Founded in 1876, Mogollon was named after Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, a governor of the Spanish province of New Mexico in the 1700’s. The Spanish pronunciation is moh-goh-YOHN. The locals pronounce it muggy-YOHN.
Once a bustling, raucous mining town, Mogollon is one of the best ‘ghost towns’ in the state of New Mexico. Many of the old buildings have survived to be enjoyed by curious folks like myself, because the 15 or so residents serve as caretakers.
Off the Beaten Path
The community is nestled in narrow Silver Creek canyon, deep in the Mogollon Mountains, about 12 miles off of the main road. The road leading to Mogollon continues deep into the Gila back country, though the road quality rapidly deteriorates beyond the town. Hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking is a more effective (and safe) means of exploring the Gila beyond Mogollon. High clearance 4 wheel drive or alternate transportation is recommended.
With almost 100 historic buildings, it is a ghost town lover’s dream. The town was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. The numerous buildings are primarily used as residences and summer homes. Most of the remaining businesses are only open on weekends during the summer.
There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills
In the 1870s, Sergeant James C. Cooney of Fort Bayard found gold in the Gila Mountains near the future site of Mogollon. He kept the discovery to himself until he got out of the military in 1876. He promptly staked a claim and headed into the Gila with his partner Harry McAllister. Their claim was deep within Apache territory. The two men were chased out of the area within months. However, the lure of riches overcame fear of attack. They returned two years later to work the claim.
Their eagerness to venture deep into Apache territory did not go unheeded, because the citizens of Silver City weren’t naive. Rumors of profitable mines spread quickly through the hills of the Black Range in the late 1800s. Other curious prospectors followed the men and several of them found productive gold and silver veins in the same general area. However, the influx of miners provoked the wrath of the Apaches.
In April, 1880, Chiricahua Apaches, led by Chief Victorio, raided the growing mining camp. Three prospectors, including Cooney, were killed. The attack, referred to as the “Alma Massacre,” also claimed the lives of 35 sheepherders in the area. Though the Apache raids continued for years, it didn’t deter the influx of miners. The west was an irresistible beacon to men looking for opportunity and riches.
Tent City to Boom Town
The community of Mogollon coalesced in the 1880s. Tent cities gave way to permanent structures. The gold and silver mines along the creek, and in the surrounding mountains, were churning out ore. A miner named John Eberle built the first cabin in 1889. A jail and post office soon followed…in that order. Priorities. The first school was added in 1892.
In addition to the prospectors, several large mining operations were established near Mogollon. The mine known as “Little Fannie” became the most important revenue stream for the town’s population, which vascillated between 3000 – 6000 miners during the 1890s.
The transience was based on toxicity. The mines were dusty and treacherous. Most miners lasted three years or less due to developing Miner’s consumption, aka Black Lung. Though the Little Fannie was, by far, the most profitable mine, it was also the worst culprit in terms of dust. In response the owners developed a method of reducing dust by having the miners spray water from the jackhammers as they broke up the quartz.
Due to the isolation and the rugged terrain surrounding the community, Mogollon had a reputation as one of the wildest mining towns in the West. There was little in the way of law enforcement. Gamblers, miners and robbers considered the community safe haven. There were five saloons, two restaurants, four merchandise stores, two hotels and numerous brothels (located in two infamous red light districts). The town had a photographer, the Midway Theatre, an ice maker, and a bakery. The stage provided daily service between Mogollon and Silver City, hauling passengers, commodities, as well as gold and silver bullion between the two.
The 80 mile journey took 15 hours and was often a harrowing ride. Between 1872 and 1873 the stagecoach was robbed 23 times by the same guy. They did eventually apprehend the fellow. That probably didn’t end well. Frontier justice.
Fire & Flood
In addition to the hazards associated with Black Lung, Apache raids and and an abundance of bandits, Mother Nature was also unrelenting. Fires and floods have plagued the town has over the years. The first big fire was in 1894. The fire destroyed most of the town’s buildings, because they were built with wood. Additional fires occurred in 1904, 1910, 1915, and 1942. Citizens usually rebuilt immediately, incorporating more stone and adobe each time. Silver Creek flooded in 1894, 1896, 1899, 1914 and 2013. The early floods washed away mine tailings, dumps, bridges, houses, and people. The flood in 2013 made national news. Several tourists were stranded. The town has made repairs since 2013. They implemented flood control and water diversion.
A Community in Decline
Like many mining towns in the region, Mogollon’s economy collapsed with the 1893 market crash. By 1909 the population dwindled to 2,000 people, with only the most productive mines remaining. When precious metal values declined after World War I, the mines were no longer profitable. Ore prices recovered in 1937, provoking a brief revival; however, the price of precious metals plunged again during World War II.
Most of the mines closed during the 1940s. By 1952 the Little Fannie was the only mine remaining. It closed that year, forcing most of the remaining population to move elsewhere.
Silver City had the name and the reputation, Mogollon was the source. Approximately 1.5 million dollars of gold and silver was mined in 1913, which represents 40% of New Mexico’s precious metals production for that year. Overall, 18 million ounces of silver was extracted, 25% of New Mexico’s total production. Of the 20 million dollars of gold and silver mined, silver was 2/3 of the total.
Mogollon is about 225 miles from Albuquerque, El Paso and Tucson. From State Road 180, take Route 159, aka Bursum Road about 12 miles east.
Anyone with an appreciation for ghost towns in New Mexico, mining history, or the legacy of the American West, will enjoy strolling Mogollon’s main street. It is like stepping back in time.