A spring in an arroyo near New Mexico’s Pyramid Mountains brought Apaches, Mexicans and Americans to what would become Shakespeare. Dubbed Mexican Spring by whites, in 1856 it became a stop on an alternate route of the early San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line, used whenever hostile Apaches attacked coaches in nearby Doubtful Canyon or Steins Peak on the main line. It comprised a few basic buildings. John Butterfield’s Overland Mail took over the route in 1858 and soon erected an adobe stage station (later called Grant House) that still stands.
Butterfield stopped service in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. First Confederate troops and later Union Brig. Gen. James Carleton’s California Column occupied Mexican Spring. Soldiers built a small adobe fort, which later became the Stratford Hotel.
At the close of the war the Southern Pacific Mail Line reopened the stage station and renamed the tiny settlement Grant in recognition of the Union general. John Evensen served as station keeper and lived there until his death in 1887.
In 1870 government surveyor W.D. Brown discovered silver ore near Grant. San Francisco financier William Chapman Ralston sent agents to the area to claim the best properties for his New Mexico Mining Co. The Ralston mining district absorbed Grant, and by year’s end the population had grown to 174.
Spotty ore and claim disputes brought development delays and prompted Ralston to hire a group of “fighting men” from Texas to protect his interests. Cowboy Curly Bill Brocius may have been among them. Many independent miners left the area, until word got out about the discovery of a rich diamond deposit on one of Ralston’s properties (he also owned claims near Vernal, Utah Territory, and Rawlins, Wyoming Territory). Although the location was secret, many reports pointed to Lee Peak near Ralston. Hundreds of speculators rushed to the area, and by 1872 Ralston boasted more than 100 buildings, including stores, saloons, brothels, offices, restaurants, boardinghouses, an assay office and a Chinese laundry.
It was a false economy. Government geologist Clarence King investigated the hubbub and announced that the diamond strike had come near Rawlins, 700 miles away, and, more important, that it was fake: A pair of cons had salted the site with outside diamonds. The hoax revealed, Ralston’s company collapsed, and by late 1873 the town had reverted to a nearly deserted stage stop. In the 1950s old-timers claimed Billy the Kid worked in the Stratford Hotel kitchen in late 1875, after escaping from the Silver City jail, where he was held on a theft charge.
In 1879 English mining engineer William G. Boyle acquired the dormant silver claims, renamed the town Shakespeare after the prolific playwright and sparked a second boom. The resurgent settlement— among the few in that region of southwest New Mexico— became a hangout among San Simon Valley Cowboys, including Brocius and John Ringo, whom townsfolk regarded favorably. Old-timers later related that after Wyatt Earp killed Brocius over in Arizona Territory, Cowboy Jim Hughes brought his body to Shakespeare and buried him in the basement of the general store.
Other cowboys didn’t fare as well. Bean Belly Smith killed Ross Woods in the dining room of the Stratford on December 23, 1879, in an argument over who would get the last egg. A mob hanged “Russian Bill” Tettenborn, accused of rustling, and Sandy King from the rafters of the Grant House stage station in early November 1881.
The Southern Pacific Railroad bypassed Shakespeare in 1880, and Lordsburg grew up alongside the rails three miles to the north. The Panic of 1893 threw the nation into depression and shuttered Shakespeare’s mines.
Mining resumed in 1907 at the nearby Eighty-Five mine complex, giving rise to the company town of Valedon, about a mile from Shakespeare; many miners chose to live and play in the old town. In 1914 the Southern Pacific ran a spur from Lordsburg toValedon, laying tracks straight up Shakespeare’s main street, but by 1929 the mines had closed again.
In 1935 Frank and Rita Hill purchased Shakespeare and the surrounding ranch land. Today the town is on the National Register of Historic Places and remains in the Hill family, preserved by the Friends of Shakespeare, which added a museum building in early 2010. The town is open to the public one weekend each month. Visit www.shakespeareghosttown.com for the schedule.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.