A vacation at an abandoned mining town
|We have a deal, my wife and I. Since we retired, Michelle owns the six months from November 1 to April 30, and I own the six between May 1 and October 31. We typically spend her six months in or near our winter home on the Space Coast of Florida, and my six months roaming the country in our Cougar Fifth Wheel pulled by our Dodge truck. We’ve covered a bunch of miles, seen most of our country, and had some great adventures, but nothing quite like…
Chloride, New Mexico
There are many streets in America named Wall Street. If there were a list, this Wall Street would not be on it. Entering Chloride on Wall Street from the east, the dominant feature is the Hanging Tree on what you might call the median, with a little sign that says Chloride National Forest. I get a hint there is a sense of humor here. That’s a good sign. The street continues a short distance to dead-end at what I would learn was the boundary of the Gila National Forest. Wall Street is the main street, indeed the only street, in Chloride, NM. Along that short street, in an almost wilderness canyon in New Mexico, I had my favorite vacation.
Chloride NM is buried in the Black Range Mountains adjacent to the Gila National Forest. It was a silver mining town. The ore mined was Silver Chloride, hence the town name.
Michelle and I spent two months there as Workcampers. Working for a campsite is a vacation? Spending time with great people, doing interesting things, in a fascinating place, is to me the ultimate vacation. I loved it and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Whenever we do an ‘extended stay’, we deal with the ‘necessities’ soon after arrival.
I set up our Dish Tailgater satellite antenna on the roof of the Cougar without incident, and we promptly had TV service.
The nearest laundromat is at the General Store in Winston three miles away, and we have to use our own shower (usually a wardrobe closet). Now we were really roughing it.
Somewhere the literature about Chloride says the nearest Walmart is 40 miles away (we clocked it to be 37.7) in Truth or Consequences. We later learned that the locals refer to the town as “TorC” as do many of the road signs. That 40 miles (or 37.7) is a brutal winding mountain road.
Originally named Hot Springs, the city changed its name to Truth or Consequences, the title of a popular NBC radio program. In 1950, Ralph Edwards, the host of the radio quiz show Truth or Consequences, announced that he would air the program from the first town that renamed itself after the show; Hot Springs won the honor.
Many of our adventures take us into canyons, so cell phone service is usually a problem. At the first opportunity, we roam the roads nearby seeking a hilltop where we can pick up a signal while getting off the road. That becomes our ‘telephone booth’. Other RVers do the same thing, so these spots become small parking lots. In the case of Chloride, our telephone booth was nine miles from home on a hilltop on the road to TorC. We built telephone time into our shopping schedule. An inconvenience but a blessing — no telemarketing calls.
The modern history of Chloride began about 1978 when Don and Dona (correctly spelled with one n) Edmund discovered the place. Don worked for IBM installing computer systems for the military and the FAA. At that time, he was working at White Sands Missile Range. The Edmunds lived in Las Cruces and spent weekends exploring the Black Range Mountains. They fell in love with Chloride and purchased and restored a derelict house that became the retirement home they now live in. I should have such a derelict.
Over the years, they acquired and restored several buildings including:
** The Pioneer Store now the Pioneer Store Museum.
** The Monte Cristo Saloon and Dance Hall now the Gift Shop.
** The Chloride Bank now the Café.
** Several miner cabins now restored as tourist rental units.
Chloride got its start in 1879 when the first cabin was built. By June of 1881, the town had three general merchandise stores, three eateries, eight saloons, two butcher shops, a newsstand, a lumberyard, an assay office, a confectionery store, boarding houses, and a livery yard.
The U.S. Post Office opened in 1881, and the Pioneer Stage Line began operating between Chloride and the Railroad Depot at Engle. By 1890, the town had boomed to nearly 3,000 people, most hard-working, hard-drinking, hard rock miners. It took nine saloons of every description to slake the thirst of these hard-living men. There were no churches in Chloride.
Free silver versus the gold standard was the central economic issue in the presidential election of 1896. “Gold Standard” candidate, William McKinley defeated “Free Silver” candidate William Jennings Bryan for the presidency. The nation quickly adopted the gold standard. Silver prices plummeted, silver mines closed, and silver mining towns died. So went Chloride. Virtually all mining activity stopped, and the workers all moved to where there was work. The only remaining activity was lumbering and cattle ranching. Chloride's population decreased to a few families, and eventually became a quiet little retirement haven for those too old to work.
The project Don promised me in our earlier correspondence was to help him build a mine railroad exhibit beside the Pioneer Store Museum. Over the years, he had collected several ore cars, a donkey, and an assortment of rails, that he wanted to assemble into an exhibit. Building a railroad sounds like hard work. Not really. We started late, took long lunch breaks, and finished early with a Root Beer Float at the café. Like Don said, “I’m 85 and I own this place. We work when I feel like it.” No argument from me.
Michelle undertook a major top-to-bottom cleaning of the inside of the museum and all the artifacts. That took most of her two months to accomplish. It doesn't get done very often, and if you stop to learn the story behind every relic, it doesn’t get done very fast — but what an experience, walking through history. Pictures she took of most of the items became the photographic archive of the museum. That had not been done before.
That Don is a history buff should be obvious. One would have to be to fall in love with a run-down mining town. He arrived early enough to overlap with some of the old-timers who carried the town’s history in their head. His front porch chats were interviews that became journal entries that became two books. The storyteller in him is a natural talent that got the old folks to open up and pull out dusty memories that he faithfully recorded. One character stands out — so much so that she has a special place in the museum. Don’s first years in Chloride were Cassie Hobbs’ last. When he or Dona tells the story of Cassie Hobbs, their love for her shines through in an unmistakable way. The more I learned about this lady, the more awesome she became. I wish I had known her.
I can't begin to tell her story in a way to do her justice. In his book THE STORIES THEY TOLD US, As told by the ‘Old Timers’ of Chloride, Don Edmund devotes fourteen pages to Cassie's story, and she is a frequent player in the stories of others.
Cassie Hobbs was born in 1904 and died in the 85th year of her life, in 1989. She was born in the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma Territory, shortly after the great land rush into that area, and lived her early years in a covered wagon. Because of the family’s constant travels, she never had an opportunity to attend school. She taught herself to read and write, and later she taught her husband to read.
Cassie was dirt poor her entire life. Her creativity was her tool for survival. She was referred to as “The Elegant Carpenter of Chloride” in a Sierra County Sentinel story about her woodworking. Her woodworking talent is even more extraordinary because she had only a few rudimentary hand tools – no power tools and no carving tools.
Cassie said she began to make things when she was a young girl to amuse herself, but more than likely, that was the only way she could have some of the things she wanted. That ability enabled her to make things for her household throughout her life. Her handy work produced toys for her two young sons, furniture for the many Range Camps they lived at, and clothes for the entire family.
She also produced works of art with which she decorated her home at Chloride. In addition to the beautifully embroidered clothes, and the exquisitely carved furniture, Cassie painted with watercolors and with oils, sculpted with wood and with copper, and designed and crocheted hats, purses, shoes and jewelry.
One day, eighteen ladies, members of the Red Hat Society, came to Chloride to have 'High Tea' at our Chloride Bank Café. The centerpiece for the tea was a Red Hat made by Cassie Hobbs.
We took a week off from our duties at Chloride to explore other parts of New Mexico. Did you know that New Mexico has a giant hole in its center? You guessed it — White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). A rectangle roughly 100 miles by 38 miles, WSMR occupies most of the northern Tularosa basin, which encloses the White Sands National Park, as well as USAF facilities. The largest military installation in the United States, WSMR encompasses almost 3,200 square miles and covers parts of five counties.
North and south or east and west, you can’t drive through WSMR. You have to go around, adding travel time to wherever your destination.
New Mexico, east of WSMR is a different kind of country, deriving its culture and fame from Lincoln County and the saga of Billy the Kid, the town of Roswell and the history and myth of the UFO mystery, and Alamogordo, home to our early days in atomic energy. We spent a pleasant week there exploring and doing the tourist thing.
Back to Chloride. Question: When you live in the middle of nowhere, with no fire company, how do you protect yourself against fire? Answer: You buy your own Fire Truck.
The Chloride Fire Truck is a 1947 International KB-8 with an International OHV straight 6 ‘Red Diamond’ Engine. Don purchased the fire truck and drove it to Chloride from its previous home in Mt Vernon, WA. Here in Chloride, it sits in Don's garage, ready to fight fires. It gets trotted out for special occasions. Being a history nut, Don made sure to gather the life history of this truck, which he'll be happy to tell you if you ask.
So much more to tell of Chloride and the Edmunds who adopted it, but I only have 2,000 words, and I need to save a few to close this up.
The time came for us to leave and head north. Next stop Albuquerque, then on to Denver. I didn’t want to go.
I have to thank three people who gave us a great two-month adventure in a little out-of-the-way place in the mountains of New Mexico called Chloride.
Don Edmund, his wife Dona Edmund, and their daughter Linda Turner extended their hospitality to us sight unseen. They happily shared their love affair with their little corner of the world and allowed us to make a small contribution to its preservation. For that, we are grateful.
It is always a pleasure to meet and make friends with genuinely fine people. The world needs more. If this intrigues you, google “Pioneer Store Museum”.
Word Count: 1,973