White Oaks, New Mexico: An Abandoned Wild West TownJuly 19, 2011 No Comments
It is truly amazing how many times you can read a book or see a movie without retaining all of the details. Young Guns II, the 1990 sequel to Young Guns that highlights the further exploits of Billy the Kid, is one of my favorite films. I love the sequence in the brothel, when the Regulators agree to “send out the Indian” to be killed, only to dress the deputy as Chavez and send him to the lynch mob instead. The movie clearly states that the scene takes place in White Oaks, but I never memorized that particular detail.
While looking at the driving map of Billy the Kid historic sites in Lincoln County, which we obtained at the Billy the Kid Visitor Center in Ruidoso Downs, I noticed the town of White Oaks. It was listed as a ghost town that was once a center for gold mining. Dad and I had eagerly anticipated visiting some of the ghost towns of the Old West, and White Oaks was just 12 miles from our campsite in Valley of Fires! We knew we had to go while we were in the area.
After our day in Lincoln, my head was spinning with ideas for a new historical fiction novel based on the life of Billy the Kid. I purchased several history books, eager to develop a realistic setting for my novel. Meanwhile, I wanted to watch the Young Guns films again. I knew they had taken a number of literary licenses with the story, but I also knew that they would put me in the right frame of mind to begin writing the book. When we got to the brothel scene in the second movie, I nearly fell off the couch. I finally connected the dots and realized that White Oaks, the ghost town I wanted to see, was White Oaks, the gold mining town where Billy the Kid spent a great deal of time.
About White Oaks
In 1879, John Wilson made an accidental gold strike in the mountains nearby. An outlaw more concerned with outrunning authorities than staking a claim, he quickly sold his interest to John V. Winters and Charles Baxter, two men he had recently met, for a pistol and $38 in gold. As news of the gold strike spread, the town of White Oaks popped up seemingly overnight. Approximately 2,500 immigrants, many highly educated, settled in town within the first year.
The wealth of the miners and the education of the new residents quickly developed White Oaks into an impressive city. Four churches, a school, a meat market, a dairy, a blacksmith shop, a mortuary, a post office and several general stores were among the highlights. With numerous gambling houses and brothels, White Oaks also appealed to the seedier side of human nature. Though it was never as tough as Lincoln, New Mexico or Tombstone, Arizona, and no significant gun battles were fought there, White Oaks was a sort of resort town for Billy the Kid and other outlaws.
By 1885, much of the lawlessness of the Old West was over, and White Oaks settled into a relatively quiet, prosperous existence, expanding to roughly 5,000 residents. But ultimately White Oaks’ wealth would be its undoing. In the late 1890s, plans were made to expand the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad to Lincoln County. The line would connect to White Oaks, then the most bustling town in the county. But property owners were cocky about what they had. They set real estate prices extremely high, expecting railroad promoters to meet their demands. Instead, the railroad men walked away. In 1899, the line was connected to nearby Carrizozo instead, setting the stage for that town’s boom years. The grand era of White Oaks was over. The town fell into a decline from which it would never recover.
Nonetheless, prominent residents continued to maintain homes in town. Perhaps the most notable resident was Susan McSween Barber, the remarried widow of Alexander McSween, whose death was one of the major events of the Lincoln County War. She developed a sizeable cattle business, earning the moniker “Cattle Queen of New Mexico,” and moved to White Oaks in 1902. She stayed until her death in 1931 and is buried in White Oaks’ Cedarvale Cemetery.
Today the population of White Oaks is roughly a dozen. Two sites, the Miner’s Home Museum and the Schoolhouse Museum, are open to the public. A pottery shop and the No Scum Allowed Saloon draw visitors from throughout the area, though both are open highly irregular hours.
Our Visit to White Oaks
Highway 54 is a major road running north and south between Alamogordo and Santa Fe. The highway runs directly through Carrizozo and, just three miles north, meets the turnoff for White Oaks. As soon as we made the turn, we noted a distinct change in terrain. Rugged and nearly deserted, the area beckons those with a sense of adventure.
White Oaks Avenue is the main road through town. Cedarvale Cemetery, the Miner’s Home Museum and the No Scum Allowed Saloon lie along the paved portion of this road. Our first stop was the Miner’s Home.
Being from New Orleans, Dad and I have a very big-city mentality in our approach to life in general. We’re used to locked doors, heavy iron gates and numerous protective measures applied to museums and historic exhibits. What a shock, then, to realize that not only is the Miner’s Home free of charge, but it is left wide open. Plexiglass protects the actual exhibits, but you are welcome to wander through at your leisure any time you like.
The cabin is set up as it would have been in the 1880s. All manner of artifacts, from heavy furniture items to the contents of a lady’s dressing table, are visible throughout the home. Informational signs tell the story of White Oaks. Out back, visit the Toolshed for a look at a common workshop of the era. There is even an outhouse, its door open just enough for a quick peek.
Cedarvale Cemetery appeared closed at first glance, until we realized that it was not locked. You are asked to close the gate when you enter or exit, probably to keep out the local wildlife. The graves are remarkably well preserved. Susan McSween Barber’s gravesite is elegant, but smaller and less ornate than we would have expected. Deputy James Bell, killed by Billy the Kid during his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse, is also buried in Cedarvale.
Beyond the main strip of White Oaks Avenue, the roads are steep, gravel and very bumpy. We decided to drive out to the pottery shop, three miles down the unpaved portion of White Oaks Avenue, but turned around after a mile or so. There is a somewhat confusing map of the town near the Miner’s Home, but we had trouble figuring out exactly where the Schoolhouse Museum was. Dad was skeptical of doing too much driving on the unpaved roads, so we gave up. Still, it was well worth the drive just to see a legitimate ghost town. The story of White Oaks is a sad lesson in the danger of greed, but it stands as a testament to the boom era of the Old West.
Tips for Parents
The Historic White Oaks website, which we did not discover until long after our trip, is probably the best place to get information on the historic buildings, their locations, and the reasons that they are important. While White Oaks is fascinating, it is not well labeled. If you get off the main road, expect to get lost at least briefly.
Carry water and plenty of snacks. Unless the No Scum Saloon happens to be open, there is nowhere to purchase food or drinks in White Oaks. You may want to stop for gas and supplies in Carrizozo before heading out.
Though the town is a bit confusing, it is worth a visit. So many Old West towns have been “restored,” “renovated,” or “improved,” endlessly replaying a sanitized version of historic events to an ongoing stream of tourists. White Oaks offers the chance to wander through boom town streets and take in the memory of what was, rather than getting lost in what currently is.