them and in the flickering light a rock room, approximately 12 feet by 16 feet with a 9-foot ceiling were revealed. Then the excited boys discovered a pile of boxes and papers in one corner of the subterranean room.
By now the frenzied activity on the hillside had attracted the attention of an area farmer and his hired hand who arrived with a team and buggy and the muscle power to haul the securely sealed boxes to the surface. Then the wagon, buried treasure and excited boys traveled to the Summer Street streetcar horse barns.
Word of the discovery swept the town and by the time the sheriff arrived at the barns an excited crowd had gathered. Visions of gold, jewels and other ill-gotten gains sparkled in the minds of those watching. But that was not to be.
After much discussion, the crowd believed the boxes may have been deposited by a group of horse thieves and bandits that had terrorized the Yellow Springs Township some 20 years earlier.
These bandits preyed on isolated farmsteads of the area and were associated with the suspicious disappearance of some earlier settlers. In the early summer of 1858, vigilantes captured the band and took them before Judge Springer for trial.
M.D. Browning was their lawyer and his case looked weak until a surprise witness, A.F. Biglie, came forward to provide an alibi for the accused thieves. Biglie was from Decatur County and was widely suspected as being the buyer of the horses the men had stolen in the Burlington area. But his testimony was unshakable and there was an acquittal.
Feeling in the town ran high against the accused men and the surprise witness and all quickly left town. Most were lost to history, but Biglie made his way to Colorado where he attempted to practice his old trade of horse stealing. But standards were different in Colorado and Biglie ended up on the wrong end of a lynch mob rope.
Speculation grew that the cave was the long forgotten bandit hideout. This belief was strengthened when one of the crates was opened and found to hold miscellaneous hardware from the store of “Nunn and Huey” – a Burlington business that existed from 1854 to 1855.
As the horse barn crowd continued to open the crates, disappointment only grew. There were old newspapers from 1855 and an old Mexican style saddle. But the most convincing item tying the cave to the bandits was a receipt from the long-dead defense lawyer for a cord of wood in payment “for services rendered.”
There was nothing of real value and the disgruntled crowd verbally abused the boys for getting hopes up that buried treasure might be found in Iowa.
The next day a group of town men went back to explore the cave the hunters had discovered. In an overlooked corner of the rock room was a small passage and by crawling through this narrow opening the searchers came to a shallow underground pool.
The party splashed on, and by the light of their lanterns, they found scratching on the wall that indicated others had passed that way. Soon the narrow passage opened up and they cavers found they had entered the back of Starr’s Cave.
Starr’s Cave was a well known attraction even in the 19th century and its securely sealed opening still stands above Flint Creek in Starr’s Cave Park. The explorers of 1877 estimated they had traveled more than 1000 feet to emerge at this spot.
What happened to that underground passage is unknown. Perhaps construction of Irish Ridge Road caused the connection from the bandit’s cave to Starr’s Cave to collapse. But perhaps additional undiscovered chambers may still exist beneath the rock ridges and treasure waits to be discovered.