Searching for Ghost Towns in New Mexico
Albuquerque-based mechanical engineer Michael Moore and marketing professional Bridget Harrington have much more than a casual interest in New Mexico. In fact, they first met on an Everything New Mexico Facebook page before Bridget moved to New Mexico six years ago. For the past five years, as owners and photographers at Enchanted Byways Photography, LLC, their shared interest in discovering the untold stories of New Mexico have inspired them to drive hundreds of miles around the state and spend countless hours unearthing hidden stories and the unknown history of everyday life in New Mexico’s ghost towns. They are not likely to run out of places to find, either. With 600+ ghost towns and settlements, New Mexico is covered with possibilities.
Using Google Earth, railroad maps, postal records, digitized newspapers, old topographical maps, notations, dated photographs, antique books, and personal conversations with landowners, the two meticulously document what they find. Bridget does extensive research and Michael drafts reference maps.
To date, Michael has spent 1,600 hours mapping 850 ruins, and identifying 740 of them. Since he is a single-engine airplane pilot, he and Bridget also observe and photograph sites like Casa Salazar from the air. Posting detailed histories and photographs of the ghost towns, settlements, and ruins of New Mexico on their Facebook page NM Byways, long-ago towns like Trementia, Tierra Blanca, Minco, Turner, and Lucky, among others, are rediscovered.
Michael says, “We’re both photographers. My dad was a photographer for National Geographic, so I grew up around cameras. Bridget takes product photos in her job, so we both have a love for photography. We have an even bigger love for history. We started by exploring sites along the highways and then wondered what else was out there. From Encino land and Route 66 to the Anasazi, Chaco Canyon, and the atomic bomb being tested here, New Mexico has a vast array of history. Much of it is overlooked. We have a personal interest in preserving New Mexico history. Finding these long-lost places in New Mexico is not a money-maker for us. Rather, historical landmarks are disappearing, and we see this as a problem. The people that started towns and settlements here and came west on the Santa Fe Trail and the railroad really made the state what it is. They should be recognized for their contribution.”
All but lost to time, these locations are often not much more than a few adobe foundations and pieces of corroded mining equipment. Shards of elegantly painted fine china scattered among rusting railroad ties suggest wayside inns may have also been nearby. Tramping down dirt roads through sand and sagebrush, fighting weather, swarms of mosquitoes and grasshoppers, and meeting unlikely people in remote places, Michael and Bridget have uncovered numerous stories of families that shaped New Mexico’s diverse and colorful past. By way of NM Byways, landowners and relatives sometimes even contact them about the sites they have discovered.
“Sadly, New Mexico near Los Alamos is on fire right now,” Michael muses. “The east side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains has been decimated from Las Vegas, New Mexico all the way up to Angel Fire. With the fires, we’re seeing a lot of history disappear. We have a lot of photos of these places, and they’re all burned and gone now. In Encino, we photographed the last of some of those sites. When we photograph and document these places, we don’t take “souvenirs,” such as pottery shards and other artifacts from the land, or photograph existing homes. We also don’t give exact locations and details about the sites and remove any GPS data we collect about it. The only thing we carry out are photographs we’ve been given permission to take. We do not want these places to be subject to vandalism. If they’ve survived 112 years, they deserve to be preserved for as long as they can stand. The golden rule we adhere to is we are respectful of private property and always get permission from landowners before exploring their land. We have had good luck doing this. One guy spent two days driving us around in his pickup truck in the middle of nowhere taking us to places that most people never see. We feel fortunate that we’re able to visit and document these places. Gravesites in these areas are often well-documented, so we will also photograph graves for people tracing their genealogy.”
Bridget views what they are doing as filling a need for New Mexico. She explains, “When I moved here, people in Connecticut said, “I love Santa Fe.’ That was all they knew of New Mexico. There is so much more to see here that is not being addressed. Most of what our state tourism talks about are Santa Fe, Taos, Ruidoso, and other tourist areas. They don’t talk about New Mexico’s heritage. We can learn much from the people and places that came before us. There is way more to this state than people know.”
Michael points out, “For example, many people do not know about the post-Civil War town, Blackdom, a homesteader colony in Chaves County, New Mexico founded in 1901 by African Americans. After the civil war, the government allowed African Americans to come to New Mexico and homestead. Numerous African American cowboys ranched and farmed in New Mexico and did quite well. Founder Francis Marion Boyer walked 2,000 miles from Georgia to New Mexico to found Blackdom. This was an entirely new way of life for African Americans to settle on their own land when they were not a free people. Sadly, New Mexico’s inhospitable desert conditions and a drought in 1916 forced residents to desert the town. We were looking for the site and asked a couple of ranchers where it was. They had never heard of it. All that is left of Blackdom now is a plaque by the highway.”
Bridget adds, “If you were willing to work the land and make it productive, the homestead laws did not discriminate. Interestingly, because a lot of these people came from plantations, they knew how to work cattle and horses. In fact, in 1908, New Mexico’s first dinosaur bones were discovered in Folsom by George McJunkin, an African American cowboy. A lot of women came to New Mexico to homestead, too. In fact, Billy the Kid had a girlfriend, Sallie Chisum, who was a cattle rancher. If you think about it, at that time there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women or people of color. Even today, one of the interesting people we’ve met is a woman who lives out in the middle of nowhere in Roosevelt County and works as a Ferrier. She is well-known in the area as the go-to person if your horse needs shoeing.
“Despite having a state department and state historian there is a huge gap in what the state is doing to preserve the heritage in New Mexico. They’re not promoting these stories as part of the legacy of New Mexico. Typically, there is no value seen in an old building or in a ghost town, and many critical landmarks are allowed to deteriorate. They are also often plowed under because they are located on valuable ranchland that is income-producing. Ranchers can’t afford to retain it as a historical site. Their justification is all these people are gone and no one cares. We have seen cemeteries trampled by cattle because no family exists to maintain them. Plus, we have seen developers raze old homesteads to replace them with huge, modern homes. Our question is, why does the state not talk about this? These are the people that built the state. History is very hard to monetize but there is a value beyond money.”
Some residents do understand the value of restoring and preserving history, though, and are willing to share their rich oral histories.
Michael explains, “We met Don Edmunds, who has lived in the silver mining town, Chloride, since 1989. Now 92 years old, Don has preserved the town as a place of living history for nearly 40 years. During its heyday, Chloride had eight saloons, three general stores, a lumber yard, two butcher shops, a post office, a Justice of the Peace, a school, and a newspaper. When Don first saw Chloride, he and his wife, Dona, thought the town was a deserted movie set. When they discovered it was for sale, they bought it.
“To sit and talk with Don feels like opening a history book. You’ll hear stories from him firsthand that you know you’re never going to hear again from anyone. We’ve met numerous people in that way. We’ll be out in the middle of nowhere when an old guy pulls up in a truck and asks us ‘what are you doing out here?’ We likely look suspicious to people out there. They don’t see many outsiders. When we tell them what we are doing, they are very receptive and start opening up to us. We just sit there taking notes, trying to keep up. It’s fascinating. Sometimes a sign posted on the property will have a landowner’s phone number or email address on it. Or sometimes connecting with landowners is just a matter of luck. We tried three different times to go to Trementina, which was owned by four landowners. Then we happened to meet a guy in town who knew one of them. He got on his cell phone and called the landowner, who came to meet us. It was raining that day, so the guy said, ‘It’s not an optimal day. Let’s set something up for next weekend and I’ll meet you out there.’ His grandfather was one of the original settlers of Trementina, so he had a wealth of knowledge handed down from his grandfather and his father. These are the things that you’re not going to be able to just pick up a book and read.
“People ask us how we know when a town existed. This is relatively easy to find through postal records. Every town had a post office. When you see these places, you realize what these people had to do to survive there. In Roosevelt County, some people came to New Mexico in covered wagons as children. They saw their parents struggle to grow crops under extremely rugged conditions, with winds, dust, and no sanitation or water. They remember past politics. Others’ lives were disrupted when Route 66 was bypassed by Interstate 40. Every time someone elderly passes on or they are disregarded as having nothing to say, their history goes with them. We are losing this last generation.”
Michael and Bridget also befriended Alice and Celeste, two sisters who have preserved the historic 300-year-old church, St. Francis de Sales Mission, in Hatch. Retiring from her job in Colorado, Celeste bought the entire church complex sight unseen. Celeste and Alice have turned it into a thriving inn and conference center.
Bridget observes, “The church was built before New Mexico was a state. It has records and pictures. It means a lot to Celeste to preserve that too. Also, when we went through Ledoux, we were looking at another old church. Only a few families live in Ledoux, so the caretaker of the church, John, was surprised to see us. However, when we explained that we wanted to photograph the church, he let us in. He then pulled back the altar to reveal a painting behind it that you would not normally see. His responsibility in the town was to ring the bell and open the church, used only for weddings and funerals. His wife, and a daughter who died young, were both buried at his house, so his sole purpose was to take care of the church.”
Bridget continues, “Once you get out of the tourist areas of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Ruidoso, the majority of what you will see is ranch land and oil fields. A lot of these families have been in New Mexico for 100 to 200 years. Sometimes elderly people who cannot travel to New Mexico ask us to take photos for them since a site they’ve seen on our Facebook page is a piece of their personal history. When we are lucky enough to meet people who lived in these places, we write down what they tell us, verbatim. We are doing this because no one else is, and personal stories are important. When our work sparks a memory for someone, it makes all our effort worthwhile.”
By: Catherine Lenox
Formerly a resident of Santa Fe and writer/editor for publications in New Mexico, article writer Catherine Lenox is the Owner and Founder of Write Contact, www.writecontact.com. She has a lasting love for the culture and people of New Mexico.
Photos by: Michael Moore & Bridget Harrington
Michael, Bridge & their dog Whiskey.
You can follow their adventures on Facebook