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LAKE VALLEY

Sierra Co., New Mexico

 

 

by

Gary B. Speck

 

 

Lake Valley, NEW MEXICO is one of my favorite ghost towns and is firmly rooted in my TOP TEN ghost towns to visit.  It should also be on any ghost towner’s “Bucket List” of ghost towns.  With that being said, what’s so special about this place?  For starters, it’s not near any urban areas, so vandalism has been minimal.  It was occupied until late in its history and after the last resident left in 1994, the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took control of the site.  To their credit, the BLM has actually done a great job in keeping it safe and preserved as it was in 1994.  The only building actually restored is the school, which serves as the visitor center/museum. Over the years, I and many others have often questioned the “preservation tactics” of the BLM, as they are generally more interested in preserving land - at the expense of any old buildings or other man-made structures.  However, in Lake Valley, they have actually done a credible job of preserving the remains of this century-old silver mining town, presenting the community’s history in a quiet, unassuming way.  In addition, some of the property is still privately owned, so there are some areas of the town where access will not be granted.  Please abide by any posted signs and follow the Ghost Towner's Code of Ethics when you visit.

 

Lake Valley sits on a curve of New Mexico State Highway (SH) 27 some 42 miles northeast of Deming, deep in the southwestern corner of New Mexico.  Like Bodie, CA and Mogollon, NM is a destination ghost town.  By that I mean that this is a town to go to, not pass through on the way to somewhere else.  Spend some time here, walk the quiet streets.  See if you can spot dead chairs rotting away on splintering porches that look ready to collapse at any time.  Find the green washing machine that is a color match to its cabin.  Look for photogenic ruins topped off by dead trees.  Look for crumbing rock and melting adobe walls.  Visit the schoolhouse/museum.  Talk to the site stewards.  Stop and savor the absolute quiet in the cemetery and feel what this town tells you. The town’s history lies close to the surface and this is a place where you can feel it. 

 

Start your tour of the town by stopping in the c1904 schoolhouse.  It is filled with relics and information on the town and is the largest building in Lake Valley.  After chatting with the friendly BLM volunteers on site, take a copy of the walking tour brochure and stroll through a time-warp and step back in time to relive the history of this fascinating little relic of America’s past. 

 

The story of this magnificent little ghost town begins in August 1878 with discovery of rich silver ore by George Lufkin.  As in the typical mining town, additional claims were staked, people heard about it and flocked to the site, followed by development of the mines.  A couple years later, in 1880, John Miller purchased the claims and put some serious money into development.  Then in February 1881, stock promoters heard about this place and sent George Daly to the mines.  He liked what he saw, and purchased all eight existing claims, and staked eight more.  Lake Valley was on its way. 

 

Then in August 1881, the aged Apache Chief Nana burned an outlying rancher’s cabin and scared that his family was also taken by the Apache band, the rancher rode into Lake Valley.  A group of 20 miners was quickly assembled to chase down and punish the Apaches.  The US Cavalry sent a group of soldiers, and all rode out in pursuit. During the battle, George Daly and five of the troopers were killed.  Just about the same time that Daly and the trooper’s bodies were brought back into town, a fabulously rich ore pocket was discovered inside one of the mines. This soon-to-be glory hole, assayed silver ore worth thousands of ounces per ton, for a total value over $15,000/ton!  It was called the Bridal Chamber because the crystalline silver ore glittering in the light of the miners’ candles. The promoters of this mine called it the “richest silver mine ever discovered.”  A huge chunk of almost pure silver worth $7000 was displayed at a mining exposition in Denver that same year.  This was in the days that silver sold for about $1.11 per ounce! 

 

During this period, the mining camp moved from its original site to a location near this rich mine.  Some sources claim this was the second relocation.  In any case, the rich ore pocket in the Bridal Chamber mine lasted about a year, and by 1883 the glory hole had been scraped clean of some $2.5 million in silver.  However, the Bridal Chamber wasn’t the only mine.  All the others were still producing, albeit at a much lower rate of return, but enough to keep the town alive and catch the attention of the railroad.  In 1884, the Santa Fe Railroad built a spur line north from the main line at Nutt, into Lake Valley and the town then boomed as a railhead and shipping center for outlying mining camps.


 

Over the next decade, Lake Valley continued to grow, and soon sported 1000 or so folks, along with all the amenities and businesses to keep them supplied.  Some of these included three churches, hotels, two newspapers, post office (open 1880-1881, 1882-1954), railroad depot, 12 saloons, school, smelters/mills and a stage station.  In 1893 a national silver panic killed the silver mining industry and Lake Valley was hurt badly.  Mines closed and the population dispersed to more profitable areas.  Two years later, in June 1895, a major fire wiped out most of the town.  It is said to have been started by a drunk behind one of the many saloons.  The nearly dead business district was never rebuilt.

 

By 1900, only 200 people lived in and around Lake Valley, and the remaining businesses were nearly abandoned.  Around 1900, a miner won the Lake Valley mines in a poker game and he worked them off and on until about 1920.   The population continued to fall, recording only 125 in 1910.  Even though the population faded, the town still remained an active shipping center for local ranches and for the few miners that still worked the mines.  However, in 1934 the railroad shut down, and the tracks were pulled in the early days of WWII.  This was pretty much the nail in the proverbial coffin.  A few folks hung in there until manganese was discovered in the early 1950s.  This created a little flurry of excitement, but the mines weren’t rich enough or had enough workers to sustain a town or warrant the continued operation of the post office, so it closed in 1954.  The manganese mines closed in 1956, a year that also saw the school close, leaving Lake Valley nearly a true ghost town.


 

A few folks remained, but the town itself was completely dead.  Then in 1994 the last permanent resident left, and Lake Valley was completely abandoned.  The BLM arrived about this time, and is currently in process of preserving the remains of this fascinating little mining town. What remains today is a wonderful handful of buildings that escaped the 1895 fire.  The structures range in condition from fully restored to rubble, but without help, the worst ones that remain standing will deteriorate to the point where they won’t even be restorable.  That includes the crumbling cabin of the last resident.  The schoolhouse/museum has been restored, and the small chapel was in process in 2003.  At the time of my 2010 visit, the exterior looked done, but I did not go inside, so don’t know if that restoration has been completed yet.

 

Other than the schoolhouse, the other iconic building in town is the privately-owned, rock-walled Conoco service station.  It is still in excellent shape and has a bright red and white, triangular Conoco sign, still hanging from a pole in front of the building. It sits where long-vacant Main Street intersects with Railroad Avenue and overlooks the town.  On an 1893 map this building is indicated as a school and in 1902 as a saloon.  It later served as a general store and finally the Continental Oil Company (Conoco) service station. 

 

From the cemetery, wonderful overviews of the town can be had, especially on days when dark clouds pile up above the hills to the north, lending their mysterious aura to the dead silence.  You can almost hear the graves speaking, sharing their mysteries - such as why did baby Jessee Stanley die at the age of 16 months? 

 

PLEASE NOTE:

When you visit, please be advised that the entire town site is a listed Archeological District where metal detecting and artifact collecting is specifically forbidden.  However, it is well worth a stop to see just what a classic ghost town looks like.  Touring Lake Valley will indisputably enrich your journey through Southwestern New Mexico’s other ghost towns.  It just doesn’t get much better than this!

 

Lake Valley is one of the New Mexico towns featured in my new book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.

 

THIS was our Ghost Town of the Month for August 2012.

 

LOCATION:

·        NW¼ Sec 28, T18S, R7W, New Mexico Prime Meridian

·        Latitude: 32.7178572 / 32° 43’ 04” N

·        Longitude: -107.5678056 / 107° 34’ 04” W

 

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FIRST POSTED:  August 07, 2012

LAST UPDATED: September 02, 2012

 

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