With an abundance of silver, gold, and copper deposits, the Black Range experienced a population boom of miners, prospectors, investors, and entrepreneurs in the late 1800s. Rich lodes of gold and silver were found in 1877, leading to the establishment of numerous mining communities, including Hillsboro, Lake Valley, and Kingston.
In 1882, a miner found a rich lode of silver ore on Percha Creek, about 10 miles west of Hillsboro. The site would become the Solitaire Mine, one of the most productive silver mines in the southwest, one of 30 mines in the area. The original mining camp was called Percha City. However, the town was soon renamed Kingston based on the largest mine in the area, the Iron King.
Today, Lake Valley is a ghost town, though there is a self-guided, interpretive walking tour available. Approximately 32 people keep Kingston from fading into official ghost town status, with a mere 120+ keeping neighboring Hillsboro on the map. Both are quiet, peaceful communities, home to artists, writers, musicians, academics, and others who enjoy the slower pace of life and lack of cell phone reception. County government is housed in Truth or Consequences, 31 miles from Hillsboro and 40 miles from Kingston.
Silver Deposits in Percha Creek
In many ways Kingston was a stereotypical western boomtown, wild and unruly. The town’s primary commodity was silver, a source of wealth in an area lacking wealth, which attracted an abundance of fortune hunters, entrepreneurs, criminals and opportunists. Like many of the rowdy mining towns, the history of Kingston is a mix of fact and fiction, with many of the more impress claims falling into the latter category.
Located on the homeland of the Warm Springs Apache, raids were a part of life of Kingston, initially involving Nana’s warriors as they sought revenge for the ambush of Victorio’s band in 1880. However, the frequency and intensity of Apache raids was already waning as the remaining Apache bands struggled to evade the U.S. and Mexican armies hunting them. Nana surrendered in 1883.
Mining Camp to Kingston
Winters can be unpredictable in New Mexico’s mountains, sometimes mild, sometimes brutally cold. The first winter in Kingston was extremely harsh, with record breaking snowfall isolating the small community while a smallpox epidemic raged through the population. Signs outside tents and buildings warned people not to enter or leave without a special permit. As the death toll soared, men had to use dynamite to blast graves in the frozen ground. The survivors were undeterred, with a surge of newcomers arriving the following spring.
The community established roots quickly. Within a few years, the tents and shacks gave way to permanent structures and a host of businesses providing amenities to the burgeoning population of 1200. There were 23 saloons, 14 grocery and general stores, three hotels, multiple boarding houses, two assay offices, a smelter, kiln, and blacksmith, a dentist, two doctors, a school, seven sawmills, multiple restaurants, a brewery, a drugstore, several gambling halls, three newspapers, a dancing school, and an Opera House where the Lillian Russell Troupe once performed.
The local stage line connected to all major routes, with Kingston hosting the famous and infamous during its brief heyday, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Blackjack Ketchum, Billy the Kid, President Grover Cleveland, and cowboy chronicler Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Albert Bacon Fall and Ed Doheny, later embroiled in the Teapot Dome Scandal, got their start as miners in Kingston.
The population of Kingston was mostly miners and prospectors. Though a few men brought their wives, most of the men were single and most of the unmarried women in the camp were there to “entertain” the men. The community didn’t get around to building a church until 1888. At that point the saloon to church ratio was 22:1.
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 got her start in Kingston with a brothel on Virtue Street. The jokes write themselves. Details about her life are a mix of fact and fiction, due in large part to Sadie’s propensity for embellishing her personal narrative. For example, she distanced herself from her Midwestern origin by claiming to be from London.
The people who knew her described her as petite, fashionable, and formidable, with raven hair and piercing blue eyes. Beneath the polished Victorian demeanor, she was bawdy and profane. During a WPA Interview during the 1930s, Sadie described her perspective, “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.”
Sadie relocated to Hillsboro in 1886, several years before the silver market crash decimated Kingston. She married the fellow who owned the stagecoach lines connecting the Black Range Mining communities and opened a hotel and restaurant, presumably settling into a more respectable profession. Eventually she retired in Hot Springs (Truth or Consequences). She’s buried in the Hot Springs Cemetery.
Kingston | From Boom to Bust
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was enacted in 1890. It required the U.S. to buy silver with notes that could be redeemed for either silver or gold. The price of over-produced silver was supported by U.S. notes and gold. However, a financial crisis rocked the railroad industry in 1893, prompting a run on the banks as U.S. note holders demanded gold. The U.S. repealed the Silver Purchase Act in 1893 to avoid depleting the U.S. gold reserves, sparking panic in the silver market, with the price of silver plummeting almost 90% overnight. The impact reverberated through the silver boom towns in New Mexico. The wild days in Kingston were over. Though some of the mines remained open, mining output waned, and profits turned to losses. Overall, 7 million in silver was extracted in the Black Range Mining District during the 1880s-1890s.
Some tenacious residents remained, but many relocated to neighboring Hillsboro, with a more stable economy based on ranching and gold mining, or they headed further west to the Arizona Territory. The Kingston post office closed in 1957, three years after the post office in Lake Valley closed.
Walking Tour Through Kingston’s Past
The handful of residents keeping Kingston alive have preserved several of the historic structures, including the Victorio Hotel, Percha Bank, and assay office. Several are private residences.
The original brick construction dates back to the 1880’s, when the Lodge housed miners and cavalry. The massive stone walls and log-beamed ceilings used to expand the property in the 1930s were salvaged from the ruins of Pretty Sam’s Casino
Owned and operated by Las Cruces native Catherine Wanek and her partner Gary Harvell, the Black Range Lodge offers easy access to the natural beauty and outdoor recreation abundance in the Black Range. Nestled in the foothills of the Gila National Forest, the lodge is a Bed & Breakfast/retreat center. Wanek was a director and film producer in Hollywood during the 1980s. She stumbled across Kingston while on a location scouting trip, falling in love with the property and the community. She purchased the property with Gary, converting it into a lodge that provides a quiet sanctuary for visitors to the Black Range. Their charming, historic property has become a creative beacon, attracting creative professionals of all types. Music events and building classes dominate the summer months, with the lodge hosting musicians on their outdoor stage.
Wanek is also one of the cofounders of Builders Without Borders and considered an international authority on sustainable architecture. She has authored several books on sustainable architecture and she hosts straw-bale and natural building workshops at the Lodge. Check their website for upcoming availability.
Hillsboro, NM 88042
The Kingston Schoolhouse Museum, located at 8 Water Street, is open on the first and third Saturday of each month from 11AM-3PM, or by appointment (575-895-5501 or 575-895-5169). Contributions from local families provide the core of the collection. For example, the museum received a significant contribution by the Whitham family. They lived in Kingston from the late 1880’s to the mid 1890’s and were part owners of the Hillsboro-Kingston Toll Road. J. D. Whitham kept a personal diary, which has provided the museum with a treasure trove of information about day-to-day life in Kingston during the town’s peak.
The Kingston Opera House
The local Opera House may need like an anomaly in the rough and rugged mining towns of the Old West, but every respectable community had one. The Opera Houses were like community centers or local event venues, a gathering place for the community to host traveling shows, plays, and music.
The Percha Bank is the only fully intact, original building in Kingston, complete with an ornate lobby, tall teller windows, and an 1885 Diebold bank vault. The vault is set in a brick room housed within the bank’s 2-foot thick stone and brick walls. Even if a thief could break through the outside walls, they wouldn’t have been able to breach the vault. It seems like the design was solid, because no one ever broke in or robbed the bank, though $7 million dollars in silver passed through the building. After Kingston’s fortunes crashed, the building was used as a Post Office for several years. Later, it was used to store mining equipment. Currently, the Percha Bank building houses the Kingston Museum (currently closed).
Enchanted Villa Bed and Breakfast
Hillsboro, NM 88042
The current owner, Maree Westland, bought the property in 1989. She created the Enchanted Villa, a quiet retreat nestled in the peaceful, picturesque beauty of the Black Range. 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.
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. They manage the property based on strict conservation measures. For example, they eliminated cattle and domesticated livestock from the property, replacing them with bison.
10701 Highway 152
Hillsboro, NM 88042
The tasting room features a selection of local New Mexico wines. A few are produced and bottled locally. Sunday, 12PM-6PM, with later hours on Friday night.
From the east side of the Black Range, catch NM-152 from I-25. Exit is across from Caballo Lake, south of Truth or Consequences. The rolling stretch of road to Hillsboro and Kingston from I-25 is the southern stretch of the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway.
From the west side of the Black Range, catch NM-152 from US-180 at Santa Clara.