Pinos Altos may not be the easiest town to locate today, but in it’s day, it was a hub for ranching an mining.
A History of Pinos Altos, New Mexico
Most histories of Pinos Altos seem to focus on the introduction of American miners in 1860. However, this misses the earlier mining history the region which was a popular location for native tribes collecting copper. In 1800, Spanish miners opened the Santa Clara (Pinos Altos) mine.1 By the time American’s settled Pinos Altos, a Mexican village of the same name had already been established and abandoned.2
Better known is the formal founding of Pinos Altos in 1860 after disappointed 49ers Robert H. Birch, Colonel Snively, and James W. Hicks discover gold in Bear Creek in 1859 and establish the Pinos Altos Mine. The town is named Birchville after Robert Birch but is later renamed for Pinos Altos, Spanish for “Tall Pines.”
Most of the eponymous pines, however, are nowhere to be seen as the forests are cut down in the corse of mining and ranching. By the September after gold is discovered, the population has swelled to 700 placer miners. Yet, that is only the beginning. In December 1860, Thomas Marston discovers the first quartz vein in Pinos Altos, the Pacific.
Despite setbacks over conflicts with local tribes, in 1866, Virgil Marson—who had bought the Pacific Mine from his brother, Thomas—charters the Pinos Altos Mining Company and erects a 15 stamp mill. Between 1867 and 1868 the Pacific processes 1,000 tons of ore each year, yielding $35,000. As Marson’s success grows, the population grows and the town is renamed Pinos Altos, after the former Mexican village.
The infamous mining tycoon George Hearst—best known for his investment in the Comstock load, consolidating the Homestake Mine, and his media magnate son, William Randolph Hearst—invests in several Pinos Altos Mines, including the Mina Grande and the Pacific Mine. In 1889, he builds a stamp mill in Pinos Altos and the Silver City, Pinos Altos and Mogollon Railroad to connect his investments with his Silver City smelter.
Much of Pinos Altos’s success can be attributed to its proximity to the all-ready thriving Santa Rita. This well established town is able to support the smaller, fledgling town as miners struggle to stake and maintain their claims. Where other mining towns quickly boom and bust, Pinos Altos survives.
Gold fever swells the population of Pinos Altos to about 9,000 in the 1880s and 1890s. By the late 1880s and 90s, much of the Pinos Altos mines are consolidated under Hearst or played out. Pinos Altos eventually falls to the wayside as Silver City became the regional industrial hub. The population of Pinos Altos begins to dwindle as miners move on to better prospects.
Visiting Pinos Altos
By 2010, the population of Pinos Altos is down to 198. The practical ghost town is predominantly a destination for summer cabins, tourism, and as a jumping off point to explore the Gila Forest. The main street seems like an old western set except the buildings are authentic relics from the 1880s. The mud brick Norton Store traces its origins to the the 1860s. The Buckhorn Saloon is built as an Opera House circa 1865 and still proudly declares the Pinos Altos’s heritage: established in 1803.
The town is not far outside of Silver City, though traveling between the two is a significant elevation increase to 7,020 feet. Visiting the Pinos Altos Museum pairs well with a visit to the Silver City Museum.
At The Pinos Altos Museum
The Pinos Altos Museum is housed in the Schafer Family log cabin, built in 1866. The cabin doubled as the first school house in Grant County. Today, the museum features a collection of regional photographs, maps, and 19th century artifacts including mining equipment.
As a small cabin, the museum makes for a relatively a short visit, complemented by an exploration of the surrounding town. Be sure to check ahead that the Pinos Altos Museum is open. While the hours are posted, they aren’t reliable, especially off season.
1 Simmons, Jerry “New Mexico Mining History.” Albuquerque Gem & Mineral Club
2 Christiansen, Paige W. The Story of Mining in New Mexico.