James River treasure hunter strikes gold in Richmond: 'It felt like a fireworks show in my chest'

Posted at 6:39 PM, Jan 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-25 14:00:19-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The banks of the James River in Richmond are the first place you should start if you’re ever looking for John Bryan.

"I discovered the James in August of 1981, one day after moving here,” Bryan said. “When I have my fishing rod in my hand, I get the same feeling that there is hope with every cast.”

Now the author is angling for others to appreciate the waterway as much as he does.

“[It's] the defining place for our city and in a lot of ways our country,” the Kentucky native who just penned his second love letter to Richmond’s great natural resource said. “It's my book. James River in Richmond. Your new guide to enjoying America’s Best Urban Waterway."

Despite decades of experience, Bryan is still learning about the river.

That gave him an idea. He wanted to send Richmonders on a scavenger hunt while discovering the mighty James.

"I decided I’d hide a [gold coin] along the river and give clues in an effort to get people to explore and get them to explore parts of the river they’d never explored before because it is all wonderful,” Bryan said.

James River Gold Coin

Bryan planted the family heirloom somewhere along the river.

Finders keepers.

“I have had it for many years hoping to find a good use for that little gold coin,” he said.

Gabe Thornton and Lucas Soulas were hooked when they learned about the hidden coin, valued at about $500, in December.

”I got a text from Gabe saying, ‘Have you heard of the treasure. I called him right away. We just started figuring it out from there,” Soulas said.

”The treasure hunt as it were had been on for almost a year,” Thornton said.

The friends tag teamed the search and poured over the breadcrumbs John released.

“I said the treasure is hidden somewhere that you don’t have to dig and you don’t have to climb and you don’t have to get wet,” Bryan said.

”One of the later clues was actually a photo of the plastic rock. It was hidden in a fake rock. Within that was the gold,” Thornton said.

James River Gold Coin

The friends looked high and low.

“One of the clues said it was close to heaven. So we thought it was a high vantage point,” Soulas said.

The treasure waiting to be found was hiding in plain sight.

But where to look?

“In the most basic sense, it was somewhere along the river which goes through the city for seven miles,” Soulas said.

During the exploration, the obsessed pair of 26-year-old treasure hunters was exposed to new parts of the waterway.

Just what John Bryan intended.

"I decided it would be a great way for people to enjoy the river and finding new places if I hid a treasure somewhere,” Bryan said.

The clues helped the friends narrowed their search to a well-known Richmond landmark.

”We felt really confident about clues. We were dialed in. Gabe called me up and said I think it is Hollywood Cemetery,” Soulas said.

In mid-December the friends put their Sherlock Holmes problem solving skills to the test.

”It was right about here we looked at the chapel and saw those bushes and I was like, ‘I’ll check out the left side of the entrance and Lucas you check out the right side of the entrance and see what you find,’” Thornton said.

James River Gold Coin

Just a few days before Christmas the friends literally struck gold in Hollywood.

“Sure enough. Pressed into that corner. Hidden from the elements was this exact lock box,” Soulas said. "I couldn’t believe it. I turned it over. And we found inside the gold piece."

The 171-year-old gold coin luring lookers to the James.

“It felt like a fireworks show in my chest. And it was kind of hard to come down from,” Soulas said.

“I was thrilled when I got the call from Gabe and Lucas, ‘We’ve found the coin!’” Bryan said.

Bryan hopes you too will make you’re own discovery of Richmond’s river treasure.

“I was so excited and even more excited when I met these two guys because they’re nice fellas. I enjoy being acquainted with them. I think the right people found it,” Bryan said.

James River Gold Coin

For Thornton and Soulas, it was a hunt worth its weight in gold.

”If maybe one day we get more people outside with our own set of clues and hide it somewhere and keep the mystery of it going,” Soulas said. “We’re lucky to be part of the story is what happened. Yup.”

Author John Bryan is helping others find treasure too.

He is donating all sales from his new book to area non-profits.

So far John Bryan has donated $30,000.

Watch Greg McQuade's stories on CBS 6 and If you know someone Greg should profile, email him at

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