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Living, Breathing New Mexico Ghost Town: Hillsboro
By Monique J. Ortega and Adrianna Alatorre
A mountain sun reflects brilliantly off the 40 or so buildings that make up the Hillsboro, N.M. community. A lake of metal roofs glistens over a distance of three miles, a sight visible atop the hill where the ruins of the courthouse that housed the proceedings of the infamous Fountain murders still stand.
Image caption: The Black Range Museum once housed a hotel and restaurant. Photo by Monique J. Ortega
Isolated on New Mexico Highway152 and near the Gila National Forest, Hillsboro is located 100 miles northwest of El Paso via the Elephant Butte exit. Hillsboro’s success and demise were based on the discovery and mining of gold and silver in the Black Range region. Although it is considered a ghost town, its 200 residents say otherwise.
Hillsboro’s history began with three miners who came to southwest New Mexico hoping to strike it rich. Dave Stitzel and Daniel Dugan arrived in the Black Range first. According to several sources, Joe Yankie joined them shortly after. The men split up and surveyed the area. Joe Yankie struck gold first in a mesa south of the camp, firing his Winchester to alert Dugan and Stitzel. The men had discovered gold that was later assayed at $160 per ton of ore. The first batch was worth $400.
Although isolated from nearby populations, the three men knew that when word got out, miners from all surrounding regions would flock to the site of such a significant find. The camp would become a town. According to the History of Hillsboro, New Mexico Web site, “Some reports indicate that the community’s name was drawn from a hat; others that it was named after Yankie’s home of Hillsborough, Ohio, and that Main Street was originally Yankie Avenue.” The spelling of the town’s name later was shortened to Hillsboro.
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A young town will always face adversities. For early settlers of Hillsboro, the Apaches provided the primary threat. The miners and settlers were in the middle of Apache hunting grounds. Mickey Monnett wrote in a Password article, “As fierce as the grizzlies and as viciously protective of their rights were the Apaches … taking what they wanted and killing anyone who got in their way.” Many unmarked graves of miners caught alone or unaware litter the Black Range Mountains, according to Monnett.
In his monograph on Hillsboro, F. Stanley depicted the town as “one devilish, hair raising, gun toting wild spot on the map.” Monnett noted that outlaws such as Butch Cassidy, the Kingston Gang and the Farmington Gang “operated in this area.” The miners remained undeterred; by 1878, the town had a population of 250. By 1882, that number had grown to 700. The town’s post office opened in 1879 and has never closed.
In 1884, Hillsboro became the county seat following the creation of Sierra County. In the following three years, the residents of the small mining village decided to file for a town plat; included in the town’s plat was enough room to hold twice the population of Hillsboro. The town developed a small and bustling hotel and commercial center. Along with the growth of the town came an increase in the criminal element. The History of Hillsboro Web site said that the small jail was soon overcrowded, and prisoners were taken to distant towns and housed in their jails.
Image caption: The Sierra County Courthouse, built in 1892, was the scene of the Fountain murder trial. Doors to the building were located through the archways, now in ruins. Photo courtesy of the Rio Grande Historical Collection, NMSU, © 2007.
One of the legends of the area came from London. Moving to Kingston, several miles down the road from Hillsboro, Sarah Jane Creech, later known as Sadie Orchard, became a driving force in the development of both towns in the 1880s. Sadie was a madam by profession, running a brothel in Hillsboro on Shady Lane and one in Kingston on Virtue Street! But she possessed an innate ability to finance and develop other successful enterprises. She even raised the money and oversaw the construction of a small stone church in Kingston. In the late 1880s, she moved to Hillsboro and married J. W. Orchard, owner of the principal stagecoach line.
Her marriage to Orchard was the one way Sadie knew how to gain respectability. With black hair and blue eyes, the petite and elegantly dressed Sadie was an expert horsewoman, riding side saddle. While she might have looked like a lady, her salty speech belied her appearance. Her husband was not much of a businessman, and according to Bill Rakocy’s Ghosts of Kingston and Hillsboro, Sadie took over the Lake Valley, Hillsboro and Kingston Express lines, often driving the stagecoach herself to and from these three mining towns in the Black Range.
Image caption: Courthouse ruins. Photo by Monique J. Ortega
Orchard is also remembered for owning the Ocean Grove Hotel which served fine food and wines. Her hotel accommodated influential persons during the Fountain murder trial such as Albert Bacon Fall, lead attorney for defendants James Gilliland, Bill McNew and Oliver Lee, and Thomas Benton Catron of the Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office.
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The Sierra County Courthouse, built in 1892 in Hillsboro, was chosen as the site for the trial of the century. When Judge Albert Jennings Fountain and his eight-year-old son were murdered, the man he had prosecuted, Oliver Lee, and some of his cohorts were charged with the crime. Lee’s lawyers had petitioned for a change of venue in hopes of assembling an impartial jury. Fall knew that the people of Las Cruces and neighboring Alamogordo were biased against Oliver Lee.
Hillsboro made the front page headlines of newspapers nationwide in 1899. The first telegraph lines were strung for reporters to send their stories to papers back East, including The Wall Street Journal. The small town will always be remembered for acquitting Oliver Lee, James Gilliland and Bill McNew for the murders of Fountain and his son.
Meanwhile, the pursuit of gold and silver went on. Local mines had produced millions of dollars in gold and silver. But the great silver crash of 1893 brought hard times for the miners and the towns of Kingston and Hillsboro. Not only was mining becoming more difficult and less profitable, but other calamities hit Hillsboro, whose population in 1907 was 1,200.
A major fire destroyed the commercial area of the town, and its residents suffered through the influenza epidemic of 1918, but it was Mother Nature that periodically reminded the town of her power. Owing to its location along Percha Creek, the town was subject to flash floods. In 1877, torrential downpours caused a wall of water to tear through Hillsboro and Kingston.
The flood water did minimal damage, according to Stanley, who wrote that the casualties of the flood were two men and a young boy. But the storm of 1877 paled in comparison to the flood that almost wiped out Hillsboro on June 10, 1914. Once again, the neighboring communities of Hillsboro and Kingston were surprised by flood waters of the Percha Creek caused by a breach in the dam. This time, building after building was washed away and the first sheriff of Hillsboro, Thomas Murphy, lost his life.
Hillsboro’s bank failed in 1925, and the national Depression hurt the town as well. Hillsboro remained the county seat until 1938 when Hot Springs, now known as Truth or Consequences, won this distinction. Having suffered economic decline for years, the town lost many families until only a few hundred remained. Then on September 4, 1972, Percha Creek once again crashed through the town, killing two and injuring others and damaging property.
Through all of these calamities and others, Hillsboro has survived, now a community of about 200 people. Populated by retirees, artisans and “old timers,” Hillsboro was the home of the Apple Festival every Labor Day weekend for 39 years, an event that saw its end in 2007, its demise brought on by the proliferation of events at the end of summer.
Image caption: Jail ruins. Photo by Monique J. Ortega
On a weekend trip to Hillsboro, Borderlands editor Adrianna Alatorre spoke with local librarian, Patty Woodruff, at the renovated community center. According to Woodruff, the community center was once the local high school built in 1923. Renovated to suit the needs of the town, the center is an initial effort by local residents to beautify their small town. Woodruff is part of the Friends of the Library organization, which held a fundraiser May 19, 2007, with all proceeds going to the purchase of the courthouse ruins. Their aim is to preserve the 1892 remains and the old jailhouse.
Close to the majestic Gila National Forest, Hillsboro makes a great day trip from El Paso. It is cool in the summer, provides a handful of small, quaint eateries and the Black Range Museum, once the location of Sadie Orchard’s hotel and the Chinaman’s Place, as it is still known by all the locals.
The El Paso Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America sponsors outings to Hillsboro every year. Whether trying your hand at panning for gold with the aid of an old timer or strolling through the streets of what was once a bustling commercial center in the late 1800s, Hillsboro maintains its appeal and has never lost the luster of its golden infancy.