By Jesus Lopez
The railroad tracks laid down by the AT&SF reached Las Vegas on July 1, 1879, and the first train arrived here three days later on the Fourth of July, with Dan Daley at the throttle and Charlie Brooks as conductor.
There was great fanfare and celebration that day, people coming from throughout the territory to witness the historic event, which inaugurated rail transportation into New Mexico. The railway was being laid from north to south, and Las Vegas was the first major community the railroad met as it made its way through New Mexico, making for quite a moment in time.
The locomotive that entered east Las Vegas on the Fourth of July was decorated with bunting, and a brass band played as the first train pulled into the hastily built station which marked the beginning of Railroad Avenue, New Town’s first street. The event was even reported by the Boston Herald, which noted capriciously that near the arriving train, “a Mexican was driving oxen and plowing with a crooked piece of wood.”
That evening two grand balls were held, one at the Close & Patterson dance hall on Railroad Avenue, the other at Buffalo Hall on the west side of the plaza, in what would soon be known as Old Town. (The Buffalo Hall & Exchange Hotel was a celebrated and raucous hotel and saloon, infamous for its open high-stakes gambling. It was located on the site now occupied by the Las Vegas Police Department.)
New Town was born on that Fourth of July in 1879. Even before the first train arrived, many shop keepers, known as track followers, had opened their outlets along Railroad Avenue, and west on Center Street, now Lincoln Avenue, in New Town’s first business district.
These first business establishments were hastily built wooden structures, some best described as ramshackle. They consisted mainly of saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, barber shops and restaurants, and were typical of the ventures which followed a new railroad in those days. (Within two months of the railroad’s arrival, there were 10 saloons along Railroad Avenue and Center Street)
The following businesses sprang up just weeks after the first train arrived, and illustrate how quickly east Las Vegas emerged and was overtaken by track followers and other merchants.
On Railroad Avenue were G. McKay’s Pan Handle restaurant, R.G. McDonald’s wholesale liquors, Close & Patterson’s variety hall, Watson’s dining hall, C.W. Mack’s boots and shoes, Gardiner & Gillies clothing store, O.L. Houghton’s hardware, Ward & Tamme’s Monarch billiard hall, J. Graff’s restaurant and bakery, Merrill & Conkie’s model store, Hampton’s saloon, Malboeuf’s harness shop, the Levy Bros. & Strasburger clothing house, N.L. Rosenthal’s general merchandise, druggist F.E. Herbert, watchmaker R.C. Richmond, Holzman’s general merchandise, Isidor Stern’s general merchandise, the Mackley House, run by Rosa and James Mackley, and the Hopper Bros. Delmonico restaurant and grocery.
On Center Street (Lincoln Avenue) were A.M. Janes grocery, Barner & Sweeney’s restaurant, Kate Nelson’s restaurant, J.J. Connor’s boot and shoe shop, H.E. Fraley’s meat market, Hilty Bros. grocery, W. H. Sloan’s saloon, N. Buserello’s fruit store, Bertha Ladner’s St. Louis House, the Quissehberry & Willis bakery, Theodore and Sarah Netterberg’s bakery, the Locke & Brooks saloon, John Flynn’s barber shop, jeweler W. H. Seewald, and a cigar store run by M. Marcus.
Just a year later, on Sept. 18, 1880, a great conflagration ravaged Railroad Avenue, destroying 27 of these businesses. Despite all out efforts to contain the fire, including bucket brigades, salt and even dynamite, the wooden frame structures were consumed like tinder boxes. The fire was followed by widespread looting and vandalism, which finally ended when guards were posted in the area.
Two days after the fire, the Daily Optic declared, “no more wooden buildings,” and several of the merchants who remained, rebuilt their stores of brick and mortar, some of them still standing today along Railroad and Lincoln Avenues. (Another fire destroyed three buildings on Center Street in November 1881.)
These were the early whimsical enterprises of new town Las Vegas. They provided the everyday needs, and satisfied the instincts and desires, of the new arrivals who became the first citizens of east Las Vegas. These shops and stores and the hustle and bustle they created, existed only because of two great mercantile firms which located their enormous establishments on either side of the new railroad depot.
The two competing commercial houses were the lifeblood of the flurry and commotion which was overtaking Railroad Avenue and Center Street, soon to spread west across Grand Avenue. The next few years would see frenzied growth and activity in this New Town east of the Rio Gallinas.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.