Caballo, Hillsboro, Kingston, and Lake Valley — water-world and peaceful mountain intrigue

Hillsboro Apple Festival. Photo by Carla DeMarco.
Hillsboro Apple Festival.

Caballo is a town of people who want to live by Caballo Lake and Caballo Lake State Park, too few to warrant a population figure on New Mexico maps. Easily reached on N.M. 90, it sits approximately three miles east of Interstate 25, 15 miles south of Truth or Consequences. Named for the mountains and the likeness of a horse’s head on the north end, it is home to year-round residents, snow birds, and the merchants who serve them..

The very curvy sixteen mile stretch of N.M. 90/152 from Caballo to Hillsboro rises from the Rio Grande Valley to over 5,180 feet in the Black Range mountains. The Box Canyon on this road was used by Apaches to hide and wait for freighters and stage coaches. Flash floods were so dangerous that businessmen in Hillsboro and Kingston strung telegraph wires between the two towns to warn travelers on the highway.

Though listed as a ghost town, Hillsboro has a few hundred residents; many are retirees, artists and writers. Some of the old stores house antiques and crafts for sale to tourists in the summer and during the Apple Festival on Labor Day weekend. Described as “a gentle and pretty town,” Hillsboro is a peaceful setting with flower filled yards and old cottonwoods lining the main street.

Hillsboro’s history began in 1877 when two prospectors discovered gold. It became the seat of Sierra County where miners registered their claims. It was also a frontier town and as such attracted such people as Sadie Orchard who came from London in 1886 via Kingston. Madame Sadie owned the Ocean Grove Hotel and provided miners with wine and women, running brothels in both Hillsboro, on Shady Lane, and in Kingston on Virtue Avenue. Later, with her husband, she ran more respectable establishments. Sadie lived in the community until her death in 1943.

The Hotel is now occupied by the Black Range Museum displaying memorabilia of the era including items belonging to Sadie Orchard, mining equipment and things used in Tom Ying’s Cafe, known as the Chinaman’s Place.Ying died in 1953 at age 104 ( some say 116).

As the riches of the town dwindled, ranching and, later, apple orchards became important industries. The county seat was moved to Truth or Consequences (then known as Hot Springs) in 1938, and many of Hillsboro buildings fell into disrepair. There is a remarkable General Store, though, that opened in 1879 and has continued operation since that date, today serving food and home made pastries. A few galleries and gift shops, a B & B, post office, and library also remain in service.

Nine miles farther west a slight turnoff from this highway brings you to the former hard-working, hard-drinking and hard-playing ghost town of Kingston. Today 30-some people, many of them artists, live in the few houses remaining. Operating in the town is the Black Range Lodge, completed in 1940 from the tumble down ruins of Pretty Sam’s Casino and the Monarch Saloon. In addition there are also the Soar Gallery, the Percha Bank Museum, Percha Creek Bed and Breakfast, the Ol’ Millsite Things and Stuff Store, and Camp Shiloh.

At one time this boom town housed the old Kingston Brewery, the Percha Bank which still stands, twenty-two saloons, dance halls and a theater where Lillian Russell’s troupe performed.

By 1885 Kingston had grown to a population of seven thousand. Its silver mines and other ores had produced revenue of ten million dollars. The three-story Victorio Hotel, named after the well-known Apache Chiefton and once a landmark, lost the top story by fire in the 1930s. It is now a private residence.

Lake Valley is another New Mexico ghost town with a history of riches and demise. Once occupied by 4000 people over 100 years ago, it is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The adobe schoolhouse and chapel are being restored.

Located 18 miles south of Hillsboro, Lake Valley is reached by Back Country Byway, the paved two-lane state highway 27, about 48 miles in length. There are several drainage areas with low water crossings that can fill with water after heavy rains. If you encounter running water it is wise to wait it out rather than risk crossing. It is here, though, that you may see deer browsing along the highway.

The history of Lake Valley begins with the discovery of ore in 1878 by George W. Lufkin, who named the town Daly after George Daly, killed by the Apaches. Later it was renamed Lake Valley after a small lake in the region.

The ore produced was of a fabulous richness. One nugget, valued at $7000, was displayed in Denver in 1882. Two days after a couple of miners sold their claim for $100,000, the new owners found a subterranean room and christened it “The Bridal Chamber.”

It was one of the richest single silver strikes in American history, producing some $2 1/2 million worth of pure horn silver, so pure there was no need to smelt it.

The demise of Lake Valley began when silver was devalued in 1893. A fire in 1895 destroyed Lake Valley’s main street. The saloons, hotels, general stores and newspapers gradually disappeared until today the schoolhouse presides over scattered mining ruins. Once used for Saturday night dances, the schoolhouse is available now to groups for dances, weddings, parties and reunions for a small fee.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks