Dawson, New Mexico – Grandpa and the ghost town

posted in: Life, New Mexico | 4

Dawson, New Mexico –
Grandpa and the ghost town

Dawson, New Mexico is a ghost town in the northeast corner of the state. Like so many abandoned places, it was a mining town whose fortunes rose and fell with the mine itself.

But this isn’t just any old ghost town. No, this one is special, with a unique family connection so that I had to visit it. You see, for a brief moment in time, my grandpa owned the old Dawson Hotel.

Gateway to Dawson New Mexico
The entry to Dawson cemetery – all that’s left

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Dawson New Mexico back in the heyday

Back in the early 1900s, Dawson New Mexico was a booming coal mining town. The population grew as high as 9,000 people. There were houses, churches, schools, a hotel, a hospital, bowling alley, swimming pool, and even an opera. The mining company owned it all – a true company town.

The company store “Phelps Dodge Mercantile” was an enormous 3-story department store, that reminded me of the old song “I owe my soul to the company store”. Living this far from other towns or cities where you could buy things, people would have to rely on the company store for everything from food to furniture.

Dawson company store
The company store was quite a place!

But there were problems. In October 1913, an incorrectly set dynamite charge caused an enormous explosion that claimed 263 miners, the 2nd most deadly mining accident in US history. In February 1923, another mining disaster claimed 123 more men. What huge blows these were been to the community! Some women lost a husband in the first explosion, and a son in the second.

Dawson carried on through these tragedies until the coal mining was no longer profitable, then the mine and the town shut down. All the people left, and the company decided to sell the buildings and get what they could.

My ghost town connection

In the early 1950s, the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico was up for sale. My grandfather bought the hotel, and his best friend, an adventurer named Gene Prather, bought the hospital.

They loaded up some trucks in Texas with various friends and family members, and headed up to Dawson to get their buildings.

Dawson New Mexico - old hotel
The old Dawson Hotel, sometime in the 1920s

My dad was a kid at the time, and he remembers it well. Here’s his version of the story (so when he uses the phrase “my dad” in this tale, it’s MY grandfather):

As I recall, it was late fall, the elevation was above 6,000 ft and it got COLD at night. All of the houses in town were simply abandoned, so we had our choice of residences while the work progressed.

No-one had any experience in dismantling multi-story buildings, but my dad figured to make a profit off the furnishings, etc. Of course, by the time we got there, various vandals and cannibals had already made off with most of the stuff that had supposed value — the telephones, radiators, the best furniture, the x-ray machine from the hospital, etc. But the buildings remained, and they were disassembled board by board and the stuff was all hauled back to Tulia, TX.

In addition to saving any reusable lumber, the wrecking crew also saved any larger nails that happened to come out straight. And the hotel had, of course, wonderful hardwood (probably oak) floors. As the crew tried to take these up, the wood splintered and became unusable. Some wise man advised my dad that some evening before they stopped working they should pour buckets of water over the floor. The next morning, the wood had swollen so much that the nail heads were popped loose and came out easily.

At the time, we lived in a nice house on Gaines. But my dad used the materials from Dawson to build a new house for us at 17 Norfleet Drive. That hardwood flooring from the hotel was used in our new house. Aside from some fleeting occasional help, I believe he did everything himself.

Prather ended up in Brazil, occasionally dropping by with cases of aquamarines and emeralds…”

House in Tulia TX
My grandparents, at the house my grandpa built in Tulia


Dad and grandpa at Tulia house
My dad and grandpa, sitting on the step of that house in Tulia


Is that cool or what? I just had to go visit Dawson, and see where this all took place.

There’s not much left now, but I could imagine the town full of people, and the old hotel back when it was in business. Probably all the important mine officials and opera singers who came to Dawson stayed there. Then my relatives took it apart, and hauled all those boards and nails back to Texas, where my grandfather reincarnated it as their new family home.

It’s quite a thought!

Dawson, New Mexico today

There’s nothing left of Dawson today except the cemetery. It’s a quiet, lonely place, at the base of some dusty windswept hills. When I visited, it was sunny, dry and hot, with grasshoppers flinging themselves out of the way every step I took.

Dawson New Mexico today
Dawson today – a dusty, lonely place

You drive right up to a big white gate that says “Dawson”, and behind that lies the cemetery. The first impression is of an organized graveyard with rows of white crosses. These are the markers put up by the company for the hundreds of miners killed in the two major disasters.

After this, you see the other, non-matching grave markers spread out across the field. Many of these haven’t lasted very well, but some were built to survive the years and the weather. The overall impression is of a forgotten place.

People lived, loved, laughed and died here. Now it’s just dust, wind, and crosses.

As for the hotel my grandpa bought? I don’t know if the family home he built out of it in Tulia, TX is still standing or not. Perhaps it’s been reincarnated again…

Dawson New Mexico cemetery
The Dawson cemetery, with white crosses for the accident victims

Dawson, New Mexico – Ghost town
Unofficial campsite. I camped right outside the cemetery gate. There’s no water, no facilities, and no cell service. No people either, just ghosts! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Rating: 2 ** for atmosphere
Altitude: 6,338 ft
GPS: 36.65505, -104.76959
Price: Free

Questions? Comments?

I love ghost towns, with all their history, mystery and atmosphere. I like to imagine what they looked like back in the day, and what life must have been like for the people there. Do you have any favorite ghost towns? I’d love to hear about them in the Reply section below. Thanks for sharing!

PHOTO CREDITS: Dawson Historical Society, Deanna Keahey

Deanna sunset

Hi! I’m Deanna, creator of Uphill Zen. I’m currently yondering around North America with my 1986 Toyota motorhome, Zennie. What makes my heart sing is travel, adventure, and the awe-inspiring wonders of nature. Finding ways to share that joyous spirit is what this is all about.

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4 Responses

  1. Pietro Scarafiotti

    My family lived there from 1916 to 1950 when the town closed. Dawson was a large town that at its peak had a population of 10,000 people. Today the Dawson New Mexico Association has a large on-line community presents (for former residents) and you are welcome to visit our โ€œDawson New Mexicoโ€ Facebook Page where you will see hundreds of old photos, artifacts, history, etc.

    We do NOT approve of camping anywhere near the Cemetery and access to the Dawson Townsite is never permitted and is enforced by the onsite caretaker. Trespassers are routinely prosecuted.

    Enjoy the Cemetery during the day (it is a National Historic Site) and the beautiful scenery, you are in high elk country and you will love your time in that quiet place. If its summertime beware of the rattlesnakes, they are even in the cemetery.

  2. Linda Christian Weglarz

    Hi. Ty for providing some insight into Dawson back in the day..Our grandparents , aunt & uncle came to Dawson around 1915-1916. Grandma, Ethel Christian was a teacher, and Grandpa, Guy managed what might be the Mercantile Store. Uncle Frank Christian was the Post Master. I found Ethel Christian in the NM Educational Report. Both families moved to Orange Co Calif and became Citrus Ranchers, and owned a Car Dealership. Our Uncle Frank Jr was born in Dawson.

    • Deanna Keahey

      Hi Linda – How fascinating! It’s so cool to discover somebody with personal ties to that place. Thank you for sharing the history! ๐Ÿ˜Š – Deanna.

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