Prior to the 1800s there were no permanent settlements between El Paso and Socorro for a very good reason…Apache. They moved with the harvest and the herds, roaming an immense area encompassing southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico. During good years, when game was plentiful, they were trading partners with the pueblos and neighboring tribes. During periods of drought, when famine was the alternative, they were fierce adversaries, raiding and ransacking villages. Regardless of seasonal fluctuations, it was always a bad idea to try to establish a permanent settlement on Apache land. The Spanish knew that, but the Americans didn’t get the memo.
New Mexico Becomes an American Territory
After the Mexican American War culminated in 1848, the United States invested considerable resources into establishing a strategic array of forts to protect their supply lines coming in from the east and to protect the steady stream of settlers, prospectors and speculators moving into the territory. What started as a trickle of people in the early 1800s accelerated after the Civil War, becoming a deluge in the late 1860s as young men and families looked west for opportunity and a brighter future. Many former slaves and veterans of the war served at forts throughout the territory.
The year after the Mexican American War ended a series of armed conflicts known as the Apache Wars began. The Americans discovered the gold and silver treasures that had eluded the early Spanish conquistadors; in arroyos, creeks and innocuous looking hills, with many of the richest deposits found deep in Apache country.
By the late 1870s prospectors were hastily constructing mining camps throughout the Black Range. Tent camps quickly became towns, like Hillsboro, Kingston, and Chloride. Winter rumors about new strikes led eager prospectors into the hills every spring. When word got out about a new find a mining camp would spring up overnight. If the strike continued to be productive a town would emerge within months. The boom and bust cycle varied. The fate of each community fluctuated with the ore deposits, with the most profitable communities linked by railroad. For Lake Valley, south of Hillsboro, the heyday was brief and intense.
Lake Valley’s brief story began in 1876 when George W. Lufkin and a friend of his, Chris Watson, were getting drinks at a saloon in Hillsboro. One of their drinking companions told them that he found a piece of pure, malleable silver chloride while lost south of town. He had been searching the area ever since, trying to figure out where it came from. His story piqued Lufkin and Watson’s curiosity. Both men were in their 50s and, like many men roaming the small mining towns in the Black Range at the time, they dreamed of finding the motherlode.
After questioning their drinking companion about landmarks, they headed south to look for the silver. They searched unsuccessfully for several weeks. With their grub stake depleted, the two men were running out of money and time when they stumbled upon outcroppings lined with rich veins of silver ore. They rushed back to Hillsboro to raise the money necessary to stake a claim.
Staking a Claim
Within a few months they hauled out a half ton of ore. They took it to a saloon in Silver City to cash in. A man by the name of John Miller offered them $1.50 per pound or $1500 for the whole load on the spot, but when Miller took it to the local assay office, he discovered that the ore was so pure that it was valued at $12 per pound. He promptly sought out Lufkin and Watson and offered to finance their operation as a partner. They agreed, with all three men returning to mine the stake full time.
A rancher named Lou McEvers, with land near the Lufkin/Watson claim, discovered silver on his land as well. John Miller purchased the property in 1880, but quickly discovered that he wasn’t cut out to be a miner. Ultimately, he decided to sell a portion of the claim to a group of investors. Collectively, they extracted tons of silver within a few years; however, once money was rolling in steadily, the appeal of digging daily in the heat of the high desert waned. Mining is hard work.
Gold and silver strikes were the fodder of the daily gossip mill in the Black Range. News of strikes traveled from one town to the next, and out of the region, to the ears of eastern investors eager to capitalize on the wealth being extracted in the west. This provided outstanding opportunities for unscrupulous speculators to take advantage of naïve investors with a variety of investment scams. Sierra Grande, an umbrella organization encompassing five mining companies, was one of those scams.
Lufkin’s Fortunes Change
A man named George Daly heard about the silver outcroppings and decided to check them out for himself. He was so impressed with the site that he bought all eight mining claims on the outcrop in February of 1881. Miller received $100,000. Lufkin, Watson and nine other men who had invested, received $25,000 each. That was a small fortune in those days. Between what they had made over the prior few years, it should have been enough to tide each of them over for the rest of their lives, but Lufkin’s fortunes changed dramatically.
After he sold his share of the claim, he built a house in the mining camp, naming the community Daly after George Daly. However, the camp moved with the miners, relocating twice before settling on the current location and name in 1882. Lufkin moved with the camp, settling in Lake Valley once it was established, but in a wild western mining town there were many ways for a man and his money to be parted. I couldn’t find information on what happened between 1881 and his death, but his nest egg didn’t last and he never left the area. He died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Lake Valley cemetery.
Sierra Grande Silver Mining Company
By April, 1881, George Daly had partnered with J. Whitaker Wright, an investor from back east. The two bought eight more claims in the area before heading to New York, where they partnered with a man named George D. Roberts. The three divided the claims between five mining companies; Sierra Apache Co., Sierra Bella Co., Sierra Grande Co., Sierra Madre Co., and the Sierra Plata Co., all operating under the umbrella of Sierra Grande Silver Mining Company, which was based in Lake Valley. They sold famed American paleontologist, Edward D. Cope on the project, convincing him to invest a sizable portion of his fortune and installing him as President of the Sierra Apache Mining Company, as well as making him an officer in the other companies. They aggressively promoted stock in the mines to investors back east, including poet Walt Whitman, who purchased 200 shares.
In June of 1881, Daly returned to Lake Valley to launch mining operations. He leased some of the claims out and hired men to start digging shafts in others; however, his tenure in Lake Valley was brief. He died in an Apache ambush later that summer.
Warm Springs Apache
As miners encroached on Apache land and conflict became common, the Apache were sent to live on reservations, often far from their homelands. The Warm Springs Apache, also known as the Chihenne, roamed the region around Lake Valley. The U.S. Army rounded them up and sent them to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. They repeatedly fled the reservation, returning to their homeland, taking refuge in the familiar hills and canyons. The U.S. Army convinced them to return to the reservation twice, but each time they fled again.
The Apache were nomadic hunters. Being forced to stay in one place was abhorrent to them. The U.S. Army wouldn’t allow them to hunt, because armed Apaches scared the settlers. They weren’t allowed to defend themselves. Anglos hunted them for sport, selling their scalps to the Mexican government, who paid $50 for a male, $25 for a female, and $10 for a child’s scalp. The government refused to give them their promised food allotment, prompting Colonel Hatch of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry to file a complaint with General Sheridan that the Apaches in his care would starve if they weren’t allowed to leave the reservation to hunt. General Sheridan didn’t care. Chief Victorio, one of the fiercest of the Apache leaders, fled for the third and final time, leading his people back to the mountains.
In 1879 and 1880, Victorio and his band ambushed settlers and soldiers, dipping across the Mexican border when the U.S. Army got too close. They were pursued by the Mexican Army too after killing 26 people in a small Mexican village. On October 14, 1880, Colonel Terrazas and the Mexican troops found Victorio’s camp, ambushing in the early morning. They killed Victorio, sixty warriors, and eighteen women and children and took sixty-eight women and children prisoner.
Nana was a warrior and an elder chief of the Warm Springs Apache. He married Geronimo’s sister and fought alongside Mangas Coloradas until Mangas was killed in 1863. Immediately following Victorio’s death, Nana led his people into the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico to regroup. Determined to avenge the death of Victorio’s band, Nana returned to the United States, launching “Nana’s Raid.”
Though in his eighties at the time, Nana was still formidable. He led raids on ranches and mining camps. On August 17, 1881, a rancher in the Lake Valley area came home to find his wife and children gone and his cabin burned to the ground. The rancher rode to Lake Valley looking for help. A group of miners and ranchers formed a civilian posse, determined to pursue Nana despite the fact that the rancher’s wife and children were found safe, . George Daly was part of the posse. The commander of the local Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, Lieutenant George Washington Smith, tried to talk Daly and the others out of pursuing the Apaches. When they refused, Lieutenant Smith and 15 – 20 of his men reluctantly accompanied them.
The posse tracked the Apache into a canyon about ten miles west of Lake Valley. Nana and his warriors were waiting, ambushing the group. They killed George Daly and Lieutenant Smith immediately. A six-hour battle ensued, with four more soldiers killed and several men wounded. When Nana and his band retreated, the posse gathered their dead and wounded and returned to Lake Valley. Several of the wounded men died within days.
Bridal Chamber Mine
On the same day the posse returned to camp, a blacksmith named John Leavitt, who had leased a claim from Sierra Grande, discovered the mine that would briefly put Lake Valley on the map. Leavitt’s lease was on one of Lufkin and Watson’s original plots. He spent two days digging in a 30-foot shaft that Lufkin and Watson had started. Within ten feet of digging, just forty feet beneath the surface, Leavitt hit a subterranean cavern of solid silver chloride. In my overactive imagination, this discovery would have been worthy of Indiana Jones.
The cavern, dubbed “The Bridal Chamber,” was 26 feet wide and 12 feet high. The spectacular deposit, composed of silver chlorides and silver bromides, was nearly two hundred feet long and 25 feet thick. Flames melted silver off the ceiling. The silver lining the walls of the cavern was so pure that the miners shipped it directly to the mint. No smelting required. No one has found a single concentration of pure silver like it since. Oddly, Leavitt didn’t hold on to the claim, selling the lease back to Sierra Grande for a few thousand dollars.
Assayers valued the ore from the Bridal Chamber at $15,000 or more per ton. Stock promoters publicized the Bridal Chamber as the richest silver mine ever discovered and sold five million dollars of stock in the suite of Lake Valley mining companies. Miners extracted over a million dollars in ore from the Bridal Chamber within the first few months. They cut the dusky gray, pliable horn silver into large blocks and loaded into rail cars parked outside the cave. The Sierra Grande Mining Company was paying out $100,000 a month in dividends.
The mining camp became a bustling town within a year of the Bridal Chamber being discovered. The community sits at the base of Monument Peak (aka Lizard Mountain), a prominent knob of rock that is useful as a landmark, but absent water sources, isn’t an inviting place to linger. Townspeople brought in water for the town from a well located about a mile away. They constructed a pump and pipeline to draw water from an ancient lake bed that dried up long before the miners arrived, but retained water beneath the surface.
Between 1881 – 1883, the Bridal Chamber produced 2.5 million ounces of silver worth $2,775,000. One large block, valued at $7,000 when silver sold for $1.11/ounce, was featured at the 1882 Denver Exposition.
The town grew rapidly, with stamp mills, smelting works, and other mining operations established, as well as three churches, a school, two newspapers, a variety of retail businesses, several hotels, twelve saloons, and the obligatory brothels. There were about 1000 residents at Lake Valley’s peak in 1883. A rail head completed in 1884 and a stage stop linked the community to other mining towns in the region. The post office opened in 1882, closing in 1954 when the manganese mines ceased operation.
Though the town was flourishing by 1882, the Sierra Grande Mining Company was experiencing problems. One of the partners, George D. Roberts, developed a reputation for fraudulent stock promotions, which negatively impacted the sale of Lake Valley stock. He sold his share of the company to J. Whitaker Wright. He picked a good time to leave. The Bridal Chamber was tapped out and Sierra Grande’s profits were plummeting by 1883.
Sierra Grande Goes Bust
By August of 1882 the Sierra Grande Company discontinued management of mining operations in the Lake Valley area. All of the investors lost money. The paleontologist Edward Cope, who had taken the helm as President, lost most of his fortune. He sold most of his fossil collection, which became a permanent part of the American Museum of Natural History. J. Whitaker Wright continued to run fraudulent stock schemes until he made headlines by swallowing cyanide in a London courtroom in 1902 to avoid going to prison for fraud.
The investors sold Sierra Grande Mining Company and the mines were reopened under new management. The Santa Fe Railroad built a spur line to Lake Valley in 1884. Whereas the Bridal Chamber was the richest deposit of silver found, there were numerous mines in the area. The ore from the Bridal Chamber represents less than half of the silver extracted between 1881 and 1893.
Though Lake Valley’s boom was brief, it was wild. Apache raids, cattle rustling and stage robberies were common hazards. A western surveyor, who worked in the area, described Lake Valley as “the toughest town I’ve ever seen. I’m satisfied a man died with his boots on every night.” The description seems accurate considering they hired Marshal Jim McIntire in 1882 at the exorbitant rate of $300/month. He brought in legendary lawman/gunfighter Timothy “Long Hair” Jim Courtright as back up. Courtright killed two ore thieves in a gunfight outside of town and killed three men in town for unknown reasons before returning to Texas the following year. By February of 1883, cattle theft was decimating the ranchers. The territorial Governor dispatched the 1st Regiment of the Territorial Militia in Las Cruces, led by Major Albert Fountain, to Lake Valley to round up the rustlers.
Boom Town to Ghost Town
By the middle of the 1880s Lake Valley’s boom was over and the population was declining. The region had produced more than five million dollars in silver over the years, but none of the mines were particularly profitable due to the high equipment cost and labor expenses. Mining operations continued sporadically until 1893 when the gold standard was implemented. The demonetization of silver sparked widespread financial panic. The market crash rippled through the Black Range, devastating the economies of mining communities, forcing miners and their families to move on or to find other livlihoods.
Lake Valley was already in decline by the time the silver market crashed. Based on the Territorial Census, the population dwindled to 183 people by 1885, two years after the Bridal Chamber closed. The smelters closed in 1889 as the ore quality decreased. A fire, deliberately set in the back of a saloon, destroyed most of the commercial district in 1895. The town didn’t rebuild. The railroad depot and stagecoach line kept the town going. The stage coach line, which ran from Lake Valley to Hillsboro and Kingston, was an important economic and cultural lifeline. Passengers, mail, and freight were transported by stagecoach to towns with no rail service. The railroad remained active until 1934. The old rail bed is visible on the east side of town.
The Last Tenacious Residents
By 1900, Lake Valley was primarily a supply center for local ranchers and the few miners that remained. That same year, a man named Lucius Fisher won the vast majority of the mining property in a poker game in Denver, Colorado. He tried to relaunch a large scale mining operation, but gave it up within a few years. The railroad abandoned rail service when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, which isolated the community. There was a brief resurgence in mining during World War II, with several mines reopened to produce manganese; however, it was a short-lived revival. The manganese mines closed and the town was abandoned again. By the 1950s the town was occupied by about 20 people, including Blanche Nowlin and Pedro and Savina Martinez.
Blanche Nowlin arrived in Lake Valley in 1908 with her father, Oliver Wilson. He’d built the Victorio Hotel in Kingston, refusing to sell it when the markets crashed in 1893. The bank eventually foreclosed on the property. Blanche was 19 at the time and had no intention of staying in the dying town, but she never left. She stayed until she passed away on March 31, 1983. Prior to her passing, an interviewer asked Blanche why she had stayed. She replied, “this is where all my memories are. There are seven graves over there on that hillside that I can’t leave.” She didn’t. She joined them.
Pedro and Savina Martinez
Blanche’s neighbors were Pedro and Savina Martinez. They lived next door to Blanche in the old Bella Hotel. Pedro arrived with his parents in Lake Valley in 1904, when he was two years old. He lived in Lake Valley for 90 years before moving to Deming in 1994. Lake Valley was completely abandoned after Pedro and Savina left. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over the town site and assigned a caretaker to keep an eye on the property.
Visiting Lake Valley
Today Lake Valley is an archaeological dig site. The site is open Thursday – Monday from 9 am – 4 pm. Self-guided tours are available starting at the old schoolhouse. The caretaker lives behind the school. If you want to see the inside of the school, which includes a museum, ring the buzzer and he will let you in. Visitors are not allowed in other buildings. The Lake Valley Cemetery open to the public. It is across the road from the town site.
Lake Valley is located on the Lake Valley Scenic Byway, which includes Hillsboro and Kingston. Approaching from the west, take NM 152 at Caballo Lake, then south from Hillsboro on NM 27 for approximately 15 miles. You can also take NM 26 to Nutt, then NM 27 north for about 12 miles.
Bureau of Land Management
Las Cruces District Office
1800 Marquess Street
Las Cruces, New Mexico 88005