Everyone likes a good scare every now and then, and what better way to get shocked than by visiting an authentic ghost town. There are more than a few out there, and during a recent stay in New Mexico I figured I’d get a chance to visit one.
When I saw the words “Lake Valley Ghost Town” printed on my map in tiny letters images of abandoned saloons and creaking stairs flashed across my mind. What I found was a different story altogether.
In it’s heyday during the mid-1800’s, Lake Valley was a bustling mining town with a population of nearly 4,000. The story of Lake Valley has all of the elements of the Wild West stories seen in the movies. In the 1880s it was a wild frontier mining town with gamblers, mining stock promoters, cattle rustlers, Apache raids and vigilante justice.
Lake Valley was a town few people had every heard of until 1878. That was the year a blacksmith named John Leavitt took a lease on a claim and two days later discovered the most fabulous lode of silver the world has ever known. Called the “Bridal Chamber”, it was a hollow in the hillside with walls of solid horn silver. The walls of the subterranean mine were lined with silver so pure it was shipped unsmelted to the mint. The strike produced 2.5 million ounces of silver, including one chunk, featured at the 1882 Denver Exposition, valued at $7,000 (when silver sold for $1.11 an ounce.) The mine manager was killed by Apaches a few days after the discovery.
Following the start of a few mining camps north of Lake Valley the first ranches were started in the 1870s. One of these ranchers, Lou McEvers, or a prospector named Lufkin was the first to notice silver ore at Lake Valley. The low grade silver ore came to the surface between two layers of limestone for about half a mile. McEvers and Lufkin made mining claims along this out crop in 1878 and others prospectors came to the area and made claims.
Work in the area stopped for a while due to Apache raids.
Legend has it that a group of Apaches left their reservation in 1881, raiding ranches and mining camps and fghting a few skirmishes with the Army. The Army had sent a few squads of the African-American 9th cavalry to Lake Valley to protect the mining camp. Lieutenant Douglas Smith, commander of the African-American troops – had perhaps the most noteworthy run-in with renegades – getting ambushed about ten miles west of Lake Valley near an area called Lizard Mountain. Lt. Smith was killed within seconds and a number of miners were wounded. A black sergeant took command and a six-hour battle followed in which at least four soldiers were killed. In the afternoon Eventually the indians withdrew and the soldiers and miners took their dead and wounded back to Lake Valley. Several miners later died of their wounds. It is not known if any of the Apaches were wounded or killed, and the Apaches moved on south into Mexico.
According to the county register, total production from the “Chamber” was close to $2,775,000. Worthy of note is the name of George W. Lufkin who together with a partner owned the claim on which Leavitt later discovered the “Chamber”. They sold the claim to the Sierra Grande Mining Company for $100,000 who in turn leased a portion to Leavitt who discovered the “Bridal Chamber”. Lufkin, the first discoverer of silver in the area, died penniless and is buried in the Lake Valley cemetary. Or at least what’s left of it.
A stage stop and railhead, Lake Valley grew to 4,000, with 12 saloons, three churches, two newspapers, a school, stores, hotels, stamp mills and smelters. The 1893 silver panic wiped it out and a fire destroyed main street in 1895. The post office closed in 1954 and the last residents left in 1994.
When you pull off Route 27 you’ll see what’s left of Lake Valley in the distance: a handful of homes and a refurbished school (that now doubles as a museum). These days, there’s not much left to see of Lake Valley. But what does remain paints an interesting story. a tale of riches and hardship, of success and failure. The handful of buildings that still stand haven’t been touched since the last tenants moved out ages ago. What’s left of mainstreet will take by the crumbling facade of a lost time. On the porch of one house standtwo easy chairs and a child’s tricycle. Who knows for sure twhat conversations were taking place, as a small child on his or her bike played harmlessly nearby.
Follow the “main road” and you’ll come to the cordoned off area where the train pulled up right outside of the silver mine shaft. A warning sign reminds you to keep out. i admit it – I crossed the line and took a closer look. The actual “train station” still stands, but you’d be a fool to try and step inside. A little farther down is the mining area and as tempting as it was to explore, common sense held me back.
You can still see the Lake Valley Chapel. and a keen eye can discern the remains of the railroad tracks itself.
If there are any ghosts in Lake Valley – and I am convinced there are – I didn’t hear from them on this particular day. But every now and then while walking around what’s left of the town, the wind kicks up and you’ll swear the hair on the back of your neck is standing on end. There are hundreds of stories still to be told when it comes to this has-been-of-a-town, all it takes is a little digging to discover them.
Long after the silver boom went bust, magnesium ore was still being mined. But even that didn’t last. By the time of the Great Depression, any chance of Lake Valley rebuilding itself to it’s former glory was long since lost. Still, a handful of men and women continued to call Lake Valley home.
All that remains now are memories and the remaining buildings that pay silent homage to a simpler way of life.
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).