Kim and I (see previous post A Very Mini Artist’s Colony in New Mexico) drove into the Wild West the other day. We did so by crossing east over a mountain pass, ascending and then descending the Sangre de Cristos, and entering onto the wide open edge of the Great Plains. What a revelation! I’ve heard, ever since I arrived in Truchas, that the King of Spain granted land to colonists at points along the Sangres where passes allowed marauding Indians easy access from the plains. This was done to protect the colonies that were struggling to take root in the valley along the Rio Grande River (see previous post A Little Mountain History). But until I made this journey myself, I just didn’t get it. The plains are right there—just over the mountain from my home. Spilling out before me, as I made my way down the mountain, was the beginning of that broad expense of flat land, the grasslands—the vast American prairie.
I entered, more specifically, into the old Wild West via the historic town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, settled fully 70 years before that OTHER Las Vegas, a child of glitz and glitter. This Las Vegas is real. It is old. It was a thriving metropolis in its day, bristling with promise. And it was wild.
Las Vegas came into being in 1835 when the Mexican government granted land to colonists. It was laid out in the traditional Spanish Colonial style–a central plaza surrounded by buildings into which settlers and livestock could be barricaded in case of attack. It prospered reasonably as a town along the Santa Fe Trail.
Then in 1879 the railroad came to Las Vegas, changing the town forever. In fact a second Las Vegas sprung up one mile east of the old plaza, along the railway. Separated from “Old Town” by the Gallinas River, “New Town” had its own distinctive character. “A wave of non-Spanish immigrants laid out a grid of streets and parks reminiscent of Eastern cities and built block after maple-and-elm-shaded block of Victorian houses that still remain—Queen Anne, Italianate, Georgian Revival or mixed styles,” so says Ernest Quintana, chairman of the Las Vegas Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation, in a New York Times article about Las Vegas.
As different as they were, however, both cultures learned to coexist. Ultimately the two towns merged into one and what remains today is a conglomerate of nine historic districts. With only about 15,000 people, there are over 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The railroad brought with it commerce. There was money to be made in Las Vegas. The town was filled with promise and for a couple of decades, one in particular, it delivered. But the railroad also brought trouble. Into this thriving frontier boom town, drawn also by the thought of money to be made, came “… a large number of frontier riffraff including murderers, robbers, thieves, gamblers, swindlers, gunmen, vagrants, and just plain tramps,” says Dan Kenneth Phillips on his blog, Dan’s Daily Web-Blog. He quotes historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell as saying, “Without exception there was no town which harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes and outlaws than did Las Vegas.” Some of the most famous among them were Doc Holliday, who set up a dental practice there, Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp.
Bob Ford, the American outlaw best known for killing his gang leader, Jesse James, owned a saloon in Las Vegas. While he earned his living in later years posing for photographs as “the man who killed Jesse James,” he was not highly regarded, having betrayed James by shooting him in the back.
At the same time that lawlessness was thriving in Las Vegas, legitimate business was as well. Most interesting to me were a couple of the hotels. One was six miles away from the main rail line, but a railway “spur” was built to bring guests. The hotel and spa was situated there because of a Hot Springs. The building that stands there today is the third structure, the first two having been lost to fire. It is a brick and stone Queen Anne style that was completed in 1885. The proprietors contracted with Fred Harvey (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Harvey_%28entrepreneur%29 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Harvey_Company) to manage the hotel and dining service.
“For the wealthy clientele, fresh vegetables and fruit were obtained in Mexico and foreign delicacies were imported,” so says Lynn Irwin Perrigo in the book, Gateway to Glorietta. The spa’s famous clientele included Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt (not to mention Jesse James and Billy the Kid). The building is currently part of the campus of the United World College (see http://www.uwc.org/uwc_education/our_schools_and_colleges/uwcusa/uwcusa_profile.aspx). Now called Montezuma Castle, it serves as a residence and also classrooms, so it is not open to the public. However, limited tours are available on designated Saturdays. Call 505-426-3361 to inquire. You know I’ll be going back for that.
The other hotel that caught my eye was the boarded up, once luxurious brick Castaneda, built by the Santa Fe Railroad alongside the track in New Town in 1898, for lease to the Fred Harvey System. It is a stunning structure. Even in its sad state of decline, it was easy to envision gracious breakfasts on the veranda or afternoon tea. It is unfortunate that there seem to be no plans in the works to restore this beautiful old piece of history. If only I had millions it is a project I would gladly take on.
I wandered through this old west town for an entire day but I know I didn’t graze the surface. I’m planning on going back sometime soon, perhaps in the fall once the weather has turned. I really wanted to dip into the Hot Springs (I’ll be doing a post about them), but it was 98 degrees the day I was there and not conducive to a soak in steaming water. I did have a terrific lunch at the charming (and historic—4th generation) Estella’s Cafe and will also be doing a post about that.
Love to you all,
This article was useful when looking for:
- nm railway historic locations (2)