Pinos Altos is a small community tucked into the beauty of the Gila National Forest, about 8 miles north of Silver City. Though today’s population is around 300 people, Pinos Altos was Grant County’s first county seat. Like many community’s established during New Mexico’s mining boom in the late 1800s, the town’s fortunes waned when the copper market collapsed in 1907. Though it was briefly abandoned after the mines closed, the new folks who moved in and kept the town alive are invested in preserving the town’s character and history. As a result, it is easy to imagine Pinos Altos during its heyday, because Main Street looks like a western movie set. Many of the buildings date back to the town’s mining boom; like the museum, the opera house, and the local saloon, all of which have been restored and loaded with local memorabilia and artifacts.
Located at an elevation of 7,040 feet, the village started as a mining camp, established after a trio of prospectors stopped for water at Bear Creek in 1860. One of them, Robert H. “Three-Fingered” Birch, found gold in the stream. Birch was an interesting fellow. He was arrested in his youth for his involvement in the murder of Colonel George Davenport in Illinois. Though he agreed to testify against his associates, he escaped from jail prior to the trial and fled west. He never went to trial.
Regardless of his sordid past, it seems like Birch left his life of crime behind after heading west. He was a prospector and the postmaster of Gila City, Arizona before finding gold in the Gila. However, it is unclear if he or his associates benefited from their discovery. If there was any agreement to keep the location secret, it didn’t last beyond a few beers at the local pub, because word got out fast. Over 700 miners descended on the area within months, establishing over 30 mines. Despite staking a claim, Birch didn’t linger in the area for long. He died in Arizona in 1866 after joining the Confederate troops for the Civil War. He was 39 years old.
Initially Birch was memorialized at the site of his discovery. The miners named the budding settlement Birchville in his honor. However, the community, deep in Apache territory, was plagued by raiding parties. In fact, it was briefly abandoned during the Civil War, because there weren’t enough able-bodied men available to withstand the Apache raids. The name changed when the community was repopulated after the civil war, reverting to a name used by the Mexican miners; Pinos Altos, Spanish for tall pines. They named the village based on the prevalence of ponderosa pine forests in the area, which they cleared to expand the settlement as it grew to a peak population of about 9,000 residents during the 1880s and 1890s.
The Pacific Mine was the largest of the early producers, established by Captain Thomas Mastin after discovering gold-bearing quartz. He sold the mine to his brother, Virgil, but he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the profit either. He and three other miners were killed by Apache warriors led by Mangas Coloradas. Captain Mastin’s brother met a similar fate seven years later.
Though mining has always been a hazardous occupation, altercations with Apache were a primary cause of death around Pinos Altos. The Apache were fierce warriors and strategic. They developed effective guerrilla tactics. For example, Mangas Coloradas lured about forty miners to their death by having Apache women stage a strip tease on a hill. The men walked into an ambush as they approached the women to get a better look.
Conflict with the Apache was brutal and inevitable. Mining claims were staked and land changed hands without consulting the current inhabitants of the area. Birchville was one of many mining communities established in the Gila and the Black Range in the 1860s, all of which encroached on the waterways that supported edible foliage and wildlife. Furthermore, stripping resources from the earth was in direct conflict with the Apache “Leave No Trace” tradition, totally alien to their relationship with the land.
Additionally, on a more personal note, the Chiricahua were led by Mangas Coloradas (aka Red Sleeves), a legend among the Apache. At over 7-feet tall, he was an imposing man, towering over most men. In Birchville’s early days, town leaders invited Mangas to a neighborly “meet and greet.” When he accepted the invitation, they “welcomed” him by tying him to a tree and whipping him. Then, on December 2, 1960, 30 miners ambushed an Apache camp on the Mimbres River, killing several people. Vengeance is a matter of honor for the Apache. They recognized the newcomers as a threat to their land, their people, and their way of life.
Battle of Pinos Altos
During the Civil War, Birchville’s population declined significantly. Many of the able-bodied men joined Confederate troops in Texas or Arizona. Though Birchville was considered “occupied” from early 1861 until the defeat of Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in the spring of 1862, the area was aligned with the Confederacy in terms of both sympathy and support. However, the recruitment of young men left communities like Pinos Altos short-handed when it came to defense. Knowing their community was more vulnerable, they formed a local militia.
On September 27, 400 Chiricahua Apache warriors attacked Birchville, led by Mangas Coloradas and his son-in-law, Cochise. They killed several miners during the initial assault and set buildings on fire. The militia, consisting of about 30 men, were out on patrol at the time. However, the militia returned quickly, establishing a defensive position near the center of town. They exchanged fire with the Chiricahua for about two hours before the Apaches launched a full-scale assault.
The situation was bleak for the miners until a quick-witted captain of the militia noticed an old cannon in front of a local store. He ordered his men to move it into a defensive position. In the absence of cannon balls, they loaded it with rusty nails and buckshot, creating an impromptu IED. When the Apache charged, they launched the lethal payload with deadly accuracy, killing multiple warriors instantly, seriously injuring dozens more. Mangas Coloradas and Cochise withdrew, choosing to resume the fight another day, which they did. The volleys of violence and vengeance between the Apache and settlers continued for more than a decade, with forts established to provide military support for settlements. Fort Bayard, established in 1866, was the primary source of support for the mining communities in the Gila and Black Range.
Mining resumed after the war and the boom continued. A post office opened in 1866, as well as a general store, a saloon, and a dueling ground. Apache raids were an ongoing part of life until the death of Cochise in 1874. However, the presence of soldiers from Fort Bayard reduced the frequency and intensity of attacks. Homesteaders and ranchers moved into the area. Within a decade, windmills, stock tanks, and corrals became as common as mining equipment.
Though the collapse of the copper market in 1907 hurt Pinos Altos, it wasn’t a death blow. The entire area is a nest of super volcanoes, rich in a variety of ores: gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc. The lead and zinc production began in 1904, as the gold, silver, and copper extraction subsided. Mining remained the main industry in the region well into the 1920s, with The Pinos Altos Mine operating until 1995. In total, over 10 million dollars worth of ore was extracted from the mountains around Pinos Altos between 1860-2000. That is based on prices then, not the value of that ore at today’s prices. That would be an astronomical amount.
Roy Bean ran a store in Pinos Altos with his brother, Sam, in 1860, but he relocated to Texas after the Apache attack in 1861. He moved to Texas, familiar in western lore as Judge Roy Bean, “The Law West of the Pecos.”
Senator George Hearst, father of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, invested in several mines around Pinos Altos in the 1880s, including the Mina Grande and the Pacific Mine. In fact, the gold used in decorating California’s Hearst castle is from the Hearst mines around Pinos Altos.
The mines were so profitable, Hearst built a stamp mill in Pinos Altos in 1889, investing in railroad spurs on the Silver City, Pinos Altos and Mogollon Railroad to connect the ore pouring out of those communities to his Silver City smelter. Comanche Mining and Smelting Company completed the 2-foot narrow gauge railroad in 1906, but the railroad closed the following year when the copper market collapsed.
The village’s historic buildings accommodate a restaurant & bar, museum, gift shop, vacation cabins, church, and a replica of the former fort. The first courthouse and hanging tree in the county is located on Main Street. Though it is a private residence, it is readily visible from the street. The headstones for the men who died in the Battle of Pinos Altos can be seen in the cemetery at the Saint Alexis Catholic church.
The Pinos Altos Museum once served as the first schoolhouse in Grant County. The museum has been in the same family for more than 130 years. They have three rooms packed with mining artifacts and random historical oddities. Open from 10 AM-6 PM daily. Fee: $1. (505) 388-1882.
Fort Cobre is a replica of the Santa Rita Del Cobre Fort. It provides a glimpse into life at a frontier fort in the late 1800s. They allow visitors to roam freely through their impressive collection of antique furniture, farm tools, and mining equipment.
They also have a replica of a miner’s house, filled with household objects donated by the Hightower family. The primitive log cabin was dug out of a hillside. Additionally, they have a simulated mine shaft opening, a wooden sluice, and an ore crusher powered by mules to provide visitors with a visceral understanding of life in a western boom town.
The fort is open Monday-Saturday from 10 AM-5 PM, spring through fall. Closed on Sundays.
Since it first opened in the 1860’s, the Buckhorn Saloon has been a reliable gathering place for congenial camaraderie, good food, and music. In fact, at over 150 years old, it is New Mexico’s oldest surviving western saloon. Though the owners have changed over the years (obviously), this historic watering hole is still serving locals and guests from all over the world. The bar is cool, but it is also a good place to stop for dinner if you have time. Check in at the Buckhorn if you want to check out the inside of the Opera House.
The Pinos Altos Opera House is a treasure, a small, reconstructed 19th century, western opera house. They have displays of prehistoric Indian artifacts, including Mimbres pottery, pictures of famous Apache Indian chiefs, ancient tools, and wood relics. Additionally, the McDonald log cabin, right behind the Opera House, is considered one of the oldest buildings in the county.
On Friday and Saturday evenings the Pinos Altos Melodrama Company presents a play at 8 PM in the Opera House. Check in with the Buckhorn Saloon after 3 PM to get into the Opera House or call (505) 388-3848 for reservations.
The “Hearst” Methodist Church is on Gold Avenue, right up the hill from downtown. Dedicated on May 18, 1898, funding for the church was provided by the widowed mother of newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. The church served both Methodist and Episcopalian parishioners.
Hearst church is home to the Grant County Art Guild. The property is transformed into an art gallery during the summer months, featuring arts and crafts created by approximately 50 local artists. Open on Saturdays and Sundays.
Additionally, the property houses a small museum, with unique artifacts, like a one-horse sleigh and the antique glass-sided hearse that carried legendary lawman and gunfighter Pat Garrett to his grave.
The Norton Store is home to the Pinos Altos Ice Cream Parlor. They serve lunch, caffeinated beverages, and a variety of tasty treats. Open Monday-Saturday from 10 AM-6 PM. Closed on Sundays. (505) 534-1997.
Bear Creek is not a historic property per se, but it is one of the nicer places to stay in the Gila. Located in Pinos Altos, they have fifteen 2-story cabins available and they are pet friendly.
88 Main Street
Pinos Altos, NM 88053