Gold Mining in Elizabethtown, New Mexico

Mining History of Elizabethtown, New Mexico
A typical boom-and-bust mining town, Elizabethtown once drew gold miners from near and far. Resting between Red River and Eagle Nest, along the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, lay the remains of Elizabethtown. You wouldn’t know by looking at it, but this ghost town was once home to over 7,000 people.

Though accounts of what happened are varied, it seems that in 1866, a Captain William H. Moore had come upon a severely injured Ute Indian whom he took to Fort Union to be nursed back to health. Later that year, Ute Indians stopped at Fort Union to engage in trade for winter supplies. The recovered man was amongst them and he recognized Captain Moore there.

Out of gratitude for Moore’s previous kindness, he offered Moore decorative stones. Recognizing that the beauty of the stones came from the copper ore they contained, Moore requested the Ute Indian take his soldiers to the source of the copper ore--the upper slopes of Baldy Mountain.


Moreno Valley Gold Rush


With an elevation of nearly 12,441 feet, reaching the ore site was challenging. Yet the trip was worth it; there appeared to be enough copper to establish a claim.

Perhaps on a whim, or simply to pass the time, one of the men tried panning in a creek near the camp they had set up. Unexpectedly, he found placer gold.

Rather than surveying the area for copper, the explorers immediately turned their attention to panning for gold. After collecting gold flakes from several points in the ravine descending the western side of Baldy Mountain, the promise of copper ore all but lost its sparkle.

Though the men had sworn to keep the find amongst themselves until the spring, they weren’t the only ones to return to the creek when the weather warmed. The gold rush had began.


Elizabethtown Draws a Crowd


In the summer of 1867, miners had already set up a village in the area that would soon be Elizabethtown. That next year, Captan Moore incorporated the village and named it after his four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

Streets, stores and residential plots of land available for purchase made Elizabethtown an establishment of choice for miners. By the end of the summer, Elizabethtown saw some 3,000 prospectors gleaning gold from the gravel. And when the new county of Colfax was established (as a nod to Vice-President elect Schuyler Colfax), Elizabethtown won the county seat because of its large population.


Placer Gold Rules Here


Just east of Elizabethtown, the legendary Aztec Mine would become New Mexico’s most prolific supply of gold. Currently, the Aztec Mine rests within the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch Property, which offers adventure tours and treks.

Very few lode deposits were discovered near Elizabethtown, though. Small mining operations and individual miners primarily worked gravel in search of placer gold, using dry-washing jigs, sluices and gold pans.

The Morena drainage area was the core destination for gold placer mining, with miners having success working on Moreno Hill, Ute Mountain and along Ponil Creek.


The Big Ditch


There were always obstacles to mining in this area. The winters were harsh enough to halt mining for months at a time, and there simply wasn’t an adequate water supply to meet the demands of both a settlement and placer mining.

Near the end of 1868, the building of the Big Ditch offered a solution to Elizabethtown’s water shortage. Water was diverted through the 41-mile-long flume from the Red River directly to the placers.

Large-scale dredging became possible with access to more water and production increased, if only for a short time.

Unfortunately, the Big Ditch was inefficient. Just one-tenth of the water that entered the flume actually arrived at the placers. Evaporation, leaks and constant maintenance made the operation less than favorable, yet the Big Ditch stayed in use until 1900, when a lawsuit curtailed any efforts to divert water.


Wild West


By 1870, the town was in its heyday. And there was plenty going on outside of gold mining.

Elizabethtown had its fair share of plots straight out of a western;

it was frequented by the infamous gunmen Black Jack Ketchum and Clay Allison.

There were plenty of “working girls” to party with and saloons to drink in. The town also discovered that it had a serial killer, Charles Kennedy.

Yet another outlaw, “Coal Oil Jimmy” Buckley, added flavor to the town with his stagecoach holdups. Elizabethtown posted a generous “Dead or Alive” reward on his head. Soon after, Jimmy turned up dead and a couple of his associates, a bit richer.


The Ups and Downs of Gold Revivals


Just two years after the height of its popularity, the town found itself with only 100 residents remaining. The Colfax County War over the parameters of the Maxwell Land Grant was hard on residents, but once resolved, a very short mining popped up in the 1890s.

When the Sante Fe, Topeka and Atchison railroads were built within the town’s vicinity, mining rose again. In 1901, the Oro Dredging Company built “the Eleanor” dredge, capable of working 4,000 cubic yards of dirt each day. In 1902, “The Eleanor” had produced a fourth of all the gold from New Mexico that year.

This revival didn’t last, though. The town faded out by 1917, along with the closing of the mines. Many of the gold loads in the surrounding area were difficult to get to, and by the time WWII was completed, miners had abandoned Elizabethtown altogether.


Elizabethtown Today


Despite the difficulties faced by the settlement and its miners, Elizabethtown was not a failure. Very few New Mexican districts produced more than 100,000 ounces of gold, but Elizabethtown was one of them.

Though the gold rush is long gone, Elizabethtown has a second life as a tourist destination. Descendents have set up a museum featuring the town’s mining history not far from the rubble of the Mutz Hotel.

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