"WHITE OAKS, NM: FOUNDATION TO FADEOUT"
A PAPER BY MAX R. TURNER for Dr. Miller, May 5, 1995
A VISIT WITH THE PAST...
White Oaks... The topic of my research paper suddenly grabbed me on March 12,1995. With a sudden burst of energy, I grabbed a close friend, my two dogs, some sodas, and piled into the car. It was almost noon on this blustery Sunday, but I didn't care, I was determined to see this legendary mining town. With only a map and pure determination, we set out down the road towards the ruins of the once bustling town of White Oaks. I had no idea what was in store for us...
Making the trip in very good time, we turned off the main road onto the little county strip and saw the sign which reads, "White Oaks-9.” Nine more miles to this boomtown of former glory. The drive seemed to go on forever. Then, as we came around another sharp bend, my friend said, 'There it is!” Sure enough, White Oaks lay out before us... The Hoyle house, the Brown store, the old schoolhouse, the Gumm house; they were all there. I could just imagine the scene in the 1880's...
After cruising down White Oaks Avenue, we decided to get a closer look of the schoolhouse. Upon getting out, the back door to the building suddenly opened and a lean man appeared. He asked us, "Are you interested in seeing the inside?” (for there was a NO TRESPASSING sign posted on the same door from which he emerged). "Yes," was our reply? "Good," he said, 'my grandfather's inside."
My friend and I looked at one another as we entered this terrific structure. Just inside the door was seated an elderly man clad in overalls and a flannel shirt and straw hat. "They asked if they could see the inside and I told them that it was fine," said the young man. Placed on-the-spot, we introduced ourselves to this 'old timer'. 'My name is Robert Leslie. I was born here in 1912. Let me show you two around the place."
I looked at my friend with astonishment. A primary source here in my sight' And I wasn't prepared in the least. Still, I managed to jot down everything he said over the next few hours. This man, Robert Leslie, was a definite unexpected addition to our trip to White Oaks. By the time we left, he had shown us the entire area, explaining each and every single building, some events, and even tossed in a few laughs. Mr. Robert Leslie made my visit to White Oaks a memorable one, to be sure.
On the way back, we couldn't stop talking about what it must have been to have lived during the Old West. Even though Leslie admitted that he had lived after the heyday of the gold and gun fighting, he had worked in a mine called the Little Mack. "Times were tough, but we always managed. Back then, life had its rewards in a different manner..."
White Oaks... Our visit had shed new light on my research and I was determined to include my conversations with Mr. Leslie in its pages. As the lights of Las Cruces drew near, I imagined Mr. Leslie coming home from a days work in the mine.
THE SITE OF WHITE OAKS...
White Oaks was a boom town as a direct result of the gold and coal found in the surrounding mountains. The dramatic rise from a tent-city to a bustling, thriving, territorial New Mexican town of 2,500 almost overnight is a prime indication of man's attraction to gold. The fact that White Oaks was located in the middle of nowhere did not prevent hordes of prospectors, businessmen, and an occasional outlaw from making his way into the area that became the richest in New Mexico. All told, the mines of White Oaks yielded more pure gold than any other in the United States. Still, this could not prevent the eventual "petering out" of the gold supply, which, coupled with the lack of a railroad spur, spelled doom for White Oaks. These facts alone drove the inhabitants from the town they had created and loved, but they never erased their memories, a fact that makes White Oaks remain alive in the memories of many to this day.
The area around White Oaks is a tough climate. Though game was abundant the ground is both dry and unforgiving. The small stream, located two and a half miles from the actual town site, gave the name to the community because of the abundance of white oak trees on its banks. This is the only surface water available in the area, making thirst a constant danger.
The area was first known to the Piros Indians, who made use of the large numbers of antelope and deer. The Piros were eventually forced to surrender the location to the Apaches, who were semi-nomadic in their lifestyle. Like the Piros before, the Apaches found the area abundant with game.
The first European contact in the area was by members of Don Juan de Onate's expedition, who arrived in search of food in the late 1500'S. They gave the land the title of Mal Pais because of the lack of water and the abundance of lava rock.
Though Onate moved on further north to establish the first Spanish colony in New Mexico, many of his expedition found the area around White Oaks promising. By the 1600's, inhabitants of Spanish-Indian descent lived out on the Mal Pais country, grazing their herds in the White Oaks area. Despite the apparent lack of water, the local sheepherders managed to maintain enough for their flocks. Forced into the higher location because of the raiding Comanches and Apaches, the sheepherders found the area cooler, safer, and abundant with grass. The Apaches apparently followed the herders into the mountains, however, and they were forced to eventually move away from the site. The large black rocks gave sufficient protection to the attacking Indians and made life difficult even for the toughest herder.
Elevated 6,500 feet above sea level, the small valley is surrounded to the north by Lone Mountain, to the east by Mt. Patos, and the south by Carrizozo Mountain. To the west lies Baxter Mountain, smallest in elevation, but greatest in yieldings, for from its sides came the huge finds of gold. The mountains are sparsely covered with various trees consisting of juniper, cedar, pinon, and, in the higher elevations, White pine, which is suitable for timber.
As is common for most of the Southwest, there are two rainy seasons in the White Oaks area. The first is the main summer season, during which the rains are short and very powerful, dropping floods in a matter a minutes. The second is the winter season, of which the rains last longer and are generally much gentler in their nature.
As remote as this area of the Southwest may be, it has always managed to keep its inhabitants happy. The wild game, the cool breezes that swoop down from the mountains, and the security offered from the surrounding plains make the site of White Oaks a prime location. Long before the American prospectors moved into the area, local New Mexicans had managed to survive plagues, severe drought, Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches, and poverty. To them, gold was just another part of the Mal Pais country.
Gold was apparently found in the nearby mountains by the 1800's, though no mining efforts were conducted by the locals. The local natives were eager to find just enough 'free gold' to perhaps purchase some new sheep or a bottle. Whatever the case, the secret of gold was kept quiet. The area of what was to become White Oaks was only mentioned in the local cantinas and that in passing. The Mal Pais country thus maintained its secret until a California '49er stopped in San Antonio, New Mexico, and overheard a conversation of 'free gold' in the area. His hearing of “gold in them thar hills" changed the face of New Mexico.
THE DISCOVERY OF GOLD...
A native of Missouri, John J. Baxter had been luckless on the coast and remembered New Mexico. Knowing enough Spanish to understand the locals, Baxter made his way to the area. There, after combing around the gulches and arroyos, he found some of this 'free gold'. The year was 1878, and the beginning of the White Oaks legend had begun.
Baxter was unable to keep his discovery quiet, however, for by 1879, the word had spread to Jack Winters and John E. Wilson, both of whom were panning Baxter Gulch, as it was now known. The two commenced to hard work, every morning transporting the water necessary to wash the dirt on the backs of mules from the spring two and a half miles away. Then, in the evening, they would pack in all of the pay dirt possible back to their cabin located at White Oaks Spring. This was done all summer, the men finding enough nuggets to make their efforts worthwhile. Still, no vein had yet been discovered. The arrival of a certain Tom Wilson would change all that.
Reportedly a fugitive from Texas justice, Wilson was accepted into the partnership. Working the head of Baxter Gulch, he came upon the sudden discovery of a vein while taking a rest. Sitting down on a boulder to eat his lunch, Wilson's eye was suddenly caught by the glistening of crystals in a nearby rock. Striking the stone with his pick, he picked up the slivers and returned to camp, showing his partners his find. Immediately they returned to the site, digging and exposing the vein. This was the basis for the famous Homestake Mine.
Tom Wilson, apparently afraid of news of gold getting to the authorities, sold his share to Jack Winters for a couple of silver dollars, two ounces of gold dust ($38.00), and a pistol, then left for parts unknown. No matter, the first great vein was found at White Oaks.
John E. Wilson and his partner Jack Winters set out to make good their newly found vein. The Homestake claim, 1,500 feet long by 600 feet wide, was split between the two men, Wilson taking the south half, Winters the north. Named the North Homestake and the South Homestake, the two claims brought about the customary gold-rush to the area. Within a short amount of time, all of Baxter Mountain and most of nearby Lone Mountain were covered with claims. White Oaks was beginning to grow.
FROM ISOLATION TO PROSPERITY...
At the time of the discovery of the Homestake White Oaks, which was officially founded on August 15, 1879, was a long way from anywhere. The main line of travel through New Mexico was south from Las Vegas and Santa Fe to El Paso via the Rio Grande. The nearest post office was ninety miles to the west in San Antonio. The Homestake find changed all this for in late 1879 the camp, now growing into a small town, applied for a post office. The petition was granted and a mail contract was awarded to the National Mail Company.
Morris B. Parker's family was amongst the new wave of 'miners' hoping to strike it rich at White Oaks during the summer of 1882. Coming from all over the country, people flocked to the small valley, claiming whatever areas they could in hope of finding that one special spot. Parker's family relocated from St. Louis in what he describes as a 'new start.” His father, Erasmus Wells Parker, had managed to purchase the South Homestake in 1881, yet knowing almost nothing about mining. Returning to St. Louis, Parker gathered his family, convinced his wife of the opportunities, and headed for White Oaks in 1882.
After making the trip to Las Vegas by train, the family of five had to make the last 175 miles to White Oaks by buggy. This was no easy feat for the toughest of families, for there was the constant threat of Indian attack, dehydration, or simply getting lost. Luckily for the Parkers, they did not meet up with any Indians and made the journey to their new home with relative ease.
Once in the town, which numbered around 500 inhabitants in 1882, the Parkers set about 'fixing-up' their two-room cabin, made entirely from wood, with a flat, mud roof. This was the common house for the average family, for White Oaks was still in its 'infant' stages as a boomtown in 1882. The main street, White Oaks Avenue, ran through the middle of the town. Trees were quickly planted on both sides of it to provide both shade and beauty. The town had grown from the mining camp into a small tent town and from there into a shantytown. After the sudden population boom of 1880-1882, the town went from a so-called hog town into the final stage of a beautiful, little mountain paradise.
With a strong population apparently here to stay, Jonathan H. Wise organized the town's first newspaper, the White Oaks Golden Era, which was handed out in December 1880. By 1882, Starr's Opera house was completed as well as an attempt to start another newspaper called the White Oaks Scorpion, but this one never made it off the ground. Stores, saloons, a school, even a town hall were soon built, adding to the growing town. J. Howe Watts laid out the entire town and was named surveyor. Arthur Lampson was named the first postmaster.
Supply prices were generally higher than elsewhere in New Mexico, but nobody seemed to care for everyone was waiting their chance to strike it rich. Flour was six dollars for a hundred pounds, butter for fifty cents a pound, canned fruits for sixty cents a can. Drinking water was still cheap, at forty cents a barrel, for it was also being used for panning, which was in the general interest of the entire town.
The town hall, constructed in 1882, measured 24 x 48 square feet. This building was to be the focal point for most town activities. Church, Sunday school, day school, dances, political meetings, plays, and just about everything else happened at the town hall in the early days of White Oaks. Lyman Hood held the first services for the new church in early 1884. He was paid the salary of $75 a month, most of which was raised by church members.
The early and rapid growth of White Oaks called for a stage line to cover the ninety miles between it and San Antonio. At first biweekly, then daily, a stage line,"as organized to transport the newcomers across the barren Mal Pais country to the secluded valley of White Oaks. During these 'infant' stages of the town, every day held moments of fun, tragedy, and most of all, disappointment. The influx of people to White Oaks was a motley bunch, consisting of the serious miner down to the violent outlaw. Good men and bad, all gold-hungry, visited the streets and hoped to find their luck in the hills of Baxter Mountain.
While all these newcomers were in town, money was in great circulation. Local storeowners found themselves hard pressed to keep up with the supply demands. The money that gave them stability more than made up for any misgivings, however. All in all though, times were tough in White Oaks, and getting tougher.
The gold found along Baxter Gulch had long been exhausted and no other significant find had yet been discovered. Not until 1885, almost six years after the initial discovery, would another significant find be found. Most of the money spent on the South Homestake, including that of Morris Parker's father, had been lost in the mine's failure to yield large amounts of gold. Still, this long period of nonproduction may have been a blessing in disguise for White Oaks. With the lack of gold being found in the mountains, the undesirable people eventually left town. Only the determined citizens remained, believing that fate was bound to change and give them the success they longed for and deserved. Before the times changed, however, White Oaks had to endure the visits from an unwanted bunch of ruffians, mainly one notorious William H. Bonney.
DEALING WITH THE KID...
The nearest town to White Oaks was Lincoln. Located forty miles to the east, it was not only the county seat but the scene of a recent merchant war that had produced the name of William H. Bonney, alias 'The Kid". In 1880-1881, the Lincoln County War rocked the small community of just over 350 residents, throwing the entire New Mexico Territory into an uproar. It was from this turmoil of open gun fighting that William Bonney emerged. Young of age and fast with a gun, he was best known for his thieving of horses and cattle in New Mexico, which he sold in the Texas Panhandle and vice-versa. After the Regulators, to which the Kid belonged, disbanded, he remained on the warpath against the murderers of his former employer, John Henry Tunstall.
White Oaks was more often than not a stop the Kid made on his way to and from Texas. Whiteman’s corral, an unloading place for new prospectors anxious for a night on the town before heading up into the hills, was frequented by the Kid and his partners. Probably more than one newcomer sipped Ws cup with the likes of Bonney.
White Oaks, in the early days, was a typical Western town as far as the inhabitants went. Rough, hardcore men and women flocked to the numerous hog town businesses to perform the nightly ritual of shooting up the evening sky. Gamblers, horse and cattle thieves, and gunslingers made up the daily excitement in White Oaks in the early years. During the years of 1881-1883, when the Kid and his confreres made things exceedingly lively and the prostitutes were numerous, White Oaks was a dangerous place to be.
Indeed, the presence of Bonney stirred things up in more ways than one. After selling Thomas Cooper fifty-four head of cattle for $10 each in June 1880, Bonney left the White Oaks vicinity with a bunch of horses. Though never caught for this theft, his impact was already being felt on the pocketbooks of local businessmen. This was the beginning of a wild-goose chase for Bonney, which netted nothing in the end.
The people of White Oaks, though small in number, were mostly law-abiding citizens, and did not want their town to become a haven for the likes of Bonney. Like the Parkers, most of the White Oaks population had come from the east and were much more 'settled'. While White Oaks would tolerate the normal saloon, gambling hall, and other means of evening entertainment, the citizens were determined to prevent outlaws and thieves from taking up under their roofs. As a result, the town was never very hospitable towards the Kid.
Though Bonney and his buddies found the White Oaks area prime pickings as far as stealing went, the citizens were always on the lookout. On November 15, 1880, the Kid and some of his cohorts stole eight fine horses from the Alexander Grzelachowski ranch and headed towards White Oaks. On the way, they stopped at the ranch of Jim Greathouse and sold four of the group to him. Grzelachowski was able to retrieve all but one of the horses from parties in White Oaks who had bought them from the stables of West & Sam Dedrick, who were known to 'assist' the Kid in his dealings.
On the night of November 22, another theft was attempted near White Oaks, this time at the home of John B. Bells, who owned some of the finest horses in the area. The following morning, Bells reported to the deputy sheriff, William H. Hudgens, that the Kid was in the area at Blake's Saw Mill, near town. On this information, Hudgens quickly summoned a posse and lost no time in heading for Blake's Saw Mill. On their way, the posse encountered Mose Dedrick, brother of Sam, and William J. Lamper, who were heading towards White Oaks. Both men were known accomplices of the Kid and had curiously left town around the same time as the posse. Suspecting that the two men had recently come from a rendezvous with the Kid, Hudgens arrested them both. Pushing on, the posse stumbled upon the outlaw camp, startling the gunfighters. A hot gunfight ensued, and both the Kid and Ws cohort, Billy Wilson, lost their horses. The outlaws fled into the hills, scattering as they ran. Searching the camp, the posse discovered canned goods, the Dedrick brothers' overcoats, and other items of interest that had obviously come from White Oaks that morning. The posse then returned to town, empty-handed.
The next evening, apparently in a spirit of daring, the Kid and two of his partners, 'Arkansas' Dave Rudabaugh and Wilson, returned to White Oaks, riding up the main street in the moonlight. Spotting Deputy Sheriff James Redman, a member of the posse, standing in front of the Hudgens store, Rudabaugh, just for kicks, took a shot at him. Though it missed, Redman ran for cover. Suddenly, a crowd of thirty to forty men, armed with rifles and pistols, rushed onto White Oaks Avenue, startled by the shot of Rudabaugh. The outlaws quickly turned to their heels and left town.
Having had enough of the Kid and his menacing tactics, White Oaks decided to end the problem once-and-for-all. Another posse was organized to hunt the outlaw down and finish him off. Consisting of around twelve to fourteen men under the direction of Deputy Sheriff James Carlyle, the posse made for the ranch of Jim Greathouse, another accomplice of the Kid's, located about forty miles from town on the Las Vegas road.
Traveling through a heavy snow, the posse arrived at the ranch around three in the morning and immediately erected breastworks within firing range of the house. After taking the German cook, Joseph Steck, hostage, the posse was able to confirm that the three outlaws were indeed inside. Surrounding the house, the posse then demanded the surrender of the outlaws, promising them no harm. The outlaws, fearing lynch-mob justice, refused. Carlyle then wrote a note to Bonney, demanding his surrender. Steck was sent to deliver the note to the outlaws, who laughed with the Kid at the idea of surrender. Steck was forced to relay messages between the two parties, the last being one from Bonney inviting the posse leader inside to discuss terms. Carlyle at first refused, but after Jim Greathouse put himself as hostage for Carlyle's safety while he was inside, the deputy agreed and fell into the trap. Hour after hour passed as evening came, then late night and still no resolve of the issue. Around midnight, events came to a boil. The posse from White Oaks grew suspicious about the happenings of their leader and called out that they were going to storm the house. Just then a crash came through a window and a man came tumbling out. Shots ripped the air and after hearing the dying man's yell, the posse realized that they had killed Carlyle. With this accident, the posse abandoned the siege. As soon as the outlaws saw this, they left the house for the open range.
Jim Greathouse had managed to slip away during the shooting and spent the night at a nearby ranch. He returned the next morning along with his cook, Steck, to find Carlyle frozen stiff where he had fallen. His body was covered with a blanket and returned to White Oaks, after which the posse returned to the house and promptly burned it down.
Greathouse, upset by the destruction of his property, called upon the Las Vegas Gazette and entered a recital of his losses. The Gazette, in reply to Ws story, printed Greathouse's version of the encounter: Jim Greathouse, owner of the ranch where the brush between the White Oaks boys and members of 'the Kid's' gang recently took place, is in Las Vegas. He reports that his ranch was burned during the affair and that he lost $2,000 by the conflagration, including ranch property and general merchandise. He disclaims any thought of harboring desperadoes and says the fact that they were there is wholly due to their demanding accommodations. As we understand the case, he does not know positively who burned his ranch, but presumes that it was done as an act of retribution by the Oaks party to avenge the death of Jim Carlyle, one of their number, who was shot down by 'the Kid." Bonney apparently read the Gazette and issued a reply, though not directly to the paper, but to Governor Lew Wallace in Santa Fe. In his letter, Bonney states his reason for being in the White Oaks area was to see Judge Leonard, who had his "case in hand." He also denied any sort of gang under his rule and that Carlyle was shot by his own posse when he attempted to jump through a window fearing that his posse was going to attack. Bonney closed by placing the blame for all of the violence on the propaganda of John Chisum, the cattle king of New Mexico.
Governor Wallace calmly replied to the Kid's plea with a posting of a $500 reward for his capture. Obviously the rest of the territory, like White Oaks, was tired of the menace of William H. Bonney. The Gazette praised Wallace's move, but asked that the amount be raised to $5,000. Only this type of action and price would drive the Kid from the territory.
After the Greathouse affair, the residents of White Oaks became determined that no foothold, of any sort, was to be allowed within the vicinity of the town for any member of the Kid's gang. The killing of Carlyle, though not actually the Kid's doing, placed a heavy shadow over his image and made his career take a different angle. Carlyle had been a very popular man in White Oaks and his death was a big reason for the eventual hunting down of Bonney in Ft. Sumner by Pat Garrett. Though the incident at the Greathouse ranch was destined to make the Kid into a legend, White Oaks demonstrated that it was not going to be a town that tolerated lawlessness. White Oaks had its deal of frustration because of Bonney and his cohorts, but the town was on the verge of another experience like never before recorded in New Mexican history.
By 1885 White Oaks had assumed the semblance of a real town. Surviving the early difficulties of Billy the Kid and the failure of any significant strikes, the town settled down to the face the future. Streets and cross streets had been surveyed and laid out. Store buildings, made from stone as well as wood, were constructed along White Oaks Avenue. The early-day boomtown atmosphere, with its wild saloons, wide-open gambling, and guns and knives had virtually disappeared. The residents were all law-abiding, eager to make progress and willing to face the future. There were at least three young lawyers: John Y. Hewitt, H. B. Fergusson, and George Barber. Doctors, bankers, businessmen of all types found their way to White Oaks after 1885.
A second town hall was built which served mostly as an athletic club for boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, and for musicals. A two-story brick school building was built on the north side of the valley. It had four rooms and served au grades from kindergarten through accredited college-entrance courses. Upon entrance into the school, the room on the left was for grades one through four, the room to the right for five through eight. Up the stairs, the room to the left was for nine through twelve and to the right the kindergarten, for it had a good heat source. The view from the school was commanding, for one could see the entire town from the upstairs window. The school, because of the recent increase in revenue, was just one of many new buildings being built after 1885. All of the additions were the result of gold being mined successfully once again from Baxter Mountain.
Gold fever resurged in White Oaks during 1885. The success of the North Homestake mine paid off for James A. Sigafus and Frank Lloyd, the mine manager. The mine had three shafts measuring 600, 700, and 800 feet in depth. Steady profit was managed from the gold veins inside the shafts. All told, the North Homestake was the second largest yielding mine in White Oaks.
The South Homestake, meanwhile, was once again at work. Morris Parker's family suddenly found new revenue in their hands from the mine's two shafts measuring 500 and 1,066 feet, respectively. Production was booming when disaster struck in the form of fire. On July 1, 1891, a candle was left burning on an oil-soaked shelf in the hoist room of the main shaft. Only two men were on shift, both of whom lost their lives in the blaze. The entire mine was rendered useless until repairs could be made, if ever. Because of the cost, this was never attempted.
Instead of rebuilding the old shaft, focus was turned to another area in the mine known as the North Shaft, which was producing good ore. This shaft was making enough money to offset the disaster in the main shaft, though the owners of the South Homestake had to be careful just how far they permitted their workers to pursue this angle. The reason for this is the vein that the North Shaft was working in ran from the North Homestake mine as well. The dividing line between the two mines was becoming very close as the two mines worked towards one another.
The work suddenly became quite slow, though the work was pressed on, hoping that the vein would reappear. The problem was that the line between the North and South Homestakes was very near, so near that the workers could hear one another in the opposite mines. Morris Parker's father grew more and more apprehensive with each day, feeling that the vein was all on the side of the North Homestake. Within twenty-five feet from the dividing line between the two mines, the vein was relocated. With this find, one of the richest pockets of gold ever found in the mines of White Oaks was discovered.
Joe Grieshaber, the Parker's foreman, blasted two 'shots' into the pocket. A short, fat German man, he was determined to see just what the discovery could possibly yield. It was impossible to go in the North Shaft after blasting for some time because of the lack of any kind of artificial ventilation, which prevented the dust and debris from settling. Still, Grieshaber was determined to see exactly what his blasts had done to the pocket.
Sneaking back to the mine that night with young Morris Parker at his side, Grieshaber made the descent into the shaft and though the lighting was only from candles, the two saw plenty. 'The sight that met our eyes was like a jewelry shop. Clean, bright, shining gold! Big blotches, leaf and wire gold. Coarse and fine, too, and a lot of it!' Filling their sacks with samples, the two men slept in the mine that night, taking their findings to town the next morning. After having the gold tested and checked out, the total in cash for one night's work was an astonishing $18,000! When the time came for the mine to finally shut down, the South Homestake was the third best producing mine in White Oaks.
From that time on, the two Homestakes progressed normally and well. For ten years the two mines continued production, and White Oaks prospered as a result. Homes were popping up everywhere and new ranches began to cover the outlying areas around town. White Oaks realized that the time would come when the veins would become exhausted, but that fact didn't seem to bother the town during the fever of the 'golden days'. By 1890, the town's population had grown to more than 2,000, a remarkable achievement in such a short amount of time.
The largest and richest find, was yet to come, however. Though the location for the Old Abe mine was first located in 1879, shortly after that Homestake claim by Winters, no significant production ever came from the area until years later. The original three owners failed to see any future in the claim, so they opened up the area for bidders in 1883. In January 1884, John Y. Hewitt, H. B. Fergusson, and William Watson located two claims near the former Abraham Lincoln, called the White Oaks and the Robert E. Lee. Lawyers, all three, had their practices in town, but spent much of their time working the claims they had set on Baxter Mountain.
The eventual site for the Old Abe as it came to be called, was very near to the North Homestake, meaning that miners were riding over the shallow covering of the richest vein in New Mexico for years. For eleven years, nothing much was done to make good on the claims of the three attorneys. During the fall of 1890, the owners made a deal with the owners of the South Homestake for some assessment of their samples. The samples were taken by none other than Joe Grieshaber and Morris Parker, and the results were more than satisfactory. Twice as much gold was found in the samples as had been expected. That same fall, Watson and his nephew, Watt Hoyle, worked below all previous work and sank a ten foot hole. As the values of their efforts increased almost daily, the hole became deeper. Twenty feet, then thirty until the pile of dirt surrounding the hole was too huge to continue with this method of digging. The mill at the South Homestake was then borrowed for the grinding of the ore from the Old Abe, for production at the earlier mine was at a low. The mill produced successful gold, the likes of which had never been seen before in White Oaks. Mr. Rolla Wells, president and principal owner of the South Homestake, offered $300,000 for the Old Abe, but the three lawyer partners felt that they were on to something big and promptly turned down his offer. A deal was then worked out with the owners of the North Homestake as well, for use of their mill. Production, by 1890, had virtually ceased for the two Homestakes, and the Old Abe was the only reason for the two not to shut down operations completely.
White Oaks had been facing the possibility of a bleak and apprehensive21 future until the discovery of the Old Abe. Life sprang up once again, for money was now flowing into the local businesses like never before because the Old Abe, unlike the other mines on Baxter Mountain, was owned entirely by local men. No outside investors of any sort were involved with the mines yieldings, meaning more revenue for White Oaks. The mine employed large numbers of men and they reaped in the benefits as well. New faces appeared on the streets, the town took on a look of prosperity as never before, and the population reached its peak around 2,500.
As with previous large findings, new buildings were built, including a two-story bank. Named the Exchange Bank, it was located on White Oaks Avenue, just like all the other buildings of importance. Watt Hoyle, as a result of greed and love, decided to construct a 'superior' residence. The result of his efforts and spending was a two-story brick home, complete with a viewing balcony on top. The story goes that he was building it for his prospective bride and when she wrote him that she was not coming to White Oaks, he walked up to the North Homestake and leaped to his death. In actuality, Hoyle never finished the inside but did live in the home with his older brother and his wife. The home became known as 'Hoyle's folly". While all of this complacency and prosperity was going on, another disaster struck the town for the second time. This fire, the greatest in the town’s history, struck the Old Abe on March 9, 1895. A kerosene lamp exploded in the hoist house, sending flammable liquid all over the wooden frames of the mine. The place was turned into a mass of fire, killing nine of the twenty men who were working underground at the time. The men were below the surface, almost 800 feet down.
When the station tender noticed the disaster on hand, he quickly summoned to his fellow miners and they began the long climb towards safety up the vertical shaft. Climbing up a vertical ladder is not easy, even under normal circumstances. With the pressures of depleting oxygen and sheer exhaustion, it's a wonder that eleven men were able to make it out at all.
It took the townspeople two days to extinguish the flames. In a heroic effort, White Oaks, both men and women, fought against the terrible fire with all of the strength and water they could muster. Tents were set up outside the mine for the weary as well as coffee and meals. Most men, however, refused to stop their efforts, for their were friends trapped inside. AU of the town efforts went for nothing as the nine bodies were carried out one by one after the flames were extinguished. It was a heavy and sad day for White Oaks.
The funeral was a particularly sad event. The entire town was present, overflowing the church. "Nine coffins, side by side, filled the width of the church. After the music and the service, the bodies of the young men, active and full of life a few days before; now blackened, scorched, some of them unrecognizable, were carried out one by one and placed in open wagons and led to the cemetery."
The graves had been prepared beforehand, the fresh dirt lying alongside the open holes. There was a brief prayer at each one, then the coffins were lowered into the earth, the 'headstone' being nothing more than pieces of wood. Each grave, though containing a well-known and loved man, was unmarked; no name, cause of death, or dates inscribed. As one can imagine, the next few weeks were filled with grief and readjustment for many in White Oaks.
After making some necessary repairs and adding extra safety precautions, tile Old Abe was hard at work once again, producing the finest form of gold known to man-untarnished. Most of the world's gold does not come from high-grade specimens, but rather from mines of low gold content, which may contain as little as half an ounce of gold per ton. Gold is also often nothing more than a by-product of the smelting of copper, lead, and silver ores. The mines at White Oaks, however, produced magnificent specimens of pure, bright yellow gold. 100 percent pure, the gold was heavy and coarse; produced from the tight seams of the earth. The mines of White Oaks were undoubtedly able to produce some of the best gold ever seen by man.
The Old Abe mine was the richest mine in White Oaks without question. At one time the mine employed forty workers yielding between forty-five to fifty tons of gold per day! Though the last mine in operation, it was the biggest and best of them all. The only working shaft was 1,350 feet deep, making it one of the deepest dry mine shafts in the world. The mine continued to produce gold until just after the turn of the century, when it, like the Homestakes, became 'worked-out'.
Other mines of significant importance were the Lady Godiva and the Little Mack, in which Robert Leslie worked. The veins in both of these mines were small, and produced little compared with the other mines mentioned. All told, the mines of White Oaks yielded around $20 million dollars worth of gold and other minerals. The North Homestake was the first mine to cease operations, followed a couple of years later by the South Homestake. Though some 'clean-up' was done producing minor finds, the mills were shutdown for good. As the mining petered out, the town began to fade. By the early 1900's, White Oaks was a far cry from what it had been just 10 years before. Its last hope was the railroad, which had to pass through White Oaks and bring permanent prosperity.
PENDING ON THE RAIL...
Long before the decline of White Oaks, the thought of running a rail spur through the town had been in many minds. The soaring costs to transport the vast amounts of gold from the mines by wagon was driving the owners of the mines crazy. As early as 1882, rumors persisted of such an undertaking. As things ended up, White Oaks was simply passed by because of the bungling of some of its leading citizens. White Oaks might have been a bustling town today if the railroad and built a spur into the town.
The idea for a rail spur lay with the cost of transportation by wagon from the mines to the nearest railroad depot, at that time in San Antonio, ninety miles away. El Paso, Texas was a growing metropolis and it badly needed fuel such as coal, timber, and of course the minerals coming from the White Oaks' mines, for its expanding population. White Oaks, barely three years old at this time, needed a spur in which it could transport the gold and other n-Linerals cheaper and safer than by wagon. The amount of time between shipments could be cut down tremendously as well. With the n-Lines of Organ, New Mexico, on the way as well, the project seemed to be ordy a matter of time from turning into a reality.
El Paso newspapers joined in on the clamor for the prospect of a new railroad. The rail was to be named the El Paso and White Oaks Railroad Company. The general opinion was that a literal empire lay in the building. This rail would not only join the city of El Paso with the gold mines of White Oaks, but would have depots at Organ and other ranches as well. All that was needed was a builder. Morris Locke seemed to be that man, though he did not actually begin any construction until 1889. Starting from El Paso, Locke managed to lay ten miles of rail costing him $170,000. Progress was very slow because of opposition from the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe Railroads, which had just moved into Roswell, New Mexico, only eighty miles from White Oaks. Locke soon found the task too stressful and he sold the venture to Jay Gould, who bought it for $50,000. Gould, much like Locke, found the task and terrain too difficult and the project was abandoned. Seeing the location of White Oaks as being to high and rough for his expenses, Gould left the rail, and White Oaks, behind.
It was not until Charles B. Eddy, who visited White Oaks many times before 1900 and became convinced that the coal, gold, and other minerals found there could be warranted some kind of a line, that serious efforts were made to build a railroad to the town. Calling it the White Oaks & Kansas City Railroad, the title made the local headlines. Wanting to connect White Oaks to a nearby city, Eddy proposed running a line from El Paso, which was eagerly accepted. Posting $10,000 with the El Paso City Council on September 20, 1897, Eddy promised to begin actual construction within ninety days.
What Eddy was also banking on were the Salado coal fields at Capitan and the vast timber resources on the Sacramento plateau, for these brought additional tonnage to the railroad. Hoping that capitalists would aid Wm in the funding of these resources, Eddy built the railroad from El Paso to Alamogordo, a town that arose because of just such a venture. Then disaster struck in the form of a major setback in the Salado coalfields, causing Eddy to panic. Seeing this 'certain' promise fail him, Eddy lost faith in the gold mines of White Oaks, choosing to run his line away from the low mountains and create a stopping point at White Oaks junction (Carrizozo, New Mexico) instead. This destination was reached on August 3, 1899, but the people of White Oaks soon realized that the dreams of having a railroad running through their town were becoming bleak. There was one final hope for White Oaks in the form of having a spur run from White Oaks Junction near the end of town, but the egos of the leading citizens got in the way. The original survey called for White Oaks as an objective. The railroad requested that 'the town provide a right-of-way, free of charge, along a proposed route which would at least affect buildings in existence. It asked for a flat, vacant acreage near the west edge of town for depot site, shops, and sidings, and a cash bonus of $50,000."
Town meetings were held and the requests were approved at first, but then opposition arose. Though the railroad countered the opposition by canceling the cash bonus, the leading citizens refused to compromise and expressed their determination not to spend a dollar. Their attitude was indicated in their slogan: "Regardless of what we do, the road necessarily must pass through White Oaks. It is the shortest, easiest, and cheapest route available. There is no other way."
The problem was that there was another way, finding a second route north of Lone Mountain where the summit was even lower than at White Oaks. Even after actual construction began on the alternate route, the dissenters persisted in their claims: "White Oaks, with its manifold advantages, does not need a railroad." When the Old Abe mine declined at the turn of the century, there was nothing left to support the town. Though the mistake was realized, it was far too late. Thus the people of White Oaks, by their own stubbornness and lack of foresight, were closely associated with the oblivion of their town. The railroad was built all right-just not through White Oaks. This fact, perhaps more than the exhaustion of the mines, spelled the end for the town.
If destiny had placed itself only twelve miles to the east of Carrizozo, New Mexico, in the mountains of White Oaks, everyone would be calling the town the best in New Mexico. Instead, White Oaks is a ghost town.
The fadeout of the town came after the railroad decided to run around White Oaks, instead of through it in 1900. After this was realized, many people simply left town leaving only the determined ones behind. As White Oaks slowly decayed, the railroad steamed on by, just twelve miles away.
The burial grounds of most ghost towns are much like the ruins near them. Cedarvale cemetery is very different, for the best part of the once active and prosperous town of White Oaks now lie there at rest. The names are mostly of just the locals, but there are some who deserve more attention. William McDonald, who became the first governor of New Mexico after statehood and Mrs. Susan McSween Barber, the wife of Alexander McSween and lone survivor of the Lincoln County War as far as the 'big' names go. She was known as the "Cattle Queen of New Mexico" and married George Barber in 1880. Never 'cleared' of the gossip that surrounded her after the war, Susan McSween presided over a range that numbered over five thousand head. Finally, in 1902, she sold out and moved to White Oaks, where she died in 1931 at the age of eighty-six.
The place is a monument for all to see, for the graves are not neglected. Dave Jackson , who arrived in White Oaks in 1897, tended to the cemetery until his death in 1963. Though deaf and 'broken down' because of the years spent working in the mines, Jackson felt that he belonged to his duty of maintaining the Cedarvale cemetery. 'So many of my friends are here that I took it upon myself to maintain the cemetery."
White Oaks, much like the gold that came from nearby Baxter Mountain, was a flash as far as time goes. Still, it made such an impact upon the southwest that it lives today. Its citizens, though forced to leave for one reason or another, kept the memories of their town alive in their hearts. Unlike many other ghost towns, White Oaks left behind people who cared for their town, even in its demise. The legend of White Oaks lives on in the stones, the ruins, and the old timers, like Robert Leslie, who return to speak of the wonderful times spent amongst the streets of the town. 'It was a sad day when we all were forced to move because of no other option. The town had simply vanished." White Oaks had produced some of the world's finest gold and if it were not for a stubborn few, it might still be alive today.
1. Charles Family Papers, Rio Grande Historical Collections, NMSU Archives, MS-18 (White Oaks).
2. Leslie, Robert, personal interview, March 12, 1995.
3. Parker, Morris B., White Oaks. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1971.
4. William Watson Papers, Rio Grande Historical Collections, NMSU Archives, MS-171 (White Oaks, 1881-1908).
5. White Oaks Eagle, vol. 4, no. 37 (August 22,1895).
1. Fulton, Maurice G., History of the Lincoln County War. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1968.
2. Garrett, Pat F., The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. New edition. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1954.
3. Horgan, Paul, Conquistadors in North American History. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1982.
4. Keleher, William A., Violence in Lincoln County. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1957.
5. Nolan, Frederick, The Lincoln County War. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
6. Stanley, F., The White Oaks, New Mexico Story. n. p., n. d.
7. Utley, Robert M., High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1987.
1. Alamogordo Daily, vol. 69, no. 110 (May 9,1963).
2. El Paso Times, (April 29, 1956).
3. Las Vegas Gazette, (December 11, 1880).
4. Ruidoso News, “Around Lincoln County." Lincoln County News. (April 10, 1958).
5. Ruidoso News, (June 1, 1956), p. 5.
6. White Oaks, Lincoln County, New Mexico: A Gold Mining Town of theLate 1800's. Pamphlet from White Oaks, NM, given to the author by
Robert Leslie on March 12, 1995.
Jones Taliaferro was owner of the Taliaferro Brothers general store in White Oaks when it was a boom town.
In an email from relative
David Taliaferro he wrote:
"I have a letter from Rev. Thomas Taliaferro of Kentucky to Jones in White Oaks dated about 1906, after he had visited White Oaks. Somehow it came into my father's possession.
"In the letter he discusses his cousin John Taliaferro Thompson, who later invented the Thompson submachine gun.
"I have quite a bit of genealogy info on this group as they migrated from Virginia, to Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, then to New Mexico and Arizona."