Though Cuchillo, New Mexico served as a waypoint for traffic to Winston and Chloride during the mining boom, it was more of an agricultural community. The valley was first occupied by the Mimbres Indians. They migrated out of the area around 1200 AD. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500s the region was firmly controlled by the Apaches.
Cuchillo’s namesake is Cuchillo Negro, or Black Knife, a Warm Springs Apache chief of the Tchihendeh (aka Baishan). Mangas Coloradas was his raiding partner. Formidable. Fierce. He was active and well known in the area prior to 1850. The mountains, the creek, and the town are named after him.
By the time precious metals were discovered in the Black Range, Victorio was leading the Warm Springs Apache. He, like his predecessor, wasn’t a proponent of illegal immigration. Settlers or miners who ventured into his territory were attacked, usually killed. For the sake of background, Victorio’s mentors and contemporaries included Geronimo, Cochise, Cuchillo Negro, Nana and Mangas Coloradas. Lozen, a respected medicine woman and warrior, was his sister. Basically, these were not people that you wanted to cross.
There is evidence the settlement that preceded Cuchillo started in the early 1800s, with homesteaders and pioneers using a small creek for livestock and crops. The discovery of silver in the nearby hills led to an influx of prospectors and profiteers, with tent cities popping up yearly. The population boom in towns like Chloride, Winston, Monticello and Engle led to more commerce in Cuchillo. Stagecoaches and freight wagons ferrying materials, passengers and ore between the rail head in Engle to the east, and Winston and Chloride to the west, made Cuchillo a hub for trade and travel. The town flourished. By the late 1880s there were almost 2000 residents and about a hundred farms.
When the Boom Towns Went Bust
When silver was demonetized in 1896, silver prices plunged overnight. Mines closed. There were no jobs. No other industries. No money. With ranching and farming at the core of the local economy, Cuchillo initially fared better than their neighbors, but there was no escaping the impact of the crash. The economic impacts reverberated throughout the region. Cuchillo survived the mine closures, serving as an encampment for the workers that built Elephant Butte Dam, but a flood in the 1920’s, coupled with the Great Depression, crippled the town permanently. All but the most resolute inhabitants moved on. Today there are about 35 people left, including several who can trace their ancestry to those early settlers.
There are a few noteworthy buildings left, including the Cuchillo Store and Bar. The saloon has been open since at least 1850, possibly earlier. It was a popular destination for cowboys and miners passing through during the glory days, with a well-worn card table bearing testament to many long nights spent gambling. With 150 years of drinking, it is just as well the walls can’t talk. Locals would have you believe that a few of the patrons are lingering in the form of ghosts. Those interested in the paranormal are welcome to investigate. I guess some drunks just don’t know when to go home. The saloon closed in 2004 and the property is currently for sale if anyone is interested in restoring a historic bar in a ghost town.
There was also an inn and a post office on site. There is an abandoned dance hall next door. A fire in 2000 damaged the store. The other noteworthy building is the San Jose church. It has been rebuilt a few times due to frequent flooding, with the current incarnation constructed in 1907.
In addition to ghost stories, there are tales of treasure. One of the original owners of the property, Ed Fest, used the property as a boarding house during the territorial days of Cuchillo. Travelers crossing Apache country would frequently leave valuables with him to safeguard. Many never returned, with Ed accruing a sizable stash of loot, which he kept stashed at an undisclosed location. Ed died without revealing his hiding place. Treasure hunters have scoured the compound, dismantling a wall in the process. However, Ed’s stash may still be there. If anyone found the treasure, they left town quickly and quietly without mentioning it to anyone.
To get to Cuchillo from Truth or Consequences, travel north on I-25 to Exit 83, then left on NM-181, left again on NM-52 and follow signs. Cuchillo is about 15 miles NW of T or C, before Winston and Chloride.