Las Vegas, New Mexico, isn’t as flashy as its Nevada namesake, but it does offer genuine doses of the Old West.
By Gerald C. Hammon
Whoa, pardner! Put those quarters back in the laundry kitty. The prime reason for visiting this Las Vegas isn’t slot machines. The “other” Las Vegas isn’t even in Nevada; it’s in New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail. And its attraction isn’t the artificial world of the gaming industry. What you will find here is history, a place where real people and real events shaped what today is the United States of America.
Long ago, the fertile meadows that would become Las Vegas were favorite campsites for mankind “” traces of man have been found here dating as early as 8000 B.C. Before Columbus sailed to “discover” the New World, Comanche and Apache Indians were stopping here on their way to trade with nearby Pecos Pueblo. In 1541 Francisco Coronado passed the site of Las Vegas in his fruitless search for cities of gold.
But the event that ultimately shaped the fate and future of Las Vegas took place in 1821, when William Becknell set out from Franklin, Missouri, for Santa Fe, laden with trade goods. It was a desperate gamble on Becknell’s part. He was deeply in debt and in danger of being declared bankrupt. At that time, the Spanish government opposed any trade on the part of Santa Fe with the fledgling United States, and anyone who entered Spanish America without permission was immediately arrested and imprisoned. Fortunately for Becknell, in that very year, 1821, Mexico had at long last thrown the Spanish out, and when Becknell met soldiers, they allowed him to proceed to Santa Fe with his goods. He returned to Franklin with a large sack of silver coins. Becknell’s astounding success opened the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1835 29 individuals who recognized the benefits of supplying traders on the Santa Fe Trail, as well as the agricultural benefits of the rich soil, applied to the Mexican government for a land grant on which to build a town. Their petition was approved, and in accordance with Hispanic custom, a large plaza was laid out and a town plotted. That plaza still serves as the heart of historic Las Vegas. It is a pleasant place with a gazebo and large trees that are particularly welcome in the summer.
In 1846 the United States declared war on Mexico, and troops under General Steven Watts Kearny marched west to capture Santa Fe. When they reached Las Vegas, Kearny climbed atop a building on the plaza and proclaimed to the residents that they were now part of the United States. Trade with the former Mexican capital of Santa Fe exploded in the aftermath, and Fort Union was built northeast of Las Vegas to protect the traders from Indians.
Most people think the Civil War occurred exclusively in the East. But the West saw its share of warfare, albeit on a much smaller scale. In 1862 Confederate General Henry Sibley led troops northward through New Mexico on their way to capture Colorado gold fields. Sibley had been the commander of Fort Union before the war and assumed that if he could get past that fort, the gold would fall to the Confederates, vastly improving their chances of winning the war. Union troops from Fort Union, New Mexico, and Colorado raced through Las Vegas toward a meeting with the Confederates at nearby Glorieta Pass. The Confederates won the skirmish, but Union troops led by John Chivington scaled down sheer bluffs and burned the Confederate supply train. Dreams of capturing the Colorado gold and turning the course of the war went up in flames. Sibley and his troops were forced to retreat to Texas.
There are really two centers to Las Vegas. The original center reflects its Spanish and Mexican heritage with the central plaza. Streets branch off rather haphazardly like spokes from a wheel, again characteristic of Spanish-Mexican communities. As you walk around the plaza and down Bridge Street toward the Gallinas River, you pass old, stately buildings. Most date from the 1880s. The Romero family, prominent in Las Vegas affairs, built one as a home in the 1830s. It was subsequently transformed into a storefront. Most local historians think the Romero building was the site of Kearny’s proclamation.
Just a few doors west, the 1882 Plaza Hotel, complete with a tin ceiling in the lobby and venerable furnishings, retains much the same appearance as it had when Billy the Kid stayed there. Doc Holliday also was a hotel resident, living there long enough to briefly own a saloon across the street from the hotel. Holliday’s consort, Big Nose Kate, stayed at the hotel also. She also figured in the history of Tombstone, Arizona, running a brothel and saloon there.
Las Vegas was noted for attracting some pretty unsavory characters, and it is said that one of the primary forms of entertainment in the early days was to watch the frequent hangings from a windmill located in the plaza. The lovely bar at the Plaza Hotel offers a good view of the plaza today, but no one has been executed in Las Vegas in a long time. The windmill was replaced by a bandstand in 1880.
As happened so frequently in the West, the railroad came, but it didn’t quite make it to Las Vegas. It was easier to lay tracks on the opposite bank of the Gallinas River. As a result, many of the local businesses chose to locate closer to the railroad, creating a second commercial area, the one seen most commonly by tourists venturing off the freeway today. Like many towns across the land, it lacks the charm of the older area around the plaza. Yet it has its own interest, and some of the buildings are as architecturally significant as those in the plaza area.
In the early days of the railroads, neither Pullmans nor dining cars were common. Passengers put up with short stops at stations with restaurants of questionable quality, and bolted down whatever food they could manage to buy and eat within a 30-minute period. An enterprising gentleman by the name of Fred Harvey made a proposition to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad: if they would arrange their train schedules accordingly, he would build and operate first-class restaurants at stations for the passengers. The Harvey Houses were an instant success across the route of the AT & SF and Harvey was soon adding eye-catching hotels adjacent to the station. In 1898 Las Vegas was gifted with La Castaneda, a beautiful hotel that grabs your attention as you pass by on Interstate 25. Unfortunately, modern travelers seldom take the train anymore, and La Castaneda is no longer open as a hotel. It molders away on the edge of the empty tracks, a silent shell of its former glory.
Those who would like to explore Las Vegas should start at the visitors center, located in the architecturally pleasing 1898 railroad station. Pick up the guide “Historic Las Vegas New Mexico: Along The Santa Fe Trail.” You will learn that more than 900 structures in and around town are on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the gems pointed out by the guide are the Carnegie library that was designed to look like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; a number of adobe structures mingled with Victorian homes; and commercial buildings that have little in common with modern architecture.
The eclectic Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Memorial collection at the City Museum of Las Vegas, located at Grand Avenue and National Street, makes visitors feel a bit like they’re in the attic of an old home. Superb exhibits from the Rough Rider days can be found here, because so many of Roosevelt’s troops came from Las Vegas and surrounding New Mexico. The first reunion of Teddy Roosevelt’s troops after the Spanish-American War was held here in 1899 at La Castaneda Hotel, and T.R. himself was on hand for the reunion. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday between October and April, and also open on Sundays the remainder of the year. Admission is free.
Across the street from the museum is the Chamber of Commerce, where you also can obtain the walking tour guide if the visitors center happens to be closed.
Just a short distance out of town is Montezuma Castle. It started life as an attempt by the AT & SF railroad to create a luxury destination hotel that would increase passenger traffic. Nearby hot springs added to the appeal. The first two hotels burned to the ground shortly after their completion. The third building is stunning, but unfortunately, the project was a commercial failure almost from the start. After changing hands several times, the building was finally bought by the Armand Hammer Foundation in 1981 and became the centerpiece of the Armand Hammer World College of the American West, also called United World College “” USA. Free student-led tours of Montezuma Castle are offered on selected Saturdays; donations are accepted. For more information, call (505) 454-4221 (weekdays) or (505) 454-4288 (Saturdays).
Other nearby sites of interest include Fort Union, built to protect the Santa Fe Trail, which is located approximately 20 miles north of town off Interstate 25. Even today, visitors to the fort can see the ruts left by the wagons. In 1862 it was the last barrier between Confederate General Henry Sibley’s army of Texans and the Colorado gold fields. After the Civil War, the fort reverted to its role of protecting travelers and became one of the largest forts in the West. In 1891 structural failures caused the fort to be declared unfit for human occupation, and it was abandoned.
Today Fort Union National Monument is an eerie place where the wind whistles and slowly disintegrating adobe buildings speak of a time when travel through the West was much different than today. Take the 1.6-mile self-guided interpretive trail through the ruins. This facility is open year-round.
West along Interstate 25 toward Santa Fe is Pecos Pueblo, where a community of more than 2,000 Pueblo Indians once lived. Descendants of those residents claim that the pueblo, in its prime, could muster a fighting force of 500 men who were never defeated in battle. The pueblo’s residents made contact with Plains Indians, and a mutually rewarding trade was conducted for many years. Pecos Indians accepted the Spanish when they came, and a large church was built near the settlement. But in 1680, Pecos people joined the Pueblo rebellion and burned the church. The independence lasted 12 years, and when the Spaniards returned, the Pecos welcomed them. But over time, disease and internal division weakened the pueblo. In 1838 the last survivors abandoned Pecos and moved to Jemez Pueblo, west of Albuquerque.
Today the place is preserved as Pecos National Historical Park. Portions of the walls of the second church, erected after the Spanish returned, tower over the crumbling remains of the pueblo. Excavated kivas, an excellent museum and visitors center, and a well-done video, as well as the opportunity to walk through the haunting ruins make this a worthwhile stop. Admission is $3 per person and covers seven days. The fee also includes entry to Fort Union National Monument.
So, pardner, you won’t find spinning wheels or the addictive clank of coins in Las Vegas, New Mexico. But you will find something more important. You can feel the flow of history, right up to modern times. It’s the other Las Vegas, where history is always nearby.
If You Go
Las Vegas is 66 miles northeast of Santa Fe via Interstate 25. For more information about the town and its annual events and attractions, contact:
Las Vegas/San Miguel Chamber of Commerce
701 Grand Ave.
P.O. Box 128
Las Vegas, NM 87701
The following are not the only campgrounds in the area; please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com.
Las Vegas KOA
HCR 31, Box 16
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(800) 562-3423 (Reservations)
(505) 454-0180 (Information)
Open March 1 to November 30
Storrie Lake State Park
Box 109, #2
Las Vegas, NM 87701