California is known for its Gold Rush, but New Mexico also had its mining fever. Lake Valley Back Country Byway delves deep into the heart of the mineral-rich Black Range Mountains. Turn off Interstate 25 south of Truth or Consequences onto N.M. 152 and head for Hillsboro.
The history of mining in the Black Range spans a period of over 100 years. Silver was discovered along the banks of Percha Creek, near the present town of Kingston, in 1877. The rush was on, and prospectors scoured the hills for precious minerals. Silver was found south of Hillsboro in 1878, and with the discovery of the spectacular Bridal Chamber claim in 1882, the Black Range was the place to be.
Silver and gold are still mined on a small scale, but the largest mining operation in recent years is at Copper Flat. On the way to Hillsboro, look for the Bureau of Land Management kiosk on the south side of the road. It points out the open pit copper mine, earthen dam, and water towers built in 1982, which aided in the extraction of 7.4 million pounds of copper, 2,306 ounces of gold, and 55,966 ounces of silver in a three-month period.
The observant traveler can see evidence of smaller-scale mining operations along the byway. The scars of exploratory excavations into hillsides and the cascade of multicolored waste rock below them are sure signs of past mining activities. Along the arroyo just east of milepost 54 are mounds of dirt, the remains of gold panning.
As N.M. 152 winds west into the Black Range, the terrain gets hillier. Hillsboro, a village of 165 people, is nestled in the foothills along Percha Creek. A drive through its shady, tree-lined streets reveals many buildings from the late 1800s. The 1892 Union Church stands next door to the George and Ninette Miller House, built in 1894. The ruins of a jail and courthouse are relics of the period from 1884 to 1939 when Hillsboro was the Sierra County Seat.
The 1879 Miller Drug Store has been a mercantile, pharmacy, grocery, post office, and telephone exchange and is now a cafe. The Black Range Museum (appointment only, 505-895-5233) was once the Ocean Grove Hotel, run by Sadie Orchard, a well-known local character who made her living as a madame, hotel owner, and stagecoach operator. The proprietor of the clock shop down the street will tell you he can't remember how long he's been here - you lose track of time in Hillsboro.
The byway turns south on N.M. 27, headed for Lake Valley. Along the road, there is a large stand of ocotilla, one of the high desert's most interesting plants. Its skinny, spiny fingers stand tall against the horizon, their woody branches creaking as they wave in the wind.
In the 1880s, travel through this area was very dangerous due to attacks by bandits and Apaches. Sadie Orchard's stagecoach would meet passengers at the train in Lake Valley and take them to Hillsboro, sometimes with Sadie at the reins.
Many places in New Mexico called ghost towns are actually now repopulated, but Lake Valley is the real thing. Its last residents moved to Deming in 1994. It is now owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which offers a free self-guided walking tour (505-915-5603; open 9:00 to 4:00; closed Tuesday and Wednesday). The schoolhouse museum is the place to start - Lake Valley artifacts are displayed inside.
In 1882, the richest single body of silver ever found, 10 to 20 feet thick, was discovered nearby, and miners flocked to Lake Valley. It was named the Bridal Chamber because light reflecting off the crystal-encrusted walls dazzled the eyes of the miners. The ore was so pure it was reportedly sawed off in blocks rather than blasted. This mine produced 2.5 million ounces of silver over the next 12 years. But when the demand for silver declined, so did the town. The value of silver dropped dramatically when it was demonetized in 1893. The flimsy miners' homes didn't last long after their occupants moved on, and a fire which destroyed Main Street in June of 1895 further desolated the town.
The old ghost town still has its pleasures. As you walk, listen to the whispering of the tall grass, the conversations of insects and birds, and the staccato beat of loose sheet metal flapping in the wind. The clean smell of greasewood sweetens the air. Big black bees like airborne Volkswagens gather pollen, while surprised lizards scurry for cover.
The byway continues east to Nutt, paralleling a spur line of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, built in 1884 to transport supplies in to Lake Valley and ore out. In 1934, the tracks were removed but the grade is still visible. The remains of a loading ramp can be seen at Nutt, where the byway ends. The ramp leads to nothing now, but those tracks once carried a prodigious load of wealth and people whose lives intersected on what is now the Lake Valley Back Country Byway.