Lincoln County, NM
THE GOOD FOLKS IN WHITE OAKS, New Mexico are working to keep the ghosts at bay in this is a wonderful old Class D gold mining town. It is tucked into a wide, dry valley between the Jicarilla Mountains (north) and Capitan Mountain (south) on State Highway (SH) 349, in the heart of New Mexico, about nine miles northeast of the junction of SH 348/US 54, at a point about 3.3 miles north of Carrizozo. The few folks that still live in this quiet remainder of a once-boisterous mining town are friendly and proud of their community.
The original gold discoveries were made in 1879. A year later, a couple thousand folks lived in this full-on boom town with its long main street lined with businesses mostly housed in tents and wood shanties. As the gold flowed, prosperity, a bright future and industrious citizens culminated in a line of rock, adobe and brick buildings lining the long main street. Through the 1880s and into the early 1890s White Oaks was the reportedly the “liveliest town in the territory.” It is said that a local, Lincoln County thug nicknamed Billy the Kid, visited some of the more nefarious businesses here before he was dispatched into fame by a shot in the dark by Sheriff Pat Garrett up at Fort Sumner in 1881.
The call of gold was strong, and a railroad began to push north to tap the wealth. The landowners in White Oaks saw that train a-coming and offered to sell rights-of-way into town across their properties – at wildly inflated prices. The landowners didn’t want to lose out on the ready-made cash, so they didn’t dicker when the railroad first said “No.” When they refused to negotiate, the railroad said “OK, fine.” Instead they established a station about a dozen miles to the south at what became known as Carrizozo.
Unfortunately for White Oaks, this was the ultimate slap in the face. As it was already on the downslide, the rebuffing of the railroad hastened its demise. Yet, during its 15-20 year run, some $5 million in gold and silver came from the mines at White Oaks. The post office was established in 1880 and hung in there until 1954. Since the mining days ended, the town has never completely died. Like many of the western mining towns of its ilk, there has been a minor resurgence with the arrival of artists-in-residence, as well as other folks seeking a quiet existence in an old back country mining town. Today’s White Oaks is a nice, quiet, orderly little town. If you seek lots of ruins and abandoned buildings lining a ghost town main street, you’ll be disappointed. If you seek history and a visit to where it once lived, you will be thrilled. The handful of historic buildings that do remain here make the easy drive here from Carrizozo well worth it.
Just beyond the entry sign, a half-dozen major identifiable buildings call out for attention.
The first, largest and most famous, is a large two-story store building sitting on the north side of the main street. At the time of my visit on July 4, 2010 it was undergoing renovation. What once looked ready to collapse now looks sturdy and solid. In the past, at least dating to the 1980s, most photos of this building show it without its front façade. That has been replaced. Please note that despite several ghost town books identifying it as the Hewett Building/Exchange Bank Building, this piece-d’ resistance is NOT that building, but Brown’s Store Building. The Hewett was demolished many years ago. By looking at period photos and comparing the Brown Building to the Hewett makes it easy to see the difference between the two. Not only is the HEWETT name visible on the upper parapet of the ANGLED corner, four other major differences are seen:
· The parapet design differs.
· There is a lack of windows on the east side and there is no evidence of infill on the Brown Building.
· On the Brown Building, cut-off second floor floor-joist and roof rafter tails indicate that a two-story building was once attached to the east side, while…
· The angled southeast corner entrance on the Hewett Building indicates it was located on a corner.
As a result of these differences, I depart from some of the New Mexico ghost town experts like the Shermans (page 225 - Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of New Mexico) and Philip Varney (pages 72-73 – New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns) as they also call the Brown Building the Hewett Building/Exchange Bank in their books.
Walking the streets of this quiet town, it’s easy to hear the footsteps of the past lurking in the shadows, see where industrious hands built lasting monuments to unrequited love, and smell the desert perfume that has supplanted the odors of civilization. Run inquisitive hands along rough bricks, rusted swing set frame and a dusty, rusty, handlebarless tricycle that once were the focus of young children at play. Peek through the dusty windows where those same children learned readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmatic and see where today’s White Oaks Historical Association holds its meetings in antique wooden chairs lined up along the red and white checkerboard tablecloth-clad tables. Around the perimeter of town and hidden deep in the desert greenery are the gold mines that once pumped life into the town, and later, due in large part to the greed and avarice of the land owners, contributed to its death and decay. In White Oaks, the past is the present and chunks of it still live large.
On the south side of the main street is a pair of large homes: one is a more recent log house, the other is an ancient adobe, log and wood two-story with a rusty metal roof known as the Taylor House. Taylor was White Oaks’ blacksmith, and his smithy was next door. The log portion of the house is the original part. Both homes are lived in.
Just up the main street from the Brown Building - now labeled on the windows in black and gold as The Bowen House - is a squat brick building up front, with its ubiquitous satellite dish on top and a non-matching blond brick/adobe rear addition with fake false-front and boarded up windows tucked between a tree and a buzzing white ice machine. The front of the building is decorated with a pair of hitching posts, a cow skull and deer antlers, as well as a pair of hand=painted wooden signs – “No Scum Allowed” and “Saloon”. The sign on the door announced it was open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as well as all major holidays from “High Noon til ???.” Since I was there about three hours short of High Noon, I didn’t get a chance to check out the interior and sample “the coldest beer in town.” On the saloon’s Facebook page there is a note stating that it was named by American Cowboy Magazine as “ One of the best cowboy bars in the West.” According to the owner, it was the only one in New Mexico that was listed. This famous bar building once started life innocuously as the Watson-Lund Law Office and later housed the local newspaper.
Uphill to the north, the large cut rock-trimmed brick schoolhouse stands guard over the town, its shiny metal hip roof and bell-laden cupola looking ready to accept a large load of kidlets running up the flight of steps for the next school term. White framed windows shed a flood of sunlight into the interior and the grounds serve as a museum. Unfortunately, due to the timing of my visit, it also was closed. BUT I enjoyed the quiet solitude. Built in 1894 or 1895 for $10,000, the school houses four classrooms: two upstairs and two down. It closed in 1947.
Continuing up the hill from the school is a large white clapboard mansion known as the Gumm House. By the 1980s it was empty and in poor condition. It has since been restored, and at the time of my visit on July 4, 2010, the current owners were in process of repainting it. Across the townsite on the opposite slope is a brick mansion known as Hoyle’s Folly. It was built by bachelor Watson Hoyle, part owner of the Old Abe Mine. He spent as much as $40,000 to build it for a future bride who never materialized in White Oaks. Both homes are currently lived in.
There is also a small church and a fire station, both of more recent vintage and both still in use. Along the road into town from the southwest, a pair of melted, adobe-walled building ruins sit tucked into the brush near the road. The Cedarvale Cemetery (which I did NOT visit) is also at that end of town.
All in all, I enjoyed my journey to White Oaks. I’ve been wanting to visit this place for MANY years, and when I finally got the opportunity to see in the flesh, I grabbed it. As I enjoy ghost town photography and shooting the crumbling remains of these rickety relics of Americana, I was a bit disappointed in the overall lack of ruins and abandoned buildings. BUT, I was impressed by the completely non-commercial, nearly abandoned aura hanging thick across the town site. While walking the streets with camera in hand, I could feel the locals peering out of their windows at this California-based, camera-totin’ stranger. The one person I did actually see gave a friendly wave and continued to water his front-yard flowers. I waved back, wished him a good morning and “Happy 4th” and kept on clickin’.
As always, when you visit, please respect the rights of the property owners and always abide by the Ghost Towner's Code of Ethics.
This was our Ghost Town of the Month for May 2011
S-Ctr Sec 25, N-Ctr Sec 36, T6S, R12E, NM Principal Meridian & Baseline
Latitude: 33.7503516 / 33° 45' 01" N
Longitude: -105.7374850 / 105° 44' 15" W
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FIRST POSTED: May 07, 2011
LAST UPDATED: December 21, 2012
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