Rich in history and once full of life with over 7,000 residents, it is hard to imagine Elizabethtown as it once was. Now, the sparse remains of the once-bustling boom camp look silently upon the Moreno Valley and the face of the imposing Baldy Mountain.
It all began in 1866, just one year after the Civil War ended when Ute Indians arrived at Fort Union (northeast of Las Vegas, New Mexico) wanting to trade “pretty rocks” for supplies. Stationed at Fort Union, Captain William H. Moore was acquainted with one of the Indians. He had once found the Indian badly wounded and on the verge of death, given him water and taken him back to the fort, where he was nursed back to health. Ever grateful to Captain Moore, the Indian gave him several of the “pretty rocks” which Moore quickly recognized as being rich in copper. The ore had been found on the upper slope of Baldy Mountain (12,441 feet) on the Western edge of the Maxwell Land Grant. The Indian agreed to lead Captain Moore and several other soldiers to a spot high on the majestic mountain, where enough copper was found to stake the first of many claims in the area.
While continuing to explore the area, three of the men made camp on the banks of Willow Creek. Passing the time, one of the men took a gold pan from his saddlebag and began sifting the creek gravel. When his loud, excited shout pierced the quiet evening his companions came running to his side. All thought of copper vanished from their minds as the three stared at the sparkling gold flakes lying in the base of the pan. They wasted no time, immediately exploring the area, spending the next several days panning the creek and chipping at rock. But it was already October and winter comes early to the high slopes of Baldy Mountain. Vowing to keep their findings secret, the three carved the words “DISCOVERY TREE” on a Ponderosa Fir next to their camp, made their way down the mountain, and began the long trek back to Fort Union.
But, the secret was just too big and during the long idle months of winter, their pledge was broken. Word got out and when the snow melted in the spring of 1867, they were just the first of many men flooding the area to find their fortunes.
Lucien B. Maxwell, a long-time resident of the area and sole owner of the Maxwell Land Grant, owned the Moreno Valley as well as Baldy Peak. The already wealthy land baron and entrepreneur watched the storm of gold seekers with great interest and realized that he couldn’t fight the inevitable. Taking full advantage of the situation, Maxwell welcomed the squatters by charging them for the use of his land, fees for placer and quartz claims, and toll charges for the use of the good road that he constructed.
Miners paid $1 a month for a 500 square-foot parcel, $12 dollars a year in advance for a placer or gulch claim, and half the proceeds of a lode claim. Some of the miners paid, but many did not, a situation that would plague Maxwell and the investors who later bought the grant. By July of 1867, 17 companies had set up with 400 hundred claims within an eight-mile radius of old Baldy.
In addition to Maxwell’s real estate interests, he quickly got involved with the mining activities, placing several placer claims himself. He joined Captain Moore and several entrepreneurs to form the Copper Mining Company in 1867, which soon found the first lode of gold.
Meanwhile, back in June 1867, Captain William Moore and his brother, John Moore, opened a general store southwest of the peak to supply the many miners who were streaming into the territory. Many of the settlers quickly moved their tents to the area around the store, and it wasn’t long before cabins began to sprout up. Before the month was out it was clear that the general store would become the center of a town, and Moore began construction on the first house in the rapidly growing settlement.
The very next year, Moore and other businessmen platted a townsite, incorporated the village (the first in New Mexico), and began selling lots at prices ranging between $800 and $1200.
The town was named after the captain’s daughter, Elizabeth Catherine Moore, who had just turned four years of age but it was quickly nicknamed E-Town by most of the locals. Elizabeth Moore was the first school teacher and lived her entire life in Elizabethtown.
By the end of July 1868, there were about 400 people living in Elizabethtown. A sawmill and several other stores followed Moore’s, as did the inevitable saloons and gambling houses. Like most Old West towns, dancing, dining, and drinking were popular, as well as a burgeoning red-light district, comprised of several cabins. Other women of the “profession” worked their trade in second-floor rooms connected to the saloons where dumb waiters carried drinks to their guests.
Lucien B. Maxwell envied the quick success of Elizabethtown, and not wanting to be outdone, he began to plan another townsite just six miles away.
Partnering with several business associates, including Territorial Governor R.B. Mitchell, they laid out the new townsite and named it after Maxwell’s eldest daughter, Virginia. But Virginia City was too far from the “action” and never really got off the ground.
The mines attracted many new residents including settlers from Texas who brought herds of cattle and made livestock raising another principal industry in the County. E-town kept growing and the first crude structures were replaced by 5 well-built stores, a drug store, 7saloons, 3 dancehalls, 2 hotels, a brewery, and a flour depot. The saloons boasted dance floors, gaming tables, and bars that were 100-200 feet long.
The sawmill was kept busy providing lumber for commercial buildings and private homes. By 1869, E-town had about 100 buildings and by late in the same year enough families had joined the miners to require a schoolhouse and a Protestant church. A Catholic parish soon followed.
In 1869, Scranton and Aken started the first newspaper, the Elizabeth Lantern, selling it later to William D. Dawson who renamed it the Railway Press and Telegraph. Dawson had strong views which he expressed freely, and it was noted in the Colorado Miner that he had whipped up townspeople into “a furious rage” with his newspaper.
During the harsh winters, mining in the area was shut down and E-Town’s population would rise and fall with the weather. Even when weather was good, the mining was erratic — when new gold was found, the town would grow as word spread and then fall again as interest dwindled. Those hardy settlers who stayed often had to deal with drunks, outlaws, and Indian raids, as well as the harsh winter weather.