Shakespeare, New Mexico, a ghost town in Hidalgo County in the southwest portion of the state, has gone by a number of names throughout the years. Today, it is part of a privately owned ranch that is sometimes open to tourists. The entire community was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Some sources say that the site started as a rest stop called Mexican Spring due to a small but reliable spring located in an arroyo west of the present-day townsite. In about 1856 a building was constructed here by the Army, evidently to serve as a relay station on the Army Mail line between Fort Thorn on the Rio Grande and Fort Buchanan, Arizona. During the Civil War, more people used the spring as soldiers made their way back and forth across the southwest. During this time, one or two more buildings were built at Mexican Spring by the soldiers – the largest one called “old stone fort.” After the Civil War, the site was renamed Grant after General U. S. Grant.
Around 1870, the area that would eventually become Shakespeare had attracted a number of prospectors always on the look-out for mineral deposits. When a couple of them found rich silver ore, they contacted San Francisco businessman and financier, William Ralston, co-founder of the Bank Of California six years earlier. When the prospectors were successful in gaining Ralston’s financial support to develop the mines, the resulting settlement was named Ralston in his honor.
Soon, the New Mexico Mining Company was digging for ore and a new town was laid out, filling with tents and about 200 people. In no time; however; the town boomed when newspapers as far away as San Diego and San Francisco, told the news of the rich silver finds. More miners flocked to the area, that some say, soon sported some 3,000 people.
Though the New Mexico Mining Company found a few isolated pockets of silver ore, William Ralston’s credibility was quickly waning due to his involvement in several dicey scams, one of which was the Great Diamond Hoax of 1871. His stock dropped dramatically and people began to leave the newly formed camp. By 1873, there were only a few people left in the boomtown. William Ralston, meantime, would see his Bank of California collapsed during the depression of 1875, leaving him in financial ruin. That same year, on August 27th, he reportedly went for a swim in the San Francisco Bay and drowned.
In 1879, though the town of Ralston was virtually non-existent, another investor, Colonel Boyle of St. Louis, Missouri, staked a number of claims under the name of the Shakespeare Mining Company and renamed the settlement, Shakespeare. Mining was in full force again with the principal mines being Boyle’s Shakespeare Gold and Silver Mining and Milling Company, as well as the Atwood, Miners Chest, and others. Colonel Boyle also bought an adobe building which he turned into the Stratford Hotel. The town began to grow again, this time with more adobe buildings. In the 1883 publication Congressional Series of the United States Public Documents, Volume 2113, Shakespeare is described as follows:
“Like most towns which are built in a country infested with Indians, as this has been in the not remote past, Shakespeare is built of adobe, as affording best means of defense as well as furnishing the greatest amount of comfort attainable in a frontier residence.
“It is not a large town, although it would seem to have elements about it to have made it so ere this. The Atwood mine.. is on its outskirts; the Superior.. is but a mile away; the Jerry Boyle, an immense copper vein, immediately adjoins the Atwood; the Miner’s Chest, less than 2 miles away, and upwards of a hundred other good claims in more or less advanced stages of development within a radius of less than 3 miles, is enough to furnish employment for thousands of miners. Not only in the number of claims but in the great diversity of ores, generally carrying both silver and gold, although other veins show excellent galena ores carrying largely of silver.”
Though the town was typical of the time with rowdy miners and lawlessness, it never gained the reputation of other mining towns of the time, such as the more decadent mining camps of Leadville, Colorado and Deadwood, South Dakota.
In fact, men began to bring in their families and settle down; however, the town never settled so much as to ever get a school, a church, or a newspaper.
“Law” was generally handled by the citizens of the community, even though the settlement was overseen by a County Deputy Sheriff as early as 1870. Some offenders were even hanged by the timbers of the Grant House dining room.
On one occasion, a well-known outlaw by the name of Sandy King was making his home in Shakespeare and when he got into an argument with a storekeeper and shot off his index finger, he was quickly taken to jail Deputy Sheriff Dan Tucker.
At about the same time, King’s friend, William Tattenbaum, better known as “Russian Bill“, was tracked down on November 9, 1881, and also held in the pokey for rustling cattle. Before the night was over, both outlaws were dragged from the jail by vigilantes and taken to the Grant House, where they were found guilty of being a general nuisance, along with the other crimes they had committed and were promptly lynched. They were still hanging days later as a warning to others not to mess with Shakespeare.
The biggest threat to Shakespeare was the Apache Indians who were doing everything they could to get rid of the white settlers who had encroached upon their land. It is reported that up to seventy area citizens formed the Shakespeare Guard in the 1880s to protect the settlement from attacks, though not always to success.
In the early 1880s the railroad pushed through the area, but to Shakespeare’s undoing, it missed the town by three miles, heading through Lordsburg instead. By this time, Shakespeare, according to onsite information, boasted three saloons, two hotels, two blacksmiths, a meat market, a mercantile store, and a lawyer. It also finally had a deputy sheriff. With the railroad, however, most of its businesses moved to Lordsburg. At the same time, the United States moved to the gold standard, putting the silver mines out of business. Most of Shakespeare’s residents moved on taking any salvageable material with them.
In 1907, when a new copper mine about a mile south of Shakespeare was built, the town saw a short resurgence, as miners rented many of the buildings in the old town. But, it was not enough to revive it permanently.
In 1935, Frank and Rita Hill purchased the town and buildings to utilize as a working ranch. They maintained and preserved one of the most intact ghost towns of the Old West. The entire town was declared a National Historic Site in 1970. That same year, Frank Hill passed away, but his wife, Rita, and daughter, Janaloo, continued to maintain the site. In 1984, Janaloo married Manny Hough and the following year, her mother, Rita, passed away.
Janaloo, along with her new husband, continued to maintain the ranch and the town. A prolific writer, Janaloo was determined to keep Shakespeare’s history alive. Researching the “ranch,” its history, and collecting numerous photographs, she published a number of books until her untimely death in 2005.
In 1997, Shakespeare lost its General Merchandise Store in a devastating fire. Unfortunately, for Manny and Janaloo, this was also their home and much of her hard-earned research material, including photos and unpublished manuscripts, went up in smoke.
Today, Manny honors his wife and her family by continuing to preserve the ghost town and their legacy.
Shakespeare continues to be preserved, though it appears some of its history embellished through tales passed down by old-timers. A number of buildings remain, including the Grant House, a saloon, the Stratford Hotel, a blacksmith shop, powder magazine, the assay office and more. The Shakespeare Cemetery also continues to beckon visitors to visit some of the ghost town’s most colorful residents.