Hey, everyone — there’s a 40-year-old treasure buried in Houston’s Hermann Park that’s worth more than $1,000!
But don’t get up from your lonely, disgusting cubicles just yet, you greedy office rat. Finding this treasure won’t be easy.
Here are the obstacles you face:
First you’ll have to navigate and decipher a set of nightmarish, Tolkien-style riddles and illustrated clues left behind by a sci-fi and fantasy author who seems to have had no idea how to create a working puzzle. (He died in a car crash in 2005, so there’s no way to hit him up on Tinder for the answers, ya cheater.) The puzzles aren’t nightmarish because they’re scary; they’re nightmarish because they make about as much sense as driving on 290 at 5 p.m. with a belly full of LuAnne Platters from Luby’s.
Second, there’s an irritating local internet culture of “I-knew-about-the-treasure-first” fortune hunters who have been actively thinking and planning and talking about the Hermann Park treasure since way before it was cool, so back the hell off, new guy.
They’ll mock your naive ideas and enthusiasm in secret Facebook groups and forums filled with wild conspiracy theories and inter-community arguing while a guy named Mark, who excavated a section of the Houston Zoo with a backhoe back in 2005, will kindly explain exactly why your’e wrong.
Finally, if you manage to get through the first two obstacles and arrive at the point where you’re dodging park security so you can start digging, it’s important to note that what you’re looking for is most likely buried underneath the Houston Zoo’s gorilla exhibit (but also maybe not).
You see, back when the treasure was buried in the ’80s, Hermann Park was completely different. It’s gone through decades of renovations and gorillas since then, so everything anyone looks at while they’re out hunting for treasure needs to be viewed through the dual lenses of “What Hermann Park looked like in 1981” as well as “Isn’t there something else I should be doing right now?”
I’m talking about the treasure that Byron Preiss buried and wrote about in his 1981 book “The Secret: A Treasure Hunt.”
According to the rules laid out in “The Secret,” the treasure — a ceramic key that’s enclosed within a ceramic case that’s contained within a protective Plexiglas cube — can be traded in with Preiss’ family for a valuable ruby worth upwards of $1,000. The same goes for 11 other ceramic keys that Preiss buried around North America and left clues about in his book.
Only two of the keys have been discovered — in Chicago and Cleveland — and the rest are presumably still up for grabs.
And while a quick internet search will show you that this treasure hunt has been publicized in various reports over the years, including a February 2018 episode of the Travel Channel’s “Expeditions Unknown,” a thorough examination of the Houston treasure is still hard to come by.
Sure, there are a couple surface-level ABC 13 and chron.com reports that looked into the legend and immediately gave up, and an obscure podcast is currently exploring the details behind all of Preiss’ treasures. But where’s the Houston deep dive that explores the local search in minute detail?
Tragically, this article is not that deep dive. There are just way too many details and theories and side histories surrounding the Houston treasure to explain the story completely without going insane. Believe me, I tried (in a lazy kind of way). People who have years of experience searching for the treasure (with a backhoe or otherwise) aren’t that interested in talking about it with the media and the online forums and theories are a vast madness machine that you’ll never escape from.
I even went out to Hermann Park twice and looked directly at various dirt areas while thinking really hard, but nothing happened.
Still, here’s enough information to get you started on your own search:
The Houston treasure — like all of them — can allegedly be found via the careful reading and examining of Preiss’ book. I won’t go into the other cities’ treasures because Go ‘Stros, but as for Houston’s, what you’re looking for in the book is a seemingly-meaningless illustration of an elf-genie thing, a star, and three pillars with animals and globes on top of them.
Longtime treasure hunters have deduced that this image in “The Secret” not only points you to Houston, but also to where the treasure is buried in Hermann Park. There are a few reasons for this (the coordinates for Houston are hidden in the trees, for example, and the pillars in the illustration match pillars that used to be in the zoo back in the 80s). Also a poem on page 49 about fortresses and lions gives you some extra clues, as well as extra reasons to feel sad and hopeless about this entire endeavor.
Despite the obvious, hard-to-answer questions that surround the search, like “When do I get my thousand bucks?” and “Did the zoo train conductor just call the cops on me for digging up a protected oak tree owned by the city?” a small group of dedicated treasure hunters have continued looking for that sweet, sweet ruby.
Discussions, debates, maps, and deranged theories about where the treasure might be located get posted in secret online groups every day.
The Hermann Park Conservancy politely fields inquiries from amateur treasure hunters to discourage them from digging up the park.
Mark, the guy who used the backhoe to dig the 30-foot trench in the southern end of the zoo in 2005, also brought a ground penetrating radar in to inspect the entire area.
And still the hunt continues. People in the know (not me, if you haven’t figured that out by now) agree the treasure might never be found because the clues Preiss left behind are so maddeningly opaque and terrible.
“Preiss was not a good puzzle maker,” said George Ward, who has been researching “The Secret” and its ceramic keys for more than a decade and co-hosts Shhh — The Secret, the podcast about the hunt. “The clues he put in his book are notoriously hard to figure out and also they’re just bad. Like for one of the keys his clue pointed to some tall grass. That’s not a lot of help 40 years later.”
Even worse for anyone in Southeast Texas looking for a quick $1,000 payday, Ward says Houston is probably the least likely of the remaining treasures to be found.
For one thing, like I mentioned before, there’s currently a gorilla exhibit built on top of where Preiss probably hid the Houston key — inside the Children’s Zoo. Back in the early ’80s, when Preiss hid the keys and published “The Secret,” a small scale zoo for kids was located toward the southern end of Hermann Park. It was demolished in the early 00s to make way for the apes, but back then a lot of clues in Preiss’ book allegedly aligned with landmarks within the zoo.
(If you’re interested in knowing more, Mark explains it all in this March 1 episode of “The Secret” podcast, where he goes into detail about destroying a zoo water main with his backhoe and nearly flooding the elephant habitat.)
For another thing, Preiss died in a car accident and no one has any real idea where the treasure is. If the guy with the backhoe can’t find it, then all hope is probably lost.
Or, then again, you should probably quit your job and go look for it right now.