History in towns: Another Las Vegas, this one in New Mexico

July 2009 | How much history lies half-buried beneath the surface of the America we have made? From the first there was a ferocious haste to our patterns of acquisition and settlement, as if the dead past of the Old World we had left behind might catch up with us if we did not instantly shape and then ceaselessly reshape everything we found here—from the landscape itself to the names and sites of our earliest villages and towns. An atlas of the country printed as recently as 1953 seems almost antique today with its intricate webbing of now-defunct rail lines connecting even the most remote outposts of progress, whereas automobile routes are not depicted at all. This, of course, was before the Interstate Highway System kicked into high gear in the 1960s, taking us everywhere with a numbing efficiency that encourages the historical amnesia for which we are famous. We do not see anything on our way from here to there, because for us there is nothing worth seeing, only the long scroll of highway we wish would bring us to our destination even sooner. So, for example, though I have lived for thirty years in New Mexico, I had never visited Las Vegas in the state’s northeastern quadrant, though I had passed by it countless times, stopping only for gas.


And in fact, from Interstate 25 there is hardly anything about the town that would invite further investigation, for you see only the gas stations, an industrial park, and the backsides of some very hard-bitten houses. So, you H 26 Antiques gas up on Grand Avenue, drive north to the next interstate entrance, and you are gone again. Bring on Colorado! One March day, however, when I had stopped at the Shell station on Grand I fell into a brief conversation with a fellow on the other side of the pump who was filling a shiny SUV bearing Wyoming plates. He was homeward bound for Cheyenne, he told me. “We stopped here on our way down to Albuquerque, and now we’re stopping on our way back. Seems to be a nice little town with some history to it. But when you’re on the road, you just don’t take the time to find out what the history is.” How like us I thought, and then instead of going up Grand I wound my way through the streets on the west side of the Gallinas River in search of a cup of coffee that might be better than the battery acid you get at the edge of the interstate. 

I found it. And I found much more as well, including someof that history the passing Wyoming motorist had casuallysurmised. It was a rich brew of frontier violence, spread-eagleAmerican ambition, tenaciousHispanic traditionalism, and, flavoringall of this, the great sweep ofthe geography itself.

In terms of its geographythere might not be anothertown in the United Statesmore dramatically situated, forjust here the Rockies’ mightyupthrust gives way to the plainsthat extend in an immense northeasterlyswath all the way to whatis currently Youngstown, Ohio.A conic projection map will confirmthis for you, but at Las Vegas itself you only need todrive a few miles north to see—and to feel—the dramaticdistinction. On your left shoulder are the lastridges of the Sangre de Cristo range, while on your rightlies an apparently endless expanse of plains whose grassesrun and shiver under a changeful sky.

Before the coming of the whites with their horses, guns,and trade goods Indian tribes traveled these plains all the waydown into present-day Mexico, and it is likely that FranciscoVásquez de Coronado (c. 1510–1554) used their faint traceson his hopeless wanderings in 1540 to 1542. Through subsequentcenturies others followed what was hardly yet a trail,notably a Frenchman, Pedro Vial (d. 1814), who traveledfrom Santa Fe to Saint Louis on a mission for the Spanishcrown. But inevitably, as it must now seem to us, it was tradecoming the other way that was to prove decisive— Americanswanting access to the Santa Fe market and all of Spain’sloosely held territory south of there. In 1821 their wish becamereality when Spain lost its grip on Mexico, and in that sameyear an American trading party under a man named WilliamBecknell (c. 1796–1865) made it from Franklin, Missouri,to Santa Fe, where a long-isolated community was as hungryfor his goods as he was to unload them. So began the heydayof the storied Santa Fe Trail—about nine hundred miles acrosswhat are parts of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado,and New Mexico. And the obscure ranching and farmingvillage of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de Las Vegas (OurLady of the Sorrows of the Meadows), where Becknell hadoriginally been welcomed by a Mexican militia, lay squarelyathwart this new path of progress.

Yet almost half a century later Las Vegas still regarded itselfas very much a Mexican town, Tito Chavez told me as herecounted that day in 1846 when the United States Army ofthe West clattered into the plaza and took possession of thetown for the United States. We were sitting in the back of the art gallery that bears Chavez’s name just off the plaza and nextdoor to the E. Romero Hose and Fire Company founded byan ancestor of his in 1882. General Stephen Watts Kearny(1794–1848) “got up on the roof of that building next towhat’s now the hotel,” Chavez continued, “and he told everybodyhe’d hang them if they offered any kind of resistance.You go up there and read that plaque about what he said. It’spretty blunt. After that we considered ourselves an occupiedcountry.”

Even so, there were some in Las Vegas watching the swellingtide of trade coming through their streets and decided itwas better to ride it than attempt to oppose it. Chavez’s familywas foremost among them. His great-great-grandfatherMiguel Romero left off ranching and farming to jump intothe mercantile business, and he sent his five sons to an English-speaking school in Missouri so that they could becomehis partners. For there seemed to be no end to the trade thatby the end of the Civil War was sending as many as fivethousand wagons a year through Las Vegas.The sustained magnitude of the operation is hard to graspnow through a recitation of numbers of wagons, tonnage,and so forth. A better way, Chavez told me, was to drive afew miles north on the interstateand get off on New Mexico 161,the route that snakes up to theruins of Fort Union that was builtto protect the Santa Fe Trail. There,he said, the old ruts were stillplainly visible. They are, though you have to know what tolook for because, though commonly referred to as “ruts,” theyreally are not that and probably were not by the end of theCivil War; the traffic was simply too heavy. And so what youfind on 161 is a wide swale that is almost an arroyo carvedout of the tough prairie sod. Looking at that purposeful, heavymeander as it came down toward me through spring’s stilltawnygrasses, I got a quick, clear backward glance at somethingdeserving the word phenomenal.

Then came the railroad. After the Civil War it began hammeringits way west through the tribal territories, reachingLas Vegas in 1879. It went on, reaching Lamy, just south ofSanta Fe, not long thereafter and turned the Santa Fe Trailinto legend leaving behind only those slowly eroding “ruts.”T he railroad completely changed the look and thecharacter of Las Vegas,” Magee Poler told me asshe took me around the plaza in a high wind thatwas coming at us off the plains. Poler works for theCitizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation. “Beforeit came in, the plaza—the whole town for that matter—probably looked pretty much like those buildingsover there,” she said, pointing tothe low, joined adobes on thesquare’s north side, from atopwhich General Kearney hadgiven the crowd its marchingorders in 1846. “But then, withthe railroad you could transportIn place of the banal parterres of generic greenery, the Engelhard Court’s floor has been freed to fulfill its thwarted destiny 26 materials that made more ambitious structures possible.You could build big, if you wanted to. And as you cansee, they did.” Indeed. There were still those remnantadobes she had pointed out, and on the square’s southside a couple of one-story structures endured, includingthe old Victory Bar (later the Imperial Saloon), once theheadquarters of the outlaw Vicente Silva (1845–1893)who had terrorized the citizens in the late nineteenthcentury. But the plaza was dominated by the big buildingsthat went up in the immediate aftermath of therailroad’s arrival. The three Veeder Buildings, for example,a massive architectural potpourrion the west side that was put togetherbetween 1865 and 1908: an Italianatebuilding that might be seventy feet talland that once functioned as a drugstore,long since shuttered; an adjoining brickbuilding with a Moorish cast; and, flankingthe former drugstore on the north, aTudor revival carriage house.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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