One hundred seventy-five years ago, the storm and thunder of native elk swarmed the piñon-laced hills outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The land looked different then. Beaver claimed the Rio Gallinas in numbers much larger than today. The river bent to nature’s whims, snaking around geological dips in the landscape, flooding the plains during spring thaw. The land grew wetter, greener, and denser. Prairie dogs dotted the landscape with cavernous burrows. They chewed the delicate native grasses, prompting the growth of tender shoots that elk love to explode across the plains.
It’s difficult to imagine how Las Vegas used to appear before cattle barons carved the land and shifted the balance of natural power, forced thick fence stakes into the red earth in order to keep the neighbors and Native Americans at bay, before fur trappers scented rusting traps with the glands of dead beaver in the hopes of snagging a fat prize.
In 1835, Spanish settlers applied for a communal land grant from Mexico, asked to settle in a rolling valley beneath the Sangre de Christo Mountains. New Mexico wasn’t yet a State of the Union. The railroad connecting east to west hadn’t yet been built. The settlers called their town Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de Las Vegas Grandes – Our Lady of the Sorrows of the Great Meadows. They crafted simple adobe homes from the earth’s red clay, laying out their fledgling town in the traditional Spanish manner, with a spacious central plaza anchoring the surrounding community.
The budding farming village rested on the Santa Fe Trail. It was the first New Mexican settlement encountered by hopeful travelers and weary supply trains on their arduous 600-mile journey across the eastern states. The Trail offered the rich promise of employment, and Las Vegas grew to over one thousand people by 1860. During the next 20 years, its population quadrupled as it established itself as an important trade center, with businesses from banks to bars as well as elegant residences lining the Plaza. The arrival of the Atchikson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in 1879 cemented the city’s position as a mercantile center. At its peak, Las Vegas’ trade area included all of eastern New Mexico and western Texas.
In 2010, Las Vegas celebrated its 175th Anniversary – it’s “septaquintaquinquecentennial.” The city holds a million fascinating stories, all held captive by the still-standing original architecture. A stately stone building sits sentry at the Bridge Street entrance to the Las Vegas Plaza, its expertly renovated rough-hewn exterior a study in late 19th Century architecture. Now the administrative home of the West Las Vegas School District, the two-story building looks elegant, composed, serene. It wasn’t always so self-possessed, however. Like many historic buildings in Las Vegas, this property holds colorful secrets.
“The West Las Vegas Schools administration building used to be the First National Bank,” says Magee Nelson of the Las Vegas Citizen’s Committee for Historic Preservation (CCHP). “But the bank moved, and the building was turned into a pool hall and taxi dispatch. It was still a revenue-generating place,” Nelson laughs. “We have so much fun and strange history here.”
The pool hall created chaos, created instant winners and losers in a world gone mad from depression, from brewing war. It attracted guests from miles away with its illicit activities. One guest, a handsome man of 5′ 9″ with a chiseled jaw, needed a ride from the pool hall to the airport. Las Vegas resident Leo Montoya, now of Leo’s Glass, once ferried one of the pool hall’s taxis. He took the call, and picked up the mysterious out-of-towner.
“The weather was terrible, so I had to drop him off at the Plaza Hotel,” Montoya reminisces. “I picked him up the next morning to take him to the airport, and I had to keep looking at him. ‘You look just like Gene Autry,’ I said. He said, ‘No, I don’t.’ Well, then I said to him, ‘You sound just like Gene Autry.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t.’ I had to stop the taxi. ‘You are Gene Autry!’ I told him. And it was!”
Las Vegas still lives and breathes history, still rests beneath the gentle shadow of the mountains, a small, vibrant city on the edge of rolling green-gold prairie, a city whose land speaks of fire-roasted chile and reflected sun. The scent of juniper and piñon welcomes you to a tree-lined city that ranchers, artists, and families who have lived here for hundreds of years call home. One hundred seventy-five years later, Las Vegas still feels like a piece of the old Wild West – and that’s because it really is.