History in Headstones
A stroll through the cemetery in the former mining boomtown of Kingston.
by Karen Ray
The Kingston Cemetery crouches comfortably in the foothills of the Black Range, graceful in its spareness. Most of the tombstones are being reclaimed, weathered by wind, rain, sandstorms and the soft aging of decades that blur the features, crumble the granite to fine gravel under the trees in this harsh garden.
The people of these mountains find beauty in the light, the granite and the clean smell of the juniper that has slowly grown here for lifetimes. A different kind of beauty lies here in the cemetery, scored by the names of men and women and so many young ones who never reached those milestones. The etched memorials marking their brief lives are fascinating. Mamie West (1889) and Charlie Clay (1884) are just two of the children who died young yet witnessed the wild days of this now-hushed mining town.
When miner Jack Sheddon made a rich silver strike in 1882, the town of Kingston sprang energetically from the rocky ground of the Black Range. According to the Living Ghost Towns website, "word spread, and almost overnight Kingston became a mining boom town. Despite pioneer hardships, smallpox and Apache attacks, it grew. During the 1880s and 1890s the mines around Kingston produced a staggering amount of high-grade ore. By the turn of the century the total value of the silver extracted from the local mines amounted to well over $6 million."
The Hillsboro History blog states that although many information sources credit Kingston with a population of 7,000, the territorial census of 1890 documented only 1,249 residents, "slightly more than Las Cruces." By 1893 the silver panic had conquered Kingston's dreams and, according to the Western Mining History website, "it all ended as quickly as it had begun…. The establishment of the new gold standard dropped silver prices 90%. With the mines playing out and profits becoming losses, the town began to fold."
In boom and bust alike, the citizens of Kingston were no strangers to the practicalities of life and death. The district was a favorite target of Victorio's Mescalero Apaches as well as outlaws "who specialized in running off horses and cattle from the southern New Mexico counties and selling them in Mexico," according to Tularosa by C.L. Sonnichsen.
"Kingston had no graveyard," writes James McKenna in his 1936 chronicle of the region, Black Range Tales. After the smallpox epidemic of 1882 during the town's early days, "it was concluded to bury the dead in the grove of junipers where the pest tent stood. Here the roots of the trees had softened the rocky ground a little…. A shallow hole was blasted in the bedrock."
I marvel at this as I count 12 members of the Reid family who are buried here. The first to inhabit this ground is Simpson Percy Reid (1892) and the most recent is Don R. Reid (2008). Alphabetically there are 108 marked graves, from little 5-year-old Eddie Armer (1905) to 56-year-old Henrietta Reid Wilton (1938).
I inhale the pungency of the junipers and gaze at the mountains rising up behind their tombstones. The rain has stopped and gray streamers of cloud weave their way through the valleys and canyons like some elaborate ribbon dance.
Wandering the serpentine paths among the graves, my husband and I gradually become separated, out of reach of each other's voice for a time. We come back together where the paths cross. We stop in gratitude at the graves of two veterans of the world wars — the first that should have ended all others and the second a generation later. Farther on is the resting place of Frank Kennett (1906), a veteran of both the Mexican and Civil Wars. Irish James McNally (1904), Medal of Honor recipient, Civil War veteran and miner, is the owner of a well-maintained tombstone chronicling a fascinating life. The words etched into his memorial pay appropriate tribute to a brave New Mexico pioneer.
I walk and consider the hard lives of the people who ranched and mined, gardened and raised children, loved and got drunk sometimes and yelled and cried and died. Many were like Toppy Johnson, Kingston's meat supplier and sometime desperado. In true western fashion, McKenna attests, "Toppy Johnson may have been a cattle rustler, but he was always ready to do a good turn for a fellow that was down and out." Johnson's body is not buried here, but echoes of his life boom through the draws and canyons.
Seeking out the far corners of the cemetery, I look for the stories of those on the fringes. Curiously, I find no markers out there, no headstones, no rock rings defining a resting place, no ornamental fence or even a beaten and weathered wood cross. I wonder about women like those from the red light district who volunteered to nurse the 1882 smallpox victims back to health. Not a single patient died after the women took over from the town drunks. McKenna says not one of the unofficial nurses died from the pox, either. Perhaps this western town was more tolerant of its citizens in their final resting places. Or perhaps they are just forgotten by all but the mountains standing watch in the evening light.
McKenna, who worked on the Iron King Mine in 1883, made a return trip to Kingston late in life and "stopped to call on Jim Drummond and his wife, who have lived in this section since the early eighties. Jim is in his eighty-seventh year, and his wife told me he still likes to have his picture taken." Jim Drummond (1937) is buried here in the cemetery, resting near Old Kentuck Mountain.
On the final page of his book, McKenna says, "On our way home we stopped to take some pictures of the cemetery where many old friends lie in their rocky graves, surrounded by weather-beaten wooden palings, and watched over by piñons and junipers."
There is one more tombstone I haven't looked at yet. I have purposely saved it for last, circling around it, wondering but delaying the knowing. It is a lady's. At its base is a glass canning jar with a piece of wide-ruled notebook paper folded up inside. Neither the note or the glass has started to yellow. The white granite tombstone reads, "Wedgwood." I spend the drive home wondering about her and watching the shadowed mountains in the rearview mirror.
Karen Ray is a nearly lifelong resident of Las Cruces, who grew up here, attended NMSU, then returned 17 years ago to finish raising her family. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin.