Lake Valley was named for ancient lake beds nearby. It was founded with the discovery of silver in the area in 1878. The town moved twice before settling at its present site in 1882 when the Bridal Chamber Mine was discovered. The subterranean mine produced 2.5 million ounces of silver ore so pure it was shipped unsmelted to the mint. A stage stop, and railhead, Lake valley grew to 4,000 people with 12 saloons, three churches, two newspapers, a school, stores and hotels. The 1893 silver panic wiped out the town and a fire destroyed main street in 1895. Lake Valley is today a true ghost town, as the last permanent residents left in 1994. You can take a walking tour of the townsite. The schoolhouse, built in 1904, is open to the public. A chapel and several old homes still stand. The cemetery is across the highway from town.
The following article is with permission of the Author Don Bullis
Ellos Pasaron Por Aqui
(Rio Rancho Observer, August 27, 2003)
LAKE VALLEY: MINING TOWN
By Don Bullis
"Lake Valley is the toughest town I've ever seen. I'm satisfied a man died with his boots on every night."
So said a surveyor named Parker as quoted by old time Hillsboro resident George Meyers.1 While there is little doubt that Lake Valley was a violent place to live in the late 1870s and 1880s, Parker's assertion is probably a bit exaggerated.
There are a couple versions of the town's origins, but they both agree that George Lufkin made the first silver discovery in the area in 1878. One source says the place was originally named Daly for George Daly who had been killed by Apaches. Another says that Lufkin sold his find to George Daly, a member of a Colorado syndicate, and that Daly was killed by marauding Apaches in the early 1880s. In any event, the name Daly did not stick and some folks called the place Sierra City. Because there was a small lake nearby, the name Lake Valley was officially adopted when the Post Office was established in 1882.
The silver deposits found in the Lake Valley district were the richest in all of New Mexico. One of the earliest mines was the Sierra Grande, which produced more than $700,000 worth of bullion in six months. The largest of them all was named the Bridal Chamber. So large was it that a railroad spur line was built directly in to the mine to facilitate removal of the ore and to keep production costs low. One source says there was so much exposed silver that one could hold a candle to the wall and it would actually melt. Another source reported that the walls of the grotto were almost pure silver. Three million dollars was extracted from the Bridal Chamber.2
There was indeed trouble with the Apaches, Victorio, Nana and Loco in particular. George Daly was killed when he accompanied a troop of cavalry that was ambushed by the Apaches. Five others were also killed, including the officer in command of the soldiers. Indians never attacked the town Lake Valley, but several ranches in the area were set upon by the hostiles. One source reports that of the 33 graves at Lake Valley at one time, Indians had killed 28. (Hardly an indication that a man per night was being killed in the community.)
Lake Valley and other towns in the area-Kingston and Hillsboro-also became centers for rustler gangs. Probably the most significant outlaw bunch was led by John Kinney. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the thieves were "running off oxen of farmers in the Mesilla Valley so they cannot plow and the country is a wasteland." Major Albert Jennings Fountain was charged with putting a stop to the depredations. He implemented a multi pronged attack and soon began arresting rustlers and by March 1883 he had many of them in custody, including John Kinney. But that was not an end to the problem. Members of the Kinney gang were seen in and around Lake Valley.
Fountain wasted no time in moving his troops from Las Cruces, first to Nutt Station, and then north to Lake Valley. He ordered another company of his troopers, under Francisco Salazar, to head for Kingston. Both companies were successful in rounding up the remaining rustlers before they rendezvoused back at Nutt Station. This finally broke the back of the criminal organization.
Just over two years later, in May 1885, Fountain, by then promoted to colonel, was back in Lake Valley. He established regimental headquarters there as troops under his command sought out Apaches, many of them under Geronimo, who had been raiding in the area. One source says this about that effort: "Almost at once, the number of reports of killings and property losses began to drop, and after June 30 no casualties due to Indians raids were reported in the entire protective zone patrolled by his First Regiment."3
And while all this was going on, legend holds, efforts were made by townspeople to put a lid on the violence by hiring Timothy Isaiah "Longhaired Jim" Courtright as town marshal.4 One source says this; "hired as town marshal, [Courtright] engaged several law breakers in gun battles and things began to settle down." The problem is that no other historian reports that Courtright was ever marshal in Lake Valley. He was an ore guard for the American Mining Company, and he did kill a couple of would-be robbers, but that was the extent of his efforts toward law and order. He later murdered two squatters for a rancher, and former Union General, named John Logan. He left New Mexico with the law on his heels.5
Courtright is only interesting to western history buffs because on February 8, 1887 he engaged in a gunfight with gambler Luke Short in Fort Worth, Texas and came up wanting. The two guns he habitually carried did not prevent Short from putting three bullet holes in him.
Historians generally agree that at its peak, Lake Valley had a population of 3,000 to 4,000 souls, although one claims only 1,000. Whatever it was, as the silver mines played out, the population dwindled until the place became a classic ghost town. What remains of it today is on private property, but some of the ruins can be observed from State Road 27, about 18 miles south of Hillsboro.
1 This quote is taken from Ghost Towns of New Mexico, Playthings of the Wind by Michael Jenkinson with photos by Karl Kernberger. Unfortunately, references are not provided and so the date of the comment is not reported, nor is further information about the surveyor. UNM Press published the book in 1967.
2 A single chunk of silver ore from Lake Valley, valued at $7,000, was displayed at Denver in 1882.
3 The Life and Death of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain, by A. M. Gibson, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
4 Courtright's hair was really not very long, especially for his times. It did not reach his collar. Wild Bill Hickok's hair was much longer.
5 Courtright returned to New Mexico a couple of years later, faced trial on the murder charges, and was acquitted.
Francis & Roberta Fugate. Roadside History of New Mexico.
Robert Julyan. The Place Names of New Mexico. UNM Press.
Denis McLoughlin. An Encyclopedia of the Old West. Barnes & Noble Books.
Leon Metz. The Shooters. Mangan Books, El Paso.
Bill O'Neal. Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. University of Oklahoma Press.
Marc Simmons. "Ghosts of Lake Valley Tell a Tale," Prime Time, August 2003.