A History of Las Vegas, New Mexico

      Maurilio E. Vigil
      Emeritus Professor of Political Science
      New Mexico Highlands University
      Las Vegas, New Mexico has been characterized as “two towns, one place,” “The Town that wouldn’t gamble,” and “The Wildest of the Wild West.” The descriptions are at least partially accurate, but they fail to capture the essence of this small city.
            Much has been written about the history of Las Vegas. Narratives continue to appear in popular, scholarly and promotional articles and essays. In some cases, Las Vegas’ history is presented as a back-drop to the telling of a story about a particular person, era, theme, event, or some other aspect of its story. But, there have only been six book-length works devoted entirely to the telling of the history of Las Vegas from its inception until a certain period in its development. Perhaps the first attempt at writing a formal history was a short treatise written by H. T. Wilson titled Historical Sketch of Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1880 and printed in a promotional pamphlet designed to promote the town’s resources for business and economic development.
      Father Stanley [Crocchiola], the author of numerous short pamphlet histories and books on New Mexico towns, wrote the first book-length history, the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Story, in 1951. Father Stanley described his experience as “an adventure” since he experienced appearing for an interview and having a door slammed in his face and having his notes burned by a cleaning lady who thought they were “rubbish.” He persevered and wrote about the uniqueness of Las Vegas being two towns in one: how Las Vegas had two of everything—two governing bodies, police departments, fire departments, post offices, even two high school teams that “would rather lose all games of the season and not feel bad if they licked the school across the river. . .two towns, one place.”
      Milton Callon, owner of a local gas service station and amateur historian, titled his 1962 work, Las Vegas, New Mexico, The Town That Wouldn’t Gamble, in obvious reference to its more famous namesake, who did. Callon’s theme is the “rise and decline of this unique and interesting city [whose] history of violence, commerce, politics, and all the fascinating phases of early western living that has made the West a storehouse of thrilling adventure stories.”
      Las Vegas Grandes on the Gallinas: 1835-1985 (1985), by Anselmo Arellano and Julian Josue Vigil, focused primarily on the impact of Hispanos in the founding, evolution and development of Las Vegas. The centerpiece of their discourse was the political activity of the Romero, Delgado, Martinez and Lopez families that figured so prominently in the history of Las Vegas and New Mexico. The work also focused attention on the long neglected literary contributions of Hispano writers and educators whose works helped to preserve Hispanic culture. They highlighted the continuously prominent role of Hispanos in the political, economic and social life of Las Vegas and New Mexico that was largely neglected by previous writers.
            A book by Howard Bryon, Wildest of the Wild West (1988), focuses on the new town of Las Vegas that emerged following the arrival of the railroad in 1879. Max Evans’ Introduction minces no words in describing how “the story of Las Vegas, New Mexico, causes one to ponder how most historians of the West could have missed a town as wild and full of bloody bullet holes and neck-stretched hemp as to make Tombstone and Dodge City look like the headquarters for a Billy Graham Crusade.”
            A monograph, Pioneer Merchants of Las Vegas (2004), by Marcus Gottschalk, provides a narrative of the origin, development and evolution of Las Vegas as a commercial center in the southwest. Gottschalk describes the pioneering merchants in the original Old Town plaza who thrived on the commerce of the Santa Fe Trail, then discusses the new merchants who arrived with the railroad to help build the new “rail town” on the east side of the Gallinas River. Together these merchants subsequently ushered in the era of large-scale commercial merchandising utilizing the railroad as the primary means of transportation.
      Among these notable publications, appeared the book by Lynn I. Perrigo, PhD, Gateway to Glorieta: A History of Las Vegas, New Mexico, which is arguably the most comprehensive and authoritative book on the history of Las Vegas. Before this book was published, Perrigo wrote two previous monographs on Las Vegas that were never published. When he completed his first monograph, The Original Las Vegas, 1835-1935, a 700-page, two-volume work in 1975, he acknowledged that some ten theses and sixty-three seminar papers produced by students he supervised as Professor of History at New Mexico Highlands University were the inspiration in preparing his “synthesis” of Las Vegas history. That research not only facilitated his own research, according to Perrigo, but provided insights into some areas of Las Vegas history that were validated by his exhaustive investigation (including interviews and countless hours poring through old documents and decades of newspaper coverage). Perrigo launched his historical research shortly after he arrived at Highlands in 1947 and wrote prolifically. In addition to several general history textbooks on the American Southwest, New Mexico and Latin America, he also wrote dozens of essays and articles on Las Vegas for newspapers, magazines and promotional brochures. Indeed, many of the informational pamphlets, tour guide maps and similar brochures still used by the Las Vegas/San Miguel County Chamber of Commerce were authored by Perrigo. Moreover, the fact that Las Vegas has over 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places (more than any other city in New Mexico), is due to his exhaustive research. And, as much as his research on Las Vegas was of an historical nature, it was also a labor of love. He worked on it systematically over the course of the half century that he lived and worked in Las Vegas.
            The voluminous nature of the Original Las Vegas manuscript, which included copious documentary footnotes, often as long as or longer than the text material, made it difficult for Perrigo to secure publication. While the treasure chest of information contained in the many footnotes was (and is) a valuable resource for local historians, it was deemed cumbersome, by publishers, for a general audience. This led Perrigo to produce a second monograph, completed in 1980, The First Century of Las Vegas, which he described as an “abridgement and revision” of his previous (Original Las Vegas) work. Still, this monograph was over 500 pages long and was bound in three (albeit shorter) volumes. Perhaps criticized for ending the first monograph’s coverage in 1935, Perrigo decided to clarify that his intent was to limit the work to the first 100 years of Las Vegas history, thus the new title. This may have limited the public appeal of the work, since again the manuscript remained unpublished.
      The barriers that Perrigo encountered in seeking publication of the first two Las Vegas manuscripts are typical of what authors, and particularly historians, face. That is, the need to write a comprehensive work that is yet concise and emphasizes popular themes in order to appeal to a wider audience. In some cases, the editing and necessary abridgement prove difficult for a serious scholar such as Perrigo, to accept. In addition to the difficulty of securing publication of a manuscript that contained an incomplete history (with the most recent developments left out), one other factor prompted Perrigo to prepare a third manuscript on Las Vegas. Unlike many historians who simply write a history of a topic but remain personally detached from the history itself, Perrigo was to be part of Las Vegas’ most recent history. In 1967, a Joint Commission on Consolidation was formed to pursue merging of the two separate towns: the City of Las Vegas and the Town of Las Vegas. Chaired by District Judge Joe Angel, the nine-member Commission drafted a plan for consolidation and a charter for the proposed new municipality. Dr. Perrigo was enlisted as an “advisor” to the group. At Perrigo’s prompting, the Commission adopted a new charter for the municipality that included an innovative hybrid form of mayor-council-manager form of municipal government. As a result of their effort, the city and town of Las Vegas were successfully consolidated as a single municipality in 1970, following a public referendum approved by voters in both communities. They continue to operate as a single municipality to this day. Needless to say, this first-hand experience in civic engineering prompted Perrigo to expand his previous manuscript to include the next half century and thus produce a more complete history of Las Vegas.
            The original Gateway to Glorieta: A History of Las Vegas, New Mexico was first published in 1982 by the Pruett Publishing Company of Boulder, Colorado. It was the culmination of a long and determined struggle by Dr. Perrigo to get his overdue manuscript in print. While the 245 page book was much shorter than either of its predecessors, it had survived the trials and tribulations of the pre-publication process. This original edition has been out of print for years until Sunstone Press decided to publish this new edition in its award-winning Southwest Heritage Series.
            Perhaps the most discussed feature of the Gateway book is, ironically, the title. What does Gateway to Glorieta mean? If Glorieta Pass was a universally known location in American or Western history, there would be no doubt about its meaning. However, even for native New Mexicans familiar with Glorieta, the significance of Las Vegas as being the gateway to it is lost. Perrigo’s explanation of the title is simple enough: the natural geographic gap at Glorieta has served as a form of a gateway to the far Southwest for centuries of travelers from the ancient Indian tribes, to Spanish explorers and colonists, to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, then the Santa Fe Railroad, and more recently, tourists on I-25. Las Vegas, as the principal city in northeast
      New Mexico, has thus served as the gateway to this natural pass. Perhaps, Perrigo strove for a grander title which certainly Las Vegas deserved, such as “Gateway to the West”, or “Gateway to the Far Southwest.” (Dr. Perrigo, who was most careful when titling a manuscript, was quite aware of this pitfall, agonizing over an appropriate choice.) Nevertheless, notwithstanding Perrigo’s choice of a title, there is no doubt that he was writing an important book about an important city, and that he indeed saw Las Vegas as the gateway to New Mexico and the far Southwest.
      On August 22, 1846, a soldier with General Stephen W. Kearny’s Army of the West, passed through Las Vegas enroute to Santa Fe, and wrote of his perspective of the country he had just passed. He wrote: [This] “is a sandy, barren country covered with sickly vegetation and inhabited by a race of people but little superior to our Negroes living in low mud houses—in a word, the whole of Mexico that I have seen as yet is not worth the devil’s fetching.”
            The natural geographic landscape that the soldier described in 1846 has not changed much since then, but Las Vegas has evolved and seen dramatic transformation in the 162-year period. As a gateway to New Mexico and much of the far Southwest, Las Vegas has a unique history shaped by the people, cultures and governments that impacted its development and evolution. The region that became Las Vegas was first traversed by Paleo-Indians and later settled by ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians around the 12th century. Archeological excavations on a site ten miles southwest of Las Vegas uncovered a sizable pueblo abandoned about A.D.1300. In a way, modern-day Las Vegas began as Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca’s dream of a great hacienda of vast agricultural fields of native crops and mammoth meadows where livestock grazed in open, unending range. The dream was dashed by the harsh realities of resentful Indian tribes who attacked incessantly and natural climatic disasters—fierce hail storms, floods, droughts and insect infestations that ruined more than one crop. Eventually, C de Baca abandoned his 1821 land grant.
      A colonizing party from San Miguel del Bado arrived in 1835 and after facing the same vicissitudes that foiled C de Baca, established a struggling land grant community focused on subsistence agriculture. Time and location, however, intervened to transform the village into a thriving commercial center. The opening of trade with the United States and its location as the first community in New Mexico on the newly initiated Santa Fe Trail, assured the destiny of Las Vegas as a commercial center for the next four decades. In 1846, when General Stephen W. Kearny arrived from the United States with his Army of the West, the first declaration of American occupation took place atop a building on the Las Vegas Plaza. In 1848, Las Vegas, along with the New Mexico Territory became part of the United States following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The arrival of the railroad in 1879 catapulted Las Vegas into unprecedented growth and development as New Mexico’s most important commercial center as it became headquarters for such prominent firms as Otero, Sellar and Company (later Gross Kelly), Browne and Manzanares, the Charles Ilfeld Company and the Romero Mercantile Company. It also spawned new tourist, industrial and agricultural development with the opening of the Montezuma Hotel and Hot Springs as a popular resort destination, opening of a brewery, a brick factory, an iron foundry, a slaughterhouse, a flour mill and the W. H. Shupp factory, a major builder of wagons and carriages for the Southwest market. Most importantly, the commercial growth associated with the railroad flooded the newly created “new town” with additional capital that financed dozens of new businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and bars. Progress was manifested in new business corridors along Douglas and Railroad Avenues and the fashionable Victorian houses in residential neighborhoods on 6th, 7th and 8th streets.
            A major effort at agricultural development was initiated in 1905 in what became known as the Storrie Project. It extracted 40,000 acres of the Las Vegas grant land, for irrigated farming. The railroad also wrought developments that would affect the “political” future of Las Vegas. The “new town” created in East Las Vegas ushered in a 90-year period when “Old” and “New” Town would co-exist as two separate and distinct communities. For the first two decades, East Las Vegas cultivated a reputation compared to Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona, as one of the “wildest of the wild West” and many Wild West characters such as Bat Masterson, Dave Mather, Dave Rudabaugh, Jesse James and Billy the Kid once walked these streets.
            In 1900, Las Vegas was New Mexico’s largest and most prominent community, so prominent, in fact, that territorial leaders briefly considered locating the state capitol in there when statehood was finally granted in 1912. Las Vegas was also an early center of the silent film industry with such film pioneers as Romaine Fielding and Tom Mix. It also hosted a world boxing championship match between Jack Johnson and Jim Flynn. In the 1920s, Las Vegas began to decline as a railroad and commercial center after its discontinuance as a division headquarters and moving of key rail offices to Albuquerque. Nevertheless, it retained two gems that it had acquired during its heyday, New Mexico Normal School (later New Mexico Highlands University) and the New Mexico State Hospital (later the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute) which continue to serve as two main bulwarks of its economic livelihood.
      Today there are many remnants of the elements, style and physical character that Las Vegas experienced in its history. Among the 900 or so buildings in its historic registry are many elegant business establishments, churches and private homes that are a constant reminder of a storied past. These buildings are, in effect, as reflective of the diversity in population, cultures, architecture and style that comprised this once cosmopolitan city. And these elements of its character have remained basically the same even after 150 years of general change.
      Diversity is a word that correctly reflects the character of Las Vegas: diversity among the many people (Hispanic, Anglo, Native American, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Lebanese) who have lived and worked there; diversity in the cultures and customs that have existed and interacted; diversity in the architecture; diversity in the many religions; diversity reflected in the occupations of its people; and diversity manifested in the individuality, tolerance and acceptance of differences that have become part of its character.
      While Las Vegas in the 19th century preceded the development and evolution of other important New Mexico cities such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque, exogenous technological developments, among other factors, determined a different destiny for Las Vegas. Being the first city at the western end of the Santa Fe Trail, and later the arrival of the railroad, Las Vegas, as stated, went through various stages in the 19th century. However, as the fortunes of its sister cities blossomed in the 20th century, Las Vegas’ declined and entered a downward spiral.
      It began as a small community peopled by Hispanic colonists struggling to make a living as subsistence farmers and ranchers in a hostile environment. In one century, Las Vegas evolved into a dynamic, commercial, industrial and agricultural center with a cosmopolitan population, only to fade after the changes in the railroad infrastructure led to closing of the railroad machine shops in the early 20th century.
      In the last 75 years, it has survived as a small but vibrant community, populated by a Hispanic majority population, an enviable geographic landscape, and a rich historical legacy. Gateway to Glorieta addressed issues in the development of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the Southwest that remain quite relevant in the 21st Century. Among these are an increased socio-cultural diversity that impacts the hegemony of this population and its effects on inter-cultural relations; Spanish/Mexican sovereignty versus American expansionism; conflicting conceptions of land and water rights; and resolving local community problems and public policymaking in the wake of divergent political cultures. The book remains an important treatise since it is a well researched biography of an important and vital town that figured prominently in the growth, evolution and development of New Mexico and the far Southwest.