By Craig Springer
Kingston was a busy place over a century ago. The town and adjacent mines peaked in their prosperity about 1890, with a population of less than 1,500. But the town’s population grew post-mortem. That’s how legends go. And that’s the difference between heritage and history. That latter is what happened; the former is how we want it to be. That Kingston was New Mexico’s largest territorial town has become our heritage with no basis in truth.
Kingston had its start with the discovery of silver. In the early 1880s, prospectors scratched dirt for signs of precious metal, and they found it. In October 1882, James Porter Parker –a civil engineer and General George Custer’s former roommate at West Point– platted a townsite. The Nov. 11, 1882 Tombstone Weekly Epitaph reported on the boom, citing that 45 men were working in the Kingston mines.
Kingston sprung from a wilderness. A finely wrought prospectus, The Mines of Kingston, published in March 1883 by C.W. Greene –a mining investor and owner of Kingston’s Tribune– documented a great deal of activity. He cites that “…people came pouring in till not less, probably, than 3,000 had come to view the promised land.” Far fewer of the lookers stayed. Greene himself pulled up stakes by the end of 1883, and moved his newspaper to Deming.
The Territory of New Mexico conducted a census in 1885, counting 329 people living in Kingston and in the nearby Danville Camp combined. But it was a pluralistic place that included people with Chinese and Spanish names.
A Kingston resident corroborated that the population numbered in the hundreds mid-decade in a lament in the St. Johns Herald, Oct. 7, 1886. “We blush to admit that Kingston, a town of several hundred inhabitants, has no school, no church, no young men’s Christian association, and no public institutions of any kind, in which we can place our children for moral and intellectual training.”
The population ticked upward, and the Methodist Church sought to rectify the lack of morals in Kingston. The Gospel in All Lands, published in 1888 by the Methodist Missionary Society, reported on the progress of a stone church underway to serve Kingston’s 1,000 residents, as it cites. There was work to do: “If I could take the reader along the main street on our way to a schoolhouse for evening service, he would see the typical mining town in all its wickedness,” wrote Rev. S.W. Thornton.
Two years later, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted its 1890 census. The bureau counted 1,449 people living in Kingston and near its mines. You may have heard that the 1890 census burned. That is true – it burned in 1921, long after the 1890 data were compiled and published, and those published data are still available.
According to the 1890 census, 3,785 people lived in Albuquerque, which was more than all of Sierra County’s 1890 population. One might wonder if minorities were undercounted, which is to ask essentially, did the Kingston enumerator overlook 5,551 Chinese and Hispanic minorities while counting only the 1,449 white folks. Not likely. Moreover, the 1890 census parsed out minorities down to the county: 37 Chinese lived in Sierra County in 1890. Minorities were listed in Kingston in 1885, and were counted in other censuses before and after 1890.
A Territorial Bureau of Immigration publication printed in 1894 reported on the condition and prospects of New Mexico, stating, “The town [Kingston] itself is well situated, has a public water service, churches and schools, two good hotels, and a pushing, go-ahead population of about 1,000 persons.”
Those prospects may had already changed. Silver prices went south with the economic Panic of 1893 and Kingston decayed.
The July 7, 1893 Mohave County Miner published a note from a Kingston correspondent: “Less than 100 miners are employed at Kingston, New Mexico, where there were hundreds at work a few years ago. The mines at Kingston are all silver producers and the low price of silver has made it necessary to suspend operations on most of the mines in the camp.” Note that the alleged largest town in territorial New Mexico is referred to as a “camp.”
The myth of 7,000 walks hand in hand with another, that three newspapers kept shop in town, competing for readers and advertisers. That too is bogus. Eleven newspapers published in Kingston from 1883-1893, but all were very short-lived, some lasting only weeks. From April 1885 to March 1886, during Kingston’s legendary peak, the town lacked a newspaper. Albuquerque, in the same 10-year period, supported two-dozen newspapers, according to The Territorial Press of New Mexico (UNM Press).
The 1890 edition of N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual includes a report from C.T. Barr, editor of the Kingston Shaft (the only paper in Kingston listed in the annual). Barr said the paper served a town of 700 and a countywide population of 3,635, reaching 1,235 readers. Three years later, the Shaft reported to the same newspaper annual a Kingston population of 633. The Shaft had a circulation of 500 in 1893.
Kingston’s greatest growth occurred after it died. 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 at Emory Pass. Seven thousand is about as big as Truth or Consequences is today. Sierra County didn’t reach 7,000 people until 1950.
How such myths start is a curious 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 the silver miners left Kingston. Its writer, playwright and novelist William Pinkney Lawson, visited Kingston for one night on his way into the forest to count trees for summer, calling the town “a melancholy collection of deserted buildings.” He had no direct observation of the purported 5,000.
In August 1936, WPA writer Clay Vaden interviewed former Kingston prostitute Sadie Orchard. She told Vaden that Kingston thronged with 5,000 residents in 1886. Also in 1936, Sierra County pioneer James McKenna looking back through the haze of 50 years published the apocryphal Black Range Tales. He upped Orchard by 2,000 and it’s been gospel since. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” the line goes from the old movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” And so it’s been for the quaint Sierra County town.
Visit the Black Range Museum in Hillsboro and the Percha Bank Museum in Kingston. Both are privately owned, and donations are encouraged.
Craig Springer is the co-author of the book “Around Hillsboro.” He’s a member of the Hillsboro Historical Society.