Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Way Things Weren’t: Kingston, NM

Like Hillsboro, Kingston, New Mexico isn’t a ghost town. But it’s also not the place of which it was said that on nights when the miners had been paid you couldn’t walk ninety feet in 30 minutes for the crowd, a place with 22 saloons, 14 grocery stores, three hotels, three concurrently-operating newspapers, an opera house, and a school, a place where the bank once held $7,000,000 in silver and the population topped 7,000. Nope, it’s not that place now. And it never was. There may be few Old West mining boom towns that have had their history so exagerrated. Kingston has even been considered to have once been the biggest town in territorial New Mexico.

Now, everyone agrees that in the early 1880’s precious metal, particularly silver, was found in the area. Ralph Looney’s Haunted Highways recounts the story that Kingston’s establishment can be traced to a drunkard, Jack Sheddon, who became such a nuisance in Lake Valley that the sheriff put him on a burro with food and whiskey and sent him north. En route to Chloride, he made a stop near what would become Kingston, had a good long drink, and passed out on a rock. When he came to, he noticed that his stony pillow had flecks of metal in it. This was bornite, a silver ore, and he quickly established the Solitaire Mine. Soon prospectors were descending from every direction. It’s a great tale, but not really true. Prospecting was underway before Sheddon even arrived (he at least did exist) as a few miners had already moved the 10 or so miles west from Hillsboro, which had been established in 1877.

(The above photo shows a house on Kingston's eastern edge. The sign in the window says, "Dr Dans Medicine Show 1/22/11". Near the bottom of this post is a shot of the microwave tree around the side. Interesting, eh?)

In the fall of 1882, James Porter Parker, General G.A. Custer’s former roommate at West Point, platted Kingston, which took its name from a local mine, the Iron King. Soon it was reported by the Tombstone Epitaph in Arizona that there were 45 men working area mines. By 1885, a year after Kingston’s oft-reported peak population of 7,000, Territorial Census figures show 329 residents in Kingston and the adjacent Danville Camp combined, even with Spanish and Chinese included in the tally.

It may well have been a rowdy place though. In an 1886 edition of the St. John’s Herald out of east-central Arizona (at the time Kingston didn’t have one newspaper) a citizen expressed upset at their town’s lack of a school, church, or, indeed, any public institution. Reverend S.W. Thornton even referred to Kingston as “the typical mining town in all its wickedness.” In 1888, construction of a stone church began which would serve Kingston’s now-1,000 residents. Sometimes claimed to have been spontaneously financed by prostitutes, gamblers, and dancehall girls, it’s more likely that Rev. N.W. Chase solicited the funds.

In 1890, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kingston’s population reached 1,449, a count it probably never surpassed by much. The 1893 economic panic sent silver prices crashing and the number of Kingston’s occupants plummeting quickly back into the low hundreds at best. By the time it was really all over in the early 1900’s almost $7,000,000 in precious metal had been mined in the vicinity, not an inconsiderable sum. But it took over 20 years; that amount was never in the Percha Bank at one time.

Even the usually no-nonsense Philip Varney slips up when it comes to Kingston, mentioning in New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns that Chief Victorio’s band of Apaches once descended on the town, but because the miners were assembling a hunting party and thus had their firearms at hand they were able to quickly drive the attackers out. It’s said Victorio decided to leave Kingston alone after that and the happy populace named their new three-story hotel The Victorio in his honor. The problem is that Victorio died in 1880, two years before Kingston was established. It’s not entirely Varney’s fault; there are many stories about Victorio and his band’s depredations in and around Kingston. And Varney didn’t have Wikipedia in the 1970’s.

You may also hear of the ironically-named Virtue St., on which was an infamous Kingston brothel. While you will find a very short side street named Virtue today, it was created after Kingston's initial abandonment. But don't fret! The world has not gone entirely topsy-turvy; there certainly was a brothel in early Kingston.

Walking the two short thoroughfares, many have wondered how a town could’ve risen and fallen so precipitously. Since it didn’t, it’s not as surprising that only one historic building exists wholly intact: the Percha Bank. The old Assay Office, remodeled as a private home, and a vastly reconfigured hotel—The Victorio—also persist. Floods and fires have certainly done their damage, but there was never as much to disappear as is usually imagined.

A little of the confusion over Kingston is attributable to James A. McKenna’s classic Black Range Tales, which, it should be noted, contains the word tales in the title and not facts. McKenna’s yarns, which most ghost town sources at least reference, take place in a Kingston of (an admittedly estimated) 2,500 rabble rousers, "the metropolis of the Southwest" which, while possibly true to the spirit of the day, never quite existed. The figure of 7,000 may have later been arrived at by further embellishing an already-embellished 1936 estimate by Madame Sadie Orchard of a peak population of 5,000. In the end, maybe the Kingston of myth is just one of those places in the Wild West of our collective imagination that people wanted to exist so badly that it was finally wished into being. It’s not the worst thing to have happened to history, I suppose.

Craig Springer, Black Range historian, founding member of the Hillboro Historical Society, and co-author of Around Hillsboro, does the best (and, to date, just about only) full-blown analysis of Kingston’s popular history, at Desert Exposure, turning up many inaccuracies and doing an excellent job of tracking down primary sources of more reliability. I reference his work throughout this post and thank him for his input.

Below is the layout of Kingston circa 1887, which shows that three years after the town's supposed peak the place was still not real big. The plat is from the General Land Office of the BLM, which has all kinds of good stuff.

Most accounts of Kingston mention Victorio’s harassment, but a quick check of Wikipedia will confirm that he died on October 14, 1880. You might also have heard that Billy the Kid visited Kingston, but as he was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner it would’ve had to have been a very different sort of ghost town then indeed. Finally, if you’re in Kingston don’t forget to check out the real and factual Percha Bank, now a museum! Call before you visit as hours are limited.

Next post, I believe we’ll have a look at the newly remodeled Murray Hotel in Silver City. Then there will be a flurry of posts about towns on the eastern plains of New Mexico that not much has been written about. With such enforced brevity I might even be able to post more often!

Saturday, August 02, 2014

This is Not a Ghost Town: Hillsboro, NM

Hillsboro, New Mexico, at the foot of the Black Range, almost 20 miles west of I-25 on NM 152, the scenic route to Silver City, is not a ghost town, as anyone that lives there will tell you. But it’s also not quite the place it was in the early 1890’s, when 2000 people called it home. Perhaps one-third of these were children, indicating something like the presence of family values, a bit unusual in a Wild West mining town of the time. (As of the 2010 census, Hillsboro’s population was 124.) Also, Hillsboro has plenty of historic heft, which makes it rather nice for inclusion here at City of Dust.

Hillsboro was a mining town and a gold mining town at that. In April 1877, Dan Dugan and Dave Stitzel found color along Percha Creek, just beside present-day Hillsboro, and suddenly a rush was on. Four months after Dugan and Stitzel had their ore assayed at $160 in gold to the ton someone built a house nearby and by December, with fresh claims springing up all around, it was decided to name the newborn town.

Over the years, I’ve put a lot of effort into describing the origins of the monikers of some of these places, but Hillsboro is easy: Everyone says they pulled the name out of a hat. Originally, it was Hillsborough, but all those extra letters were quickly deemed unnecessary. Or is it so easy? A lesser-known version has it that Joseph Trimbel Yankie, possibly the third prospector to arrive in the area, was given the honor of choosing the name. Because he was from Hillsboro, Ohio, he chose...Hillsboro. This account is now considered correct. Remember, when in doubt, always pick the less-interesting story.

(I *think* the above building, on Percha Creek, was the Romelia Chavez Luna home, built sometime before 1893.)

Within two years, Hillsboro had a population of 300, as well as saloons, grocery stores, and a post office. It also had a problem with Apache raids, so four companies of soldiers were stationed nearby to provide protection. Once, when Victorio went raiding, everyone moved across the mountains to the mining camp of Georgetown to wait things out.

A lot of money was soon being pulled out of the region and Hillbsoro became a center of activity, as well as the Sierra County seat in 1884, eventually resulting in the construction of an ornate, two-story brick courthouse for $17,000 in 1892. The sturdy, red-brick Union Church was also built that year. In the end, six million dollars in gold and silver was found in the rugged landscape, with all the attendant trading, banking, ranching, and rabblerousing such a thing would engender. Stagecoaches ran back and forth between adjacent Black Range towns and, of course, they were often robbed, so the jail was plenty big.

Hillsboro’s last jail, a stone affair built near the courthouse in the mid-1890’s, housed some interesting people, including Oliver Lee, James Gilliland, and William McNew, accused in the infamous 1896 disappearance near White Sands of Judge Albert J. Fountain and his eight-year-old son Henry. Fountain had been indicting suspected cattle thieves in Lincoln and Lee, Gilliland, and McNew had each been named. Incidentally, despite having been an outspoken opponent of Billy the Kid and his gang, Fountain had been selected to defend Billy in his 1881 trial for the murder of Sheriff William Brady, a case he obviously lost.

In 1899, after Lee and Gilliland had escaped Sheriff Pat Garrett and following political wrangling too labyrinthine to go into here, the accused were brought to Hillsboro, trial proceedings being moved from Las Cruces at the request of the defense. Oliver Lee and Jim Gilliland were tried for the murder of Henry but not his father and, after the judge pulled jurors out of their beds at 11:30 PM demanding a decision, a verdict of “not guilty” was delivered in eight minutes. Despite blood and signs of struggle at the scene of the alleged crime, there were still no bodies to prove that anyone was actually dead. Charges against McNew were dismissed. The case has never been solved.

Valentina Madrid, a sixteen-year-old girl, and her seventeen-year-old friend, Alma Lyons, also knew the jail. In 1907, they were accused of poisoning Valentina's husband by sprinkling his coffee with "Rough on Rats" for a week. The girls said they were forced to do it by Valetina's would-be suitor, Francisco Baca, though he was acquitted. The girls were sentenced to be hung, but public outcry got them life sentences. Thirteen years later, both girls were pardoned by Governor Octaviano Larrazolo on the condition they secure “honorable employment," remain in New Mexico, and never set foot in Sierra County again.

Hillsboro had already begun a steep decline by the late-1890’s, but revived a bit during WWI, then started to decline again in the 1930’s, although after a devastating flood in June 1914 the town was never going to be the same. In 1938, Hillsboro lost the county seat to Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences). The story goes that residents of Hillsboro kept traveling to Hot Springs to bring all the county’s files and documents back to Hillsboro. This allegedly happened so often that the courthouse was eventually taken apart brick-by-brick so there would no longer be anywhere to bring the files back to. Whether that’s true or if the courthouse in Hillsboro was simply sold in 1939 for $440 to provide construction material for the new one in Hot Springs, I can’t say. The courthouse may have even remained whole into the mid-1940's. But it was never entirely dismantled and what remains is a picturesque ruin.

Evidence of Hillsboro’s past is all around, including in the Black Range Museum, once the Ocean Grove Hotel. The hotel also functioned as a high-end brothel established in 1886 by Sarah Jane Creech, better known as Sadie and usually (and mistakenly) said to be British, when she was just 21 years old. Amongst other things, Sadie and her girls were known for fearlessly tending to the town's residents during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Hillsboro’s present is as a charming small town nestled in the Black Range with a couple cafes and restaurants and The Enchanted Villa Bed & Breakfast. While there might not be much gold in them thar hills anymore, there’s still plenty of reason to stay in Hillsboro.

I attempted to rectify information from three sources for this post, Haunted Highways, published in 1968 by Ralph Looney, New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns, published in 1981 by Philip Varney, and Ghost Towns Alive, published in 2003 by Linda Harris. I did my best to sort out the minor discrepancies and omissions amongst them, but you know how that goes. All state that Hillsboro's name was picked from a hat. The Place Names of NM is one of the few published sources that mentions both naming stories, but locals (and the Albuquerque Evening Citizen) know it was Yankie. The story about Valentina Madrid and Alma Lyons came from the Hillsboro Historical Society, who also commemorated the presumed murder of Albert and Henry Fountain. Finally, there's a pretty informative walking tour of Hillsboro available at

Now we’ll head west a few miles to Hillsboro’s misunderstood younger sister, Kingston.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Hard Roads: Engle, New Mexico

There’s not been much written about Engle, New Mexico over the years. The usual ghost town books I consult only mention the town in the context of its stage and rail connections to other places. But Engle, now not much more than a handful of buildings persisting in the relentless heat of a dusty former rail stop 20 miles east of Truth or Consequences, sits within an area that has played a major role in the histories of Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. Currently, it is the home base for an enterprise owned by a well-known cable television magnate and, in the future, may be passed through by some very wealthy people on their way to…orbit.

It makes sense to start the story of Engle with the Jornada del Muerto, the “Journey of Death,” which runs through the town. Or, perhaps, a couple hundred feet west, if you want to get technical. Considered the most treacherous part of El Camino Real, this stretch, beginning slightly north of Las Cruces, traversed a desolate wasteland devoid of water, firewood, or shelter. So, if the Apache didn’t get you, the desert itself might. Just imagine traveling over an ancient lava bed by horse in the early 1600’s without a Wal-Mart or 7-11 in sight. It might sound like heaven now, but let’s not romanticize too much. The closest city to the north, a long 90 miles away, was named Socorro (i.e., succor, relief, aid, etc.) for a reason. But, all that aside, plenty of travelers did survive the journey and thus, for many years, one of the most important trade routes in the history of the world passed right outside what would become Engle’s front door.

Founded in 1879, Engle was, like so many other towns in the West, born of the railroad. Named for R.L. Engle, the railroad engineer who supervised construction of the line through town, due to a paperwork error Engle was officially known as "Angle" for its first six months. An attempt to rename the town "Engel" in the 1920's, in honor of Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (AT&SF) vice-president Edward J. Engel, was halted in the 11th hour when "cowboy chronicler" Eugene Manlove Rhodes asked Senator Bronson Cutting to pull some strings.

The railroad soon built a station and Engle thrived as a shipping point for cattle from surrounding ranches. Horses, mules, stagecoaches, and eventually trains transported ore east from the more remote mining towns on the edge of the Black Range, including Cuchillo, Chloride, and Winston (then known as Fairview), and from Engle it all moved on to larger cities, such as El Paso. A post office opened in 1881 and the place was off and running.

From 1911-1916, the construction of Elephant Butte Dam, about 10 miles west, increased the population greatly. Housing in Engle was convenient and the town was the switching point for the AT&SF spur that carried materials to the dam. The peak at that time was about 500 residents, but with completion of the dam workers left immediately and Engle began its decline. By 1919, 300 people, over half the peak population, had left. Seven years later, only 75 souls remained. In 1945, much of the land to the east and south of town was claimed by the federal government for White Sands Missile Range, snuffing out most of Engle’s remaining light. But not quite all of it.

While the post office closed in 1955, a few people live in Engle yet. The train still rumbles by, however, it doesn’t stop. Not many original buildings stand, but one, the old schoolhouse, occupies what would seem to be the spiritual center of town. That’s not just on account of it being the most prominent building you see as you cross the railroad tracks, but because it’s now the Engle Country Church featuring “bible preaching and gospel singing” at 10 AM on the third Sunday of every month. Conveniently, there are some vineyards being tended nearby, too, in case the supply of wine runs low.

Engle has also become the headquarters of the Armendaris Ranch, a massive 362,885-acre spread owned by Ted Turner of CNN and Jane Fonda fame. Word is that when he comes to town, his entourage lays the necessary groundwork a few days in advance and then Ted blows in, checks on his buffalo, maybe does a little hunting, and is off again. Turner owns two other huge ranches in New Mexico and is the second-largest private landowner in the state.

Moving into the totally surreal, Engle is poised to be a way station for those heading to Spaceport America. Anyone not flying directly into and out of the spaceport or coming up from Las Cruces would be obliged to go through Engle. It is strange to imagine that some of the richest, most famous people on the planet might see Engle shortly before they are launched into orbit for a few seconds. On the other hand, those who traveled the Jornada del Muerto hundreds of years ago might well appreciate the irony. For the dusty little patch of Chihuahuan Desert on which Engle persists has a habit of being a quiet witness to great journeys.

It’s not easy finding information on Engle. The usual physical sources overlook it, but on-line you can find most of what seems to exist at Even Legends of America won’t tell you anything about the town. But they will tell you that, in the 1880’s, Bill Hardin, famous gunfighter John Wesley Hardin’s first cousin, was lynched by a mob after killing a man near Engle. Oddly, the “Ghost Towns of Sierra County New Mexico” promotional card is one of the better resources, even at all of five sentences. NM Place Names recounts how Engle came to be called Engle (and then almost wasn't). Otherwise, Wikipedia will tell you about the Jornada del Muerto and Spaceport America will tell you about Spaceport America.

Next time we’ll cross I-25 and move nearer the Black Range to visit the relatively well-known partial ghost town of Hillsboro, NM. Until then, have a happy 4th of July and safe travels, everyone.

JULY 2014 UPDATE: Mr. William M., former resident and continued aficionado of the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, has contributed a very interesting photo postcard. Postmarked from Engle to Mrs. Anna Martin of Cuchillo, NM, William guesses the card is from about 1910. Note the sparse address and even sparser message, which reads, "Hello Anna Dady (sic)." The few words speak volumes about this time and place. We can only assume that the stoic desert fellow pictured is indeed Anna's father, probably captured by a photographer traveling through Engle. William adds, "It was sent from one ghost town to another ghost town – only in New Mexico."

Thanks for the great addition, William!