Preserve America Community Close-ups: Silver City, New Mexico
Silver City (population 10,054) is New Mexico’s oldest incorporated community, and still operates under its 1878 Territorial charter. The county seat of Grant County in southwest New Mexico, it is near the headwaters of the Gila River and nestled alongside more than 3 million acres of the Gila Wilderness Area. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located in the Silver City vicinity.
A MINING HERITAGE
The present settlement originated with the discovery of silver in 1870 near the San Vicente cienega, a marshy valley previously settled by the prehistoric Mimbres and Mogollon cultures and later frequented by Apache bands, Spanish explorers, and Mexican colonists. Long before Americans came to the area looking for gold and silver, Spain (and later, Mexico) governed this far-northern province, producing copper.
Silver City developed with an eye to permanence and progress that was unusual in frontier mining camps. Despite its rugged and isolated setting, the young town boasted brick buildings in Victorian high style, early electric and telephone service, railroad connections, a hospital, waterworks, and New Mexico’s first independent school district. Silver City witnessed the tumultuous and tragic events of the Apache Wars and survived a series of floods at the turn of the last century, which transformed its Main Street into the “Big Ditch.” After the nation’s silver industry crashed in 1893, the town was reincarnated as a health resort serving patients with tuberculosis and other diseases, as well as an educational center.
Large-scale copper mining has dominated the region’s economy since 1910, but it is waning. Major employers include the mining industry, health care, and higher education. Silver City’s economy promotes tourism and quality of life based on “four gentle seasons.” Silver City promotes its distinctive historic core, strong bi-cultural tradition, and vibrant arts community to visitors and potential residents, along with the area’s natural wonders in the Gila Wilderness.
The “Vision for La Capilla” project has reclaimed a lost part of the history of Silver City. The overall project includes the development of a 21-acre heritage park, while the main focus is on the reconstruction of La Capilla. La Capilla was a small adobe chapel, constructed in 1885, that was located on Chihuahua Hill. The area was originally settled by Mexican American miners in the 1870s. The chapel suffered from neglect and was eventually demolished in 1914. When a local developer sought to redevelop the area for an equipment yard, local residents formed a non-profit organization to reclaim the area and recapture its heritage.
The La Capilla chapel was reconstructed immediately north of the foundation remnant of the original chapel. Funding for the chapel was provided by the New Mexico legislature. A plaque commemorates the site of the original chapel and a low wall has been built around the original foundation. The reconstructed chapel is now used for events, including Cinco de Mayo celebrations, weddings, and religious holiday observances. With the completion of the chapel, it has become easier to acquire additional funding for the park. Funding for trails, fencing, and other land work has been provided by the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps, the New Mexico legislature, and private donations.
The reconstruction of the chapel and the development of the heritage park have spurred heritage tourism and preservation efforts in Silver City. After seeing the success of the La Capilla project, several other projects with preservation and heritage connotations have come to fruition within Silver City. A Preserve America Grant in 2006 for the “Silver City Waterworks Historic Architecture and Heritage Tourism Project” is supporting completion of a master plan, including architectural schematics for adaptive use and rehabilitation of the town’s National Register-listed waterworks building (1887). La Capilla is now promoted in regional tourism publications, fostering a renewed interest in the Native American and Hispanic heritage in the region.
THE VISITOR EXPERIENCE
The Silver City Museum was established in 1967 and is a department of the Town of Silver City. The museum is housed in the 1881 Italianate H.B. Ailman House, built during the height of the silver mining boom. The mission statement states “The Silver City Museum creates opportunities for residents and visitors to explore, understand, and celebrate the rich and diverse cultural heritage of southwestern New Mexico by collecting, preserving, researching and interpreting the region’s unique history.” Permanent exhibits include “Two Centuries of Mining in Southwest New Mexico,” “I’m Goin’ Into Town: Early Commerce in Silver City,” and “The Flood Season: How Silver City’s Main Street Became the Big Ditch.” The museum’s collections of more than 20,000 objects relation to regional history includes a large photo archive.
The Silver City Museum and Silver City Main Street program joined forces to create three walking tour maps for three historic districts. Each map features an extensive history of selected properties and is designed in a small, portable booklet.
The Red Paint Pow Wow is an annual event in memory and recognition of the Chihene Apache who live in southwestern New Mexico. The event is a competition among Native Americans, competing for prizes in a variety of categories. The event also includes an Indian Market that sells authentic Indian merchandise.
Silver City is also a stop along the Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway. The byway is located in southwestern New Mexico, with Silver City situated as the gateway to the byway. Byway partners actively collaborate on tourism projects within the Silver City region.
PROTECTING LOCAL RESOURCES
Silver City protects its local heritage assets through several local preservation regulations. The Historic Design Review Committee was established by a town ordinance in 1999. The committee consists of three citizen members, the town’s museum director, and the Certified Local Government (CLG) coordinator. The committee is responsible for implementing and overseeing the Silver City Historic District Overlay Zoning. The zoning ordinance developed out of a fear of outside development. The Historic Design Review Committee oversees a design review process for construction and remodeling projects within the four local historic districts.
Silver City has been designated a Certified Local Government since 1999. The town has received several CLG grants since that period. One of these grants assisted the town in re-surveying the key historic structures in the Silver City Historic District. Silver City has three historic districts and 10 individual listings on the National Register of Historic Places.
For more information
Town of Silver City: www.townofsilvercity.org
Silver City Museum: www.silvercitymuseum.org
Silver City and Grant County Chamber of Commerce: www.silvercity.org
Red Paint Pow Wow: www.redpaintpowwow.net
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument: www.nps.gov/gicl
Posted November 25, 2009