Thursday, February 21, 2013

Along the Turquoise Trail Scenic Byway to Madrid

A little over halfway to Santa Fe (about twenty-seven miles shy of the city of Sacred Faith), we enter the ghost town of Madrid. I know it’s going to grate on you Spanish language purists, but the locals call it MAD-rid, not Ma-DRID, so just bite your tongue and live with it. These days, however, you’re more apt to meet a funky artist or craftsman than a phantom.

Madrid Anthracite Coal Breaker Circa 1935
First, a little background. Archaeologists tell us the area known as the Turquoise Trail has been inhabited for a millennia and a half. For most of that time, natives mined these hills for a sacred blue stone they considered a symbol of health, happiness, and protection. They called it chalichihuitl. We call it turquoise. According to, over 50,000 pieces of this beautiful stone was found by archaeologists in a single burial site at nearby Chaco Canyon.

When the Spaniards arrived mid Sixteenth Century, they were more interested in gold and silver in the San Pedro Mountains than in sky blue rocks, no matter how stunning. They forced the natives to labor in their mines until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 got them kicked out. Spain reconquered the area in 1693 and mining resumed, although Spanish settlers also began to farm and ranch. So from an early age, this area has been mined. The noble metals played out quickly, but the discovery of both hard and soft coal in 1835 altered the future of Madrid.

The town was founded in 1869, but things didn’t really begin to jive until the 1880s with the advent of coal mining. By 1892, production from “Coal Gulch” was sufficient to induce the Santa Fe Railroad to build a six and a half-mile spur to the town. In 1906 all coal production in the area was consolidated at Madrid, which was by now a “company town.” Production on the thirty square miles of rich black seams reached its peak in 1928 with the shipment of over 180,000 tons (or 250,000, depending upon your source) on coal cars.
Old Coal Town Museum
Eventually, natural gas became more popular for heating homes, resulting in a falling demand for coal. In 1954, coal operations ceased and almost all of the residents moved away. Soon, Madrid was considered a ghost town. In the early 1970s, Joe Huber, the owner of the entire town site began renting or selling a few of the old company houses to artists and craftsmen. As more “counter culture” individualists moved to Madrid, the town took on new life.

Some fun facts about Madrid:

· The first illuminated baseball park west of the Mississippi was built here in 1922 as the home of the Madrid Miners, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

· The Brooklyn Dodgers played in the park in 1934.

· During its heyday, Madrid was larger in population than Albuquerque, and afforded its citizens paved streets and unlimited electricity for their homes (provided by the mine’s power plant).

· The Mineshaft Tavern, which boasted the longest bar in the state, burned down on Christmas Day in 1944. It was rebuilt with the bar intact.

· In 1954, the Wall Street Journal listed the entire town for sale for $250,000. No takers.

· The Miner’s Amusement Hall, the Catholic Church, the Coal Mining Museum, and many of the wooden company houses have been restored, but some of the old houses are in their original and uncertain state on the outskirts of town.

· The town has an annual Christmas lighting display (originally started in the 1920s) which draws many visitors from throughout the state.

· The “Congested Area Ahead” signs generally warn against weekend pedestrians darting across the highway to get from one artisan’s house to another craftsman’s shop rather than motor traffic.

Restored Miner's Cabins
The place is not only a ghost town, but also a “Ghost” town. The cemetery, the church, and the Mine Shaft Tavern appear to be haunted. The spirit of La Llorna has been reported wandering the arroyos of the town. Some people believe the Weeping Woman haunts many places in the southwest. A silent, spectral cowboy occasionally escorts a well-dressed Spanish woman (equally ephemeral) right down the middle of Main Street.

Madrid seems to have it all: crumbling shacks, restored buildings, a famous tavern where glasses fall to the floor for no reason, a horde of talented artists and craftsmen, a long history, and…ghosts. Real live—well, maybe that’s not the right word—ghosts. What more could you ask?

Next week: The final lap of the Turquoise Trail

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