ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After the gold rush to California petered out in the mid-1800s, miners afflicted with yellow fever extended their search elsewhere. In the 1860s, that led to a mini-stampede to New Mexico’s southwestern mountains.
The community of Pinos Altos, near the Gila National Forest north of Silver City, experienced a mini-boom when gold was discovered in the nearby mountains.
Although the gold quickly disappeared, the community has hung on and makes a wonderful spot to escape to the nearby wilderness, said Bob Pelham, owner of the Pinos Altos Cabins.
“We’re at 7,000 feet elevation, surrounded by the Gila National Forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and it’s a jumping-off point for people visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings,” he said.
There are several interesting sites within the town.
The Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House dates back to the gold rush days.
Notably rustic, it’s been the social seat of the town for 150 years. The historic watering hole is also the site of one of the finishes of the annual Tour de Gila bicycle race, said Tom Vaughan of the Grant County Art Guild board of directors.
Another building that dates back to the early days of the town and is still standing, the Schafer cabin was built from 24-foot-long logs, and the wooden-pegged window frames house wavy glass etched by blowing sand.
It now houses the Pinos Altos Historical Museum, but at one time it was the town’s schoolhouse.
The museum contains a collection of 19th century Americana, including old maps and photographs of the area, period furniture and artifacts, mining tools, and wooden relics dating back to the town’s founding. Items such as gold pans and photos of miners, as well as Native American arrowheads, speak of the clash of cultures that occurred in the Old West.
Native American photographs, as well as “wanted” posters of such noted folks as Billy the Kid are featured.
The town’s old, privately owned courthouse, which dates back to 1870, also remains, and briefly, Sheriff Sam Bean, elder brother of Judge Roy Bean, was the law in the county.
The Hearst Methodist Church, built in 1898, also remains on site and houses the Art Guild’s gallery. The church was built with money provided by Phoebe Hearst, widow of U.S. Sen. George Hearst of California and whose son, William Randolph Hearst, created a media empire.
Sen. Hearst owned several successful mines in the area.
The church, which is featured in many “ghost town” books, still contains its stained-glass windows and the high wooden ceiling with beam construction.
“The church itself is really kind of interesting,” Vaughan said. “It shows the woodworking craftsmanship of 1898. The front windows are peaked, and this was accomplished by carefully cutting lots and lots and lots of little pieces wood and nailing them to together in the window frame.”
The gold used in decorating the Hearst Castle in California came from the Hearst Mine near Pinos Altos.
“We start the season at the Pinos Altos Art Gallery, which will open on Friday, May 4,” Vaughan said. “We have crafts, oils, pastels, mixed media, ceramics, photography, etc., and this is a judged show, with limited numbers of entries and ribbons awarded. After the two-weekend show is over, we bring in more materials in all categories for the days the gallery is open throughout the summer.”
For outdoorsy people, Pinos Altos offers a wealth of opportunities to explore, even during this time of year, Pelham said.
“One of the primary interests is hiking,” he said. “It’s one of the best hiking areas in the state. The Continental Divide Trail comes right through Pinos Altos. And there are a lot of abandoned mines around the town.”
Pelham also offers for his guests a four-wheel-drive service, with tours to some outlying areas of interest. Trips include visits to sites such as Hell’s Half-Acre, which includes a dizzying array of near-vertical slot canyons, and Frying Pan Springs near Cooke’s Peak, which abounds with numerous petroglyphs.