Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ghost Towns and Modern Trains

                                                Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
                                                Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
                                                Is an open field . . .

                                                                    -- T. S. Eliot, "East Coker," Four Quartets

Throughout the United States, there are hundreds of abandoned towns and settlements . . . so-called ghost towns.  In the Southwest U.S., most originally arose as mining towns in the mid- to late-19th century:  boom-and-bust communities that grew rapidly with the discovery of gold or silver, then declined or disappeared entirely when the mines played out.

These ghost towns are in various states of disrepair, ranging from fully restored and inhabited (like Tombstone, AZ) to crumbling adobe ruins and rusting mining equipment.


With a group of photographers from Albuquerque's Enchanted Lens Camera Club, I visited three well-known New Mexico ghost towns in the far southwest corner of the state:  Steins, Shakespeare, and Lake Valley (where, of course, there is no lake).

Steins and Shakespeare are located near the small railroad town of Lordsburg, NM (see map by clicking on the word Lordsburg), which means that, in addition to the ghost towns, there were plenty of photo opportunities with trains -- primarily freight trains -- passing through, headed east or west, every 30 minutes or so.

Image by Barry Schwartz  (c) 2013

That's my photo buddy Barry Schwartz in the first image above.  In the second image, you can see me barely visible in the lower left corner by the RR crossing sign.  

And here's what that oncoming locomotive looked like from my vantage point:

You can see more images of these trains at my photography website, Todos Juntos Photography, by clicking here.

Now, back to the ghost towns:


Steins was established in 1880 along the Southern Pacific Railroad, initially as a water stop for steam locomotives, which could only travel 10-15 miles before a re-supply of water was needed.  Ironically, Steins had no natural source of water, so all water had to be brought in by train or wagon.

In 1905 a rock-crushing plant was built nearby to produce track ballast for the railroad.  By the 1910 census Steins had its peak population of some 1,300 people, not counting the 3,000 immigrant Chinese laborers at the quarry a few miles away.

In 1944, toward the end of World War II, the railway ceased operations at the Steins quarry and gave notice it would no longer subsidize water deliveries.  And by then steam locomotives were being replaced by diesel.  The railway offered the inhabitants of Steins free transport elsewhere with only what they could carry; most of the population accepted this offer, leaving their houses and many of their possessions behind.  The remaining structures are filled with poignant reminders of their lives.

Over time Steins was completely abandoned.  Part of old Steins burned down, but a large section remained, and is now privately owned.  It is unusual among the Old West ghost towns in having been a railroad town rather than a mining town.

You can see more images of Steins at my photography website by clicking here.


Shakespeare Ghost Town is a national and state historic site.  Originally called Mexican Spring because there was a reliable source of water there, and long before silver was discovered nearby, the town served as a stop on the Butterfield stage line and an alternate stop on the San Antonio to San Diego mail route.


In 1870, silver was discovered and a group of California investors headed by Bank of California president William Ralston bought up most of the claims and re-named the town Ralston.  3,000 people flocked to the town.  However, the silver ran out pretty quickly and people began to leave.  To attract East Coast investor money, people associated with the original California owners' group salted the area with diamonds and other precious stones, none of which naturally occur in the same geological area.  Eventually the fraud was discovered and the town emptied out by 1873.

In 1879, the famous English mining engineer William George Boyle bought up all the claims, restarted some of the mines, and renamed the town Shakespeare.  President Rutherford B. Hayes visited on the return portion of his cross-country tour (the first such trip by a sitting president) in the fall of 1880.  The mines ran until the Panic (and depression) of 1893, then re-opened in 1907 and ran until 1932.  The town was purchased in 1935 by Frank and Rita Hill, who began the restoration process.  

The site includes well-restored buildings . . .

guides/storytellers in period costume . . .

and re-enactments . . .

 for the tourists and photographers  :-)

Click on the image below to see a brief video of one of the shoot-outs.  Note that the video opens in the same window, so after viewing, hit the "back" arrow to return to this blog post.

Shakespeare also boasts a functioning blacksmith shop . . .

with a real blacksmith (not an actor) who is much friendlier than he looks in this photo . . .

You can see more images of Shakespeare at my photography website by clicking here.

Lake Valley

Lake Valley, NM, was a mining town created with the discovery of silver deposits in 1876.  Mining operations began in 1878, and in 1882 a huge deposit of silver just 40 feet beneath the surface caused the town to grow rapidly.  The large deposit yielded 78 tons of silver but, as with many other mining towns, the silver played out rapidly, and the town declined after the Panic of 1893, when silver was devalued.  All of the buildings along the main street burned in 1895.

There were brief periods of revival for Lake Valley in the 1920s and during World War II into the 1950s when the area was mined for manganese ore.  The last residents, Pedro and Savina Martinez, left in 1994.  Today the area is partially owned by private owners and partially by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has implemented a program to protect the area.

Most structures are collapsed or collapsing . . .

but the one-room schoolhouse, built in the 1920s and reinforced in the 1960s, is the most well-preserved.

There are rivers of tin cans (and a few contemporary bottles) that do not biodegrade in the desert climate . . .

and a 1935 Plymouth slowly falling apart . . .

There is also a cemetery about 1/2 mile from the town.

You can see more images of Lake Valley and its cemetery at my photography website by clicking here.

En Route

Finally, I've collected a few en route images from stops we made along the way during the trip from/to Albuquerque.  Some of them, like this one . . .

show the smoke cloud emanating from the "Silver" wildfire in the Gila National Forest about 30-40 miles west of where the images were taken.  Others show how the sky looked from within the smoke cloud:

See these and other en route images here

Until my next post, I hope you enjoy the trip.


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