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

Editorial Staff

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.Across the street from this remarkableassemblage looms the high ruddy facade ofthe Plaza Hotel, completed in 1882 and recently refurbished:three stories, fifty-four spacious rooms, two street-level restaurants,and now the crown jewel of the more than ninehundred Las Vegas buildings listed on the National Registerof Historic Places. Recently, the hotel’s owner, Wid Slick, hasexpanded it to include its next-door neighbor, the CharlesIlfeld Building, an Italianate structure begun in 1882 andcompleted with additions by 1890.

Finally, on the east side of the plaza there is the RomeroBuilding, erected in 1919 by a political figure who was arelative of Tito Chavez’s, a long ramble of a California revivalbuilding with red tile corner pavilions, now a drugstore.Later, I discovered that within its high-ceilinged main roomthere is an impressive collection of cigar store Indians.

Then there were the grand houses on the east side of theGallinas. Before the railroad the Gallinas was a vital sourceof water for the community. After 1879 it became a culturaldivide that persists into the present day. The houses of thenewcomers were, appropriately, down by the rail yards andbore no architectural or cultural relationship to the adobes ofthe old Hispanic sections on the river’s west side. Thesenewer houses were the often gaudy, busy manifestations ofthe new money the railroad brought to town along with agaggle of drifters, gamblers, gunslingers, and camp followers.Driving around this section of town to give me an overviewof it, Vince Howell of the Las Vegas—San Miguel Chamberof Commerce wanted me to notice not only the size of thehouses (many of which would surely qualify as “mansions”);he also wanted me to get the radically different feel of EastLas Vegas. West Las Vegas with its narrow, winding streets,its adobes and acequias (irrigation ditches) was in many waysstill looking to its colonial past when the railroad arrived. Andit continued to look to the oxen-and-Conestoga-wagon pastwell after the railroad had changed so much. East Las Vegas,or New Town as it is still called, looked to the future, havingno past, and openly worshipped the god of progress. Thedifferent feel Howell wanted me to notice is not only a matterof the size of the houses. For New Town was laid out in agrid where idiosyncrasies and surprises were sacrificed toorder and replication. Soon enough Henry Ford (1863–1947)would make another American revolution by devising amanufacturing system based on these principles. Here thestraight, wide-spaced streets—First, Second, Third—werenot oriented to an agricultural commons where livestock hadonce been quartered (as was the case with the plaza in OldTown). Instead, New Town’s orientation was to two spruceparks: Carnegie Park with its signature library; and LincolnPark, adorned by three big brownstones, once the proudpossessions of a family that had come to town with the railway.Like the Veeder Buildings on the plaza, these were architecturalhodgepodges, combining with a certain unease featuresof Victorian, Italianate, Queen Anne, and classical styles.

But the railroad’s chief architectural bequests to Las Vegasmight be La Castañeda Hotel and Montezuma Castle. Forthose born after World War II it can come as something of ashock to encounter artifacts of prewar American railroad culture such as these two old hotels, about like stumblingupon the fully articulated skeleton of a brontosaurus.

La Castañeda rises grandly and improbably from the sprawland rusted detritus of the rail yards, majestic even in its gauntdisrepair—a high, broad mission revival palace with widearcades bordering its twin wings; a bell tower with a sunblisterednameplate on it; and a long-disused fountain in itscourtyard that once welcomed the famous of the westernworld from Teddy Roosevelt to Shirley Temple. Shortly afterFred Harvey (1835–1901) opened the hotel Roosevelt andhis Rough Riders gave it an unofficial baptism when theyheld their first reunion in Las Vegas. A photograph of theevent shows the stubby colonel posed in front of the hotel’sarcade, surrounded by his men and a few blanketed Indiansrounded up from somewhere. And there is another photographof La Castañeda hanging in the lobby of the adjacent depot(built the same year), showing a couple of touring cars thatlook rather like launches, pulling away from La Castañeda’sentrance with all seats occupied by smiling, sunstruck tourists.Much faded though it is, the print still imparts a sense of thegreat days of railroading and the significant part the FredHarvey system played in them.

Across Railroad Avenue stands the spectral hulk ofthe Rawlins Building (1899), now probably too fargone for renovation. The pressed-metal front of itsupper story is still intact as are the ground floor’s recessedstorefront windows, though these are boarded up. TheRawlins served as the dormitory for the once-famed HarveyGirls, those models of wholesome efficiency who cateredto the needs of the rail-traveling public from 1880 into the1950s. Their highly interesting story might well have beenanother casualty of our historical amnesia if historianLesley Poling-Kempes had not sought out the last of theHarvey Girls and recorded their testimonies.

Behind the building in the weed-choked and littered lot amodest stoop was barely visible through the spiky weeds thathad grown up around it. I stood there in the spring sunpondering it while two pit bulls menaced me from their cageacross the alley. When Fred Harvey personally supervised hischain in the West one of his many rules was that a Harvey AntiquesGirl must never be seen at rest–an event that in any casemust have been extremely rare. And so I found myself hopingthat here at least, on these three narrow steps and hiddenfrom the patrons they served over at the hotel aHarvey Girl or two might havefound a few moments of solaceand reflection.

Montezuma Castle, a fewmiles north of town, was for atime also a Harvey operationand is grander than La Castañedaor even the Plaza Hotel,though what you see of itnow—its turrets gleamingdully on its high hill—is reallythe third incarnation on the spot, the first twohaving burned. All three castles were located abovethe ancient hot springs that had served varioustribes as powwow grounds. By the 1870s the tribeshad been pushed westward or relocated to reservations,and Fred Harvey, who saw the commercialpossibilities here, talked the railroad into running a spurto it, and then in 1882 erected a massive, castle-like structurethat could accommodate five hundred guests.

The current castle, designed by John Wellborn Root(1850–1891) of the Chicago firm Burnham and Root, datesfrom 1886 and is a ninety-thousand-square-foot monsterbuilt mostly of red sandstone and slate in a belated cautionaryresponse to its two wooden predecessors. These days ithouses students of one of the United World Colleges, aneducational movement promoting world peace through internationalunderstanding. The interior has been retrofittedto accommodate its function, but there are still vestiges of itsluxurious past, and you can stand in what was once thelobby and imagine it filled with smartly turned-out Easternersand their leather luggage instead of lounging teenagersand backpacks. The reception desk is still there and the roomkeyslots behind it. And across the vast floor from the desk isa fireplace cavernous enough to roast a steer in.

But it may be outside on the lawns where you can get thebest sense of the hotel’s grandeur and the dreams that went intoits creation. You might be tempted to sink into one of thehigh-backed rockers on the long verandas there, hundreds offeet above the canyon floor. With the wind just right, you wouldget a sulfurous whiff of the hot springs below, still bubblingout healing waters for tribes and tourists in a dry place.I had wanted to see Tito Chavez’s house since he first describedit to me, and so one day at his invitation I made thedrive from Santa Fe for that purpose. The house had beenbuilt for his great-grandmother Julianita around 1870 andChavez was fairly certain that the people who had built theofficers’ quarters at nearby Fort Union had also built this andother houses in West Las Vegas. “I could go out there (to theIn place of the banal parterres of generic greenery, the Engelhard Court’s floor has been freed to fulfill its thwarted destiny JULY 2009 26 ruins of Fort Union),” he said, “and it’s like walking into myown home: the floor plan’s exactly the same.” While he wastelling me this we were standing in the yard of the two-storyadobe while cars and pickups whizzed by on the road above.The walls of the house are fully two feet thick, tapering toeighteen inches at the top, and their adobe bricks were laidin a kind of crosshatched pattern that Chavez says preventsthe stair-step pattern of cracks you see in older adobe buildings.“Another thing about this place,” he went on, “is itdoesn’t have any closets. People in those days lived out of theirtrunks.” Pigeons cooed and shuttled in and out of the eavesof the place, and as we walked to the car Chavez mentionedthat his large yard area had seen a bit of history itself.

In 1912 Jack Johnson (1878–1946), the first Americanblack heavyweight champion, had come to LasVegas for a title fight against Fireman Jim Flynn(1879–1935) and had used this house as his trainingquarters. Flynn, a “white hope,” had put up at MontezumaCastle. “Anyway,” Chavez said, “an uncle of mine putup bleachers here and charged people to watch Johnsonwork out.” I thought again of how much history lies forgottenin such places as this dusty yard next to an oldhouse on North Gonzales in Las Vegas, New Mexico.Later, at the Rough Rider Memorial Collection at theCity of Las Vegas Museum I saw photographs of Johnsonarriving at Las Vegas, stepping across the tracks towardLa Castañeda (which would not have allowed him in),splendidly turned out in suit and straw boater. At hisgallery Chavez pulled out another photograph of thechampion, posed in front of the North Gonzalez housewith his long arms outspread. The fight itself, held onIndependence Day, proved a bitter event for those whohad come to see the white hopedethrone the insolent black manwho had installed his white femalecompanion at ringside and chattedwith her while brushing asidethe Fireman’s clumsy charges.Finally, in the ninth round, thepolice stopped the bout becauseof Flynn’s flagrant fouling. Suchwas the town’s only brush withsports history.

But it has more than its share ofhistory even so. The tribes—Comanche,Ute, Kiowa, and JicarillaApache—who passed so lightlythrough this geographical borderlandseemed to me under-represented inthe exhibits and available literatureout at Fort Union, at the Citizens’ Committee for HistoricPreservation headquarters, and at the City of Las Vegas Museum.But they were here and doubtless had their sacred spots,like the hot springs. So were the bullwhackers, guides, andtraders who made those still-definable ruts in the prairie. Sowere the onetime “pards” Pat Garrett (1850–1908) andBilly the Kid (1859–1881), who paused here the day afterChristmas in 1880, when Garrett had the Kid under arrestand was taking him by train to Santa Fe to be held on murdercharges. One day over lunch at the Plaza Hotel, Tito Chavezregaled a table of listeners with stories of the many hangingsthat had occurred just outside the window where we sat; thescaffolding of a windmill had been used for the job. And fromour table we could also see Vicente Silva’s old bar. Chavez saidthere were many stories about the tunnels leading from it thatthe outlaw chief had dug. The Harvey Girls were here, too,bless their unremembered names, as well as Teddy Rooseveltand Jack Johnson and his outclassed opponent, the Fireman.

The town had quite a movie history, too, I was told, beginningwith Tom Mix (1880–1940), who was so taken withthe site he thought about moving here. The stars and crew of Easy Rider filmed here, as did those of No Country for Old Men. When I found the motel on the town’s north side thathad figured in that cult thriller there was not a soul in theoffice or a car in the parking lot. But then I spotted a cleaningcart down at the motel’s far end and an open door. Inside, agirl who must have been a teenager was changing a bed whilea child played on the floor amidst the cast-off bedding.

“I think this must be where they filmed part of thatmovie No Country for Old Men,” I said. She nodded andcontinued with her work. “That’s pretty cool,” I went onlamely. “You think so?” she said, lifting high a sheet and havingplainly more urgent concerns than even such recenthistory.

In addition to helpful interviews withTito Chavez, Mary Chavez, MageePoler, Donna Nathan, Vince Howell,Wid Slick, Katherine Slick, and ElizabethMorse, I consulted the followingprinted sources:

Howard Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West:True Tales of a Frontier Town on the Santa Fe Trail (Clear Light Publishers,Santa Fe, 1988).

The Ring Record Book and Boxing Encyclopedia, comp. Nat Fleischer et al. (RingBook Shop, New York, 1963).

Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West (Da CapoPress, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts,1989).

Historic Las Vegas, New Mexico: Along the Santa Fe Trail (Citizens’ Committeefor Historic Preservation, Las Vegas, N.M., 2006).

Living Las Vegas: An Anthology by Area Writers (Chicken River Press, Las Vegas,N. M., 2001).

Frederick Turner is the author of several books including The Spirit of Place; Beyond Geography; John Muir: Rediscovering America, and the forthcoming novel Miss America.