A Southwestern New Mexico Ghost Town
by Jay W. Sharp
Store fronts along Bursum Road, through Mogollon, with sign still clearly visible for
Holland’s Furniture and Notions. The community museum is located at the far end.
Mogollon, a southwestern New Mexico ghost town, stood as a microcosm of western Americana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eerily secluded in the narrow Silver Creek Canyon on the western edge of the Mogollon Mountains in the vast Gila Wilderness, it served as home for prospectors and miners who teased a living – and sometimes, fortunes – from deposits of gold and silver that wove through fault veins of the nearby volcanic hills and rock faces. With a maximum population of 1500 to 2000 around the year 1910, the isolated community found ways to answer the economic, material, educational, spiritual, entertainment and carnal needs of its citizens.
Mogollon – a name taken from the Spanish governor Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, who ruled over the entire Southwest in the early 18th century – lies along a single narrow roadway between the walls of the canyon, at an elevation of nearly 7000 feet. Pronounced “Muggy-yone,” it connects to neighboring towns by way of the winding dirt Bursum Road (built by convict labor in 1897), which descended the mountain flanks for 2000 feet from the canyon mouth to the San Francisco River valley. It joined a road that turned southeastward, to Silver City, the principal town in the area. A trip from Mogollon to Silver City, a distance of some 80 miles, took 14 to 15 hours by stage or carriage.
The “General Store” constructed in Mogollon by a Hollywood producer
as a set for the 1973 Western “My Name is Nobody,” starring Henry Fonda.
The Mogollon region tipped the secret of its mineral wealth to Sergeant James C. Cooney in 1870, when he discovered gold and silver while leading a detachment of soldiers on a mapping expedition. The secret remained with Cooney until 1875, when he returned after his discharge to capitalize on his find. Then the news spread, and the mountains and canyons – with the budding hamlet of Mogollon at the heart of the promise of wealth – drew a steady stream of prospectors and miners and dreamers.
The mountains yielded slowly to the pickax, but over the years, mines with names like Little Fanny, Silver Queen, Deadwood, Deep Down, Maud S, Champion and Last Chance gave up their riches to persistent, hard-working and courageous men. Reflecting the latest technology available early in the 20th century, electric-powered mills and processing facilities rose to grind the ore and separate out the valuable minerals.
Operations employed the controversial method called “cyanidation,” which raised the toxic specter of poisoned wildlife and humans. Meanwhile, in the depths of the earth, workers often contracted the disease called “miner’s consumption,” often dying within a few years. The hardships and risks traditionally associated with such enterprises notwithstanding, the region’s mines would eventually yield more than $20,000,000 in minerals, said Michael Jenkinson, Ghost Towns of New Mexico: Playthings of the Wind. That would equal roughly $400,000,000 today.
About 40 years after Cooney’s find, a local publication, The Mogollon Mines, declared (with some understandable exaggeration) that, “The known mineral area at the present writing covers approximately three townships of contiguous gold, silver and copper-bearing territory, a mining region containing for its extent and area untold wealth in precious metals, without a parallel in the broad domain of the United States.”
A Miner’s Town
Mogollon took root as scattered tent camps and log cabin clusters coalesced within Silver Creek Canyon, near where some of the most promising mines, like, for instance, the Little Fanny, were located. By the 1890’s, Mogollon had 22 saloons and was a “rough town,” said one of Jenkinson’s sources, and by 1911, it “boasted seven restaurants, five stores, two hotels, a sawmill, a newspaper, and fourteen saloons,” said Jenkinson.
The first home, a log cabin, belonged to John Eberle, who discovered the Last Chance vein, said James E. and Barbara H. Sherman, Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of New Mexico. Other log houses soon followed only to be burned to the ground by a devastating fire that swept through Silver Creek Canyon in 1894. With the charred ruins cleared, new houses quickly appeared, built this time of adobe, stone and lumber. Unfortunately, through the years, the town suffered other devastating fires or, alternatively, torrential floods, sometimes with deadly consequences, but each time, it arose again—a remarkable testament to the stubbornness of the residents.
Goods and Services
Business enterprises, equally persistent, lined the dirt street. Advertising in The Mogollon Mines, the Mogollon Mercantile Company offered “general merchandise, including a full line of mining supplies.” Coates & Moore sold “Groceries, Mining Supplies, Dry Goods, Hardware, etc.,” with “Goods delivered to any part of the mountains.” Ernest McIntosh advertised “Groceries, Provisions, Dry Goods, Hardware, Mining Supplies, etc.” with “Prompt and courteous attention to our customers.” In Silver City, at least 14 hours away, R. S. Allen promised “Reliable and Accurate Information of the Gold, Silver and Copper Mines of Southwestern New Mexico.” In 1914, said Kathy Weisner, “Mogollon—Surviving All Odds,” Legends of America Internet site, J. P. Holland bought a two-story adobe building, establishing a general store and barbershop on the first floor and renting rooms on the second floor.
Typically, a general merchandise store, said H. A. Hoover in his small book, Tales from the Bloated Goat: Early Days in Mogollon, might carry “groceries, dry goods, men’s suits made-to-order, boots and shoes, hats, light hardware, cigars and tobacco, bottled drugs and patents medicines, beer, wine and whiskey, with a small homemade bar in the rear when the clerk was now and then required to serve drinks.”
“Wild turkey and bear meat lay side by side with beef in the butcher shops, where steaks were sometimes purchased for less than five cents per pound,” said Jenkinson.
By 1890, Mogollon got postal service, and by 1915, it had basic utilities, including electricity, running water and even telephones. “The arrival of the mail was usually the main event of the day with about all of the adult population assembling near the post office before the stage came in,” said Hoover.
The town’s original “jail,” according to Jenkinson’s sources, was a cottonwood tree: “…
the culprit was chained to it for a misdemeanor and hung from it for a felony.” The first real jailhouse rose from timbers donated by Harry Herman, an enterprising sawmill owner, according to the Shermans, and it occasionally housed Mr. Herman himself, to his displeasure, after a drinking binge. He would swear that he would burn the place down after he was released.
A hospital with three doctors and, occasionally, a visiting dentist, provided health care services to the community. The doctors often struggled to cure diseases such as miner’s consumption and the flu. They may have lost the battle against the flu epidemic of 1918—a fearsome year in which tens of millions of people died worldwide from the disease. One story holds that the Mogollon cemetery has a mass grave holding the bodies of flu victims, who died faster than single graves could be dug.
Abandoned mining car, with rails.
The Little Red School House
The community saw education as highly important. “The people are intelligent, wide awake, enterprising and energetic,” said The Mogollon Mines, “and it is an extremely doubtful proposition if there is within the borders of New Mexico, a people numerically considered who average as high intellectually as the people of Mogollon [and the nearby] Cooney and Wilcox districts.”
“The Little Red School House on the hill is a source of pride to all residents of Mogollon.” Equipped with “modern school furniture” and staffed by “only the best and most accomplished educators,” it had an enrollment of 135 students, with 100 of them attending regularly.
Mogollon had two churches: Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, built by Catholics, and another, run by Protestants, to minister to the spiritual needs of the residents. The churches apparently served their purpose. The Mogollon Mines said, for instance, that “A Sunday School and Bible Class, under direction and superintendency of Mr. Cleaveland is in a thriving condition, is largely attended and is accomplishing a great good.”
The town found its entertainment in establishments such as the Mogollon Theater; not one, but two, red light districts; and the local saloons.
The Mogollon Theater played silent films, including, most likely, features such as The Great Train Robbery, Her First Adventure, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, and The Adventures of Dollie—accompanied, presumably, by a local musician playing a piano or an organ located just below the screen.
The red light districts provided entertainment of a different kind, which requires no description. They included, said the Shermans, “‘Little Italy,’ the home of eighteen white girls at the west end of town and the Spanish section on the east.”
The saloons offered, not only the pleasure of drink, but the warmth of companionship, which drew the usual cadre of camp followers, according to Jenkinson. They brought with them “quick professional card hands, girlish laughter, and the tinny gayety of honky-tonk pianos.” The Bloated Goat, a tavern that took its name from someone’s contemptuous description of a drunken patron’s rendering of an elk or a horse, became the best known gathering place of those who loved to spin tales and yarns—some even with a semblance of truth.
A Sampling of Tales
With declining demand and prices for gold and silver on top of another calamitous fire in the early 1940s, Mogollon became a fully certifiable ghost town by the middle of the 20th century. It retained only a handful of residents. It left in its wake, however, a treasure-trove of tales about Indian attacks, lost mines, brazen thefts and violent death.
The town lost its first citizen, James C. Cooney, on April 29, 1880, when he died near Mineral Creek at the hands of famed war chief Victorio and his band of Apaches. A large boulder, with an opening blasted out by fellow miners, serves as a tomb for Cooney’s bones today. The town lost Cooney’s brother Michael in the fall of 1914, when he froze to death while searching, alone in the Mogollon Mountains, for a lost gold discovery.
The stagecoach from Mogollon to Silver City, with three passengers whom Hoover called “transient girls,” got held up by a single robber in late July of 1910. Two of the ladies, to their tearful distress, lost all their money. The third managed to save the bulk of her money, which she had cleverly secreted in the long hair on top of her head. “The robber was not apprehended,” observed Hoover.
The stagecoach got struck again just before Christmas in 1912, when robbers took a $5000 mine payroll, according to the Shermans. The robbers, swiftly apprehended this time, turned out to be three merchants from the nearby community of Alma and a deputy sheriff from Mogollon.
Mogollon received a visit, probably sometime during the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1020), by Pancho Villa who came for plunder to finance his campaign across the border. “He raided the Maud S. and other mines in the area,” said Bonnie McGuire, remembering a story told to her “many years ago” by her Uncle Earl Wayne. However, he spared the Wayne family, whom he had remembered as friends in Mexico. Of course, “Pancho never knew their gold bullion was hidden under the beds.”
Today, Mogollon – listed on National Register of Historic Places – ranks as one of the premier ghost towns in the Southwest. It has recalled its heyday so vividly that in 1973, it served as a setting for the Hollywood western My Name is Nobody, starring Henry Fonda. (The production company built two buildings, a “General Store,” and a “saloon,” which remain standing, fitting into the milieu surprisingly well.)
As travelers have since 1897, you still follow the convict-built Bursum Road, now labeled State Road 159, eastward to reach Mogollon. You will retrace the same winding route used by stagecoaches, carriages and freight wagons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You will pass the sites (unmarked) where outlaws stole transient girls’ money and miners’ payrolls. You may see mule deer, wild turkeys, javelinas and other wildlife. As you ascend, wondering how 12-mule teams ever negotiated the road’s hairpin turns, you can look west across a landscape little changed since James C. Cooney found gold in the mountains in 1870. As you near Mogollon, you will see the vestiges of once-thriving mining operations. As you drive into the narrow walls of Silver Creek Canyon and into Mogollon, you’ll feel that you’ve entered a kind of time capsule where a chapter in the history of the American West has been preserved.
Note: To reach Bursum Road, take U. S. Highway 180 northwestward out of Silver City. It will take you through the small communities of Cliff, Buckhorn and Glenwood. About three miles beyond Glenwood, you will come to the Bursum Road, or State Road 159, intersection. Turn right, heading eastward for about eight miles to Mogollon.
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