Of the many ghost towns in Sierra County, Chloride, New Mexico is my favorite. There are more historic buildings left standing than there are residents remaining. My second favorite is Monticello, but that has more to do with a love of caprese salads and the world class balsamic made there. More on that in a separate post.
Though the ghost towns of Colorado and California are well known, New Mexico’s ghost towns are less frequently explored, though plentiful, with many communities still sparsely occupied, frozen in time in many ways. Due to intense gold and silver mining in various mountain ranges throughout New Mexico, there are regions with several worthwhile stops in rapid succession. Exploring these communities is an ideal day trip for anyone with a love for ghost towns.
Sierra County Ghost Towns
Sierra County has a lot of old mining towns, with a cluster near Truth or Consequences (aka T or C). Most of them are conveniently located on The Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway. There are also three towns that were flooded when Elephant Butte Lake was created, but those, of course, are inaccessible unless you are a scuba diver.
The mining boom in the Black Range and the Gila during the late 1800s spawned dozens of mining camps. In areas with profitable mines, the tent cities rapidly evolved into communities, with the most prosperous experiencing rapid population growth until the silver market collapsed in 1896.
These communities varied in character. Some set the precedent for the bawdy old west mythos of brothels, gamblers, saloons and shootouts. Some were quiet, calm communities of law abiding, god fearing folk. For example, Kingston and Chloride were party towns, with an impressive ratio of saloons to citizens, and a dearth of chapels. Winston was established by people who thought Chloride was uncivilized. They established a separate village a few miles down the canyon.
The 11 remaining residents of Chloride live in a former boom town frozen in time. Though today the streets are quiet, this was a rowdy community of miners, gamblers and ranchers during the 1880s. The residents weren’t lawless so much as known for excessive partying and the associated lapses in good judgment that go along with that. Twenty seven of the original buildings remain. Several have been restored.
Carving out a Community in Apache Country
This area was not a safe place to wander in the late 1800s. Bands of Apache hunted the mountains and canyons in this region. Trespassing on their land was somewhere between dangerous and fatal. Anyone who believes that Native Americans are not proprietary about their land has never lived near Apache or paid attention to the history of the southwest.
Victorio, the chief of the Chihenne, one of four bands of the Chiricahua Apache tribe in southwestern New Mexico, patrolled the region with his warriors. Attacks on settlers, miners, freight and towns were commonplace.
Chloride’s Origin Story
Chloride’s inception would make a great movie. In the late 1870s an Englishman named Harry Pye had a contract with the U.S. Army to haul freight to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
In 1878 he was delivering freight to the reservation when he was forced to hide out in a canyon on the eastern slope of the Black Range for a couple of days to avoid Apache scouts. He camped in brush near a creek. While biding his time he found ‘float’ in the creek bed that looked promising. ‘Float’ refers to rocks washed down from higher elevations during floods.
Harry pocketed the rocks. He managed to elude the Apache and completed his delivery. When he got the rocks assayed, he discovered they were rich in Silver Chloride. Though he was eager to find the source of the silver, he didn’t immediately head for the hills. Instead, he completed his two-year contract with the army and kept his discovery a secret until his stint was complete. At that point he looked for partners, because mining solo was a suicide mission.
Due to the certainty of Apache attack, most of the locals weren’t enthusiastic about accompanying him. Finally, he found two newcomers from Kansas who were eager to strike it rich. Pye tantalized them with tales of a silver ledge that he had found in the canyon. It wasn’t exactly true, but it worked. These gentlemen weren’t aware of the hazards associated with aggravating the Apache.
From Tent City to Town
The intrepid prospectors arrived in the canyon in 1879. They built a log cabin shelter that still stands. It is rented out as a vacation rental today. The trio found a promising seam in the cliffs and started digging. They didn’t get far before they attracted the attention, and the ire, of an Apache band led by Victorio. They were about 10 feet into their mining adventure when the band of Apache warriors ambushed them. Pye drew his gun to defend himself, but the gun jammed. His mining career ended before it began. The other two men escaped, waiting until dark to flee to a mining camp near Hillsboro. They told everyone about their run-in with the Apaches and Pye’s silver cliff.
News travels fast in mining country. A rush ensued, with prospectors swarming the canyon, staking claims and pitching tents. A tent city filled the canyon within a year. Initially the camp called itself Pyetown, but they changed the name to Bromide within months, finally settling officially on the name Chloride.
With several highly productive mines in the area, the town boomed. Within a year there were 7 businesses and 20 permanent houses. Land was segmented into tracts, with lots allocated based on a drawing. There were so few women in Chloride that the founding fathers offered a free lot to the first woman willing to move to the community.
The town peaked in the early 1890s, with a population of about 3000. At its peak there were nine saloons, a general store, a dry goods store, a millinery shop, a restaurant, a butcher shop, a candy store, a pharmacy, a Chinese laundry, a photography studio, a school, two hotels, and at least one brothel. The local newspaper, the Black Range, was active between 1882 to 1896.
There was a notable lack of churches. Chloride wasn’t exactly family friendly. Traveling preachers provided ministry in private residences, but prayer was not a priority for most of the town’s residents. Saloons were the preferred site for congregation. There were hard working, hard drinking, hard living folks. The more temperate, god-fearing, teetotalers of Chloride decided in the early years that the town was too rowdy. They formed a separate town, Winston, further down the canyon.
Surprisingly, there was no jail. The “Hanging Tree,” a Live Oak estimated to be over 200 years old, is still front and center on Main Street. However, no one was hung from the tree. It was used for behavior modification. When men got too drunk and disorderly, the townspeople would dunk him in the stock tank and chain him to the tree until he sobered up.
The growth of Chloride intensified the conflict with the Apaches. A town militia formed in 1884 to defend the community. 51 volunteers, from 7 foreign countries, ranging in age from 18 to 59, stood guard along the canyon walls, providing a defensive flank for travelers and freight. The adobe armory and barracks still stand at the west end of town.
A Community in Decline
Despite Chloride’s mining productivity, extracting about $500,000 in silver and other ores, the railroad never established a depot in the community. The town relied on wagons and stage coaches. The closest railroad depot was in Engle.
The Silver Panic of 1893 heralded the collapse of the silver market. In 1896 the incoming administration followed through on a campaign promise to demonetize silver. Prices plummeted from $1.80/ounce to 18 cents. Mines closed. The stamp mill and smelter shut down. Miners were forced to look for work elsewhere. The only remaining industries were lumber and cattle ranching. Thriving mining communities withered as quickly as they had blossomed. By the turn of the century, Chloride’s population had dwindled to about 125.
Today the town boasts 11 hearty souls. They have restored many of the structures, allowing visitors to experience New Mexico’s mining history in a town that hasn’t changed much over the decades.
The original owners opened the store to cater to the miners during the 1880s. They sold it after the market crash. In 1908 it was sold to the Treasury Mining Company and, a few years later, it was purchased by the James’ family. They used it as a commissary for the staff of their mining, timber and ranching operations until 1923. At that point there was only a handful of people left in Chloride.
When the store was shuttered, the owner intended to preserve everything for his son, who was studying at the university at that time. Instead, his son became a successful scientist at Los Alamos Labs. Other than infrequent trips home, he had no time for the store and no desire to be a shopkeeper.
The property sat untouched for decades. The current owners purchased the property in the late 1980s. Everything inside was exactly as it had been left in 1923; fully stocked with food, clothing, supplies, etc. They evicted the bats and rodents and restored the property, opening to the public in the late 1990s. The Pioneer Store offer brochures and information for self-guided walking tours.
The Monte Cristo, one of the nine saloons, has also been restored. It houses a store and a gallery featuring the work of a dozen local artists. Both are open from 10am-4pm daily. There is also a restaurant. It opens at 11 am Thursday-Sunday.
To get to Chloride from Truth or Consequences, travel north on I-25 to Exit 83. Take a left on NM-181 and another left on NM-52. Follow the road signs to Winston. In Winston turn left on Chloride Road and travel southwest. Cell phone reception is fine in Chloride, but spotty on the journey between towns.