A Desert Ghost Town Reborn

Madrid, New Mexico offers a renaissance of southwest art and history

New Mexico Highway 14, also known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, is the backroad route that avoids the interstate from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Starting at the base of the Sandia Mountains in Tijeras, it weaves north through a high desert of cholla cactus and junipers, passing a few old mining towns, and then up to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, southeast of Santa Fe.

Along the route is the town of Madrid, an unincorporated community of about 300 people. It was established in the late 1800s by the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company as a company-owned mining town of about 3,000 residents. Madrid was a sprawling community of wood-frame houses and plank sidewalks typical of a western boom town. However, the population dropped to about a dozen people almost overnight when the mine closed in the mid-1950s. Madrid became a ghost town for about twenty years.   

In the 1970s, artists, outlaws, hippies, and bikers, looking for cheap houses or studio space, started moving into the old structures and the town saw the first signs of a resurgence. Today, Madrid is a haven for internationally-known artists and one of the biggest venues of live music in the state with over 300 live music bookings each year.

There are a couple of things that visitors find out when they come here. First, it’s pronounced MAD-rid, not Ma-DRID like the Spanish city. Second, the town’s claim to fame during its mining heyday of the 1920s-30s was its Christmas festival.

Unlike many western mining towns full of single men, Madrid was populated by families. With access to a large industrial power plant and an unlimited supply of coal, the town staged a massive Christmas light display for the local kids. The annual event attracted national press, and TWA re-routed their Christmas season flights so that passengers could view the light show from above. Today, the town honors its Christmas past with an eclectic holiday parade, which only lasts about eight minutes due to the short length of the main street. The actual duration on any given year, however, is determined by the pace of a red-nosed yak that leads the procession.

A must-see attraction in Madrid is the Mine Shaft Tavern. Built in 1947, the Mine Shaft features a forty-foot bar where miners could stand and stretch after being bent over in the mines all day. There are paintings by well-known New Mexico artist Ross Ward throughout the place. On a recent visit, the parking lot was filled with Harleys and Indian motorcycles, Ali MacGraw was having lunch at the table next to me, and two cowpokes at the bar were having an argument about details relating to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. If you’re looking for quiet or dull, the Mine Shaft Tavern is probably not your kind of place.

Melinda Bonewell, the town’s unofficial historian, and her partner Lori Lindsey left their corporate jobs to buy the Mine Shaft in 2006, and have been renovating the tavern and adjacent buildings ever since. Melinda told me that Madrid was still kind of a sketchy place when they first took over the tavern. “It was really pretty rough in those first days. It was the Wild West back then. We don’t really have a sheriff out here, and Madrid was not a tourist attraction yet.”

Bonewell and some of the town’s other merchants used social media, as well as working with the state’s tourism efforts, to attract visitors to Madrid’s galleries and boutiques. Now the town is packed with tourists every weekend...yet still manages to avoid gentrification.

New Mexico has always had a quirky reputation because of its artist communities and bohemian enclaves. Madrid is the epitome of that sensibility, and has the authentic character of a southwest desert town.

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