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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009


contest logo   We conclude our presentation of winners from our annual writing contest — for the first batch and full list, see the September issue — with this intriguing and thoughtful piece by Silver City author Lyle York. As you'll see, it's definitely a case of "last but not least . . .."


Underground Silver City

The town's history flows beneath us and sometimes pops up around us in unexpected places.

By Lyle York



Silver City is haunted. People say they've seen ghosts, restless spirits who died violently, like the woman who was pushed out a window above the Buffalo Bar. Our neighbor in an 1887 house says there are rooms he doesn't frequent, inhabited by a child who died a terrible death there.

underground silver city
Draining down into the "Big Ditch."
(Photo by Lisa D.Fryxell)

But I am not talking about those ghosts, only about a feeling that the city's history is still hanging around, that the relict buildings and empty lots want to tell stories of what went on here. People say they are attracted to Silver City by the friendly people and gentle weather. But also there are the wilderness just to the north, the rough and sometimes lonely streets, the possibility of something unexpected happeningnot always something good.

The town is full of restless spirits, very much alive and arriving in town every day. Others have been here all their lives and are holding on, cranky about the eager-beaver newcomers. Every decade brings emigrants with different ideas who rob those who came before, force them out, or trample their sensibilities, intentionally or not. The driver behind you at an intersection may wait patiently while you make up your mind which way to turn, or he may yell at you to move your ass. People drive high-rise pickups with rumbling sound systems, 1970s lowriders, Priuses, mountain bikes and Harleys. They are all spinning the wheel of fortune that will make life better than it was where they came from.

In the 1880s, men made mining fortunes one year and lost them the next. Later they came to be cured of tuberculosis. In recent decades they've been coming to get away from a crowded city, live on the land, center themselves, make art, or start a business they miss from back in the city, and they'll show the locals how it's done.

All these newcomers may not consciously know that the streets they are driving on barely cover ruins and bones. Remains, and old enmities, lie layered under Silver City, and sometimes they wash to the surface.

Death feels closer to everyday life here, if only the deaths of insects, like the clouds of grasshoppers in September that fly into our hair and die under our feet and wheels. On the ground you see big beetles struggling on their backs; if you set them on their feet, they go right over again. When you sit indoors at night, the outside watches you through the windows. The spring winds scratch at your house with falling branches. On Saturday nights when the winds are blowing, you hear distant whoops, short irritated bursts of police sirens, deep barks. Kids get rowdy and yell over the wind. Sometimes they sound like children crying.

Centuries of dead people haunt the ground beneath us. A friend who grew up near Cochise Stronghold, between Silver City and Tucson, told me that she had feared she was breathing in the bodies of generations of Apaches. She was, actually, if matter is neither created nor destroyed, but more probably she was breathing the dead bodies of grasshoppers.



Silver City sits among pillaged mountains, built on plundered native graves and succeeding layers of Spanish and Anglo enterprise. The original Native American civilizations rose and fell with the supplies of water and food. The last natives to arrive here, the Apaches, fought hard to protect their land from Spanish, then Mexican, then American invaders. They did not yield until 1886, when Geronimo, the last fighter, surrendered for the last time. The town's American history was a brutal series of booms and failures, recorded in brick and adobe buildings, legal records and newspapers. The stories of Indians and Spanish-speakers are mostly unrecorded, but they wail in our imaginations.

When I was still a visitor to Silver City, a friend and I were exploring Bullard Street downtown. Lynn bought several tiny but expensive Ethiopian leather amulets. Each one contained a tiny paper prayer rolled up in a scroll, a prayer for protection. Some of the prayers were Muslim, some Coptic Christian. The amulets were sealed, so you never knew what prayer you were carrying around. We thought those amulets were the best protection anyone could buy.

As we walked toward our car, Lynn took one amulet out of her package, fumbled and dropped it into a sewer grate — a big, deep sewer grate. It was dry at the bottom, but we could barely see where the bottom was or what else was lying down there. The Continental Divide crosses both west and north of the town, and this grate was a few hundred feet from the Big Ditch, the bottom of the Divide's considerable drainage.

So goes it with the treasures of this world, Lynn said. But then we decided to be brave. Together we lifted the heavy grate, and Lynn, even braver, lowered herself in. She is a good 5-foot-9, but her head was now several inches below street level. First rescue the amulet, Lynn told herself, then worry about climbing out. She found it and pulled herself out using prodigious upper-body strength. We still talk about that amulet and its adventure in the bowels of Silver City. Sometimes a sealed prayer, or a lost history, means more than one you can read.

The waters that flow through Silver City's sewers run from hills to the east, the Pinos Altos range to the north, and the Burro Mountains to the southwest. Until the 19th century, springs fed the marshes that gave the town its original name, La Ciénga de San Vicente.

The American emigrants who changed the name to Silver City were proud to have built an Eastern-style town, planned on a grid as towns were back home in Ohio or Pennsylvania. Beneath a large hill aligned north-south, the newcomers built Main Street running north-south. Men newly rich from mining silver, gold and copper in the surrounding mountains cut trees from the hillsides and built monuments to themselves as their forebears had done in the East, two- and three-story buildings of masonry and brick.

Around Silver City in the 1840s were lush grasses belly-high to a horse, luring Mexican cattlemen and sheepmen to the vast drainage around the little valley. In the 1880s, Anglo ranchers poured more animals onto the land. No one foresaw what fast-moving water and all those sheep and cattle would soon do to the grasses and, eventually, to Main Street.

The grasses looked like Midwestern grasses, resilient to the hooves of grazing animals, but they were not. These grasses were fragile and dependent on periodic natural fires to renew them. The ranchers suppressed fires and put more sheep and cattle on the grassland than it could sustain. As the grasses failed, the hard monsoon rains cut into the hillsides and washed away soil. Periodic droughts and blizzards killed millions of animals. People said you could throw a stone from carcass to carcass for hundreds of miles.

When the rains returned, they fell on a drastically changed landscape. The newly formed arroyos funneled the rainwater downhill fast, aimed straight at Main Street.

In 1895, a wave of water 12 feet high and 300 feet wide roared down a canyon from the Pinos Altos range at an estimated 15 miles per hour. The wave carried trees, boulders and parts of houses, battering Main Street's buildings and its great cottonwoods. Most of the commercial buildings on Main were damaged, many homes swept away entirely. But Main Street, now lower than the surrounding streets and spanned by bridges, stubbornly hung on as the city's commercial downtown.

It lost more buildings in succeeding annual floods. In the flood of 1902, people stood on one bank of Main Street and watched while the facade sheared off a building housing the Silver City Enterprise and the apartment of a judge and his wife, exposing the rooms and their contents. A piano belonging to the judge's wife fell into the water and was carried majestically downstream. In 1907 the citizens finally cried "uncle." They started calling the street "The Big Ditch," and moved the commercial district one street over, to Bullard.



Parts of the destroyed buildings turned up in new ones, and the recycling tradition continues in our century. Old styles lurk beneath a facade, covered by another facade. Many houses here are built in styles no architect had anything to do with. Silver City is a town of scavengers, rich and poor. You see iron fencing from a Georgetown graveyard surrounding the ruins of a house built on the Mimbres, glass and tile fragments embedded in walls, art installations made of farm equipment. Many people I know have a pile of shards and odd objects at home. They are artistic, or just resourceful or imaginative, and they intend to make something; or they keep the objects just to honor their former use, or for the mystery of the things.

Parts of Tyrone and the entire town of Santa Rita disappeared — literally undermined — in the mining heyday. When an open pit mine was successful, the pit would be enlarged, and if your town was in the way of the growing pit, you either moved your house elsewhere or stood back while it was swallowed by the mine. The whole town would relocate a little farther away.



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