On the site of a former Apache camp, nestled in the knees of the Black Range in southwestern New Mexico, Kingston (elevation 6,224 feet) lies astride Middle Percha Creek. Originally called Percha City, the town boomed in 1882 after a silver strike by miner Jack Sheddon.
The first officially recognized habitation in town was a tent store set up in June 1882. A rough-hewn tent and board city soon busted out along the creek. Within two months some 2,000 people were buying lots for $15 in the newly platted town site. By 1883 Main Street lots sold for $500, while lots near the diggings fetched up to $5,000.
The largest mine, the Iron King (for which Kingston is named), soon had competition from the Solitaire, Empire, Calamity Jane, Miner’s Dream, Black Colt, Brush Heap, Bonanza, Gypsy, Ironclad, Caledonia and Little Jimmy. Eventually, 30 mines dotted the hills. By 1885 the population peaked at more than 7,000.
Characters associated with Kingston included New Mexico’s own Billy the Kid, satirist Mark Twain, President Grover Cleveland, Wild Bunch pals Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Apache leaders Geronimo andVictorio, political boss Albert Fall, badman “Black Jack” Ketchum, cowboy chronicler Eugene Manlove Rhodes and poet-scout John Wallace “Captain Jack” Crawford.
The town’s ethnic mix and early character are reflected in such place names as Italian Avenue, Chinese Gardens and Virtue Street (the latter home to Sadie Orchard, the town’s leading madam).
Among the wildest Western mining towns, Kingston sported 22 saloons with gambling halls for roulette and faro, 14 grocery and general stores, a brewery, three newspapers, several restaurants (one served oysters), three hotels, several boardinghouses, two assay offices, two fraternal lodges, a bank, numerous gambling dens, a drugstore, a dancing school, a tennis court, an icehouse, seven sawmills, a theater (once graced by actress Lillian Russell), a school, a smelter, a kiln, a blacksmith, a dentist and two doctors. Madam Orchard reportedly passed the hat (or perhaps a stocking) to have a church built.
The gold standard replaced the silver standard in 1892, dropping silver prices 90 percent almost overnight and sparking the Panic of 1893. As the mines played out and profits turned into losses, Kingston folded. Many folks moved to Arizona Territory or simply shifted to neighboring Hillsboro, whose economy was based on gold mining and ranching.
As townspeople left, they tore down the wooden buildings and carried out the lumber to build new homes. In 1893 they burned many of the remaining buildings to recover the square handmade nails. Little was left standing of what was once New Mexico’s largest town.
The Percha Bank, onetime repository for $7 million in silver, remains intact and serves as a museum. The original vault (an 1885 Diebold) occupies a brick room within the bank’s 2- foot-thick stone and Kingston brick walls. The design was brilliant—even if a thief broke through the outside walls, he couldn’t access the vault. Apparently it worked, as no one ever broke in to or robbed the bank.
A former assay office now serves as a residence, as does the Victorio Hotel, named for the Apache upon whose hunting grounds Kingston sits. Across the street is the Black Range Lodge [www.blackrangelodge.com], a beautifully restored bed-and-breakfast. Its plastered brick walls date back to an 1880s boardinghouse that lodged both miners and troopers of the 8th Cavalry.
The cemetery occupies a hill overlooking Kingston. Still in use today, it chronicles the lives and deaths of merchants and unlucky miners, immigrants, soldiers and a war hero.
When visitors arrive in search of treasure or artifacts, says local historian Mark Nero, there is no need to go to the landfill, as people “dig up all sorts of stuff” right in town. Bottles, cavalry buttons, leather and other relics turn up regularly.
Still meeting once a month in the old schoolhouse is the Spit & Whittle Club, dating from 1888, which bills itself as one of the nation’s oldest continuously active social clubs. Talk of religion or politics is prohibited—as is spitting and whittling. Townswomen halted those activities when first allowed to join.
Today about 25 people live in Kingston [www.kingstonnewmexico.com]. A lightning-sparked wildfire threatened the town last June. Residents evacuated, but no buildings burned.
Kingston is off I-25, Exit 63. Take Highway 152 nine miles west of Hillsboro. The turnoff for Main Street is just past the ranger station. Look for the Spit &Whittle Club marker. At night roaming livestock and wildlife make driving difficult.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.