In August 1879, Tom Wilson found a gold vein on nearby Baxter Mountain. He soon sold out, but his find, the Homestake Mine, became highly profitable. Other claims on the mountain would include the Comstock, Black Prince, White Swan, Rip Van Winkle and, the richest of them all, Old Abe.
The gold stampede to the 6,470-foot-high town, named for close-by White Oaks Spring, began early in 1880. The population rose from 50 that April to 350 in May.
White Oaks grew into a mining, ranching and mercantile center, and Billy the Kid found it a great place to sell stolen livestock in 1879-80.
Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett was in White Oaks on business (either collecting taxes or arranging to buy lumber for Billy the Kid’s scaffold) on April 28, 1881, when Billy the Kid killed two deputies and escaped the courthouse in Lincoln.
White Oaks once had eight saloons, including the Little Casino, where cards were manipulated in “slick” fashion by a Madame Varnish.
By 1885 White Oaks had 213 houses and more than 50 established businesses.
The town’s peak population was 1,200 in 1890.
The Old Abe, which yielded $875,000 in gold, began to decline in the mid-1890s, and so did the town. No turnabout was possible once the railroad bypassed White Oaks in 1899.
White Oaks never became a complete ghost town. Some 70 people still live in the area, including a small colony of artists.
These facts are courtesy of New Mexico historian Roberta Haldane
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.