Nothing lasts. Silver booms end, mining towns fade away, and buildings collapse unless cared for. Adobe slowly melts in the rare desert rains, returning to the materials from which it was made. A ghost town isn’t so much a place with ghosts as a ghost of its former self.
I took a trip through three of Sierra County’s ghost towns (there are many more) with a friend who is a found-object artist and a dealer in antiques and collectibles. Having his perspective on the sites added to the experience, because he knew what things were when we found odd objects lying around,.
Our first stop was in Cuchillo, at the partially-restored, partially-collapsed Old Cuchillo Bar. It shows the world a mangled face of original porch and windows—some broken—some of its original front and roof, new beams replacing portions of the fallen roof, and open space where the weather can get in. My view through the window was limited, but my much taller friend said it looked like the original bar was intact. This place was long reputed to be haunted, but in the book Mysterious New Mexico, paranormal investigator Benjamin Radford describes his night spent in the place and how he examined the physics and mechanics of a seemingly self-opening cabinet. No ghost was required to explain its movement. The bar is for sale, if anyone feels inspired to finish the restoration and try to revive the ghost. The town has a few inhabitants and a colorful history.
Winston looked the most modern and normal of the three towns, small but alive and well and not very ghostly, though it may have traces of the nineteenth century frontier further off the main road. We kept going to our primary destination, Chloride. (I plan to use it in a future book, the seventh in the series, although I’m only ten chapters into the sixth, and the fifth is about to come this month. I plan ahead.)
The winding roads on the way have glorious views of mountains and valleys—the empty desert that makes up most of Sierra County. Truth or Consequences, the home base from which we set out, is the county seat with a population around 6,500. In 1890, present-day ghost town Kingston boasted 7,000 souls, making it the biggest city in NM at the time. Chloride topped out at 3,000. Its current population? Eleven.
The museum is the general store that was abandoned with all its merchandise in place in 1923 and reopened in its new role with much of the same stuff in 1998. It also houses some of the amazing handiwork of self-taught furniture maker, Cassie Hobbs, a woman who grew up in a covered wagon and never went to school. She didn’t just hammer crates into a chair. She carved and upholstered as if she had the right tools and training. And she was still alive when Chloride was rediscovered. A few surviving old-timers like her were a treasure trove for the family that bought the old buildings and decided to save the remains of Chloride for the future. We heard only one ghost story at the museum, about a headless figure that used to chase people at night. (Most people who saw it were leaving the saloon.)
Santo Nino Cemetery is hidden high on hill above the town, up a road so winding and rough I had the good sense not to make my little Fiesta climb it. Legs could handle it better. It has simple burials from the old days and more elaborate ones from recent times, but not many of each. The old graves are marked by patches of rocks and pebbles covered with weeds. The headstones are clearly not the work of a professional, thin slabs of natural stone scratched with rough writing. Many of the newer ones are decorated: with toys and angels honoring a child’s short life, or a rider on horseback made from horseshoes swinging a lariat, memorializing an old cowboy’s long life.
The earth along the side of the road to the cemetery, where the hill had been cut to build the road, was layered with roots and rocks. On our way back through Cuchillo, we stopped to explore some desolate, crumbling houses. When I saw the old adobe bricks melting away with little dried teardrops of rain streaks in them, they looked very much the same as that slice of raw earth—small, beautiful stones of red and pink and green embedded with bits of straw in the dirt.
The abandoned houses had stories to tell, but there was no one to explain the artifacts the way there had been at the museum in Chloride, so we had to do some amateur archaeology. One ruin had nineteenth century adobe bricks and a shredded pinkish gray fake leather easy chair sitting in an otherwise empty room where one wall had fallen away. A burned-out building with structural elements that suggested it dated back to the mining boom days had apparently spent part of the 20th century as a bar or restaurant, judging from the broken china, and the huge cache of scorched Pepsi cans and rusted soup or bean cans in one half of the building. The other half was full of rusted car parts– a lot of mufflers and carburetors. Too many for a family’s cars, and inside the house. I kept picturing a combination bar and garage. Amusing, but unlikely.
We climbed up to flat area that looked as though it might have once been a campground or a trailer park, with nothing left but metal clothesline poles and a street sign that read Wyoming. I could sense Cuchillo ghosting away, hollowing out with time, changing but not dying.