Silver City is a community built on strong foundations.
Those foundations—culture, industry and people—reach back to the beginning of the once prosperous mining community and have kept Silver City alive and thriving long after other boomtowns of the Old West had faded into the sunset.
Silver City erupted out of the dust of the Gila foothills in 1870 with the discovery of silver in the hills surrounding the town. The 1870s through the early 1890s were the boom era of Silver City when places like the New Mexico Territorial Normal School, a school for educators, was established. Today, the school is known as Western New Mexico University (WNMU).
Unlike other frontier towns, Silver City’s forefathers came determined to build a metropolis of civilization in a harsh and inhospitable frontier land. Founding fathers required homes to be built of brick masonry because of the danger of fires, and as such many remain today, still carrying on long after their builders have gone.
Some of today’s oldest and most prominent buildings were established at this time in Silver City’s history, including the town’s museum, known as the Ailman house, one of two identical homes built in 1881. The town’s vibrant and historic downtown has changed little from the boom days, except perhaps with the addition of paved streets, a lack of horses and a plethora of art galleries.
By the early 1890s, the town was the hub of the county. The county seat was moved to Silver City from previous homes in Pinos Altos and Santa Clara, then known as Central.
The growing glory of Silver City, however, did not last. The silver market was devastated on the federal level in 1893, and like many other boomtowns, Silver City faced extinction.
The late 1890s were also a time of natural disasters. In 1895, the greatest flood event in the town’s history washed away what was then Main Street. Today, all that remains of the once business-lined street is a scar carved through the middle of town. Today it is known as Big Ditch Park—one of Silver City’s most unique parks, offering visitors and locals a quiet reprieve from the downtown bustle, literally out the back door of the downtown mecca, and a glimpse into Silver City’s past.
Silver City was saved, however, in the early 1900s, strangely enough by illness. People from across the country suffering from tuberculosis converged on the town and surrounding area because of the gentle four seasons.
Silver City became a kind of health resort for “lungers,” a name for tuberculosis sufferers, as many sought environmental treatments for a then incurable disease.
Sanitariums for the sick began popping up across the community and the county. One such sanitarium sprang up at what is today known as Fort Bayard, and in Silver City, Saint Joseph’s, run by the Sisters of Mercy, was built northwest of the center of town. Saint Joseph’s still stands today as an apartment complex on Market Street.
Through the first decade of the 1900s, the health market was the leading economic driver for the town until 1910 when copper mining hit the area. Both the Santa Rita open pit mine and the Tyrone mine were established in the decade following the health boom, and the historic Chino mine was also opened at that time as one of the first open pit copper mines in the world. The first steam shovel went to work in the Chino mine in 1910.
The Santa Rita del Cobre mine had long been producing gold and copper since the discovery of rich mineral deposits in the area of what is today Bayard, by Spanish Lt. Col. Jose Manuel Carrasco in the late 1780s.
Tons of refined ore were shipped to Mexico City and on to Spain for nearly half a century before the first American explorers began to appear on the frontier. Wars between Spanish military guarding the precious minerals, or even more precious food and water supplies, and Chiricahua Apache, who had called the region home a half a millennia before white man, eventually gave way to battles between the Apache and U.S. Military troops. It was not until 1886 that the last great Apache war chief, Geronimo, along with men, women and children, finally surrendered and were sent far from their homeland to Fort Pickens, Florida.
The copper market and the local mines boomed for nearly 100 years, but in the 1990s, the market began to taper off. Today, little is left of the glory of the mining industry in Grant County.
The mines still remain operational, employing more than 1,000 men and women with a payroll of more than $50 million, but despite rising copper prices, the days of glory for modern mining have gone. The long-standing symbols of the industry, the Hurley Smelter Smoke stacks, were demolished in June 2007, signifying the end of an era.
It is at this time, when the copper market is fast fading, that the strong foundations of the town’s past are coming back to lead it into the future. The legends of outlaws like Henry Antrim, better known as Billy the Kid; military figures like General George Crook and Apache warriors Geronimo, Victorio and Mangas Coloradas; and other colorful southwest characters still draw those mystified by the Old West.
The history of the Old West is still visible among Grant County’s ancient buildings and historic sites such as the Gila Cliff Dwellings, located 40 miles north of Silver City; the Santa Rita Open Pit Mine; the various ghost towns of Grant County; and the remains of old military forts such as Fort Bayard, Fort Cobre and the far away Fort Cummings.
Hugely successful events such as the annual Blues Festival, the Tour of the Gila bike race, and the Fiesta de la Olla—the annual fiesta that offers shoppers a wide assortment of the famed Mata Ortiz pottery, including pieces from the master himself, Juan Quezada—also draw huge crowds to the area.
And, as ever, the off-the-beaten-path community and area’s four gentle seasons continue to be a pull for those seeking a slower pace and a simpler time.
NOTE: Information for this story obtained from Richard Peterson, spokesperson, Phelps Dodge; “Built to Last” by Susan Berry and Sharman Apt Russell; “Six-Guns and Single-Jacks” by Bob Alexander and Grant County Historian Terry Humble.
Levi Hill is the Bureau Chief for the Silver City Sun-News.
UNIVERSITY AREA — Established, traditional Victorians in an ever-popular area near WNMU, along with restored homes, line the streets of this proud community.
INDIAN HILLS — This has become a bedroom community to the greater Silver City area, with many established homes on larger, private lots.
SILVER ACRES — This is Silver City’s golf course community, with many homes near or adjoining the public golf course.
HISTORIC DISTRICTS — Chihuahua Hill, Black Addition, North Addition, and the original town site/historic downtown comprise the Silver City Historic Districts in the heart of Silver City. They are all being rediscovered and restored. This area includes many old adobes and red brick Victorian homes. Silver City also has two smaller historic districts—the campuses of WMNU and St. Mary’s Academy. Many of the Historic Districts are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register of Cultural Properties.