January 6, 2012

Kingston in Myth and Memory

By Craig Springer
To see the old photos, you can tell that Kingston was a busy place for a time. But that time didn’t last.
Set on the east flank of the Black Range in western Sierra County, Kingston is today a relic of the distant past. On some maps, it’s a ghost town. But everyone living there is alive--engaged in business, creating art, active in retirement. It’s an old mining town at the head of the Middle Percha Creek. From a distance, the Black Range looks the part of a long purple armada. The 10,000-foot Hillsboro Peak stands like a silent sentinel above. Vision through the gray distant haze over steep folded mountainsides becomes clearer as you get closer. And so it is with the myth of Kingston being New Mexico’s largest territorial town.
Kingston had its start with the discovery of silver. In the early 1880s, prospectors from nearby Hillsboro, Lake Valley, and Georgetown worked under the continual threat of Apache depredations as they scratched dirt for signs of precious metal. Like most of the Black Range, the surface is more rock than soil. It’s the rock that drew attention; it was rich with silver ore. In October 1882, James Porter Parker, a civil engineer and former Confederate Lt. Colonel and General George Custer’s roommate at West Point platted a townsite. The portly fellow became Sierra County’s first Assessor two years later.
Kingston topped out at about 1,500 residents ca. 1893. Starr Peak and the Caballo Mountain are seen in the distance. The stone church stands in the right margin of the photo. Photo Black Range Museum
Kingston was to get bigger. A Methodist minister in January 1888 reported on the progress of a stone church to serve Kingston’s 1,000 residents. There was work to do: “If I could take the reader along the main street on our way to a school-house for evening service, he would see the typical mining town in all its wickedness.” The minister lamented the gambling, smoking, drinking and a woman singing in soprano at the back of a hall. 
The town grew bigger yet -- but only in myth. In travel guides, state tourism office promotions, and academic writings by professional historians, you will see a phrase repeated so often that a myth has turned to “memory,” that Kingston once exceeded 7,000 residents and was the largest town in New Mexico. It’s even on Forest Service signs. Seven thousand is about as big as Truth or Consequences is today. And it’s a bogus number, usually attended by an equally bogus count of the number of newspapers that kept shop in town: three.

One is led to think that three publications competed for readers and advertisers. Actually, 10 newspapers published in Kingston from 1883-1893, but all were very short-lived titles except the Weekly Shaft. From April 1885 to March 1886 during Kingston's supposed prime the town lacked a newspaper. The Mines of Kingston, a March 1883 prospectus on the then five-month-old town of Kingston, was published by the weekly Tribune. Editor and publisher Charles W. Greene would pull up stakes and move the newspaper to Deming by Kingston's first birthday.
Those prospects may had already changed by the time the Bureau publication hit the streets. The economic Panic of 1893 and with silver prices going south, Kingston was all but abandoned. 
How such a myth got started is a bit of a mystery. The earliest writing on an inflated town size, a purported 5,000 people, that I found was in Log of a Timber Cruiser, published 22 years after Kingston was abandoned. 

Then, in August 1936, WPA writer Clay Vaden interviewed Sadie Orchard in Hillsboro. Orchard told Vaden that Kingston thronged with 5,000 residents in 1886. You can read what Vaden documented from Orchard in the Library of Congress holdings.

That same year Sierra County pioneer, James McKenna published Black Range Tales and upped the Kingston population by 2,000. And so it’s become gospel since, that Kingston was New Mexico’s largest town. 

The entire population of Sierra County didn’t reach 7,000 until 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Craig Springer and his wife Felicia own the historic George T. and Ninette Stocker Miller home in Hillsboro. He's a professional writer in Santa Fe County.

No comments:

Post a Comment