New Mexico has an enormous amount of intriguing fodder for “based on a true story” westerns should that genre ever come back into style. Several New Mexico mining towns in the late 1800s were classic examples of the “Old West,” shoot out in the street mythos.
There are several fascinating ghost towns in New Mexico, each with a twisted tale to tell. However, Elizabethtown is one of my favorites. It burned brightly and briefly. These days it is incredibly picturesque, peaceful, and quiet, hardly the raucous, hard scrapping town that existed in 1870. There isn’t much left, but at one time 7000 people lived there and miners extracted millions of dollars of gold and copper from the surrounding mountains and stream beds.
Moreno Valley Gold Rush
A allure of the west was built on gold. There had to be incentive due to the hazards associated with Native Americans who were adamantly opposed to additional newcomers taking their land. The Moreno Valley, on the Enchanted Circle between Red River and Eagle Nest, is no exception. The gorgeous valley is brutally cold in the winter, surrounded by mountains, in a part of the territory that was remote and savage in the 1860s. There weren’t many settlers or ranchers in the area until gold was discovered in 1866. Prospectors filed more than 1000 claims within the first year and Elizabethtown, aka “E-Town,” was born. Cattle barons, land sharks, cowboys, opportunists, vigilantes, a serial killer, and an assorted an assorted cast of characters, many with historical infamy, populate the brief and boisterous history of Elizabethtown.
It all started when a Ute Indian arrived in Fort Union with a handful of “pretty rocks” in the fall of 1866. He wanted to trade the rocks for additional winter supplies. He presented them to Captain William H. Moore (retired), the proprietor of Fort Union’s sutler store, which was a civilian owned commissary that supplied the soldier’s with a variety of goods. Captain Moore recognized the rocks as copper ore and negotiated a deal, which included being led to where the ore was found.
Moore promptly dispatched three prospectors to check out the ore deposit. While they were camping on Willow Creek at the base of Baldy Peak, one of them decided to pan gravel in a stream bed near the campsite. He found gold. Upon further inspection, the trio found flakes of gold in virtually every culvert and gully on the west side of the mountain. The copper deposits, which were later developed and known as the Mystic Lode Copper Mine, promptly became secondary.
Unfortunately, an early snowstorm forced them to return to Fort Union early in the fall. They carved the words “DISCOVERY TREE” on a Ponderosa Fir next to their camp. When they returned the following spring, the Discovery Tree became the nexus for staking claims, with each adjoining claim numbered consecutively.
The trio trekked back to Fort Union. When the men got back to the fort, they took an oath of secrecy. That didn’t last long. Days. Maybe a week. Winters are long and a few drinks will make men brag and tongues wag. By the spring of 1867, there were miners swarming the Moreno Valley, with 300 men queued up at Fort Union wanting to stake a claim and head to the mountain. However, there was one glitch. The gold was found on the Maxwell Land Grant. The entire mountain (and beyond) belonged to one man…Lucien B. Maxwell.
Lucien B. Maxwell, long-time resident of the area, was the sole owner of the Maxwell Land Grant, which encompassed the Moreno Valley, extending from Baldy Peak, to west of Raton. The already wealthy land baron was realistic. He realized that he couldn’t keep the swarm of miners off of his land. Whereas Maxwell had dreamed of managed and controlled growth on his property, the gold rush that occurred in 1867 snuffed that dream. He knew that if he didn’t find a way to profit off the deluge of newcomers, he would get nothing as strangers strolled off with gold from HIS hills.
Maxwell charged the squatters usage fees plus a cut of each claim. He charged miners $1 a month for a 500 square-foot parcel, $12 dollars a year in advance for a placer or gulch claim, and half the proceeds of a lode claim. However, he invested in resources and equipment to facilitate production. He built a toll road through Cimarron Canyon and leased land for a toll road over Raton Pass to Trinidad. The roads were necessary to transport the gold out of the valley to the banks in Trinidad, Colorado. The stagecoach arrived in the spring of 1868 with daily service between Elizabethtown and Cimarron. The route was so successful that the owner added lines to Taos and Santa Fe.
Maxwell was one of the primary investors for the “Big Ditch,” a 41-mile canal built to divert water from the Red River through ditches, pipes, and trestles. The ditch went through canyons and around mountains, with a mere 11 miles in a straight line. It cost $280,000. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly effective. About 1/10th of the water that went into the ditches and flumes came out at the other end due to leaks, seepage and evaporation. Lacking alternatives, the Big Ditch was in use until 1900.
Seventeen companies established 400 claims within an 8-mile radius of Mount Baldy by July of 1867. Maxwell established several placer claims and joined Captain Moore and several investors to form the Copper Mining Company in 1867. They found one of the first large lodes of gold.
Despite the enormous amount of gold extracted, things didn’t work out according to Maxwell’s plan. He didn’t like the influx of people. Some of the miners paid, but many didn’t and he couldn’t always collect. Ultimately, he sold his interests around Mount Baldy for $650,000 in 1870, passing the problem to the new owners. Their heavy handed tactics triggered the Colfax County War, a violent land dispute provoked by the corruption of the Santa Fe Ring (more on that momentarily).
The convergence of miners on the Moreno valley in 1867 was dramatic. Hundreds of prospectors streamed into the area within a matter of months. Captain Moore arrived with a plan that went beyond mining. Furthermore, he had business partners to help him bring his plan to fruition.
They established Elizabethtown immediately upon arrival in 1867, surveying and platting the town with wide streets and separate zones for residential and commercial development. They sold lots at prices ranging from $800 to $1200. Five stores opened for business the first summer, including a general store owned by Captain Moore and his brother. They provided supplies and staples to miners. Cabins, houses, and additional businesses sprouted up around the General Store immediately. Elizabethtown became New Mexico’s first incorporated town.
They named the community after Captain Moore’s 4-year old daughter, Elizabeth Catherine Moore. Locals called it “E-Town.” Later, Elizabeth married a local fellow and became the town’s first school teacher. Throughout the town’s changing fortunes over the years, she never left. She is still there, buried in the town cemetery.
Gold Mining Boom Town
Elizabethtown’s heyday was short-lived and intense. The post office opened early in the summer of 1868. There were 3,000 men working gold claims within one year. Prospectors built cabins on top of, or adjacent to, their mines. The prospectors who chose to live in town had a lengthy commute to work, trekking up the valley to Baldy Mountain.
The sawmill cranked out lumber for commercial buildings and private homes. Elizabethtown had about 100 buildings, including a couple of hotels, five stores, seven saloons, a brewery, three dance halls, two churches, a school, a flour depot, and a drugstore by 1869. The saloons boasted dance floors, gaming tables, and bars that were 100-200 feet long.
Like most boom towns, dancing, dining and drinking were the primary forms of entertainment. The red-light district encompassed several cabins, with numerous women plying their trade in second floor rooms connected to the saloons. However, there were enough families in the community the late, 1869 to warrant building a school and a Protestant church. The community established the Catholic parish shortly thereafter. Additionally, the abundance of capital from the mines attracted settlers from Texas. They brought herds of cattle, establishing ranching as a principal industry in the area. Though it is cold in the winter, it is outstanding grazing land from spring through fall.
Peak Prosperity in Elizabethtown
The town grew to over 7000 residents at its peak of prosperity in 1870. The territorial legislature created a new county, naming it after Vice President Schuyler Colfax and designated Elizabethtown as the Colfax County seat. E-Town reigned as one of New Mexico’s most important towns in the region for about five years. Unfortunately, mining productivity began to diminish dramatically and, to further complicate things, Lucien Maxwell sold his land to new investors in 1870. The new owners were not sympathetic to existing inhabitants.
Lucien Maxwell sold his land and moved to the abandoned Fort Sumner in 1870. A consortium of British investors purchased the grant a year later. Whereas they initially honored property owners who could demonstrate proof that they had purchased the land from Maxwell, they aggressively everyone they deemed squatter. Conflicts and confrontations escalated, culminating in the murder of a well-beloved Methodist minister, Franklin Tolby.
Reverend Tolby was an outspoken advocate on behalf of the settlers, which set him at odds with the grant owners and their hired thugs. Unknown assailants murdered Reverend Tolby in Cimarron Canyon on September 14, 1875. His death triggered a lengthy, violent range war known as the Colfax County War. The ensuing violence drove a lot of settlers out of the area. More on that here.
Waning Fortunes in Elizabethtown
The gold fever broke when mining costs started to out-weigh the volume of ore produced. The population dwindled. There were 100 residents remaining by 1872. The state legislature moved the county seat to Cimarron. The gold rush was over by 1875 when the Colfax County War enflamed hostility across the area, with fatal clashes between settlers and representatives of the grant owners. This put more pressure on the remaining population in Elizabethtown. Locals moved out of the area or to nearby communities.
Once the Colfax County War was resolved with the Supreme Court ruling in 1888, there was a brief mining revival in Elizabethtown during the 1890s. It was short and frenetic. Miners extracted $5 million in gold in a 12-month period. The population of the town was up to 3,000 at one point.
Brief Mining Revival
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad advanced its track from Trinidad, Colorado into New Mexico. The ability to transport ore long distances and commence dredging operations made mining operations financially feasible again.
The Oro Dredging Company erected a monstrous dredge, christened “the Eleanor” in 1901. The massive pieces for the dredge were hauled from the train station at Springer across mountain roads and streams. The dredging company built a dam three miles from Elizabethtown and hauled the biggest pieces on a large boat. The dredge began production in August, 1901. The machine handled up to four thousand cubic yards of dirt a day. Eleanor paid for herself in the first year, clearing $100,000 net profit. Furthermore, Eleanor produced one-quarter of all the gold found in New Mexico in 1902.
The town became a musical hot spot in the Moreno valley during the turn of the 19th century. People traveled miles over rugged mountain roads to attend the Saturday Night dances. Locals replaced wagons with sleds during the winter, but they always found a way to show up for the revelry. Participants were on their best behavior, clad in their “Sunday best.” However, appearances could be deceiving.
Black Jack Ketchum
There was a group of well-mannered, clean-cut young men that regularly attended the dances. They rode good horses and flashed wads of cash, claiming to be cowboys. Initially the single women in the area were mesmerized. However, the townspeople discovered that the “nice, young men” were members of the Black Jack Ketchum’s gang, a notorious group of outlaws that robbed trains, stores, and killed people throughout the late 1890s. The ringleader, “Black Jack”, was shot and caught during a botched train robbery. Authorities tried and convicted him to death. He was hanged in Clayton on April 26, 1901, buried in the Clayton Cemetery.
Fire of 1903
Compared to the lawless years of 1868-1890, Elizabethtown was settling into a groove, a sane and civil community of hard-working folks. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in a defective flue in Remsberg store.
September 3, 1902
“A Colfax county gold mining town was almost wiped out by fire Tuesday. Only one business institution is left standing. Remsberg & Co. are the heavy losers. The fire originated from an unknown source possibly from a defective flue. The fire started on Tuesday afternoon about 2:15 p.m. in the hall used for entertainment on the second floor of the Remsberg store building and thirty minutes after the discovery of the fire the building and all it contained except about $700 or $800 worth of dry goods were totally destroyed.
…The flames spread to the Mutz Hotel, a two‑story building adjoining. From there the fire spread to Harry Brainard’s place, then to Remsberg’s, Gottlieb & Iufelder’s general store. Across the street in the next block the Moreno Hotel caught fire from flying embers and in one hour and fifteen minutes from the time of the discovery of the fire all the buildings mentioned were reduced to ashes. The only mercantile establishment left in town is the store of Herman Froelick.”
The Mutz Hotel was rebuilt in stone after the fire, but Elizabethtown never recovered.
Eagle Nest Lake
Charles and Frank Springer delivered the final nail in Elizathtown’s coffin. The brothers, closely associated with the nefarious Santa Fe Ring, decided to build a dam near the entrance to Cimarron Canyon. The dam created Eagle Nest Lake.
T.D. Neal bought land next to the lake and founded the town of Therma, today’s Eagle Nest. Most of the remaining residents of Elizabethtown dismantled their houses and relocated to Therma.
Gradually Becoming a Ghost Town
The dredging operation died in 1905. The owner mortgaged Eleanor to get money for a similar venture in Colorado. Unfortunately, Eleanor wasn’t profitable the following year and the owner declared bankruptcy. He left Eleanor to rust. She sank into the sands of Moreno Creek long ago.
By 1917, Elizabethtown was on its last gasp. The mines were going belly up. There were no jobs and no money. The remaining residents abandoned their homes, because they couldn’t sell them. The post office closed permanently in 1931. Though gold mining continued on Baldy Mountain until World War II, it wasn’t profitable due to the shortage of water for hydraulic placer mining. In total, the Moreno Valley produced 5 million dollars in gold in 75 years, most of it in the first 40 years.
There would be more to see in Elizabethtown, but campers accidentally burned down the Mutz Hotel and the Catholic church. Additionally, the school building was sold as salvage in 1956. The land on the west side of Baldy Mountain was purchased and donated to Philmont Scout Ranch in 1962. What does remain is mostly on private land; however, the land owners have recently launched E-Tours, ATV/4WD or horseback exploration of over 8000 acres.
Epilogue | Notorious and Ne’er-do-wells
Similar to its neighbor Cimarron to the east, Elizabethtown was a notoriously rough place. Black Jack Ketchum’s gang wasn’t the only group of infamous outlaws to frequent the community. The allure of copious quantities of gold served as a magnet to every gambler, thief, outlaw, and miscreant in the territory. The local minister, Father John Myer, aptly summed up the ambience in 1868, “it was a rough time. Shooting and killing were very common”.
The outlaw problem was so bad, and law enforcement so corrupt and ineffectual, that frontier justice was the norm. Mobs stormed the jail and hung whoever was inside. Lots of folks were killed because someone influential considered them bothersome. For example, one defendant asked to be tried in a different town, because he didn’t believe he could get a fair trial in Elizabethtown. A group of vigilantes broke the man out of jail and hung him, pinning a note to his coat that read, “So much for change of venue.”
Though Elizabethtown was never a cattle or railroad town, the community’s cemetery is on par with Dodge, Tombstone and other frontier towns associated with the “Wild West.” Who wouldn’t want their final resting place to be on a hill overlooking the Moreno Valley, with Mt. Baldy to the east and Wheeler Peak to the west?
Henderson was the first of the town’s murderous characters. He killed a claim jumper during an argument, later acquitted based on self-defense. He joined a band of outlaws at Ute Creek. However, when he got sassy with Joe Stinson, the saloon proprietor in Elizabethtown, Henderson got a one-way ticket to Boothill.
Joseph Antonio Herberger
Herberger belonged to the Elizabethtown Vigilantes. He captured an outlaw wanted for murder, “Pony” O’Neil. They strung the man to the nearest tree and riddled his body with bullets. On another occasion, a gentleman came to Herberger’s saloon and became confrontational over the bill. Herberger based a skull in with a piece of firewood.
“Coal Oil Jimmy” Buckley
Buckley led a group of outlaws that caused a local stir in 1871 with a series of stagecoach robberies in Cimarron Canyon. Elizabethtown put a $3000 reward on his head, “Dead or Alive.” Two of his “friends” decided the latter was more feasible. They joined his band of outlaws, biding their time for the right moment to shoot him and his second in command. They returned with the bodies to collect the reward.
Sometimes the distinction between “good guy” and “bad guy” was indiscernible. Clay Allison was one of the nastiest vigilantes in the territory, always in the middle of every conflict. He was a former Confederate officer, with a reputation as a foul tempered gunfighter, nasty drunk and vigilante activist that stretched to Dodge City, Kansas. Allison was a squatter on Lucien Maxwell’s land, with a ranch near Cimarron. He frequented all of the small towns in the area with his brother, John Allison. More accurately, he frequented the saloons. He was also a regular in Trinidad, Colorado, because they had the best doctors. Allison had a nasty social disease and needed regular treatment.
Allison was usually the leader of the groups that stormed the jail. If he wasn’t the leader, he was invariably present and enthusiastically participating. He, and Black Jack Ketchum, were part of the posse involved in a particularly insidious incident….one that would be worthy of an Old West horror flick.
Like many frontier towns of the West, Elizabethtown had its share of gruesome stories and murderous men. However, not many mining towns had a full-fledged serial killer. Charles Kennedy was a big, husky fellow that owned a rest stop on the road between Elizabethtown and Taos. He preyed on the travelers that stopped at his place for overnight lodging. Due to the transient nature of mining communities, there’s no way of knowing how many lives he claimed.
Charles’ luck came to an end when a traveler asked him over dinner if there were Indians in the area. Kennedy’s 8-year old son piped up, “can’t you smell the one under the floor.” Paraphrasing obviously. Kennedy flipped out. He killed the traveler, killed his son, locked his wife in the cabin, and proceeded to drink himself into oblivious. His wife escaped through the chimney after he passed out. She ran to Elizabethtown, bursting into the saloon to tell her story. Clay Allison was there. A group of men headed to Kennedy’s cabin to check out the story. They found ample evidence and hauled the man, still drunk, back to town.
The vigilantes were worried that Kennedy’s lawyer would bribe the judge. They broke him out of jail, dragging him by horse through the streets with a rope around his neck until his head came off. The community refused to allow his body in the cemetery. Legend has it the mob displayed his head on a pole outside of the saloon for a time. More of the story here.
Descendants of the Mutz Family own the town. They have been working on restoring some of the remaining buildings. They are offering ATV/4WD or horseback tours. The museum currently features numerous artifacts found on the property, pictures and documents portraying E-Town history, featuring an informative videotape in a small “theatre.”
The Elizabethtown Cemetery is about a mile up the road from the ruins and looks out upon the beautiful valley. The stone ruins of the Old Mutz Hotel have crumbled, reduced to just a few low walls and a scattering of stones. Froelick’s Store remains, though in poor repair. They rebuilt the church. Work in progress.
Elizabeth town is located between the communities of Eagle Nest and Red River, just off New Mexico State Road 38 (the Enchanted Circle). 4.8 miles north of Eagle Nest on NM 38. Turn left (west) on B-20, a dirt road, then 0.3 miles to buildings from the turnoff.
More on Elizabethtown
F. Stanley, Dumas, Texas, March, 1961