Day #198: The Almighty Defenders – “Ghost With the Most”
I had doubts about making the hour-long drive to Chloride this morning. I wanted to see it after reading a little about the ghost towns of New Mexico, and it was sort of on our way back to Albuquerque. Only, I couldn’t find any brochures about it in the several Visitor’s Centers we stopped in. I asked several people around the state about it, and they either hadn’t been there, or never heard of it. Even the Pioneer Museum’s website wasn’t working. Being that it was our last day in New Mexico, I didn’t want to waste any time on lost causes. Phil suggested we stick with the plan. It’s a good thing he did.
“Are you wanting to see the museum today?” Linda, the woman who’s parents were responsible for keeping the history alive, asked us as we pulled into a small, unpaved parking lot next to what was originally the town’s multi-purpose General Store. We were.
She asked us how we heard about the place. I had done some general internet research in hopes that we could see at least one ghost town while we were here. Chloride seemed to be one of the few that was both open to the public and had some of the original buildings in tact. I had pictured something like the ghost town I once saw on an episode of The Brady Bunch. Deserted desert, basically.
Chloride was indeed open to the public, and a lot of the original buildings are still there. But, it’s not deserted. People still live in Chloride. Thirteen of them, in fact. I was worried that we might be offending the residents by even calling it a ghost town, because this was still their home. The brochure in the Pioneer Museum that contains the history as told by one of its former residents, Raymond Schmidt (he died in 1996). It begins… “Chloride got it start in the late 1870s by accident.” It’s founding is attributed to Harry Pye, a mule skinner who was hauling freight for the U.S. Army when he discovered that the area was rich in silver and chloride. When his freighting contract expired, he went back to stake a claim in Chloride Canyon, but it wasn’t long after that he was attacked and killed by Indians. Still, the word got out. A tent city sprang up, and eventually attracted enough people looking for opportunity that a town started to emerge. According to the brochure, the town had a population was around 3,000 people in its heyday. But just as silver was responsible for the boom, it was also responsible for the bust. The country switched to the gold standard in the 1890s, which almost totally devalued silver, and that signaled the end for places like Chloride.
Almost as accidentally as the town was founded, it was re-founded. Linda’s parents were the ones who sort of restored Chloride to what it was. It’s funny that anyone would even find the place, much less want to settle there on their own accord. But, her parents seemed to have been the adventurous types. When they arrived in the state some 30 years ago, they vowed to explore as much of it as they could, starting in one corner of the state and then working their way to the opposite corner. While taking the RV to the lake one Labor Day Weekend, Linda’s father, Don Edmund, made what was probably a deliberate wrong turn to get back on the highway, probably to see what was around. About ready to turn around, her mother discovered signs of life. They had arrived in Chloride.
Schmidt was the first person they met (there is a memorial to he and his wife at the Pioneer Museum). The characteristically crotchety old man who came out of his house to see who these strangers were that had suddenly appeared in his town. Long story short, Schmidt mentioned that the house across from his might be for sale, and Linda’s parents, thinking it might be convenient to have a base camp for some of their traveling wound up buying it. The house was in sad shape and they had talked about knocking it down and building a new one. But, the residents of the town all seemed to have a story about it. Linda recalled her mother saying, “we can’t tear this house down. There’s a history here.” Her parents bought several other buildings in Chloride and over time, the family has worked to restore them. They were even getting ready to open a cafe and two guest houses (for vacationers) on Monday.
According to Linda, the Pioneer Store (now the Pioneer Museum) had been untouched since it was abandoned in 1923 up until the time her parents had gone in to see what was there. It was as if the owner just shut off the lights one day and never returned. And the sad part of that story was that the man who owned the store had anticipated a second boom in Chloride, so he sent his son east to be educated with the expectation that when he finished, he’d return to Chloride to run the store. The son actually became a nuclear physicist who was integral to the Manhattan Project (from what I can tell, it wasn’t J. Robert Oppenheimer), and of course, Chloride never clinched that second boom. It was like opening a time capsule. I wonder what the family thought when they first saw all of that (well, once they cleared away the vermin and opened it up). The former Pioneer Store holds pretty much all of the original contents. Not just merchandise, but the original deeds and official town documents, and the accounting ledgers, too. There were even items salvaged over time from the old mining grounds.
The Pioneer Museum doesn’t run on any kind of outside funding. The family, and I suppose the town’s other resident’s, too, put it all together. Some of the information about objects in the museum were either handwritten or must have been printed from very old computers. We were the only ones there, and Linda took the time to show us around and told us a good deal about Chloride, then and now. About silver mining. About the uses of all the little things in the shop that we wouldn’t know these days what they were used for.
I was so impressed. Here we were in this museum in a town at the end of the highway (for us, anyways, since the narrow passage on to the Gila National Forrest requires 4-wheel drive) and Linda had taken the time to give us so much history about the town. I doubt that you would receive the same information at many (if any) of the other ghost towns around the state. (Linda, if you ever read this: many thanks for making this one of the best stops on our trip!)
They get about one group a day at the Museum. Some days, none at all. We were surprised to hear that most visitors heard about Chloride by word-of-mouth, and had come from as far as Germany and Tokyo to see the Museum. I’m wondering if the cafe and vacation rentals will bring more people through town. I hope so. We had come through too many places in New Mexico where it looked like people just gave up and left. Chloride wasn’t the first of them. About two hours northeast of Chloride is the Salinas Pueblo National Monument, which are the ruins of pueblos that had been abandoned because of famine and attacks from other tribes. Newer ghost towns have popped up like Encino, which sits on the long, deserted highway between Las Vegas (New Mexico) and Roswell. Gas stations and diners sit empty, and the houses are sometimes in absolute shambles. When we talked to a man who owns a leathershop in Taos about how much we love New Mexico, he replied, “it’s a great place to live, but the only problem is you have to figure out how to make a living.”