New Mexico Journey AAA New Mexico May/June 2004
Dead or Alive?
By Linda G. Harris
Photographs by Pamela Porter
THERE'S A LIVELY DISPUTE IN THESE PARTS ABOUT WHAT constitutes a ghost town. Must it be deserted? Should at least one building, say a saloon or hotel, still be standing? What about actual ghosts? The debate spans the entire state/ which has some 90 towns that meet at least one of those criteria. Each town reflects a distinctive period, culture, and community. Most are located just a few miles off the interstate, making day trips feasible and fun. Kingston, Hillsboro, and Lake Valley—three former min-ing towns in the Black Range northwest of Las Cruces—are a pleasant drive any time of year, but especially in summer when the foothills are shady and cool.
Kingston: Turning off Interstate 25 just south of Truth or Consequences, I follow State Highway 152 west for about 27 miles across the barren mesa. Overhead, contrails feather and fade as the day warms. Then the road twists into the foothills, tracking Percha Creek until it reaches Hillsboro, where arching cottonwoods mark the town limits. I'll be back for lunch, but first I have an appointment in Kingston, nine miles farther on.
A few minutes later, I angle into the skinny mile-long community whose introduction is a sign reading HOME OF THE KINGSTON SPIT AND WHITTLE CLUB. Two happy guys in an old red fire truck wave as they pass me on their way out of town. Kingston is an eclectic mix of historic buildings, new and timeworn houses, and mobile homes. At its center sits the Black Range Lodge Bed & Breakfast, an architectural hodgepodge dating back to 1884.
Pete Fust, who with his wife, Catherine Wanek, owns the lodge, says tourists often come to the door looking for Kingston. When he says, "This is it," they protest, "We thought Kingston was a ghost town, but look at all these people." That's when Fust leans forward and whispers, "I don't see any people here. Do you?"
Kingston was founded on August 16,1882, soon after silver was discovered nearby in what is now the Gila National Forest. Within two years, the town had 14 grocery stores, three hotels, and 22 saloons, the most famous of which was Pretty Sam's Casino. In those days, some 7,000 people lived in and around the town.
When the nation adopted the gold standard in 1900, silver's brief reign ended, and Kingston's already-depleted mines closed. Now, only about 30 people live here. Its prettiest feature is the pinon-shaded cemetery, located on a hill a half-mile west of town. In the once-bustling business district, just a handful of buildings remain. The assay office has been converted into a home. The Percha Bank, still stately, served Kingston as its post office until the 1950s. Now it operates on the weekends as a local museum, and art gallery. Some time after 1934, the remaining stone walls of Pretty Sam's Casino were used to build a massive addition to the Black Range Lodge.
Wanek, a petite earnest woman, bought the building 20 years ago as a place to live and write screenplays. When a Hollywood writers' strike dried up work, she converted it back into a lodge.
Fust is a landscape designer and international Frisbee champion. He and Wanek teach straw-bale construction and other types of natural-building techniques. Despite the demands of running a guesthouse, Wanek has written two books and produced five videos on the topic. Fust is very funny; he keeps me laughing during a tour of the lodge that includes a straw-bale bathroom, a straw-bale greenhouse, and a straw-bale chicken coop.
Near noon, he takes me next door to meet Kingston's newest resident, graphic designer and printer Mark Nero. Nero's tidy studio features a working 1889 letterpress, cases of old type, and stacks of paper that he uses for limited-edition books as well as Arts and Crafts-style cards and stationery. He and his wife, Marilyn, another graphic artist, relocated Cranberry Press, their handset printing business, from Washington state to Kingston a year ago.
"We found Kingston by accident and fell in love with the town," he says. "Here you see cowboys and hippies partying together. Our one common denominator is that everyone lives here on purpose."
Hillsboro: Back in Hillsboro, I claim a window seat at the Barbershop Cafe, one of several eateries in town, and watch weekend tourists amble along Main Street. Hillsboro seems to have hung on to every building from it’s 1880’s mining heyday, including dozens of homes (nearly all occupied), the country store, the school, and the church. Sadie Orchard's old hotel has been converted into the Black Range Museum, featuring 19th- and 20th-century household, mining, and farming objects. Orchard, Hillsboro's enterprising madam, owned not only the hotel, but also the stage line. Every morning, the stage met the early train at Nutt, southeast of Lake Valley, then delivered freight to area mining towns and customers to her hotel.
The ruins of the Sierra County courthouse and jail, higher up the hill on Eleanora Street, are the town's most striking features. The two-story courthouse was built in 1892, eight years after Hillsboro made the transition from rowdy gold-mining town to respectable county seat. Today, the brick courthouse is a ruin with its one remaining arch framing the hills beyond. Inside its low walls, a rusty iron safe minus its door lies on its back. Thorny mesquite bushes have sprouted in the jail’s three roomy cells. The heavy iron-barred doors and windows are intact, but the roof is gone.
At the beginning of the last century, the mine became less profitable, and Hillsboro started to decline. The final blow came in 1936, when the county seat was moved to Hot Springs, now Truth or Consequences. Some 200 people live here today, including a retired librarian, a clock maker, a cookbook author, a film producer, several artists, and a retired fireman named George Baldwin.
Baldwin is vice president of the Community Center Association and one of a team of volun-teers who helped turn the 1939 Hillsboro High School into a community center. The building features a modern kitchen, a library wing, and a newly refurbished auditorium. Today Baldwin has an ap-pointment with a young couple planning to hold their wedding reception here. When the pair ar-rive, I tag along for the tour.
Baldwin proudly points out the new ceiling with its old-fashioned brass light fixtures. "One time, before the roof was repaired," he says, "a group playing huge Japanese drums banged so loudly they brought a corner of the old tin ceiling down.
The couple, Rosanne Nills and Benjamin Liechti, are students at New Mexico State University and plan to marry at Hillsboro's 1896 Union Church. Liechti discovered the town while riding with his parents' Christian Motorcycle Association. The duo chose Hillsboro for their wedding because, Liechti says, "It's unique and has so much history."
Linda G. Harris is a Las Cruces writer, and author of Ghost Towns Alive: Trips to New Mexico’s Past (Link to sales page)