New Mexico is home to more than 400 ghost towns

Peter Watson

The Land of Enchantment is home to more than 400 ghost towns. They are ghost towns now. But in 19th-century New Mexico, each had a moment of glory that blazed and died like a sudden flame.

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The general store at Mogollon ghost town, New MexicoNorm Lane/Shutterstock

Most were mining towns, where men lusted after the earth’s riches – gold, silver, turquoise, copper, lead and coal. A few were farming communities that flourished for a time and mysteriously fell silent. Literally, hundreds of towns not only died, but they also vanished.

By some estimates, New Mexico is home to more than 400 ghost towns – most are nothing more than a few foundations and some occasional mining equipment.

But traces of many linger on, haunting ties to days that used to be. They molder into oblivion, their shells of buildings like specters against the sky, these towns that witnessed some of America’s most romantic and rapacious history.

And if you listen, you can hear the names of fabled mines whispered on the wind: Bridal Chamber, Confidence, Little Hell, Calamity Jane, Hardscrabble, Mystic Lode, North Homestake, Little Fanny, Spanish Bar. If you look, you can read the names of legendary people written in the dust: Johnny Ringo, Russian, Bill, Toppy Johnson, Roy Bean, Butch Cassidy, Madame Varnish, Black Jack Ketchum, Mangas Coloradas, Billy the Kid, James Cooney.

Hillsboro

Location: 18 miles west of I-25 take exit 63 onto NM 152.

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Hillsboro was founded in 1877New Mexico Tourism Department

Hillsboro was founded in April,1877, when two prospectors discovered a series of gold deposits on the east side of the Black Range Mountains along Percha Creek. Dave Stitzel and Daniel Dugan staked out the Opportunity and Ready Pay mines. A tent city quickly filled with over 300 miners, store owners, adventuresome women and children.

Cerrillos

Location: 28 miles south of Santa Fe on State Road 14.

The old mining town of Cerrillos in New Mexico (@mary_robnett)The lore of the Cerrillos hills is rich with legends of mines, being worked there for a thousand year.

Turquoise has religious significance to many Native American people, nearby Mount Chalchihuitl is known to have contained a great lode of the precious gemstone and stone tools found there seem to testify to the truth of the legends.

Madrid

Location: 30 miles southwest of Santa Fe on State Road 14.

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Madrid in New MexicoNew Mexico Tourism Department

Although Madrid still likes to consider itself a ghost town, it represents a unique example of resurrection. In the 1920s and 30s, Madrid was as famous for its Christmas lights as for its coal, and airlines used to reroute traffic during the holidays to show passengers the sight.

Dawson

Location: 17 miles east of Cimarron on US 64 and A38.

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Dawson ghost town in New MexicoNew Mexico Tourism Department

In 1901 the Dawson coal mine opened and a railroad was constructed from Dawson to Tucumcari and the town was born. The Phelps Dodge Company bought the mine in 1906 and increased development.

Colfax

Location: 15 miles northeast of Cimarron on US 64.

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Colfax in New MexicoNew Mexico Tourism Department

Colfax may be said to have ridden to prosperity on the coattails of Dawson in the late 1890s when Dawson mushroomed as a coal boomtown. Dawson is dead and gone, but Colfax, however, clings to mortality.

Shakespeare

Location: 3 miles south of Lordsburg

Now off the beaten track and privately owned, Shakespeare had a tenuous beginning as Mexican Springs in the 1850s as a stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage line.

In 1870, prospectors discovered samples of very rich silver ore in the surrounding hills and they went hunting for financing to develop their new mines.

Lake Valley

Location: 17 miles south of Hillsboro on State Road 27.

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Lake Valley Ghost Town in New MexicoNew Mexico Tourism Department

Lake Valley became an important railhead and prospered until the silver panic of 1893. Two or three houses and a few other buildings remain today.

Budville Trading Post

Location: 46 miles west of Albuquerque on Old Route 66

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An old sign at Budville Trading Postsyabek/Atlas Obscura

In 1967, murder and mayhem disturbed the peace along this quiet stretch of Old Route 66. On a quiet evening in November of 1967, a stranger entered the trading post and brutally shot and killed two people. The assailant escaped with $450. He left behind a horrific scene, which the locals dubbed “Bloodville.”The site today is probably one of the most frequently photographed landmarks along the New Mexico stretch of historic Route 66.

Chloride

Location: 5 miles southwest of Winston off State Road 52.

The history of Chloride reads like the script for a bad western – silver strike, population boom, Apache raids, salvation by the militia, cattle versus sheep, tar and feathering, even bear attacks.

An Englishman named Harry Pye was delivering freight for the U.S. Army from Hillsboro to Camp Ojo Caliente in 1879 when he discovered silver in the canyon where Chloride is now located.

Golden

Location: 10 miles south of Madrid & 15 miles north of Tijeras on NM 14.

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The historic church in Golden, New Mexicosumikophoto/Shutterstock

Golden was inhabited by Native Americans and Spaniards long before American settlers came to the area. However, it began to boom when gold was discovered in 1825. Years before the California and Colorado gold rushes, the site of Golden became the first gold rush west of the Mississippi River.

Mogollon

Location: 9 miles east of Alma on State Road 78.

The general store at Mogollon, New Mexico (Photo: @francaisauxusa)

For nearly 60 years after the great gold strike of 1878, Mogollon had a reputation as one of the most wide-open towns in the West. Butch Cassidy and his crowd once headquartered there, and gunmen, claim jumpers and gamblers kept things lively. Not even Victorio and Geronimo, nor the troops sent in by the governor, could tame Mogollon.

White Oaks

Location: 3 miles north of Carrizozo on US Hwy 54.

No Scum Allowed Saloon at White Oaks, New Mexico (Photo: @ruchiandpony)

Three miles north of Carrizozo on US Hwy 54 is the turn-off to the “ghost town” of White Oaks. White Oaks is not your typical flat-roofed adobe New Mexico historical experience. It's more cowboy/frontier than adobe Disneyland.

There were no Conquistadores bringing the word of God to the native population. It was a frontier wild west cattle community right up until gold was discovered... an almost pure vein going down into Baxter Mountain; then everything changed.

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Peter Watson is a writer, photographer and adventurer. A keen trekker and climber he can usually be found on the trails of the Greater Ranges. He’s visited over 80 countries and is currently focused on climbing the seven summits – the highest mountain on every continent. Four down, three to go... He has also travelled extensively around the US developing a penchant for American backcountry, abandoned buildings and natural wonders en route.

Phoenix, AZ
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