When people hear that Santa Fe is about 70 miles from Las Vegas, they get really excited. If you’re looking for glitz and big time games, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s not LV, Nevada, the signs are referring to, it’s Las Vegas NM. But, if you’re looking for great Victorian architecture, and an interesting chunk of New Mexico history, you’re in for a treat.
Originally, settlers from San Miguel, NM came north and settled in Old Las Vegas. Most built on the west side of the Gallinas River (the Plaza area). From 1825 to the 1880s, Las Vegas was the largest city in the southwest. In 1879, it became a major railroad town and remained so into the early 1900s. At one point there were two different towns, West Las Vegas (the older town) and East Las Vegas. The river was the dividing line. They were consolidated into one city in 1960.
Las Vegas was a big railroad town flourishing from 1879 into the early 1900s. The town saw boom and bust periods over the years. Many of the late Victorian stone and brick commercial buildings and the period homes that are on the town’s tree-lined streets fell into disrepair. Slowly the town is being restored.
Much of the town’s historic Plaza, anchored by the renovated Plaza Hotel, Plaza Hotel, built in 1882, has has been refurbished. We went to check out the Italianate Veeder Block building, circa 1880, on the west side of the Plaza and discovered an odd sign on the door: “Absaroka County Sherriff’s Office, Buffalo, Wyoming. It was a bit of an anomaly. Turns out, the fictional Absaroka County is the setting for the contemporary TV western, Longmire, starring Robert Taylor and Lou Diamond Phillips. Part of it was filmed in Las Vegas NM.
While checking out the Plaza we met artist and santeros, Peter Lopez from Montezuma, NM. He was up on a scaffold carving a statue he’s named Un Campesino (The Farmer) into the trunk of a dead Chinese elm tree. The statue, a tribute to farm laborers throughout North America, is part of an Art in the Public Parks project. When finished, tree will be dedicated to the farmers and ranchers of San Miguel County. Margarita Mondragon’s Nuesta Señora de los Dolores is already completed. (The town was boringly called Nuesta Señora de los Dolores de Las Vegas) and a third sculptor is starting work on his contribution to the project.
Driving east you pass many great buildings before arriving at the campus of New Mexico Highlands University. A turn down 8th Street takes you to Douglas. Hang a left and you’ll see Charlie’s Spic and Span (715 Douglas Avenue 505-426-1921). No, it’s not a cleaning store; it’s a café with what our friend, Tina, calls, “the best sopapaillas in New Mexico.” We ordered stuffed ones. Steve ordered carne adovada and I got the shredded roast beef. Both were smothered in really hot green chile. They were wonderful! The posole I ordered as my side had big chunks of pork in it. The plates were so big we had to pack up the leftovers.
When we left Charlie’s we noticed a nine panel mural behind a parking lot directly across the street. The People’s History of El Norte was painted by 300 local high school students under the direction of artist Rock Ulibarri, the muralist at the local Casa de Cultura, a non-profit agency involved in cultural and educational activities.
Then it was on to the historic restored Las Vegas Depot, built in 1899. The station, renovated in 2003, is both the town’s Amtrak station and their Visitor’s Center. Stop here and pick up the valuable guide to historic Las Vegas put out by the Citizen’s Committee for Historic Preservation. It’s free! At present two Amtrak trains on the LA to Chicago route, one in each direction, stop every day. The La Castaneda Hotel, built to be the jewel in the crown of the Harvey Houses, lies just north of the station. Today it sits forlorn and boarded up, but there may be a buyer for it. Perhaps, it will be returned to its former splendor.
From there, we headed to the City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection. The museum has a collection of Las Vegas and Rough Rider memorabilia. The town sent at least 20 men to Ride with Roosevelt; there’s a strong connection to the fabled unit. The Rough Riders Reunion Association donated the collection to this city where many of their reunions were held. The La Castaneda Hotel was the site of the first Rough Rider Reunion held in 1899. Teddy Roosevelt was there for the occasion.
A bit of historic trivia: famous names that lived in or visited the town include Billy the Kid (who spent one night in the Old Las Vegas jail), Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, Kit Carson, Jesse James, Pat Garrett and a host of others. Some of Tom Mix’s westerns were shot here. Longmire and other movies and TV shows are now filmed here.
As we were on our way to the museum, I caught a the old Murphy’s Drugs Coke sign. We had to drive back and get a photo. The building now houses a bank, but the sign lives on.
Driving out of Las Vegas NM, we knew that we’d only scratched the surface of this historic New Mexico town and that we’d be back.
If you like vintage signs like the Coke sign above, you might really like the Classical Gas Museum in Embudo, NM.