A backwoods legend about buried treasure in the rugged wilds of Elk County, Pennsylvania, may turn out to be true. Last week, local media reported the presence of dozens of FBI personnel, Pennsylvania state officials, and members of a treasure hunting group setting up a dig site within the state forest at Dents Run. Their target? A potential cache of gold bars worth tens of millions and dating back to the Civil War.

At least, that's the speculation. FBI spokeswoman Carrie Adamowski cryptically told WJAC-TV in Johnstown that agents were on the scene "conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity." Members of the treasure hunting firm Finders Keepers would only say they're under FBI orders not to talk.

The FBI later said it did not discover what it was looking for, but that the search was part of an ongoing investigation.

As for the legend of the missing gold, this is one story Hollywood — and Nicholas Cage — could tackle next.

52 bars of gold

According to the Post-Gazette, which cited a 1983 article from Lost Treasure magazine, the legend says that in 1963, President Abraham Lincoln tasked the Union Army with a secret mission to transport 52 bars of gold, each weighing 50 pounds, to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. The treasure, hidden within the false bottoms of two wagons, reportedly left Wheeling, West Virginia, with eight cavalrymen, a civilian guide by the name of Connors, and a Union lieutenant named Castleton. Only Lt. Castleton knew of the mission's true purpose.

Traveling along a northeast route to avoid the massing of the Confederate Army in Pennsylvania under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the expedition ran into trouble when Lt. Castleton became ill during the nearly 400-mile journey. Rumor has it he divulged the golden secret of the wagons while delusional with typhoid fever. After a stop in St. Mary's, Pennsylvania, the lieutenant and most of the soldiers were never seen again. But Connors and possibly two other men survived to give birth to the mystery surrounding the gold's final location. From the Courier Express:

Legend has it that Conners said that end was "over Thunder Mountain near Hicks Run." All three went into the Civil War, but only Conners survived. He is said to have gotten drunk on numerous occasions on his return from war and would tell others in the bar — "I know where there’s gold back in the hills of Pennsylvania." Ultimately, he died while building roads in California.

The densely-wooded area in Pennsylvania where the gold is rumored to be buried. The densely wooded area in Pennsylvania where the gold is rumored to be buried. (Photo: Google Maps)

Unfortunately, there's no official record documenting either the mission, the gold-laden wagons, or the existence of a man named Castleton. This nonetheless hasn't stopped a century's worth of treasure hunters from scouring the forests of Elk County for some trace of the lost gold. Over the last decade, Finders Keepers has claimed they've discovered the location of the hoard, including artifacts dating back to the Civil War, but they've been denied permits to dig due to the site's location on state land.

"We found a bullet shell, knifes, animal traps, zinc mason jar lid, tin cans, bones (human or animal), whiskey bottle, camp fire pit, and a lot more that the state now has and wont return," Dennis Prada, owner of Finders Keepers, stated on the group's website. "They say that they don't have the time or the money to go treasure hunting, but if we can show them the gold, then they will look into it. They also stated that if anyone digs on state land and remove artifacts they would go to jail and lose any rights to a reward."

A Department of Conservation and Natural Resources official told the AP that the group had requested to dig but had elected not to pay a required $15,000 bond.

As for claims that there's nothing of value buried in the hills of Elk County, Prada remains steadfast that the legends are true.

"I told DCNR I'm not going to quit until it's dug up," he told the Post-Gazette in 2008. "And if I die, my kid's going to be around and make sure it's dug up.

"There's something in there and I'm not giving up."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Is the FBI really looking for lost Civil War gold?
Dozens of FBI agents have descended on a Pennsylvania forest where Civil War gold may have been hidden 155 years ago.