New Mexico, US – Outside Tony’s Rock Shop in the sleepy town of Magdalena, in New Mexico, Ben Valentino Otero stands amid a menagerie of animal statues, two wooden eagles, a merry-go-round horse, a metal sphinx and a variety of obscure rocks.
“Which is your favourite?” asks Ben, an avid rock collector and descendant of miners who once worked the hills above town.
His shop, one of the few remaining in Magdalena, is a kind of museum to the nearby mountains and the men who mined them. His impressive collection of rocks, century-old carbide mining lamps, and steel helmets (one with the family name Otero emblazoned on the front), serve as mementos to the boom years when thousands of treasure-seeking foreigners came to this remote area.
“I find the gold by its weight,” says Otero, displaying in his palm a small rock speckled with the tell-tale colour which he has never truly seen. He has been colour blind since birth. “Gold has a different weight, it’s heavier,” he explains. “So I know what I find when I find it. “
Otero’s knowledge comes from a childhood of exploring the abandoned mines above his home, the same mines his grandfather and father worked when nearby Kelly – a ghost town that once dwarfed Magdalena – became a burgeoning mineral capital in the region.
“Kelly must have been quite a sight,” says Otero of the 3,000-person town and surrounding mines, that provided massive loads of silver, lead and zinc to American industries – helping fuel industrial westward expansion during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today all that remains of Kelly is a 36 metre mining head frame surrounded by plots of flattened earth, locations of past homes, coloured white from the mined zinc.
“Kelly used to be the country seat,” says Otero. “Now nothing is left.”
Beginning in the late 1800s communities such as Kelly proliferated throughout the state, rising from the dust and often abandoned in equal haste. Today these communities have either been deserted or, like Magdalena, reduced to something wholly different.
“We [Magdalena] have held on because of jobs from ranching, the [Gila Wilderness] Park and the Very Large Array,” says Otero, speaking about the work provided by one of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatory stations located nearby. “Everything else is gone.”
While a few ghost towns have been repopulated by artists and outsiders drawn to the rich history of these communities, most have not. Today these often haunting and intimate spaces, some abandoned 100 years ago, and others more recently, are eerie monuments to the patterns of migration and abandonment in rural New Mexico, a glimpse into a rich history and the people that helped shape the region.
Cities of gold
For nearly half a millennium legends of gold have been luring people to New Mexico.
In 1539, Spanish officials in Mexico City received a report from a Franciscan priest that the legendary Seven cities of Cibola – seven indigenous cities rumoured to be filled with gold – had been seen, “from a distance”. It was a tantalising “discovery” to the Spanish, whose pillaging of the vast Aztec and Incan treasures had engendered fantastic tales of wealth in the New World.
The testimony from Friar Marcos de Niza would lead to the disastrous and brutal Francisco Vasquez de Coronado expedition. While the stories of gold-laden rooftops never transpired to be true, New Mexico would, nonetheless, prove rich in mineral deposits.
Following the 1846-7 Mexican-American war, when the Southwestern territories were ceded to the United States, the New Mexico mining boom began in earnest. Thousands from both the eastern US and Mexico journeyed to New Mexico, a diverse mix of people, shaping the identity of the state.
At Dawson Cemetery, 15 kilometres down a remote dirt road in northeast New Mexico, the gravestones read like a morbid cosmopolitan cast: “Adrianakas Pohlihrons, Caleron Gambino, Joe Pland, Baby Campos”. The names of the now deceased coal miners are of those who had travelled from Greece, Italy, Mexico and China to this remote portion of the American Southwest.
By the early 1900s, nearly 10,000 people lived in Dawson, a town complete with a theatre, bowling alley, hospital, golf course, opera house and even a famous football team.
Today nothing remains of this history, save the graveyard dominated by 385 white crosses, ghostly relics of two tragic mining accidents.
“These towns often have a dark and colourful history,” says Brad Clark, from Pinos Altos, a ghost town in southwestern New Mexico that has been partially repopulated by a handful of artists and professionals.
Standing inside his shop, Clark is surrounded by shelves of gold-prospecting tools, “toys” he calls them for the hobby he has taken up since moving to Pinos Altos.
“When panning [one of the simplest ways to extract gold] in the streams I find old musket balls from the Indian battles, and others from the Confederate period,” says Clark.
The rich history of Pinos Altos included frequent Apache raids, a brief Confederate take over, and regular visits by western outlaws. The mother of the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, is buried in the town cemetery.
“I call it fishing,” says Clark. His interest in finding gold is more curious than financial, he concedes.
“I really love all this history here. This is a way to connect with it.”
On a recent Saturday, hundreds of tourists strolled through the streets of Madrid, a former ghost town nestled at the base of Ortiz mountain. In the 1970s, Madrid was repopulated by an unlikely mix of outsiders who have turned the abandoned row houses into an artists’ haven.
“There were six people here when we arrived,” says Diana Johnson, speaking to Al Jazeera from her gallery, one of 30 that now exist in Madrid.
Johnson and her husband Mel arrived in 1973, some 20 years after the coal mine closed. By then the company town had been reduced from nearly 3,000 people to just six, including Joe Huber, the son of Oscar Huber, who once owned all of Madrid.
“In the 60s, the coal company put Madrid up for sale for $1m. It was reduced to $500,000 one year before we arrived,” says Mel. The couple were the first artists to rent studio space from Huber, thus setting in motion the renaissance.
“It’s living history,” says Mel, who relishes the details of the town’s rich past. “It is a beautiful thing.”
While towns like Madrid have found a second life, many others have not.
In Hanover and Fiero, in southwest New Mexico, a much different scene prevails. Here numerous abandoned buildings sit amid a handful of remaining families, the towering and defunct Hanover mine looming above.
The interiors of these domestic spaces indicate a continuous decline beginning in the 1940s through to today. Time is indicated by the state of intimate domestic decay. Couches slowly sinking into the frail floorboards, ornate floral wallpaper peels off the walls, and tattered kitchen curtains are drawn back from the window.
Some of the houses have had recent visitors; there are new signs of life in the form of graffiti, beer cans and an out-of-place mattress.
Back in Magdalena, Otero leans on the old store sign that reads “Stella’s Rocks and Jewelry Shop, Elvires Saw Shop” – the names of his late grandfather and grandmother.
“That man [Otero’s father] could sell you that leaf,” says Otero, pointing to the ground outside the shop. Now in his late 60s, Otero is one of the few surviving members of the Otero family. The shop is a reminder of both family and place, something once occupied, but now empty.
“Our family goes back to the 1600s,” says Otero. They had come to New Mexico with some of the first Spanish settlers, moving from northern New Mexico to Magdalena during the mining boom.
“There used to be so much more here,” says Ben, whose deep connection to the history of his home is made all the more important as the reminders of these places are increasingly forgotten or left as obscure footnotes in the history books.
As a car full of interested travellers pulls up to the shop, Otero says that despite the fading memories, he has never contemplated leaving the area.
“Never,” he says with a big smile.