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Pinos Altos, then and now

By Robert O. Wilson

Last updated on Monday, January 13, 2003

The Pinos
Altos Museum
Photo by Bob Wilson
The Pinos Altos Museum
Pinos Altos (Tall Pines) is located about six miles north of Silver City on NM Highway 15. The townsite is located along the Continental Divide at an elevation of 7,067 feet at the southern end of the Pinos Altos Mountains. Pinos Altos is a very old mining town; it was Grant County's first county seat.

Gold was first discovered by the Spanish and Mexican miners. The Americans discovered gold in 1859/60. Hank Smith, a German immigrant, described how a placer deposit was found on Bear Creek in 1859, and other prospectors of the Col. Snively party talk of the big find on Bear Creek in 1860 and the naming of Birchville, Pinos Altos' first name, after the prospector who found the first "color."

Pinos Altos' history includes a short time under the flag of the Confederacy when the Confederate States of America invaded the Union Territory of New Mexico. The Confederate legacy was a brief period from February, 1861 until June of 1862. The Southerners were defeated at the Battle of Glorieta Pass east of Santa Fe in March of 1862. The Confederate soldiers were routed back to El Paso by the Union forces from Colorado.

The miners and the mining camp at Pinos Altos were under constant threat from the Apaches and an occasional band of Navajos. The miners and the Indians were not good neighbors. In the spring of 1860 Chief Mangas Coloradas was invited for a "friendly" visit to the Pinos Altos mining camp. The treacherous miners tied him to a tree and lashed him unmercifully with their bullwhips. When the chief recovered from his wounds he enlisted his son-in-law's help. His son-in-law was Chief Cochise, and revenge was an important factor in Chiricahua Apache warfare.

Main Street in
Pinos Altos
Photo by Carla DeMarco
Main Street in Pinos Altos
Captain Thomas Marston of the Arizona Scouts led a company of volunteers in defense of Pinos Altos in the revengeful Apache War of September 27, 1861. Captain Marston and many others on both sides died in this battle. The combined forces of the Apaches some 400 strong under the leadership of Cochise and Mangas Coloradas convinced most of the miners that gold was not worth living in fear of the Apaches, and Birchville was nearly abandoned.

The California Volunteers of the Union forces known as the "California Column," under the command of Brigadier General James H. Carleton arrived in June 1862. Upon arriving General Carleton learned that Pinos Altos was under siege and surrounded by Apaches, being slowly starved out. He immediately sent two wagon loads of provisions with soldiers to relieve the beleaguered town. Realizing the importance of the mines at Pinos Altos, General Carleton ordered General Joseph West to establish a military fort near the Gila River. Fort West was established on January 24, 1863 (about two miles south of Cliff) with four companies of troops to protect Pinos Altos from hostile Indians.

Before Captain Thomas Marston's death he had sold his share of the Pacific Mine to his brother Virgil in the spring of 1861. Virgil never left Pinos Altos with the other miners; he continued mining and developed the Pacific lode. In 1866, he charted the Pinos Altos Mining Company under the laws of the Territory of New Mexico. A stamp mill of 15 stamps, each weighing 700 pounds, were hauled by ox-drawn wagons from St. Louis, Missouri, and erected on site by the company. The Pacific lode crosses the Continental Divide and is rich in silver, gold, lead, zinc and copper. The Pacific Mine alone produced over a million dollars in copper and gold. Sometime after the miners left in 1861 and returned in 1866 the town was renamed Pinos Altos, the original Mexican village name. After the Legal Tender silver mine in San Vincente de La Cienaga was discovered in 1870 Pinos Altos soon lost the county seat to the town renamed Silver City.

The mines at Pinos Altos and the smelter at Silver City, which had belonged to the estate of Senator Hearst, were sold to the Comanche Mining and Smelting Company in 1903. In 1905 it was announced that the company would build a railroad between their smelter in Silver City and the mines in Pinos Altos. A 24 inch narrow-gauge Shay locomotive railroad (about two-thirds of the normal width of a narrow gauge) was completed in April of 1906 between Silver City and Pinos Altos a rail distance of 12 miles. The rail operated only for a short time; the company went bankrupt in the fall of 1907.

Present Day Pinos Altos

The present day Pinos Altos includes an adobe Methodist-Episcopal church built with Hearst money in 1898 and now houses the Grant County Art Guild. One of the many interesting things that you can find there is the funeral hearse of Pat Garrett, a famous western lawman, who killed the outlaw "Billy the Kid."

Pinos Altos
Opera House
Photo by Bob Wilson
Pinos Altos Opera House
The Opera House captures the flavor of the Old West. It is an excellent replica of an Old West Victorian frontier theater. It was built in 1969 of salvaged old buildings and fixtures. Inside are displays of Old West photos and artifacts. Year round, Sean O'Hare & Jillian Graves hysterically present an Old West melodrama every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.. A show worth seeing!

The Buckhorn Saloon is located just east of the Opera House on Main Street and is an refurbished authentic building from the 1860s. The inside is decorated "tastefully" with bar room paintings, mannequin representing 'ladies of the night' and "Regular" Joe, a mannequin bar patron. There are also many artifacts and early photos of the area. Excellent food is served in the dining room as well.

The Pinos Altos Museum, an old family log cabin built around 1866 with later add-ons, was Grant Counties first school house. Mrs. George Schafer and her son, Bob, run a very interesting museum of old mining artifacts and a gift shop. It is open seven days a week year round. The museum is located on Main Street across from the Buckhorn Saloon.

The McDonald Cabin was built about 1851 before the gold discoveries of 1859/1860. It is probably the oldest cabin in Grant County and is located on Spring Street directly behind the opera house.

Santa Rita del Cobre Fort and Trading Post Photo by Carla DeMarco
Santa Rita del Cobre Fort and Trading Post
The Santa Rita del Cobre Fort and Trading Post is a 3/4 scale of the original fort built at the Santa Rita copper mines in 1804 by the Spanish to protect the miners from Apache attacks. Inside the fort and trading post are many interesting mining and other artifacts of the era along with a replica of an old miner's cave. The actual fort at Santa Rita was renamed Fort Webster in 1851 by the American Army.

The Bear Creek Motel and Cabins are located at the intersection of Main Street and State Highway 15. The cabins are very rustic and shaded by tall pines, with a very serene ambiance.

The old Judge Roy Bean general store site was located next to the present day Post Office. The Judge's store was built in the early 1860s during the gold rush and was run by Roy and his brother Samuel. Trappers Cafe is now located on the site.

The site of the first Grant County Seat and Court House of 1871 is located east of Bear Creek on Main Street. The "hanging" tree in front of the old Court House is said to have brought Western justice during troubled times in Pinos Altos.

Bear Creek Cabins Photo by Carla DeMarco
Bear Creek Cabins
The Pinos Altos cemetery, just north of Saint Alexis Catholic Church, dedicated on July 17, 1888, is where Captain Marston and his brother Virgil are buried next to each other. The miners erected the cross on Cross Mountain north of town after an agreement with the Indians - no more killings as long as the cross remained.

The Continental Divide RV Park is located across from the Gold Rush Cafe and offers many spaces.

The Gold Rush Cafe is the site of an earlier Post Office and a place to get a good meal for a good price. It is located on the way into or out of town depending on which way you are going.

The present day Pinos Altos Post Office and Ice Cream Parlor was built as the Norton Store around 1890. The Norton Store was built on the site of a two-storied log structure known as the Occidental Hotel. When Gary MacGrumbley became the proprietor of the Ice Cream Parlor and postmaster of Pinos Altos a few years back, his true forte came to the forefront. He enjoys customer relations to the utmost. He asks everyone from out of town the where, what, when, and how they are doing. Not to be nosy, but to be helpful with local sites to see and things to do.

Plan a trip to the mountains to visit Pinos Altos. Enjoy a trip back in time when life was simpler and friendlier. While you are there, enjoy a piece of homemade fudge and the best coffee either side of the Continental Divide at Gary Mac's Ice Cream Parlor, or belly up to the bar at the Buckhorn Saloon. Explore the Pinos Altos Museum, Santa Rita del Cobre Fort and Trading Post, and other sites. Have a great time in Pinos Altos!

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