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Explore! New Mexico searches the state for interesting stories to tell our listeners and readers - and now our blog followers! We are currently producing a series of multi-media podcasts for the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau about interesting events and places to visit. You can view them at our YouTube channel. Be sure to visit our website where you can get even more ideas about where to travel in the Land of Enchantment.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Lake Valley Clings To Its Colorful Past

If you’d visited Lake Valley in the 1850s, you would have seen mostly flat, grassy plains, low rounded hills, and the majestic Black Range ensconced on the horizon. You might have thought the valley serene, even idyllic.

Then in 1878, a rancher named McEvers or perhaps a prospector named Lufkin found silver ore. It was however low-grade, not much more than 40 ounces or 2-1/2 pounds of silver for every ton of rock dug. Remember, in those days, there were no electric or steam-driven mining machines. Dug meant pick and shovel, a hand-hammered drill, and maybe some dynamite, which had been invented in 1867.

In 1881, J. Whitaker Wright arrive in Lake Valley with George Daly, an Australian immigrant. The two men, along with George Roberts, formed the Sierra Grande Silver Mining Company. Their efforts to exploit the silver was frustrated because there appeared to be none but the low-grade ore.

Meanwhile, Apaches, led by Nana, decided the ranchers and miners had been in their homeland long enough and began raiding. They burned a rancher’s home and kidnapped his wife and children. George Daly led a group of miners in retaliation. His efforts cost him his life.

It was when they brought Daly’s body back to Lake Valley, the miners found the motherlode at a depth of 40 feet. I am reminded of a scene in Paint Your Wagon, where the vagabond miners are digging a grave for a compadre killed in a wagon accident, only to see gold glittering in the dirt. The response is hilarious if crude. And I wondered if Lake Valley silver was found that way when Daly’s grave was dug.

However, it worked out, miners excavated what became known as the Bridal Chamber and found a vein of silver so pure it was assayed at thousands of ounces per ton. One writer referred to the mine as having walls of pure silver. The Bridal Chamber gave up $2,775,000 in silver, becoming known as the richest silver mine ever found.

Of course, that’s when the trouble began. A rich strike brings more miners to town, sort of like vultures drawn to a corrupting carcass. The quiet town grew to have upwards of 4,000 residents, mostly men. So there were nearly two dozen saloons and a few bordellos. There were also “legitimate” businesses – general stores, hotels, drug store, barber shop, post office, livery, stage line, and assay office. There were also a church, school, and doctor in residence.

In a short time, miners had dug hundreds of shafts looking for more of the elusive silver. To keep cash flowing for mining operations, Wright and Roberts apparently salted areas or convinced naive investors the ore was richer than it was. These promotions made Wright a multimillionaire, while it made paupers out of many investors. By 1882, Robert’s fraudulent promotions threatened the company, and he sold out to Wright. Meanwhile, Wright’s questionable promotions led to a conviction of stock fraud in London in 1902, and he swallowed cyanide, committing suicide in the courtroom.

But I’m ahead of my story. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland changed the standard upon which paper money was based from silver to gold. Not only did silver prices plummet, the change also contributed to the Panic of 1893, a major economic depression that tipped the scales on many Lake Valley businesses. Silver mining was pretty much done by then.

Besides all the mining activities, ranching had remained a major industry in Lake Valley. Cattle in large numbers bring in rustlers in large numbers. Bob Alexander, in his book, Desert Desperadoes, recounts an episode of “door-bustin’ roundups at Lake Valley, Hillsboro, and Kingston.” The roundup was led by Major Albert Fountain and was intent on rooting out and destroying rustlers, led by John Kinney, whose Lake Valley ranch served as headquarters for the outlaws. The gunfights that followed were brutal. One newspaper reported alleged escaped prisoners were shot to pieces.

So went life in Lake Valley, a town in decline. One night in 1895, a man named Abernathy, a disgruntled and perhaps drunk customer of William Cotton’s saloon, set the bar on fire. Tinder dry wood and high winds fanned the flames, which consumed nearly all of Main Street, including the Keller, Miller & Company mercantile. Today, you know exactly where that store stood. Its safe sits in the dirt right where it was after the fire burned itself out.

Like all ghost towns, Lake Valley was never totally abandoned. Its life simply ebbed away every so slowly. Mrs. Blanch Nowlin, who became the local dealer for Conoco, lived in her house on Railroad Avenue until 1982. Pedro and Savina Martinez bought the Belle Hotel next door. He lived there until his death in 1994, having been a Lake Valley resident for 90 years.

During World War II, manganese was mined in the town, but that too was mined out and abandoned in the early 1950s.

I thought about this history as I walked the remains of the town. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for Lake Valley [along with the still remaining Sierra Grande Mining Company]. The BLM restored the 1907 schoolhouse and turned it into a museum. Mrs. Nowlin’s Conoco store was the original school built in 1880. It’s awaiting a new roof and other restoration. I looked in at the chapel, where Episcopal services were held until the 1970s, and examined the remains of the Keil House and Dr. Beal’s House. The Nowlin and Martinez houses are privately owned and undergoing stabilization, efforts to prevent them from collapsing, so they might be opened to visitors.

Bob Denison, resident BLM manager, took me in his ATV to see the Bridal Chamber and other mines still on private property. I saw what’s left of the manganese ore processor. I saw head frames standing above a few of the 430 mine shafts dug throughout the area. One mine, the Last Chance, is home to bats and monitored by the state, watching for white-nose syndrome. Another, Denison told me, is the den of a mountain lion. None of them ever produced silver as rich as the Bridal Chamber, which has mostly collapsed as its timbers have aged.

Time is not kind to the remnants of our history and, unless someone values Lake Valley at lot more than it is now, it too will fade away, leaving behind decaying piles of lumber and melting mounds of ancient adobe. And that will be too bad because at Lake Valley, we can examine our colorful past and know better the roots from which we have grown.

Posted by Bud Russo