Lincoln County Guide
Last updated on Thursday, February 20, 2003
It began with our stop at Three Rivers Trading Post at the junction of Highway 54 and the road to the petroglyphs. It was obvious that the trading post had been there many years, had undergone many revisions and had been a very important crossroads, railroad stop and social center for the area. Behind the trading post stood the brightly painted red and white schoolhouse, its charm and antiquity begging to be released from its overgrown surroundings and to once again serve a useful purpose.
Alto, 800 population, 7,300 feet elevation, nine miles northwest of Ruidoso on NM Highway 48, was established with a post office in 1901, even though it was settled in 1882.
Postmaster W. H. Walker chose its name, Alto - Spanish for high. Eugene Manlove Rhodes was a cowboy writer who taught here in 1891 and 1892. However, it was known as Eagle Creek during those years. Now it is the home of artists, as well as merchants and businesses. Alto Village, a development with lovely homes, has its own golf course. The entrance to the Ski Apache slopes on Sierra Blanca Mountain is to the west on NM Highway 532 just as you enter Alto.
The lady at the Forest Service office in Ruidoso said I could take a tree up to ten feet tall, so that's what I was determined to do. Although tempted, I wasn't going to give up on removing this tree and taking it to the land I'd bought a couple of years ago. The land where I'll live someday.
Ever get the "winter blahs?" It is a state of mind that strikes around mid-January, then reaches its peak in the middle of March. Here at Lake Roberts it doesn't normally end until we see the first greening of trees and smell the warm sweetness in the air that tells us spring is about to be sprung from a cold, colorless landscape.
Bob Olinger’s place in New Mexico history roughly parallels Billy the Kid’s, as overblown as that statement may seem. His own mother remembered him with the following unique phraseology, "Bob was a murderer from the cradle, and if there is a hell hereafter then he is there."
Every school age child has heard of Smokey Bear, but they may not know that Capitan, New Mexico, is his birthplace. In the aftermath of a disastrous fire in the Capitan Mountains, a four pound black bear was found on May 19, 1950, clinging to the trunk of a burned tree. The rangers named him Smokey. Ultimately he was taken to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and in June, 1950, he became the living symbol of Smokey Bear. When he died in 1976 he was returned to Capitan and buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park. The visitor's center includes exhibits about forest fires, a history of the fire prevention campaign and a theater. There are also educational computer games on fire prevention.
The name Carrizozo is derived from the Spanish name for reed grass, "carrizo." However, it seems some enterprising ranch foreman added another "zo" to indicate there was abundant reed grass. That became the town's name although it wasn't platted until 1907.
The native reed grass was an excellent feed for livestock on the ranches in the area prior to 1899, where small outfits ran cattle on Carrizozo flats in the upper end of the Tularosa Basin.
Bonito Lake outside Ruidoso in the Sacramento Mountains of Southern New Mexico is a small man-made body of clear water reflecting the blue of the sky behind a dam at the end of a road that follows the Rio Bonito through forested canyons. It lies peacefully in a high country basin north of the sacred Apache peak of Sierra Blanca. It is a fine place for teaching my girls to fish.
Lincoln County at one time encompassed almost one-fourth of New Mexico and was the largest county in the United States. It was created January 16, 1869, by an act of the Territorial Legislature, and subsequently other counties were wrested from it. They were Chaves, Eddy, and Roosevelt, and portions of Curry, Guadalupe, Otero and Torrance. With a current population of 14,184 and covering 4,859 square miles, Carrizozo is the county seat, changed from Lincoln in 1909. Since its origin, the county has had a total of 70 post offices.
The Civil War forced abandonment of Ft. Stanton in 1861, when the Confederate forces came into New Mexico. Retreating U.S. forces tried to burn the Fort, but were not successful because a rainstorm put out the fire. The Confederates did not stay long, as five companies of New Mexico volunteers took control of the Fort again in 1862, with Colonel Kit Carson as commander. In a state of disrepair because of the looting following the Civil War skirmish, only the stone walls stood.
Although Juan de Onate is credited with bringing the first cattle into New Mexico from old Mexico, it was John Chisum and men of his ilk who made the cattle industry an economic force in the 1860s.
Put on your cowboy hat and working pair of boots to celebrate the Old West's restaurant on the range the chuckwagon. Betcha there will be no microwave ovens in the infield of the Ruidoso Downs Race Track on New Mexico Highway 70 where 40 cowboy cookin' teams will compete over open fires for a large purse for their beef, beans, potatoes, biscuit and dessert creations. Judges points are swayed by authenticity. This competition is the hottest in the West.
Folklore notes that the main street of Lincoln is 1,000 yards of museums. It is a corner of history that has been missed by the sweep of the 20th Century. Although a living community, it is also a National Historic Landmark. It still resembles the community it was in 1878 following the Lincoln County War. Buildings have been preserved and restored, including the courthouse where Billy the Kid made his famous escape. It is now operated by the New Mexico State Monuments, a division of the Museum of New Mexico that also owns other historic buildings in Lincoln.
For most of us, Labor Day fills a primitive need for a special day to mark the change of seasons, the end of summer and the beginning of fall. In New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains on Labor Day, summer still held the land in her dark green grip. Only the sunflowers and asters crowding the highway hinted that fall was squeezing in.
Located two miles off U. S. Highway 54 to the east, this large eight-room railroad depot displays the history of a thriving town's brief life and economic demise. It was built in 1902, the same year Ancho was established.
Some towns in Southern New Mexico are so small they are scarcely noticed. Nevertheless they exist and have histories. Nogal, four miles off U. S. 370 on NM 37 and eight miles southeast of Carrizozo, is one.
Known as Dry Gulch in 1879 when gold was discovered, then Galena, then Parsons, for a miner in 1892 and finally to Nogal. As often happened in the mining areas, when the ore played out the town dwindled or died. Nogal didn't die, although the large hotel that once lodged miners and others is no longer there. Many homes dot the hills, and there are churches and a few businesses - a tiny community content in its peaceful existence.
Ruidoso is a place without pretentions and a unique village. A mountain town at 7,000 feet, it is located on U.S. Highway 70. The population numbers about 8,000, more on weekends in the winter when skiers come to town, and up to twenty-five or thirty thousand on summer weekends during horse racing season.
Snow Country magazine called Ruidoso, New Mexico’s Ski Run Road “a 15-mile corkscrew with precious few guardrails.” Well, it’s actually only a little more than 12 miles up to Ski Apache (sometimes it just feels like more) and hey - there are more guardrails than there used to be.
I had flown into Albuquerque, rented a vehicle and driven down to Carrizozo through Sorroco and across the Stallion Station. Severe thunderstorms had moved through the area that day, providing some incredible sights of distant cloud formations with rain shafts and lightning displays. As I drove across Stallion Station, an oryx stood by the fence chewing his cud, a sight that made me do a double take as I had only seen one in a zoo before and had no idea such a critter existed in this country otherwise. I commented to myself that after having read about the Trinity Site bomb test, it was probably just a radioactive mutated range cow deceiving my eyes.
These five villages or settlements aren't even mentioned in a New Mexico cities list or in the Secretary of State's Blue Book that gives vital information about the state. Obviously, their populations are minuscule but they are all located in one of the loveliest valleys of Southeastern New Mexico, the Hondo.
Driving through them on U. S. 70/380 in the spring, the fruit trees, primarily apple and pear, are bursting with blossoms. After the growing season, you will see roadside stands where you can buy vine-ripened fruit. In the fall, the leaves in many shades of yellow delight the eye. It is a scenic drive at any time of the year.
It began about 60 years after the events that inspired it
took place, and it has been going on for about another 60 years since. It is
“The Last Escape of Billy the Kid” and it is held yearly at
Lincoln, New Mexico, where it all happened. Started in 1940 as
part of the Quatro Centennial, the pageant was, and is, staffed entirely by
local folks, many of whom are descended from the actual participants being
portrayed. The first local man to play Billy the Kid was renowned artist Peter
Hurd of San Patricio.
Nomad Indians dominated Lincoln County's population, but it had also been
inhabited for hundreds of years along the Rio Grande and its
branch by casual settlers. For many years, New Mexico was looked upon by
politicians in Washington as an abandoned puppy among the states and
territories. In 1874, General Tecumseh Sherman, testifying before the senate
committee, thundered from the pulpit, "ownership of the Territory of New Mexico
is not worth the cost of defense."
In 1849, the U.S. Government paid $10,000,000 to the State of Texas to settle
the boundary dispute between New Mexico and Texas, spending a small fortune to
keep a curb on the ferocious Indians and ruthless cutthroats widespread in the
territory. In 1863, the Territory of Arizona was established by cutting off the
western half of New Mexico. At the same time the uncivilized boundaries between
New Mexico and Colorado were straightened. Arizona depended on the courage and
gunslinging skills of imported peace officers along with the full and
uncompromising support of the citizenry.
The sound of water cascading over the immense wooden
wheel is sometimes barely audible over the traffic on Ruidoso’s main street. But the wheel turns as
steadily as it did more than a century ago. Inside the adobe walls of the
old Dowlin Mill , two flint millstones
slowly grind a handful of dried yellow corn into fine meal.
The mill, Ruidoso’s oldest building, was built by Paul
Dowlin, a Civil War veteran and retired Army captain who served at nearby
Fort Stanton. It was his second attempt in
the mill business. The first mill, built at the junction of Ruidoso River and
Carrizo Creek, was swept away by heavy rains just a few weeks after its
A sequence of events can occur in the most unexpected
ways. An article titled “Folklore of Lincoln County Post Offices” brought an
e-mail from two sisters in Indiana who were working on their family geneology.
The thread that wove New Mexico and Indiana together was that their great
grandmother had been one of the postmasters of Lincoln County in the early
Although family oral history isn’t always totally
reliable, Judith P. Hamilton and Kathy Anderson Goins thought their great
grandmother had been postmaster (no gender quarrel in those days) in the late
1800s. However, Jim White of Farmington, NM, considered the state historian of
post offices, found that Frances Baca Walters, born in 1855, became postmaster
on November 16, 1901.
The village of Capitan, New Mexico has a story unique to the
world. It is the birthplace and burial site of the world's most well-known bear.
Smokey's story is factual although it might appear to be fictitious.
It is believed that on May 4, 1950, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt
started the Los Tablos blaze in the Lincoln National
Forest . On May 6, a second fire, known as the Capitan Gap fire, which
was also man-caused, started in the same general area. Together these fires
destroyed 17,000 acres of forest and grasslands. The monetary loss to private
properties was great, but the loss to the wildlife and environment was even
The Valley of Fires, four miles west of
Carrizozo on U. S. 380 is one of the youngest
and best preserved lava fields in the continental United States. Yet it is
little publicized. It was established as a State Park in 1966 but is now
administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Known also as the
Carrizozo Malpais (badlands), it was formed between 1500 and
2000 years ago when Little Black Peak erupted pouring molten lava for forty-four
miles southwest through the valley. It isn't a volcano per se since the lava
flowed via vents, burying almost everything in its path. One hundred sixty-five
feet deep at the thickest point, the formation is between two and five miles
Ghost Towns hold a fascination for many people and White Oaks, New Mexico, is one that has been rediscovered by some artisans. One can see signs of new residents, as well.
Gold discovery in 1879 marked the beginning of the town. How gold was first discovered was probably a once-in-a-lifetime incident. According to Roadside History of New Mexico, John Wilson was an escapee from a Texas prison. On his way west, he stopped near the Jicarilla Mountains on the west side of White Oaks to visit Jack Winters and Harry Baxter, two of his friends. He headed to the top of the mountain with a pick, stating he was going to find gold.
In the summer of 1999, a family of forest service firefighters with an interest in old firefighting tools put together a unique museum in the tiny town of Capitan, New Mexico. Capitan lies at the foot of the Capitan Mountains and rests on rolling wooded hills. It is surrounded by the juniper, pinon, and aspen-studded 1.1 million acre Lincoln National Forest. Capitan's claim to fame is singular: Its forest is the birthplace and burial site of the world-renowned Smokey Bear.