Pinos Altos, New Mexico

Expect The Unexpected

by Jay W. Sharp

Over the past century and a half, those who have come to Pinos Altos - now a sequestered hamlet nestled in the ponderosa pines at the southern edge of New Mexico's Gila Wilderness - have learned to expect the unexpected. 

 A Brief Look Back

On May 18, 1860, three prospectors, frustrated by previous failures in the region, paused for a drink of water at Bear Creek, near today's Pinos Altos.  To The Opera House, where you can boo the villains and cheer the heroes.their surprise, they found themselves staring at gold in the bottom of the cold clear stream. 

During the next few months, Chiricahua Apaches, who claimed the region as their land, watched as unexpected - and unwelcome - prospectors surged by the hundreds into the mining encampments that would become Pinos Altos.  The Apaches became incensed as the prospectors invaded the surrounding mountainsides and stream beds in a fevered search for gold. 

They became more incensed on December 2, 1860, an Apache band, encamped along the Mimbres River, to the east, suffered a surprise attack by 30 Pinos Altos miners.  The band would mourn a number of losses.  

Contrary to their expectations, those Pinos Altos miners had helped trigger the Apache Wars, which would intensify across southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona when the U. S. Army began withdrawing troops from the area to head east for the Civil War.  Pinos Altos and the surrounding area, with diminished protection by the military, suffered increasing raids, often instigated by the legendary Chiricahua chief, Mangas Coloradas.  

"On May 7, 1861," said Edwin R. Sweeney in his fine book Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, "twenty Apaches assaulted Mexican freighters near Pinos Altos, killed one of them, and took their mules." 

In June of that same year, Pinos Altos suffered another surprise raid, then, at dawn on September 27, 1861, Pinos Altos came under attack again, this time by the combined forces of the Apache chiefs Mangas Coloradas and the equally famous Cochise.  The miners fought back through the morning, with the conflict swirling through the heart of the community.  About noon, the miners, with the help of several women, said Sweeney, managed to fire a small canon loaded with nails and buckshot into the Apache force, inflicting considerable carnage.  "...the miners then routed and drove off the Apaches," said Sweeney.  The Pinos Altos miners suffered a dozen casualties.  They killed or wounded as many as 30 Apaches, including several leading warriors. 

Bear Creek, an intermittent stream where three prospectors stumbled, unexpectedly, into gold in 1860.

On January 17, 1863, Chief Mangas Coloradas - aging and war weary - came to Pinos Altos in a petition for peace.  He had walked into an unexpected trap.  He fell prisoner to the miners, who turned him over to the Apache-hating Union officer Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West at Fort McLane, just south of Pinos Altos.  A little after midnight, January 18, 1863, the unarmed Mangas Coloradas, perhaps the greatest of the Apache chiefs, died at the hands of his guards. 

Three-quarter replica of a fort once located at a nearby mining area.

The following day, Mangas Coloradas' band stumbled into an ambush by soldiers and miners at Pinos Altos.  Eleven Apaches, including Mangas Coloradas' wife and one of his sons lost their lives, said Sweeney. 

The Apaches and Pinos Altos would continue their battles over the land for years, until the struggle finally ended in the 1880's. 

As the Apache threat subsided, the miners expanded their operations, now taking, not only gold, but also silver, copper, lead and zinc from mines with names such as the Kept Woman, the Hardscrabble and the Golden Giant.  They decimated much of the surrounding ponderosa pine forest, cutting the trees for fuel.  As years passed, they mined an estimated $8 million in ore - when gold sold for some $20 an ounce, not for today's $800 per ounce - from the mountains surrounding Pinos Altos before the minerals largely played out, early in the 20th century. 

Ruin of miners crude stone cabin near the arrastra.

The miners packed up and left.  As forced by the U. S. government, the Apaches took up life on reservations.  Both groups gave up the land over which they had fought so bitterly. 

As decades passed, those few who passed through the Pinos Altos corner of the Gila Wilderness watched the land began to heal, perhaps more fully than they ever anticipated.  Cottonwoods returned to the stream bottoms.  The ponderosa - the "pinos altos," or "tall pines," that gave the hamlet its name - returned to the mountain slopes.  Elk, mule deer, foxes, squirrels and other mammals returned to the forest.  Year-round-resident and migratory birds reclaimed their customary places in the mountains.  Restless souls who came on odysseys to explore the area would discover in the mountains and pinos altos a peaceful forested retreat.

Pinos Altos Today

In the heart of today's Pinos Altos, which lies almost astride the continental divide at about 7000 feet elevation, you will find, not a ghost town, as you might expect, but rather an occupied hamlet-a mixture of both original and restored reminders of the mining days.  It is overseen, from a nearby mountain peak, by a cross that once drew pilgrims yearning for comfort and peace. 

Pinos Altos Historic Museum, where George Shafer gives life to the exhibits

You might start with the Pinos Altos Historic Museum, a humble old log and adobe building where George Shafer oversees an intriguing collection of memorabilia from the mining days.  One of Shafer's ancestors constructed the building during the 19th century to serve, first, as the family home and, later, as a schoolhouse.  Another ancestor gathered together the historical objects.  Still another ancestor put them on display.  Now, Shafer, with his deep roots in the community, gives them life.  "It is a visual, personal history crammed into three small rooms, the jumble of objects spanning a century..." said Jill Eisenstadt, in a New York Times article back in 1995.  "The rough-hewn furniture has been charmingly arranged...  But it was the intimate items that kept me in that musty, dank place for over an hour.  The blackened silverware.  The taffeta dresses, cotton bustles, bone stays..."

Across the quiet Main Street - a somnolent thoroughfare patrolled languidly by the town dogs - you will find the Buckhorn Saloon and the Pinos Altos Opera House. 

The Buckhorn Saloon, where you will find an excellent steak.

The saloon - a restored 1860's building - recaptures the feel of a brawling miners' watering hole, but the proprietor serves up, not ladies of the evening and bottles of whiskey, but rather "beef prepared in every way," according to the Washington Post's Roger Piantadosi in an article back in 1997.  The Buckhorn Saloon has a developed a well-deserved reputation as a highly regarded restaurant.  At the front, however, you can expect an ominous warning: "WITCH PARKING ONLY: ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOAD." 

Parking restrictions at the Buckhorn Saloon.Immediately next door, the opera house - a replica of a frontier theater so faithful to its subject that Piantadosi found it "dark and unnervingly realistic" - offers original productions such as "Evil's Reward" or "The Taming of McGrew."  Should you find yourself in the opera house, on a Friday or a Saturday night at 8:00 pm, in Pinos Altos - probably one of the last places in America where you might expect to discover live theater production - you can boo and hiss the villains and throw popcorn at them and applaud and cheer the heroes and throw kisses at them. 

If you have inclination for dietary sin, you might visit the Pinos Altos Ice Cream Parlor and Soda Shop, located in an adobe building that dates back to the 1890s.  You can relax, with a rich cup of coffee and order from a list of ice creams, cakes, pies, brownies and cookies.  You can also mail a letter there.  It's the town post office.

A little farther south, still on Main Street, you will find a building that stands on the site of a store once owned by, of all people, Roy Bean (later a self-appointed judge in Langtry, Texas, and the Law West of the Pecos) and his brother Sam.  The two advertised themselves as dealers "in 'merchandise and liquors,' adding the further lure of 'a fine billiard table,'" said C. L. Sonnichsen in his book Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos.  After the Apaches attacked Pinos Altos in September of 1861, "only a few white men were willing to remain after that to risk their scalps for gold.  Among the heroic souls who stayed Roy and Sam Bean were not numbered."

Ice Cream Parlor and Soda Shop, where you can indulge your sweet tooth and/or mail a letter home.

On Gold Street, just west of Main Street, you come to an adobe building that has, not the traditional flat roof, low ceiling and modest windows, but rather a steep-pitched roof, a high wooden ceiling and fine stained glass windows.  Paid for primarily with money from the estate of millionaire miner and rancher George Hearst - the father of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst - the building, constructed in 1898, served originally as a church for the Methodist and Episcopal faiths and now as the home of the Grant County Art Guild.  Through the summer, it becomes an art gallery, staffed by volunteers.  It exhibits, most famously, the antique glass-sided hearse that carried legendary lawman and gunfighter Pat Garrett to his grave after he fell to an assassin's bullet west of San Augustin Pass, overlooking the Rio Grande Valley, more than 100 miles east of Pinos Altos.  Not exactly something that you'd expect to find in an art gallery.

While wandering through Pinos Altos, you may also want to poke around the McDonald Cabin, immediately behind the Pinos Altos Opera House.  Purportedly built in the 1850's, before the discovery of gold in Bear Creek, it may be the oldest house in the region.  You might be able to investigate "Fort Cobre," a three-quarter scale model of an actual nearby fort, although we have never found the place open.  You can walk around the region's first courthouse, built around 1871.  It served for only one term, although that one has been called "the gayest and loudest ever held in the Rocky Mountains," according the Pinos Altos Internet site.  

My wife, Martha, inspecting an arrastra, a mule- or horse-powered ore-grinding pit.

Perhaps more importantly, you can drive about a mile north of Pinos Altos, to the edge of the Gila Wilderness, to visit a restored arrastra, or rock-lined ore-grinding pit.  One of some 75 arrastras that the miners built in the Pinos Altos vicinity, it offers an insight into the hardship that prospectors would endure in their compulsive pursuit of gold. 

Powered by a mule or a horse, "Large dragstones were pulled over a mixture of crushed ore and water," according to the U. S. Forest Service marker at the arrastra site.  Once a heavy mud formed, the operator added mercury [which, in concentration, can cause severe damage to the nervous system and kidneys] to the mixture.  "The mercury adhered to gold and formed an 'amalgam' that settled to the floor of the arrastra pit.  Amalgam was processed through a 'sluice' (washing system) to remove the mud.  The clean mixture was heated in a covered vessel called a 'retort' until the mercury vaporized and only gold remained.  The mercury gas was collected, cooled and condensed for reuse.  Extracted gold was cast into ingots." 

Near the arrastra, you will find the stone remnants of a small crude structure that served as the miners' home, and you can see the hand-dug "prospects" that yielded up the gold-bearing ore processed in the arrastra. 

Churchyard, where the tombstones speak to the hardships of frontier life in Pinos Altos.

You can see the consequences of the hard life of the frontier in the cemetery just to the east of Pinos Altos, adjacent to the Catholic Church, built about 1888.  You will find mere stone clusters that mark the remains of the utterly forgotten; tilted headstones that speak to the spiritual longings of the faithful; and inscriptions that memorialize the mourning for Mangas Coloradas' victims, worn and broken young men and women, U. S. army veterans and mere children-all drawn, in one way or another, to Pinos Altos in the quest for gold. 

One of the cabins nestled in among the ponderosa pines (photo courtesy of Billy and Dawn Donnel).

Where to Stay

You will have access to a number of RV parks, vacation rental cabins and hotel accommodations within a few miles of Pinos Altos, but you will find that Billy and Dawn Donnel's Bear Creek Motel & Cabins may hold truest to the spirit of Pinos Altos.  Nestled among the ponderosa pines, the warm, quaint and secluded two-story cabins embrace the individuality and tranquility of the community.  The Donnels go to considerable lengths to foster what the Spanish would have called "ambiente," or a "special ambience."  You can get a preview at the Internet site www.bearcreekcabins.com, and you can reach the Donnels at the phone numbers 1-888-388-4515 and 1-575-388-4501. 

What Else to Do

In addition to wondering around Pinos Altos - investigating old mining paraphernalia, having a decent steak, vilifying villains, celebrating heroes, eating ice cream and cake, mailing correspondence, admiring Pat Garrett's hearse, and contemplating tombstones - you can explore the Gila Wilderness, a 438,000-acre protected preserve nestled into the 2.7-million-acre Gila National Forest-a mountainous, heavily wooded region you would scarcely expect to find in the arid Southwest.

You can, for example, hike some of the most undisturbed segments of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, one of our country's great pathways. 

You can likely add to your lifetime bird checklist, especially since - as the National Forest Service says - the birds of the region, with its "great ecological diversity," include "...166 species known to breed in the Gila, 114 others that are more or less regular non-breeders, and 57 species considered to be casual...or accidental..."

You can even still pan for gold beneath a canopy of tall pines, along Bear Creek and its tributaries.  I would start by checking in at the Pinos Altos Historic Museum, where George Shafer will give you information and sell you a gold pan. 

Just remember, if you choose to look for gold, you may be suddenly overcome by the suspicion that you are getting close to a strike.  You may feel your heart start to race and your temperature begin to rise.  You may be overcome by a compulsion to trade in your mate and children for a donkey.  You may give up common sense and a good job to follow a hunch, just knowing that prospectors could not possibly have explored every streambed in the entire Gila Wilderness.  You may become totally convinced that in an isolated wash in a far corner in one of America's last wild places, you will find a deposit of rock and sand loaded with gold.  You may follow your dream.

Now, don't say you weren't warned.

How to Get There

Pinos Altos lies about six or seven miles north of Silver City, New Mexico, just off State Highway 15.  You can reach the area most easily from either Lordsburg or Deming, both located on Interstate Highway 10.  From Lordsburg, follow SH 90 for 44 miles northeast to Silver City.  From Deming, follow U. S. Highway 180 for 53 miles northeast to Silver City.  You will find the SH 15 turnoff on the northeast side of Silver City, off Silver Heights Boulevard. 

 

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