By Jesus Lopez
In 1912, Las Vegas was at once the most Hispanic and most Americanized place in New Mexico, and from the vantage of that unique circumstance, we embark on this Centennial series.
Since 1846, when Gen. Kearney marched into the old town plaza, and first proclaimed the occupation of New Mexico by the United States, the quest for statehood would be closely tied to Las Vegas.
In the years leading to statehood, Las Vegas was New Mexico’s premier city, and San Miguel County its most populous, known as El Condado Imperial (the imperial county). In the great scheme of things at the time — economic, social and political — Las Vegas was at the forefront.
Already a bustling town by 1879, that year thrust Las Vegas to prominence, as the railroad arrived and made its headquarters here. After that, Las Vegas saw rapid growth and progress, unparalleled anywhere in New Mexico.
As early as 1880, Las Vegas was the first place in the territory to have telephone service and gas lighting, and the first water company and street-car line in New Mexico were established here.
With the ease of rail transportation, Las Vegas became the most important commercial center in the Southwest. Within a decade, New Mexico commerce was dominated by the ever-present business empire of the Romero brothers, the great mercantile firms established by Charles Ilfeld and other early Jewish merchants, and by the thriving commercial houses along Railroad Avenue, including Brown & Manzanares, and Otero, Sellar & Co.
As statehood approached, San Miguel County was producing more wool than any place in the United States, with a half million sheep grazing throughout the county. In 1886, with 40,000 head of cattle in the area, the New Mexico Cattlemen’s Association was established in Las Vegas.
More banks were located here than anywhere in the territory, and by 1886, just two banks in Las Vegas had more capital than all the banks in Albuquerque.
Las Vegas also became a leading center for recovery from tuberculosis, and sanitariums rose throughout the county. As early as 1887, the Sisters of Charity established St. Anthony’s sanitarium, and physicians later opened another in Trinidad Romero’s former mansion in Romeroville.
The best social accommodations in the territory were in Las Vegas. The splendid Plaza Hotel and the imposing Castañeda, were complemented by the only grand entertainment hall in New Mexico, the Duncan Opera House, which staged brilliant operettas and musicals.
Also during that era, visitors came by rail from throughout the country to visit the luxurious Montezuma Hotel, which became the premier western resort in the United States.
The social amenities in Las Vegas also included the first Masonic Lodge in the territory, erected in 1884, and the first Elks Club, built as New Mexico’s mother lodge in 1898, as well as New Mexico’s first semi-pro baseball league, organized in Las Vegas in 1888.
In addition to the dominant Catholic religion in the area, the first Protestant denominations in New Mexico were organized in Las Vegas, and a Presbyterian congregation existed here as early as 1869. Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist congregations were established soon after the railroad’s arrival, and New Mexico’s first Jewish synagogue was erected on Douglas Avenue in 1886.
It is no wonder then, that at the time of statehood, Las Vegas was home to many of New Mexico’s most eminent citizens — Hispanic and Anglo — and the great social and political debates and struggles of that era emanated from the twin cities along the Gallinas.
The last territorial governor before statehood was William J. Mills (Mills Avenue) of Las Vegas, who was preceded by Miguel A. Otero Jr., also of Las Vegas. An ardent proponent of statehood during his time as governor from 1897 to 1906, Otero is given much credit for New Mexico’s eventual admission as the 47th state.
After Congress enabled New Mexico to become a state, delegates from Las Vegas dominated the constitutional convention of 1910. Las Vegas attorney Charles Spiess was elected president of the convention, and other Las Vegas delegates, including Romero brothers Eugenio and Margarito, helped draft a constitution which would forever enshrine and protect the rights of Hispanic New Mexicans.
When statehood was finally achieved, many of New Mexico’s first officials were from Las Vegas. Ezequiel C de Baca and Octaviano Larrazolo, our second and fourth governors, were from Old Town, and Andrieus A. Jones of East Las Vegas, and Larrazolo, were among New Mexico’s first U.S. senators.
The dominant influence of Las Vegas during this period will be related fully as this Centennial series continues. Next, we will recount how racial and religious prejudice, the slavery question, and even a fortuitous handshake, delayed New Mexico’s long quest for statehood.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.