Ghost Mining Camp
Text and Photos By Carla DeMarco
Down in southwestern New Mexico, just above the bootheel and a hair away from the Arizona border, lies a rockhounder's paradise, an adventurer's enticement, a child's fun fix. Granite Gap - words synonymous with "home" for 2,000 miners and their families a hundred years ago - has since October 1996 been resurrected as an area attraction dubbed Granite Gap Ghost Mining Camp.
The old walled-tent and poorly-built adobe town met with its death around 1902 when the silver standard dropped. Although the saloons, bordellos, trading posts, livery stable, church, school, jail and assay office are now reduced to rubble, much about Granite Gap remains the same. The lack of well water and phone lines - and Granite Gap's owners' affinity for a rustic lifestyle - has prevented commercialization from sullying the scenery.
Located in a transitional area between the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, Granite Peak and other limestone ridges and rock formations rise to 6,500 feet above the Gila River basin range, providing habitat for bighorn sheep, javelina, mule deer, cougar and coyote. In season, blooming ocotillo, cactus, agave, yucca and wildflowers brighten the coarsely textured landscape. Lizards, rattlesnakes, and the rare Gila monster crawl around the crevices. Gambel's quail, golden eagle, roadrunner, hummingbird, and northern mockingbird further enhance this desert drama playing against the backdrop of the Peloncillo Mountains. To the south, Cochise's profile, chiseled along the range top, watches over the ghosts of the Chiricahua Apaches.
Granite Gap lies west of Lordsburg on NM 80, 17 miles north of Rodeo. (Take the Road Forks exit off I-10 and drive south 11 miles.) Across the highway is an easy, self-guided botanical walk where "something is blooming most days of the year," according to Laura Levesque. She co-owns the attraction with former logger, dairy herdsman and cattle rancher, Mike Froehlich. The two are longtime gold panners and prospectors who, in Laura's words, bought the place "because it had pretty rocks and holes in the ground." Laura, also a freelance writer and illustrator, co-authored the book Gold Prospector's Guide to Mineral Knowledge and Wealth. Mike is a descendant of Early West settlers.
Resting in a shady ramada halfway through the botanical walk, Laura points out some "cute, darling black bugs that roll poop into balls and stash them in holes to eat later." A few feet away is a pack rat's nest where miners' coffee pots, silverware, bullets, rings, knives, and bones were found stowed away for posterity.
Granite Gap's biggest draw is Granite Gap Mountain, a 5,200 foot, craggy mound honeycombed with 15 miles of hardrock tunnels. The 5 x 4-foot passages were blasted into existence and mined for silver, lead, zinc and copper from 1879 to the 1920s. They remain largely as they were when miners chipped and drilled along their calcite and limestone-ribbed walls. Visitors, decked in hardhats and armed with flashlights, can explore the tunnels thoroughly, collecting specimens and viewing old hand tools, ore carts, tracks and chutes. What is perhaps the oldest beef jerky in New Mexico - several very tough sides of beef - can be seen hanging 500 feet into Rustlers' Tunnel. The fleshy booty was abruptly abandoned by cattle rustlers who were captured and jailed in the 1940s.
Besides touring tunnels, metal detecting is another favorite visitor pastime. The old townsite is littered with glass and rusted cans. Minerals can be collected anywhere, but the activity is especially productive on the ten old mine dumps, where calcite, chrysocolla, hemimorphite, malachite, smithsonite, and turquoise can be found. "We have good specimens," says Laura, "People just have to do a little diggin' and bangin' to get 'em."
Treasure hunters come to search for the Lost Gold Bars. According to legend, in the early 1800s eight outlaws robbed the Benson-Tombstone stagecoach in Arizona, stealing eight bars of gold. Each man took a bar, and a despicable pair named Dutch John and Little Dave hid out at Granite Gap. While Dutch John slept, Little Dave decapitated him with an axe, then buried both bars beneath the trail near town. Later, after moving to Oklahoma, Little Dave returned to recover the bars, but the road had washed out and everything looked different. Consequently, somewhere in Granite Gap there may still be two gold bars valued at about $20,000.
All this loot leaves the grounds at a relatively low price. While Laura and Mike lay strict claim to all mining objects found by visitors, they do allow each person to keep ten pounds of specimens free of charge. Treasures or coins valued over $500 are subject to a 20% royalty fee. For those who have a really big load, Willie and Shaggy, two strong-backed, sure-footed burros, can help with the haul. They also come in handy for carrying camping gear and/or visitors up Granite Mountain to the tunnels, although the walk is not difficult. Children love taking frontier-style donkey rides.
After a hard day of exploring, visitors can camp in mountainside caves that once were home to miners. When the wind is right, they can slumber in a 30 x 30-foot clearing 800 feet into Big Labyrinth Tunnel (campfires can create a smoky stay when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction). There is space for dry R.V. camping, and backpack camping is allowed anywhere on the grounds - even on top of Granite Gap Mountain.
Not to worry about snakes in caves, says Laura. The year-round 65 degree temperature is a mite chilly for the slithery creatures' taste; besides, they like a tighter squeeze to feel secure. And Heidi and Soapy, Granite Gap's resident guard dogs and fall guys, precede people, scouting for such undesirables as the the kind of cats you wouldn't call kitty.
Laura says she's spent many memorable moments in the caves, but her favorite experience was when, sitting by the entrance to Windlass Tunnel, she witnessed a hawk swoop down, grab a five-foot rattle snake, and struggle to take flight. "I get to see huge snakes, bighorn sheep, Gila Monsters . . . jeez, what a life!" she says.
Granite Gap's earthy entertainment menu doesn't end with camping. Laura and Mike can help visitors carve an Indian arrowhead. They also give gold panning lessons. The truly curious might talk Laura into pulling out her six to eight-foot rattlesnake skins (she wrangled the big guys herself) or her centipede and tarantula specimens that she has to collect carefully. "If they're missing too many feet, the biologists won't buy them."
Nothing is wasted, not even the rattlesnakes. "Their meat tastes like a combination of halibut, chicken and guinea hen," Laura explains, adding she's seasoned it with everything from barbecue sauce to cornmeal and hot peppers. One day, she says, she may write a rattlesnake meat cookbook.
On tap for the future is a local mining artifacts museum and camping cabins that look like miner's shacks. "Of course we'll clean out the rattlesnakes and tarantulas before they go in," says Laura.
For the most part, Granite Gap's owners plan to keep things rustic and real. "If we can give people a memorable experience by taking them 800 feet into a mountain where they can explore the mysteries of geology and see what it's like to be under the earth, and they go home and say they were way out here and had an incredible time, then that's way cool," said Laura, an authentic 1990s embodiment of the soul of the Frontier West.
The property changed hands in 2006 and the new owner does not permit
access. Most mine openings have been gated by the Bureau of Mines.
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