Hillsboro is a small, quiet town located on Highway 52, about 30 miles from Truth or Consequences. The rolling, curvy stretch of road to get there from I-25 is the southern stretch of the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway as well as the northern branch of the Lake Valley Back Country Byway. Basically, this route is a two for one scenic byway special in the Black Range, with a heck of a back story if you are interested in the Old West and the mining boom in the late 1800s.
Mining Boom in the Black Range
Ultimately, the history of Hillsboro, Kingston, and Lake Valley are intertwined. All three communities were established between 1877-1882 with the discovery of silver and gold deposits. In total, there were over 9,900 mines around Hillsboro. Those mines produced 100,000 troy ounces of gold between 1893-1898.
Lake Valley relied solely on silver deposits. The village quickly became a ghost town when the silver market crashed in 1893. However, Hillsboro had a plethora of mining resources available, as well as cattle, goat, and sheep ranching in the hills around the community. Regardless, the crash had an impact on every community in the Black Range Mining District. The population dwindled from a peak of around 10,000 people during the 1880s to 2000 people by the middle of the 1890s. Today, there are more deer, elk, and cows in the area than people. For example, the combined population of these communities and nearby Tierra Blanca was 200-300 in the 2010 census; mostly ranchers, retirees, writers, and artists.
Two prospectors, Dan Dugan and Dave Stitzel, were sifting through float on Percha Creek in April, 1877. Dave found some float that he considered promising, but his partner dismissed his excitement as delusional. Fortunately, Dave ignored Dan and pocketed a few samples. He had them assayed when the pair returned to town. Dave was right. He had found a rich source of placer gold on Percha Creek.
Both men promptly staked claims, establishing the Opportunity and Ready Pay mines, which became two of the most productive mines in the area. A steady stream of prospectors followed them, with rich deposits of silver, gold and copper discovered throughout the Black Range. Prospectors found placer gold deposits in Percha Creek, Ready Pay Gulch, Wicks Gulch, Warm Springs Canyon, and Grayback Arroyo, as well as in several of the feeder gulches that provide drainage. Other miners found additional lodes by tracing the placer gold to its source, with the richest deposits found near Copper Peak and Empire Peak.
Hillsboro | Growing Boom Town
Within months, there was a tent city surrounding the initial claims, with over 300 miners, store owners, women, and children. The first permanent structure, a log cabin, was completed in August, 1877. However, the tent city didn’t have a name until the end of the year due to a lack of consensus. For 8 months, people called the settlement by a variety of names. The newspapers referred to the growing tent city as the Las Animas Gold Camp or the Camp in the New Las Animas District. Long. Not very catchy. By December, 1877, the growing community decided to put all of the suggestions in a hat, randomly pulling the name Hillsboro. Thus, a boom town was born.
As more people settled in the area, permanent structures replaced the tents, with adobe and wood homes and storefronts built along the dirt path that would become Main Street. They had a post office by 1879 and it is still there. There were four saloons, four grocery stores, four hundred miners, and, due to the frequency of Apache raids, four companies of soldiers by 1880.
New Mexico established Sierra County in 1884. Hillsboro became the county seat after a contentious competition for the distinction with Chloride, a silver mining town further north. At the time, Sierra County was enormous. It encompassed parts of present-day Sierra, Doña Ana, Grant, and Socorro counties. Additionally, the mining boom in the Black Range was so productive that Sierra County ranked #1 in silver production, #3 in copper, #4 in gold, #5 in lead, and #2 for overall mining output statewide in 1888.
The Black Range, Mogollon, and San Mateo Mountains were the homeland of the eastern band of Chiricahua Apaches, known as the Warm Springs or Chihenne (Red Paint People). Overall, their territory encompassed western New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and northern Mexico. Chief Victorio’s band were a constant threat to the mining camps and the miners in the Black Range. In turn, everyone hounded Victorio’s band, including miners, settlers, ranchers, the U.S. Army, the Apache Scouts they employed, the Mexican Army, bounty hunters, etc. Eventually the Mexican Army caught up with him, ambushing and killing him during the Battle of Tres Castillos.
The cycle of vengeance and violence between the Apaches and the American newcomers was vicious for forty years, sixty if you count the twenty years of exile and incarceration after Geronimo surrendered in 1886. The terms of his surrender cited two years of exile, not twenty.
20th Century Shakedown
Though Hillsboro experienced a steep population decline in the 1890s, the population about 1200 by 1907. Approximately 1/3 were children, making Hillsboro a more family-friendly environment than most mining towns in the American West.
The mining continued into the 1930s, with a brief boom during WWI. Unfortunately, the brief surge in mining didn’t offset the calamity and hardship of that era. There was a devastating flood on June 10, 1914. WWI started in 1917, which increased demand for metals, but it also increased demand for men, with many able-bodied miners called to serve. The following year, 1918, the Spanish Flu swept through the village, claiming many lives. When the war came to an end, the surge in mining waned throughout the 1920s, followed by a complete market meltdown in the 1930s. That not only ended the mining boom in the Black Range, it triggered the Great Depression nationwide.
Hillsboro lost the county seat to Hot Springs, present-day Truth or Consequences, in 1936. Evidently the citizens of Hillsboro didn’t take that well. They traveled to Hot Springs to bring all the county’s files and documents back to Hillsboro repeatedly, despite orders to cease and desist. In turn, the citizens of Hot Springs dismantled the Hillsboro courthouse brick by brick to build their new courthouse, leaving the residents of Hillsboro with a pile of rubble and no place to house purloined paperwork. It was an unfortunate destruction of territorial history, because the Hillsboro courthouse was considered the most impressive in the territory, similar in design to the courthouse in Tombstone, Arizona.
Noteworthy & Notorious Characters
Valentina Madrid, a 16-year old Hillsboro girl, and her 17-year old friend, Alma Lyons, were convicted of murder in 1907 for poisoning Valentina’s husband. They sprinkled his coffee with “Rough on Rats” for a week. They claimed that Valentina’s boyfriend, Francisco Baca, coerced them. However, he was acquitted and both girls were convicted and sentenced to be hung. However, their sentences were changed to life in prison due to the public outcry. They were pardoned by Governor Octaviano Larrazolo in 1920, with three specific conditions. He told the women to “secure honorable employment, remain in New Mexico, and never set foot in Sierra County again.”
Of the many fascinating characters roaming the Black Range during the gold and silver boom, few were as unabashedly “colorful” as Sadie Orchard, the Black Range’s most successful madam. Born in Mills County, Iowa in 1859, Sadie Jane Creech arrived in Hillsboro in 1886. She opened a brothel on Virtue Avenue the following year. The jokes write themselves and the irony was lost on no one.
Details about Sadie’s life are a mix of fact and wildly exaggerated fiction, due in no small part to Sadie’s tendency to embellish her personal narrative. From the moment she arrived, Sadie distanced herself from her Midwestern roots, claiming to be from London. Frankly, that was a wise choice considering her chosen line of work.
The folks who knew Sadie described her as petite and fashionable, with black hair and blue eyes. However, beneath the polished veneer, she was known for being bawdy, brazen, bold, and profane, in both word and deed. For example, among the various exploits attributed to her, she road down Main Street Hillsboro naked on a bet and she was accused of trying to murder a man with a stick of dynamite. Sadly, there’s no way to corroborate her exploits. All parties, guilty or innocent, left this world long ago.
During a WPA Interview during the 1930s, Sadie described her outlook and environment, “I’m a product of the ‘Old West,’ and you know in those days we didn’t have much chance to practice the refinements and niceties of high society.”
When Kingston’s prosperity waned in the late 1880s, Sadie packed up her business and moved down the road to Hillsboro, where she met her husband, James Orchard. They got married on July 17, 1895 and opened a hotel together in 1896, the Ocean Grove. She hired Tom Ying, known as “The Chinaman,” to run the restaurant at the hotel, initiating a lifelong business association and friendship.
Additionally, the Orchard’s launched a regional stagecoach line, running passengers and mail to the communities and mining camps throughout the mining district. However, the partnership was one-sided. Whereas Sadie was ambitious, driven, and entrepreneurial, her husband was chronically unemployed, with a case of work aversion/avoidance. Eventually she got tired of supporting him and they got a divorce in 1901. James left Hillsboro. Sadie kept his name, kept the stagecoach line, and the hotel. She drove the stagecoaches herself as needed.
End Of An Era
With multiple thriving businesses, Sadie was successful and living lavishly. However, the slowdown in mining between 1890-1920 eventually brought the glory days in Hillsboro to an end. Two decades of market volatility took a toll and World War I loomed on the horizon. Mining production waned as deposits were depleted. When the able-bodied men were summoned for World War I, Sadie’s lost a lot of her clients and her profits plummeted. However, she didn’t wallow in the loss. She shifted her focus to helping her community get through the war. For example, when the 1918 flu pandemic swept through Hillsboro, she put aside the fashion and finery and took care of the dying and dead.
Sadie remained in Hillsboro for the rest of her life. She died on April 3, 1943. They buried her in Hot Springs/Truth or Consequences. However, the fortune she had amassed was gone. When her estate was liquidated and funeral expenses were paid, she had $45 left in her account. Fortunately, her friend and longtime associate, Tom Ying, continued to look after her properties until he died in 1959.
There are maps of the Hillsboro Historic Walking Tour available at the museum.
Miller Drug Store
G.T. Miller built Miller’s Drug Store in 1879. He worked for one of the local mining companies. Originally the Hillsboro telephone switchboard and the post office were located in the drug store. Though the original building was damaged during the 1914 flood, it was rebuilt immediately and today’s version looks pretty much the same as the original.
Black Range Museum
The Hillsboro Historical Society purchased the Ocean Grove Hotel in 2016. The building was built prior to 1893. The property gained notoriety under the ownership of Sadie Orchard. The hotel included a restaurant, run by Sadie’s business associate, Tom Ying. After Sadie’s death, Tom served as a caretaker until he passed away in 1959. The museum’s collection includes many of Orchard and Ying’s personal possessions, as well as artifacts documenting the history of Hillsboro and the Black Range Mining District.
3 Carro Lane
Hillsboro, NM 88042
Hours: Friday-Sunday, 11 AM – 4 PM.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission
A flood destroyed the original church in 1972. The parish rebuilt the church based on the original plans.
A town established based on gold tends to attract unwanted attention from unsavory individuals and Hillsboro was no exception. Townspeople built a large brick courthouse in 1898, a symbol of their commitment to maintaining law and order in an area where neither was commonplace. Unfortunately, the citizens of Hot Springs dismantled the Hillsboro courthouse in 1839 to build the courthouse in Hot Springs.
Among the jail’s many “guests,” the most famous were Oliver Lee, James Gilliland, and William McNew. They were incarcerated while awaiting trial for the murder/disappearance of Judge Albert Fountain and his son, Henry.
The Trial Of Oliver Lee
Judge Albert Fountain was traveling home in 1896 after filing an indictment in Lincoln against rancher Oliver Lee (and others) for cattle rustling. He and his 8-year old son disappeared somewhere between Lincoln and Mesilla. Though investigators never recovered the bodies, Oliver Lee was implicated immediately due to a longstanding personal and political feud, as well as the indictment.
The Pinkertons and Sheriff Pat Garrett investigated for more than two years before arresting Lee and two of his ranch hands. The judge didn’t think the men would get a fair trial in Fountain’s hometown of Mesilla so he moved it to Hillsboro. The trial made national headlines, with telegraph lines strung from Lake Valley to Hillsboro so reporters could transmit court proceedings to the newspapers in New York.
Thomas Catron was the prosecuting attorney. He was a leading member of the notoriously corrupt Santa Fe Ring and, later, one of New Mexico’s first two Senators. Attorney Albert Bacon Fall represented the defendants. He was also one of New Mexico’s first two Senators. Fall joined President Harding’s Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior in 1921. Based on his involvement in the Tea Pot Dome scandal, he has the dubious honor of being the first Cabinet member in U.S. History to be prosecuted and convicted for corruption.
Catron couldn’t make a solid case against the men. Without bodies, the evidence was circumstantial. As a result, the jury returned the “not guilty” verdicts in less than an hour. Oliver Lee and his men celebrated with Sadie Orchard while Pat Garrett and Albert Fall caught the first stagecoach out of town. The murder was never solved.
Enchanted Villa Bed and Breakfast
Hillsboro, NM 88042
Wealthy entrepreneur Sir Victor Sassoon built the property in 1941 as a vacation home. He hired the current owner’s great aunt, the well-known Beverly Hills decorator Harriet Shellenberger Dorsey, to complete his retreat. The current owner, Maree Westland, bought the property in 1989 and created the Enchanted Villa, a quiet retreat nestled in the peaceful, picturesque beauty of the Black Range.
Hillsboro, NM 88042
Nestled in the foothills of the Gila National Forest, the Black Range Lodge offers easy access to its wild, natural beauty. The original brick construction dates back to the 1880’s, when the Lodge housed miners and cavalry. They built the massive stone walls and log-beamed ceilings during the 1930’s.
200 Mattie Ave
Hillsboro, NM 88042
HC 31, Box 95
Caballo, NM 87931
Owned by cable billionaire and conservationist Ted Turner, Ladder Ranch offers a variety of eco-tours. For example, they manage the property based on strict conservation measures, including removing all cattle and domesticated livestock from the property and replacing them with bison.
10701 Highway 152
Hillsboro, NM 88042
The tasting room features a selection of local New Mexico wines, including a few produced and bottled at Black Range Vineyards in Hillsboro. Sunday, 12pm to 6pm, with later hours on Friday night.
Hillsboro is approximately 32 miles from Truth or Consequences, 18 miles west of I-25 on NM 152. It is slow rolling cruise for the last several miles due to hills and curves.