By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
On July 9, 2017, I shared an article written by Georgia Redfield about the Lost River out by Bitter Lakes with the readers of the Roswell Daily Record. As a result of that article, I had several inquiries and interest about it. It intrigued me, as well.
Recently, while looking for something else at the archives, I ran across some pictures I hadn’t seen before of the Lost River. Those pictures prompted me to write a second part to my first article to share the new pictures.
To recap part of Georgia Redfield’s article, here is what she wrote in 1947 about the Lost River:
“Lost River and Bitter Creek — into which it once flowed — had its visible beginning about 9 miles northeast of Roswell, 5 miles north over Clovis U.S. Highway 70, and between 3 and 4 miles east off the highway, over a gravel road which leads to a closed entrance into the wildfowl refuge.
“The alkaline lakes for which the refuge is named are indeed bitter, there are also freshwater sloughs, ponds, marshes, springs, ditches and a half-mile-long stream known as the Lost River (which this story is about). In addition, the refuge contains more than 60 sinkholes. Sinkholes are just as they sound — places where soluble bedrock dissolves, creating cavities or holes in the surface. Groundwater then often fills the hole.
“The process is typically slow, but local legend has it that one of the refuge’s sinkholes formed overnight beneath a parked bulldozer. Some sinkholes here are but a few feet across, though one is large enough — about an acre — to be called (with a bit of exaggeration) Lake St. Francis, 70 feet deep with beautiful blue and green water. These sinkholes have become aquatic ‘islands’ in this arid desert habitat.
“Sinkhole conditions differ a great deal. Some have steep, naked gypsum sides; others have reeds and grasses that grow right up to the water’s edge. In some sinkholes, the water is so saline that it supports red and green algae blooms. Other sinkholes are saltier than seawater. The different blends of conditions in each sinkhole create entirely different ecosystems, even though one sinkhole may be only 10 feet from another.
“Lost River is a stream within New Mexico and is nearby to Dunnahoo Hills, Melina and Comanche Hill. Lost River is also close to Bitter Lake and Lake Saint Francis.
“(1947) Desolate Lost River … for downright, flesh creeping, eerie, spookiness, especially on a dismal rainy late evening, as when we last saw the dangerous looking, caving, dead river banks two weeks ago, cuts a zigzag course east through the most weird, deserted section of country in southeastern New Mexico.
“Grim tragedy and death in a cave, opening from the river, is mainly responsible for the depressing atmosphere of this gloomy river area. For safety measures, the cave and crumbling banks were dynamited in 1924, when two victims (a man and a woman) were crushed under tons of rock and earth shaken loose by an automobile they had parked on the riverbank above.
“The stream was given its name, for reasons of it’s been mostly an underground river, disappearing and linking a series of caves and grottoes. The area was once used as a picnic site, with the natural bridge formation used by parties of pedestrians.
“Dynamiting the area for safety closed an old well down, in an area which one could see an underground lake, of which a story is remembered by a score of old-timers of this section: an old Mexican sheepherder was alone on a job working for a cattleman digging a well.
“After his morning’s work, at noon he climbed out of the 10-foot opening, he had made, ate his lunch, then jumped back into the well to resume his digging, but he dropped 20 feet into a lake below. He was almost paralyzed from fright but seeing the light in the distance he began swimming and wading through shallow water until he reached safety on the banks of the Lost River, half a mile below the pool, or lake, into which he had dropped.”
Following are some Roswell Daily Record articles I found in relation to what was written above.
Roswell Daily Record, Oct. 22, 1924
“Two Are Killed When Lost River Bank Caves In
“C.A. Brown and Alice Miller of this city were instantly killed last night at about 9:30 o’clock at Lost River 12 miles northeast of this city. Brown and Miss Miller, together with Frank Hendricks and Miss Mabel Ingleman, were driving in the vicinity of Lost River last night when someone suggested that they visit the caves.
“Brown and Miss Miller descended into the west cave and by use of a flashlight, picked their way down. They had been down only a very few minutes when a terrific roar was heard and tons of earth fell into the cave. Frank Hendricks, who was on top, immediately rushed down and called to Brown and Miss Miller. Realizing what had happened, he rushed to town and notified Sheriff Peck and other officers.
“Immediately Sheriff Peck led a force of men to the scene and the night was spent digging for the bodies. By the use of lantern and lights from automobiles, the work was continued until daylight this morning, and at 7:50, the bodies were recovered. From all indications both were killed instantly, never realizing what had struck them. From all the physical facts the two were standing with their faces to the west playing the flashlight on the water down in the bottom of the cave. Several tons of earth and rock were removed from both.
“A coroners jury was summoned this morning and an inquest was held. The verdict of the jury was that Brown and Miss Miller came to their death by being crushed by earth and rock, death being accidental. Had it not been for the presence of Frank Hendricks and his companion, Miss Mabel Ingleman, the mystery surrounding their death might never have been found.
“C.A. Brown has been here only a few months, coming here from Waco, Texas, and being a salesman for the Leach Grocery Co. He leaves his mother Mrs. J.M. Clark, and stepfather J.M. Clark, both of the city.
“Miss Alice Miller was the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Miller of this city. She had been employed at the office of Dr. B.P. Connor and had a host of friends in this city.
“This tragedy cast a gloom over the entire city this morning, as both of the young people killed were well-known and well-liked here.”
Roswell Daily Record — Monday, June 22, 1931
“Roswell’s Lost River Attracts Wide Interest
“Lost River, and that is exactly what it is for this is the description of the river in southeastern New Mexico that appears and disappears intermittently before it finds its way into the Pecos River.
“Approximately 9 miles northeast of Roswell exists a river known for miles around as the Lost River. The river itself is a natural phenomenon, difficult of explanation, but always full of interest to those who follow it from its source to the Pecos.
“The following account of the river was given in a recent issue of the New Mexico State Highway Journal.
“‘The first appearance of this stream is in a sinkhole where water comes from under a bank similar to a spring 25 feet below the surface of the ground. It flows away in a southeasterly direction, through a deep cut in gypsiferous soil and soon disappears underground only to reappear 100 feet farther on in a deep pool. It is visible intermittently for about one-half mile, then for a mile, it’s course is marked by occasional sinks in the surface but the water is not visible. About one and one-half miles from the beginning, the river joins a small spring-fed stream which flows into a shallow lake a half-mile farther on, and eventually finds its way into the Pecos River to the east.’”
There are more “hearsay” stories about this area and the cave. Some say it was used to make counterfeit money at one time, also as a hideout for cattle thieves and Native Americans. Perhaps Billy The Kid and his gang? One wonders about the mystery and the stories that have evolved from it, long before this land was settled.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.