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Posted: Sunday, February 9, 2003 12:00 am

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy," says Catalina prospector William "Flint" Carter, "and if I wasn't so busy laughing at that I'd agree with them."

Crazy or not, few question his determination when it comes to chasing down the centuries-old legend of the lost Escalante Mine, or the Mine with the Iron Door, supposedly covered up by expelled Jesuit priests more than 200 years ago.

For the past 30 years Carter, a native of Danville, Ill., has been roaming the Santa Catalina Mountains chasing the legend of what has been described as the most extensively hunted lost mine in North America. Always seemingly on the verge of discovery, Carter isn't the first and most likely won't be the last to do so.

If it weren't for being allowed to stay in the home he's living in in exchange for maintaining it and taking advantage of the free hot dogs he gets that have been turning on the local fast food rotisserie all day, the 55-year-old Carter would be in even worse shape than he is now.

All in all it's a strange situation to be in for a man who claims to have a potential $10 million worth of silver and gold-filled white quartz rock stored in a backroom.

Carter believes deeply in the worth in that rock-filled room. His problem, he says, is that he can't afford and hasn't the time to cut the mineral-laden rock and make it into jewelry himself and he can't find any backers who are willing to risk the possibility that all that rock will turn out to be just that.

He donated what he deemed $1 million worth of gold-filled rock to sponsors of the Great American Wild West Show at one time, but said he was told by the IRS that until the material was processed it wouldn't be considered anything but rock.

"You don't get much credibility living behind a bar," he said.

A former structural ironworker and military policeman stationed in Panama, Carter said he first came out to the Catalina area in 1970. He was on his way from San Francisco to New Orleans for Mardi Gras when the truck he and his friend were in broke down in New Mexico and the friend suggested that once the truck was fixed, they visit Tucson where a movie star friend his companion knew would put them up.

Once out here, Carter, inspired by classes at Southern Illinois University taught by Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and one of the earliest proponents of renewable energy sources, decided he wanted to buy some land "in the middle of nowhere" where he could build a building that would heat and cool itself.

"I never got a college credit," Carter said. "Tried three different times, but never could, but I learned what I wanted to learn and that was how to build a house that would heat and cool itself."

He bought an acre with a chicken coop on it in 1970, part of the old Linda Vista Guest Ranch, the first guest ranch in Arizona, and while living in the coop, began building a solar-heated museum consisting of eight rooms on six levels carved out of more than 800 tons of stone. The project is credited in some circles as being the first solar heated and cooled museum in Arizona.

Carter said he worked on the museum for 15 years before being thrown off the land in the first in a series of what he alleged to be swindles by fly by night operators that have cost him millions over the years.

At one time Carter said he had 176 mining claims covering six and a half square miles in the Catalinas in an area below what is now Biosphere 2. Much of that also has been lost to swindlers, he said.

Unable to get a regular job, Carter said he first started looking for gold in 1971. He was immediately hooked after discovering gold in his front yard and more while panning in a nearby stream.

Undaunted by the years of fortunes found and lost, Carter is still at it, prospecting higher up in the Catalinas in a cabin he says was built by William "Buffalo Bill" Cody.

"I got no money at all," Carter said, adding that he receives an occasional grubstaking from pawn shops when he turns in the jewelry he makes out of the rock he calls Codystone. "But it don't cost me nothin' to live. All I got to do is pay the power bill here. But I'm being treated for pneumonia now cause at times I couldn't pay the power bill and they shut if off. I've lived here five years. It stood empty for three years before that and I rebuilt it. To me this place is paradise. It's a hell of a lot better than living in that tin cabin up in the middle of nowhere where there ain't nobody. At least here I got people around me.

"If I need something to eat I can go to the Circle K. You know those hot dogs they have over there? Well at midnight they have to take them out cause they've been cooking them all day. They'd just throw them out. So if I need something I go over there and get the stuff they were going to throw away.

"I also get to drink for free at the (Players Pub) bar and I don't drink that much, maybe two, three times a week, a couple or three beers or so.

"But I pick up their garbage and help them with the place. It's like security too, cause the girls there tend bar by themselves and if they're afraid or have any problems they just bang on my walls and I come runnin.'

"That's what people mean when they refer to me as either 'the count' or 'no account of Catalina,' " Carter said. "Some people go, 'Oh, that guy, he ain't had a job at all and his gold mine that's just bull…' But you ask anybody up here and they'll probably tell you I'm more loyal than what the sheriffs are. There's a lot of people come to me in trouble they can't go to the sheriffs with and I try and help them out."

Throughout all his time as a prospector, Carter said his sole objective has been to "establish a testimonial to the history of the area and its people, the Apaches, the Sioux, those whose lands have been stolen so that they might eventually get something out of it."

Toward that end Carter is seeking donations of historical material related to the area that would supplement his Codystone Gallery and Educational Exhibit. He's also been working on a book he said was supposed to be done 13 years ago and a fifth movie about the mine that would be a composite of previous movies and also contain historical material documenting what people persist in referring to as a legend.

Carter can be reached at 240-1245.

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