…who of us has never felt while walking through twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?
— Jorge Luis Borges
In Portugese there is a phrase, saudade, which speaks to a deep and profound sense of loss and nostalgia in regards to someone or some thing that has gone away. There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, which has been translated: “Sensitivity to the sadness of impermanence,” or “a gentle, sorrow-tinged appreciation of transitory beauty.” Life’s perishability and ephemera, and the wistful states which it can conjure, finds itself wedded to the lore and legacy of local ghost towns. As time-locked, vanishing points, ghost towns are endlessly resurrected through the stuff of legend. Places relegated to dust and dreamless remains are not only haunting grounds, but also part of an ongoing narrative. Or as Cormac McCarthy wrote, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
The scarred realities of the past are quite evident in New Mexico, which is home to over 400 ghost towns. We’ll shine a light onto the storied ruins of several ghost towns located in the Northern New Mexico region.
Dawson, which is located about seventeen miles southeast of Cimarron, was born in 1901, when the Dawson Coal Mine was opened and a railroad was constructed from Dawson to Tucumcari. Yet the “black gold,” which brought vitality and commerce to the community, was also tied to two cataclysmic disasters. On October 22, 1913, the second worst mining disaster of the century occurred, when an incorrectly set dynamite charge resulted in an explosion, killing 263 miners and two rescuers. Ten years later, on February 8, 1923, a mine train jumped its track, hit the supporting timbers of the tunnel mouth, and conflagrated coal dust in the mine. The explosion killed 120 miners. Dawson Cemetery twice had to be extended to include the graves of the victims, 385 in all, which are marked by white iron crosses. Despite the tragedies, Dawson hung on until 1950, when the mine was closed and the entire town was sold off and dismantled. Pretty much all that remains is the cemetery, which is open to the public and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Sites (one of the few cemeteries to earn this distinction).
Colfax, originally known as Vermejo Junction, was a town whose existence was predicated on promises and the lure of attraction, a sales-pitch with a hustler’s grin. In the late 1890s, with nearby Dawson’s coal-industry thriving, Colfax expected to cash in. Not only did Colfax promoters play the Dawson angle, but also the fact that Colfax was located near two railroads, and possessed rich and arable farmland. Yet Colfax was one of those can’t-miss prospects, which never realized its potential. By the 1930s, most of the town had shut down, including the post office, school, general store, hotel, and gas station. Nowadays, Colfax, with sparse fossilized remains indicating its past life, is a true ghost town whose vanishing act is nearly complete.
In the 1800s gold fever was a contagion that precipitated the rise of many towns in New Mexico. One of those model “boom-or-bust” towns was Elizabethtown, which was founded by Captain William H. Moore, and named for his daughter, Elizabeth Catherine Moore. Located five miles from what is now Eagle Nest, nearby Baldy Mountain became the hot-spot for digging, panning, and pick-axing in hopes of hitting the jackpot. At its peak of popularity in 1870, “E-Town” had over 7,000 residents, and was designated New Mexico’s first incorporated town. Yet just two years later, with prospecting on the decline, there were only about 100 residents left, and the county seat was shifted to Cimarron. Yet minus the greed, violence, and viciousness that often went hand-in-hand with gold fever, “E-Town” morphed into a slightly saner, quieter version of itself. A widespread fire destroyed most of the town in 1903, yet it wasn’t fire that became the death-blow for “E-town” but water. Commissioned by Charles and Frank Springer, a dam was built at the entrance to Cimarron Canyon (completed in 1918), which created Eagle Nest Lake. Shortly thereafter the town of Therma was founded (later to be renamed Eagle Nest) and most of “E-Town’s” remaining residents switched locales. Structural bits and pieces of “E-Town’s” past still remain, with its bones consecrated in the hillside cemetery. The E-town museum rounds out the details through books, clothing, pictures, maps, family heirlooms, and other period-specific memorabilia.
Loma Parda (“Gray Hill”) is situated on the banks of the Mora River, about thirty miles north of Las Vegas. Interestingly, it wasn’t Las Vegas but this modest little village which became New Mexico’s “Sin City,” or “Sodom on the Mora,” as it was referred to back in its salacious heyday. When Fort Union was established in 1851, located about six miles from Loma Parda, local entrepreneur Julian Baca capitalized on the soldiers’ desires for vice-driven fun by opening a saloon and dance hall. It wasn’t long before Baca’s was operating 24-7, with the world’s oldest profession in full swing, a rotgut liquor dubbed Loma Lightning being served in mass quantities, and the entire town turned into a “resort for thieves, murderers, and bad men and women of all kinds.” The advent of the railroad impacted the relevance of Fort Union, which was not only a military outpost but also a trader’s hub, and by 1892 the fort was abandoned entirely. As a result, Loma Parda lost its best customers and watched its fiery, dark star wane. Some families continued to live there and farm, but by World War II Loma Parda slipped from its coma state into soft death. While much of the old village is now on private land, there are still some time-chewed remnants that can be seen, including relics of Baca’s dance hall, a wooden cross from the old church, and slabs of what was McMartin’s store. Legend has it that the ghosts of “lost souls,” perhaps men whose lives were claimed by violence, perhaps the women who were in the flinty business of pleasure, continue to stir echoes of the past. Fort Union, now a national monument, reflects its spectral existence through rows of adobe ruins, rusted cannons and farm equipment, and wagon ruts in the earth.
To find out more about any of these and other New Mexico ghost towns, including directions and helpful guidelines, visit: www.ghosttowns.com/states/nm/nm.html or www.newmexico.org/places-to-go/true-trails/ghost-towns/.
— John Biscello